Strength for the Journey: “A Season of Discontent” – Numbers 11 (Part One)

winter of discontentIn 1961, the year of my birth, John Steinbeck wrote his last novel, and borrowed the title from Shakespeare’s speech of Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun [or son] of York.” Steinbeck called his novel The Winter of Our Discontent. Though it is true that many Americans were deeply disappointed by the work, feeling it lacked the quality of “The Grapes of Wrath”, the Swedish Academy awarded Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. In letters to personal friends after its publication, Steinbeck claimed he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. I could describe the story of Ethan Allen Hawley, and his struggle from innocence to moral decay – but those who are familiar with the times of the 1960’s don’t really need me to make an allegory about the decay – you remember it. We are still suffering from some of the rebellion of the era. It reshaped America.

I mention Steinbeck’s story as a bridge back to a much older story of discontent. This one comes from the pages of the Bible, and is tucked into Numbers 11. The story of the readying of the people to go from the mountain of the Law into the wilderness wandering and eventually the Promised Land unfolds over ten chapters of the writing. We left off the story with the “Wagon’s Ho!” moment. In the intensity of the heat by day, the discomfort of constant camping at night, the people wore through every thread of the garment of civility in short order. No sooner were the people in the desert on the journey, and Moses recorded the “season of discontent” that settled on the traveling hoards of ex-slave Israelites. The text offers a window to watch the people in a variety complaining situations.

I am going to deliberately break the teaching of Numbers 11 into two lessons, because there are two distinct kinds of complaints in the passage – and they need to each be addressed separately. In this lesson, we want to highlight the complaints that come from a heart that doesn’t trust God – a believer that has failed to understand the goodness of God in their daily life. In the next, I want to highlight a believer that is beat down – overburdened and in need a time of “honest praise”. Honest praise is the ability to empty ourselves before God and let Him build up what has broken inside us. Here is the key…

Key Principle: Not all complaints are the same. The heart they come from changes the response we get from Heaven.

Those out of a cold heart toward God, block God’s work in and through us because of our self-centered spirit. He withdraws His blessing and stops teaching us. Yet, when we crumble under the load of real ministry– it is a different story. God offers new resources and new instruction.

Today we are examining the complaints seeping from a COLD and UN-TRUSTING HEART.

The first mentioned complaints were about the discomfort of the journey get an answer from the heavens.

Numbers 11:1 Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. 2 The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD and the fire died out. 3 So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.

Some people have been convinced that life on the journey to the Promised Land was designed to be easy – and they find out very quickly in their life that is not correct. God didn’t create an air conditioned envelope through the desert, nor did he make the ground soft under the sleeping areas under the tent. Physical ease isn’t supposed to be a guaranteed part of the package in your walk with God.

Three issues concerning the complaining:

First, the people became fixated on a constant spirit of complaint and became verbally unrelenting and thankless. It was one thing to have a momentary complaint, but quite another to become perpetually negative, discouraged, and mouthy. Note the phrase: “the people became like those who complain of adversity”. What a weird phrase! The Hebrew letter “kaph” placed before a word usually adds the quality of a simile – it is “like” something. Though that is usually the way to interpret it, it is not ALWAYS the way to interpret the additional letter. Here, the translators said they people became LIKE those, because they seem to have missed an idiom, or common expression. To make it clearer, let me mention another place where this idea occurs. In Hosea 5, the writer claims: “The princes of Judah have become like those who move a boundary; On them I will pour out My wrath like water.” This was a poetic way of saying they were crooks – taking lands not purchased by moving the fences. The expression “to become like” was a simple idiom that they were acting out as those who had perfected the task – and that is what it meant in Numbers 11. The people were acting out like one who was moaning on the stretcher after the war, awaiting death. They cried as one who faced their death with no hope of survival and no relenting of pain. The people saw the road ahead and evaluated the change of landscape as a death sentence. The believer cannot judge safety by appearances. God isn’t only with those whose lives are prosperous and convenient. Complaints come from a dissatisfaction with circumstances – and many of those circumstances come ultimately from God. A complaint about the conditions of the walk can be a veiled complaint about the goodness of God.

Do you truly believe that God has been good to you, and IS being good to you? It is no small question that can be glibly answered – it is a serious and piercing look into the center of our own hearts.

