AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF FAITHFUL PROVIDENTIAL CARE, GOD’S PEOPLE RESPOND TO THE PRESSURE OF ADVERSITY WITH GRUMBLING AND COMPLAINING THAT BRING SEVERE DISCIPLINE
This more general introduction to the repeated theme of grumbling and complaining marks the beginning of the second main section of the book of Numbers. The tone has dramatically switched from that of preparation to triumphantly embark on the march to conquest the Promised Land to that of immature and rebellious reaction to difficult days on the journey. The severe reaction of the Lord highlights the significance of the sin of grumbling and complaining.
Brueggemann: So far in Numbers we have seen nothing but expressions of agreement with God’s direction, obedience, and a high sense of expectancy. But the first three verses of chapter 11 introduce elements that were to become regular features of the subsequent wilderness experience:
(1) complaint (11:4–5; 12:1–2; 14:1–4; 16:1–3, 41; 20:3–5; 21:5);
(2) divine punishment (11:33; 12:9–10; 14:20–37; 16:32, 45–49; 17:10–13; 21:6);
(3) Moses’s intercession, which brings a measure of relief (11:2; 12:13; 16:22, 46–49; 21:7); and
(4) memorializing the incident by giving a name to the site (11:34; 20:13; cf. Exod 15:23; 17:7).
Complaints had been tolerated earlier (Exod 15:24; 16:2; 17:3), but henceforth God would judge it (11:4, 19, 33; 14:2; 16:3; 20:3; 21:5), and that would require Moses’s intercession. First, the people grumbled about general conditions (11:1–3), then troublemakers carped about their reliable—and therefore repetitious—diet of manna (11:4–9). Moses chimed in, moaning about his impossible responsibilities (11:10–15). Miriam and Aaron protested Moses’s prophetic leadership (12:1–16). Sniveling reached an unforgivable crescendo when the people rejected not only their daily provisions but even their very salvation in the Promised Land (14:1–4). It continued with Korah’s anarchy (ch 16).
Dennis Cole: The initial rebellious incident cited in the text sets the stage and pattern for the successive acts of sedition. As noted previously, this method of introducing a section with a formative case is typical of the Book of Numbers and other Pentateuchal texts. . .
In the Book of Numbers this action constitutes a shift in the structural and theological movement of the book from one of unity, faithfulness, holiness, and celebration to one of discord, rebellion, and dissatisfaction with who they were as the people of the covenant. The text translates literally “and so the people became like those murmuring evil in the ears of Yahweh.” God had promised goodness and blessing; the people responded with rebellious complaints.
David Guzik: Israel, having been ordered, organized, cleansed, separated, blessed, taught how to give, reminded of God’s deliverance, given God’s presence, and the tools to advance to the Promised Land, is now on the march to Canaan—and immediately, the people complained. How can it be that a nation so blessed can still complain? God had done so much in and for Israel; yet they still murmur against Him. Of course, their circumstances were not easy—but what sin it is for them to complain against God, wiping out the spirit of gratitude in their hearts!
Ronald Allen: There is a cyclical nature to Israel’s rebellions against God; obdurate people tend to repeat the sins of the past. . . The narrator of Numbers has arranged his materials so carefully that this sudden outbreak of renewed pettiness against God seems unprecedented, unexpected – unbelievable. How, we wonder, with all the preparation for a holy walk, could there come such stumbling so soon?
I. (:1a) GOD HEARS OUR COMPLAINING WHEN WE FAIL THE TEST OF ADVERSITY
“Now the people became like those who complain of adversity
in the hearing of the LORD;”
Due to sin, mankind is quick to respond to difficulty with unbelief and an unthankful heart and rebellion.
A. Adversity Will Come as a Test from the Lord – Expect Hard Times
Gordon Wenham: Leaving the relative fertility of the area around Mount Sinai, the Israelites soon found themselves in the most inhospitable desert of Et-Tih, and they began to complain. A modern traveler would sympathize. But the biblical writers did not (cf. Deut. 9:22; Ps. 78:17ff.). For them the complaints of Israel were proof of national rebelliousness and unbelief.
