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Numbers 11:1-15 - The People of Israel Complain

Numbers 11:1 Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. 2But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated. 3So that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned against them.4The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; 6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” 7Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it. 10Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. 11So Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?13Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”

The Book of Numbers: The fourth book of the Bible that we call the Book of Numbers has had many titles over the years. The title Numbers tells us that it is the text that gives us the first two census totals of the people of Israel, first just after the crossing of the sea and the other maybe forty years later after Aaron’s death. Another title, used in the Masoretic Text is “In the Wilderness.” This title lets us know that, in addition to census data, Numbers gives us the continuing story of the people during the time of wilderness journey. Biblical scholar, Dr. Dennis T. Olson, helpfully divides the book into two major sections: Chapters 1-25 he calls the story of The Old Generation of Rebellion. Chapters 26-36 he calls The New Generation of Hope. Today’s story comes from the middle of that first section. The people of Israel have a lot to learn about themselves, about God and about how they are to relate to God and each other. They have been given the gift of the ground rules but they are still floundering and have not found the freedom and transformation individually or as a community that will take them into the land of promise. They feel stuck and confused and nothing God does is good enough for them.

Word Study
Vs. 11 – people – this is the Hebrew word for a congregational unit, a community or a people who share a common bond.
Hearing of the Lord – this is the word for hearing with focused, intelligent and undivided attention that is intent on acting upon that which is heard.
Anger – the root of this word is ‘to flare the nose.’ This type of anger emphasizes the emotional quality as opposed to the punishing quality.
Kindled – means to burn, glow, or to be zealous or indignant.
Fire – the fire of God is always for the purpose of purification and transformation.
Camp – this word refers to a temporary protected enclosure. Notice that God’s indignation has a positive purpose…to purify. Purification in the Bible always includes the ridding of something. There can also be collateral damage in the process. Here the structures that were intended to protect are revealed as worthless for the task. Only God can ultimately protect.
Vs. 2 – prayed – this is the word for ‘to act as a mediator.’ The people want Moses to intercede for them instead of doing their own reflection and self-examination.
Vs. 4 – among – this is the word for the center of a thing.
Had a strong craving – this is the word for greedy desires.
Meat – This is an interesting word. It means living creature, mankind, blood-relation, skin or the muscle of an animal.
Vs. 5 – remember – This word means to pierce, to impress upon the memory, to bring to mind in a soulful way.
Vs. 6 – strength – The word used here is one of the most important words in the Hebrew language: nephesh. It means life, breath, soul, spirit. It is what makes something itself.
Vs. 7 – manna -this is the food God provided for the people, God’s sacred provision.
Vs. 8 – oil – this word has sacred connotations.
Vs. 11 – treated your servant so badly – this could be translated ‘been so hard on me.’ It literally means to spoil something by breaking it to pieces, to make something good for nothing, to shatter.
Favor – this means kindness, grace or preciousness.
Burden – this is a word for a personal load to carry.
Vs. 15 – to treat me – to work, labor, toil, appoint or prepare.
Misery – wretchedness, inferior quality, inability to meet standards.

Questions for Personal Reflection:
1. Perhaps, as the pandemic lingers long, you can identify with the people of Israel. Perhaps you thought we would be safe in the land of Promise by now. In what circumstances are you most prone to complain that things aren’t the way you thought they would be?

2. Sometimes we look back and see things we miss even if the past was challenging. Can you think of things like that?

3. Sometimes longing for a whitewashed version of what used to be can make us unhappy with what is happening now and all that God is providing in the present moment. Stop for a moment and see if you can identify special provision from God during these uncertain times?

4. In what ways does your own heart need purifying? Are there flimsy structures you have created that cannot keep you safe? What needs to be released for you to really move forward to all God wants for you?

5. If you have been in leadership, have you ever felt burned by those above you and those you are trying to lead? Moses feels broken to bits by the demands and just wants out. Our
passage ends before we see God’s response to him. But, as always God’s response is gracious. God creates a team to help Moses do the work. How do you think you can support your churches leadership team as they move the congregation forward?