Second, the people seemed to express less trust in God’s presence than in their old systems of security. Let me explain. In the fourth century, the commentator St. Jerome offered the idea that they complained because of the length of the way ahead. Based on the note from Numbers 10:33, the Israelite camp had not progressed in the journey more than eight miles when this problem developed. It is highly unlikely they were weary from all the travels – they hadn’t gone that far! Far more likely was the sense that they were leaving the out lands of Egyptian camps and moving out from under the influence of Egypts travel routes – and that was scary. The issue appears to be SECURITY in the direction they were heading. The people angered the Lord because they saw Egypt as more secure than His presence. The believer is always safest following the Lord – that is the very essence of safety. Believers are not safe when removed from trouble – they are safe when moved close to their Lord in obedience.

Do you try to “read the tea leaves of circumstance” to judge what is right and secure? As the believer grows, his dependence on circumstance is lessened – because his dependence on God’s promises are greater.

Third, it isn’t clear that there wasn’t some specific occasion that brought it all about. In fact, that may have been the case. Custom of the time dictated that leaving the territory of a nation was cause to pause at the border and remember their gods and cultic practices. For that very reason Jeroboam set up calves at the extremities of the northern Kingdom when the northern confederation of tribes broke away from Judah. The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar can be translated “Nebo, protect the standing stones on my border”. Remember, the people were leaving the edges of encampments and roadways that were used by Egypt in copper mining transports. This may have caused some to want to stop and observe the rituals and superstitions common to the time. Leaving without a sacrifice may have felt like some people react to walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, or tripping over a black cat. God’s presence is REAL and superstition is NOT – so God doesn’t want to be compared to it. God’s one and only requirement of His people is to listen to His Word and take Him seriously. When we don’t, we show we aren’t interested in following Him beyond the immediate fix to whatever mess we have gotten ourselves into. Superstitions are expressions of trust in hocus pocus – not appropriate for the child of God. Pagan rituals aren’t supposed to be used to satisfy us – God’s presence and our tight grasp to His hand are to become our only security as we move out.

Have you learned to celebrate God’s rich love and unchanging goodness when circumstances seem to look bleak? When the doctor’s news in NOT good, or the economic forecast appears to be devastating – is God still trustworthy in your eyes? Mature believers leave the promises of Heaven for AFTER THIS LIFE and don’t expect them to be in this life NOW.

God’s response to the complaining:

There are those who read about the “Taberah lightning sound and light show” experience and see a tiny drop of malice or even cruelty in God’s eyes – and they are wrong. God wasn’t messing with the people by sending the lightning that started the fire on the edge of the camp. Troubles are often God’s warning signs that something isn’t right – and we need to back away from the edge of whatever we are engaging in. The hint of what God was doing may be found when the text says: “His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.”

Along with the Israelites, there were others that had been swallowed up by the enslavement of the Egyptians that also went with them. Though we cannot say definitively, it is highly likely they found their place on the edge of the camp – out where the lightning fall started the fire. Be careful how you read the text – it doesn’t say PEOPLE were harmed – only property. If it is true that some of the complaint was particularly related to ritual – the spurring to do it may have come from the “mixed multitude” that came along with Israel, mentioned in places like Exodus 12:38. That is why commentators like Jamieson note: “It is worthy of notice, however, that the discontent seems to have been confined to the extremities of the camp, where, in all likelihood, “the mixed multitude” [see on [71]Ex 12:38] had their station.”

If God wasn’t being cruel and shooting lightning bolts like stories of Zeus after a drinking party on Mt. Olympus, what was He doing? God was sending trouble as a WARNING to quell the call to be involved in cultic practices that would defile Israel. He was squashing the voices of those who would have quickly drowned out the voice of Moses as leader. God often does more dramatic displays when the work is NEW, because people need to be sufficiently warned. Do you recall the body bags that carried out Ananias and Sapphira from the meeting in Acts 5? God hasn’t dropped every liar in church since (thankfully!), but He did early on – to push out pretense in the fledgling movement. Often, people who don’t yet know God’s love, respond to His power. They learn His clout before they feel His caring. These people needed to know that the parting of the water wasn’t the only time God would drop onto the scene and make Himself known. The point is that God wasn’t being CRUEL, He was guarding the believers and showing the bulge in his jacket pocket – making sure those who doubted His ability saw the edges of the weaponry available to Him in short order.

Herein is the warning: Don’t mess with God. He isn’t desperate, a pining lover so lonely that He will sit and weep, waiting for your call. He is a powerful, majestic and whole God – Who has graciously invited you to be used of Him. Respond to His love and you will see His power as helpful, not threatening.

The second mentioned complaints that got Heaven’s response were about the menu.

There are four important observations we can readily make about the problem of the menu:

First, it appears to be again linked to those who joined Israel for the journey – a distinct group of those who were not believers that were quietly tucked into the group.

11:4 The rabble (hasaph-soof’) who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat?