Raymond Brown: They whined first about the everyday hardships of their desert journey. It was exactly the same when they left Egypt a year earlier. They had been on the desert highway for only three days when they began moaning about their troubles. All of them had suffered immense hardships in Egypt, and a few days’ discomfort in the blazing sun could hardly be compared with the 400 years of agony they and their people had suffered under cruel oppressors. Surely they did not imagine that the journey would be effortless! Everything in life that is worth anything demands training, discipline, struggle and sacrifice. Little of value is achieved without pain.
Believers, of all people, must expect some element of costliness in the Christian life. All the main characters of the Bible had to cope with adversities of one kind or another.
If only those Israelites could have seen that those tough days in the bleak desert were God’s training days, encouraging them to believe that, having delivered them from their Egyptian captors, he would go on to deliver them from their malevolent moods, ungrateful attitudes and churlish dissatisfaction!
The pilgrims never forgot the place where they whined about their difficulties. The scene of complaint became the arena of judgment. Unchecked fire (perhaps the result of lightning) was a terrifying prospect for a camping community. Reflecting on the event later, they called the place Taberah (‘burning’), because fire from the LORD had burned among them (3). But they did not learn from the grim lessons of experience.
Eugene Merrill: The reference to His hearing them is anthropomorphic language used, no doubt, to suggest that their complaining was not inward and quiet. Indeed, it was so loud it reached the very heavens!
Harrison: Quite probably the people were fatigued after their experience of marching for three days. The euphoria of the Sinai experience was now being put to practical test, and the Israelites discovered, like many saints since that time, that the “mountain-top” experience is not infrequently followed by a sojourn in an emotional and spiritual “valley.” Their complaints are not specified in the MT, but the fact that they even indulged in such ungrateful behavior shows how superficial was their thankfulness to God for His mighty deliverance from Egypt, and how little was their faith in Him as provider and in Moses as His appointed leader.
B. Complaining Dishonors the Character of God – Choose Contentment
1. His Covenant Love and Compassion
2. His Faithfulness and Providential Care
J. Ligon Duncan: Whenever we complain of our circumstances, we are denying God’s providence over us.
2. His Justice and Fair Treatment
3. His Wisdom and Divine Plan for Our Lives
David Thompson: It is interesting that the only other place this word is used is in Lamentations 3:39. In Lamentations 3:39 the meaning is why should a man complain about anything in view of all of his sins.
Gordon Keddie: “A murmuring spirit,” said Jeremiah Burroughs, “is the evil of the evil and the misery of the misery.” What the great English Puritan meant was that, however grievous the affliction which has come upon us might be, a “murmuring heart within . . . is more grievous.” Why more grievous? Because it denies the attitude of faith, trust, gratitude and dependence upon the Lord which ought to characterize the Christian. It therefore brings to any problem, real or imagined, a disposition to be frustrated, angry, bitter, fault-finding and recriminating, with the inevitable result that far from being resolved, the difficulty becomes further fuel for the fires of discontent in that person’s innermost being. It is the antithesis of the peace that God gives to his people, the denial of the grace-filled lordship of Christ over all of our life and withdrawal from the healing power of gospel grace.
C. Complaining (in Heart or Tongue) is Never Hidden from the Lord
II. (:1b) GOD HATES OUR COMPLAINING AND RESPONDS IN ANGER
A. Divine Response of Anger
“and when the LORD heard it, His anger was kindled,”
Greg Allen: And as we see from these first few verses, God heard the complaints of His people. They may have thought that they could complain and ‘humph!’ outside of God’s earshot; but He heard every grumble. And we also see that it displeased Him. It aroused His anger. Each time they had complained in the past, He had answered their complaints graciously. And each time He answered, they should have learned the lesson. And now, with each new complaint that He hears from them, He grows increasingly angry with them.
Robert Rayburn: Why is grumbling so serious a sin, so deadly a sin? Because it is the evidence of unbelief. We are going to discover that the largest part of the nation of Israel was in fact an unbelieving people. That will become dismally clear in the next few chapters of Numbers. But already the handwriting is on the wall. Already the evidence is mounting that Israel does not have a living confidence in the Lord, does not love him, does not trust him to fulfill the promises he made to her, and is not willing to keep his commandments in the confidence that his commandments are good and right and in the confidence that their happiness lies in submission to the Lord. And the evidence of that, the proof of that is her readiness to grumble and to complain. Grumbling is a form of unbelief and the act of an unbeliever. It is nothing less, as we read in v. 20 than rejecting God! That is what makes it so serious and why God judges it so severely.