Have you ever noticed how a wave of discontent falls when complainers are allowed to air their critique of a situation for very long? Complaining, like yawning, is contagious. We can’t help it. When all the problems are mentioned over and over, they seem to grow even bigger than they truly are. They overwhelm us. They victimize us. They can even distract us into inaction about our own lives and responsibilities. Isn’t it much easier to blame the President for my plight than my own laziness? Why not make it Congress’ fault that I didn’t keep the oil in my car changed, or consistently discipline my children? Information can help us, but over analysis and pounding away at problems I cannot solve tends to paralyze us to the inaction of a victim. Perhaps that is why the “24/7” news cycle has seemed, in my view, to raise the depression rate among the well informed.

Note their question: “WHO will give us something different?” It is like they were saying to Israel: “Your God seems to be a bland diet vegetarian. That’s great to, you know, stay alive and all…but it isn’t very tasty and it isn’t very meaty!” That is the heart of the world’s complaint – they want to be able to CHANGE GOD TO THEIR LIKING. They want a God who allows them to have whatever they want to have – but then fixes the problems that are caused by their own self-indulgence. This was NOT just an attack on the menu – it was an attack on the CHEF. God was in their cross hairs, and He knew it. The people were naively drawn into the complaints, without the maturity in their walk and faith to see what the puppet masters of complaint were really saying. They didn’t just want meat – they wanted the ability to CONTROL GOD. They went after the WHO in the statement – not simply the WHAT. I have watched many naïve believers join the ranks of an evil agenda because they could not see through the work of the enemy inside it. Today, large numbers of evangelicals are standing on the wrong side of moral issues out of a naivety that they are being played.

When I grew up in New Jersey, I remember the rise of casino gambling. I recall the commercials as nuns, priests, community leaders, and those who helped the poor were put on TV to convince us that Atlantic City would get much help for the poor if we would vote for casino gambling. It was the moral and responsible thing to do – to get money for our schools and our poor. Drive there today, and you will see MORE POOR, and many elderly that were dispossessed from their homes because of the rise in taxes based on property values that skyrocketed when the casinos began buying up property. Naïve people lost their wallets to slick marketers.

Do we really believe that a lottery is the way to fund education? Do Floridians have to LOSE so that others can be educated? Is that the legacy of my generation to the next? We are naïve when we let the world determine the course of morality without relying on the truth of God’s Word.

Let’s be clear: No one in the world is offended at a God that is there to prosper us, care for us, and let us do what we want. That is the American god – the one that lets us be materialistic without sacrificial giving, hedonistic without penalty, and narcissistic without consequence. The problem is – that isn’t the true God. We made Him up. We like Him. He is nice and leaves us alone with our porn industry while we appease Him with an occasional church visit. The world wants to make a new god to replace the real one, and believers need to consistently seek the real One to stop unwittingly getting sucked into following after the latest carved rendition of Baal.

Second, the rabble called the people to focus on the life they had in the world, not the call of God to be distinct and dwell in His provisions.

11:5 “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, 6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. 8 The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it.

Look at the recitation of old Egyptian menus: fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, garlic… Yum!

Can’t you hear them?: “We will be serving today a lovely little appetizer salads of cucumbers, followed by a nicely prepared tilapia, garnished with shavings of garlic and onion. Our light afternoon menu will be topped off with delicious, sliced melon. What a perfect meal for the desert traveler in the know.”

That is the essence of the trick of distraction – keep the believers thinking about the GOOD PARTS of their former captivity in the world. Here is the part they DIDN’T mention… WE WERE SLAVES! We ate when we were TOLD we could. We worked dawn to dusk. Taskmasters beat us and could even kill us. They abused our women without penalty – and took from the fruit of our labors without deserving it. The world would have you believe that every teen is sleeping with their date, and the people who aren’t are really awkward and lonely. They would have you believe that those who have the most money are the happiest. They produce show after show that postulates that those who walk out the door when their marriage gets tough find true happiness in the e-Harmony page with the perfect someone they have been missing all the days they were married to the shrew they found early in life.

Now hear the truth. Venereal diseases are rampant and have destroyed intimacy in countless couples. Innocence has been trashed in many a child long before they should have known how to give away their most precious parts of the heart. The big lotto winner from a few months ago is now in the morgue as they test his body for what poison the family used to eliminate him – check the news. Broken marriages have left untold damage in the hearts of millions of America’s children. A February 2012 report cited: Past statistics have shown that in the U.S. 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. Second marriages are often more likely to end in divorce than first ones – we can’t seem to find our true love even when we spin the wheel more than once. How can I say this more clearly: Night time TV, Hollywood movies and even daytime TV are telling us LIES. Life in the world isn’t happy – it’s guilty, it’s broken, and it’s pointless. Believers that look back at their old life longingly are being suckered to re-join a losing team. A great many go on calling themselves “Christian”, but increasingly live like they used to live – and that isn’t a formula for success and victory in this life, nor hearing God’s compliment in the next one: “Well done!” Believe me, when you see Him – that will matter!

Third, the problem caught on among the Israelites. The unbelievers among them pulled them into complaining by raising discontent.

11:18 “Say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, “Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat. 19 ‘You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’”

Duped into forgetting the terrible bondage of a past life, even the Israelites were now mimicking the words of the complaining rabble. They were looking around and looking back – but they were looking in the wrong directions.

The believer won’t find comfort LOOKING AROUND. They will feel out of place, because they are to be growing in such a way that they learn slowly to displace the values of NOW for the standards of Heaven. Following the world’s values and living by their hungers is placing your life in the blind pilot’s hands. Seriously, if you were standing in line to get on a flight and the pilot came walking slowly up the ramp tapping his white cane and wearing dark glasses, would you get on the flight? The pit comes to both the blind leader and the blind one who holds his hand and follows him. When will we learn that only the person with the true map finds the treasure. Fakes are distractions that raise your hopes and suck away your energy.

The believer won’t find comfort in LOOKING BACK. The things of this earth are to dim more and more as he learns to look in the right directions – UP and FORWARD. The answers to a broken world lay in the coming Redeemer – and nowhere else. It doesn’t mean that I do not care for the planet – I was told to steward it. It means I don’t do it to fix the broken world – because I haven’t the power. He does, and He is coming soon!

One final observation, and look at the end of the story. God heard the revelry of gluttony and greed – and it made Him really sick.

Skip down to 11:32… The people spent all day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers) and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague. 34 So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had been greedy. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people set out for Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.

Often the transliterated words in the text give a glimpse of the point of the story. In this case, “Kever” is the common term for a tomb or grave. “Kibbroth” is the plural form set in a name, with a descriptive name to follow – “hattah-av-aw”. The place became a marker and memory – mentioned five times in the Bible and always referring to this place alone. In Numbers 33 and Deuteronomy 9 God reminded them of the provocation of this event. In the end, they left there and journeyed to “Chatserot” – a word for settlements or villages. The people saw God take the lives of their greedy fellows, and many died. With the weeping and bitter memory of the grave place called “Hattah-avaw” still burning in their minds, they moved from loud complaining to walking quietly to the villages, or “Chatserot”.

I can’t say this strongly enough to any believer that is open to understanding: Living the world’s values, seeking desperately the world’s approval, pressing for the world’s hungers WILL KILL YOU!

Next time, I want to address a closer look at MOSES and the complaints from an over-stressed and BROKEN HEART.

By now, I think the point is clear – Not all complaints are the same. The heart they come from changes the response we get. Those out of a cold heart toward God, block God’s work in and through us because of our self-centered spirit. He withdraws His blessing and stops teaching us. Yet, when we crumble under the load of real ministry– it is a different story. God offers new resources and new instruction.

How could I leave this passage without the one song that was written in my lifetime that captured the heart of the complaining Israelite? Keith Green wrote it, and many of you will smile, because you know it:

So you wanna go back to Egypt, where it’s warm and secure. Are you sorry you bought the one way ticket when you thought you were sure? You wanted to live in the Land of Promise, but now it’s getting so hard. Are you sorry you’re out here in the desert, instead of your own backyard? Eating leeks and onions by the Nile. Ooh what breath, but dining out in style! Ooh, my life’s on the skids, give me the Pyramids! Well there’s nothing to do but travel, and we sure travel a lot. Cause it’s hard to keep your feet from moving when the sand gets so hot. And in the morning it’s manna hotcakes. We snack on manna all day. And they sure had a winner last night for dinner, Flaming manna soufflé. Well we once complained for something new to munch. The ground opened up and had some of us for lunch. Ooh, such fire and smoke. Can’t God even take a joke ­huh? (no!) So you wanna go back to Egypt, where old friends wait for you. You can throw a big party and tell the whole gang, That what they said was all true. And this Moses acts like a big-shot, who does he think he is. It’s true that God works lots of miracles, but Moses thinks they’re all his. Well I’m having so much trouble even now. Why’d he get so mad about that cow? (that golden cow). Moses sits rather idle, he just sits around. He just sits around and writes the Bible. Oh, Moses, put down your pen. What ­oh no, manna again? Oh, manna waffles­, manna burgers, manna bagels, fillet of manna, manna patties, manna – cotti??? How ’bout..­.ba -manna bread!”