B. Discipline of Consuming Fire
“and the fire of the LORD burned among them
and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.”
Iain Duguid: The grumbling started with “the rabble,” the riff-raff ( hāsapsup ), who lived on the fringe of the camp (v. 4 ). This is the mixed multitude of all nationalities who came out of Egypt with God’s people but had never fully assimilated and taken on
Israel’s values and standards. The grumbling then spread from the riff-raff to infect the rest of the Israelites (v. 4).
Timothy Ashley: Fire is a common biblical image for God’s presence, as at the burning bush (Exod. 3:2) or at Mt. Sinai (19:18), and especially common as an image for God’s judgment. A further contrast here is between the fire of God used for divine guidance (as in the fiery pillar, e.g., Num. 9:15–16) and the fire of God used for judgment, as here. Since the fire led to the naming of the place as “the burning place” (Taberah), and since the fire is said to have consumed part of the camp, it is better to take this judgment as literal fire rather than as a metaphor for some other divine punishment.
Dennis Cole: The Lord was merciful in sending his purging fire only to the perimeter of the Israelite camp. Many could have been consumed had the judgment been meted out in the midst of the encampment. The outskirts of the camp were where uncleanness and ceremonial impurity were relegated. A judgment of fire from the Lord often comes by means of lightning, though the mode of igniting the fire is not specified. This form of judgment parallels that meted out against Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1–3), though that fire came out from the midst of the tabernacle.
III. (:2) GOD HALTS HIS DISCIPLINE WHEN INTERCESSION IS EFFECTUAL
A. Appeal to the Mediator
“The people therefore cried out to Moses,”
B. Effectual Intercession
“and Moses prayed to the LORD,”
Iain Duguid: This cameo scene shows us that what is at stake in this chapter is not just the sin of grumbling. It is also the role of Moses as a prophet. An important part of the work of a prophet in Old Testament times was to intercede for the people. On the day when the Lord’s judgment was about to be poured out on his people, it was the prophet’s calling to stand between the people and their God, averting God’s wrath by intercessory prayer. This was hard and dangerous work, a task compared to standing in the breached wall of a besieged city, the most dangerous position in an assault (see Ezekiel 13:5; 22:30). Yet without faithful prophets, the people’s future would be bleak indeed. As the archetypal prophet, the pattern after whom all other prophets were framed (see Deuteronomy 18:15), Moses had both the ability and obligation to approach God and intercede for the people. This is exactly what he did at Taberah.
C. Divine Relief
“and the fire died out.”
Ronald Allen: In the midst of his wrath, the Lord remembers mercy. This is one of the ongoing themes of Scripture and is a particular truism in the Book of Numbers. The people truly deserve God’s considerable wrath. But the survivors of this outburst of his anger cry out to Moses for help in their behalf before the Lord. Moses prays, and the fire subsides. The Hebrew verb is saqa, a word meaning “to sink down,’ a particularly picturesque term for the dying out of a raging fire. . .
Chapters 11–20 present a dismal record of their acts of ingratitude and of God’s consequent judgments on his ungrateful people. Yet within these chapters are innumerable instances of his continuing grace. The reader of these texts goes astray if he or she focuses solely on God’s wrath or on the constant provocations to his anger by his meandering people. The more impressive feature in this text is God’s continuing mercy against continuing, obdurate rebellion
(:3) EPILOGUE –- REMEMBER THE CONSEQUENCES OF COMPLAINING
“So the name of that place was called Taberah,
because the fire of the LORD burned among them.”
Complaining is not some minor, insignificant sin
Look at the cycle of sin and deliverance presented in the Book of Judges – without some type of memorial, it is too easy to forget past failures and repeat the same type of sin that leads to severe judgment.
Dennis Cole: The place was memorialized as Taberah (“burning” or “it [the fire] burns”) because the fire of Yahweh had burned the outskirts of the camp in judgment against his people. The site is mentioned again only in Deut 9:22, in the context of Moses’ recounting the history of Israel’s unfaithfulness in a challenge to the people to fear the Lord and to obey, serve, and love him (Deut 10:12–13). Taberah is omitted in the journey itinerary of Numbers 33:16–17, perhaps being subsumed under the heading of Kibroth Hattaavah in the subsequent context.