Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible, is undoubtedly the great book with the terrible marketing plan. The Greek title is arithmoi, the Latin numeri, and hence the English “Numbers,” a title that inspires only a few actuaries and statisticians to even open a sleepy eye. Yet, the New Testament insists that Numbers matters deeply to the Christian faith, serving as a corrective to so many common human tendencies, tendencies that creep into the church and into the Christian life, tendencies that if unchecked will twist and warp lives and communities of faith.
Grumbling holds pride of place among the signature themes of the book. The Israelites – delivered from slavery in Egypt by the ten plagues, rescued via the parting of the Red Sea, having received the Law, having seen God’s power at Sinai, eating manna daily – the very same Israelites, as they begin to march towards Canaan in Numbers 11, immediately begin grumbling and complaining about and against God.
Three episodes follow, the first merely setting the stage:
And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and when the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down. So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them. (Numbers 11:1–3, ESV)
“In the hearing of the Lord” is a technical term here, meaning that the people were gathered at the gate of the Tabernacle. This particularly defiant act is met with the fire of judgment. Hence the name of the place, Taberah, likely from the Hebrew meaning “place of burning.”
The second episode begins to show the spiritual dynamics of complaint:
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. The people went about and gathered it and ground it in handmills or beat it in mortars and boiled it in pots and made cakes of it. And the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell with it. Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the Lord blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased.(Numbers 11:4–10, ESV)
In other words, the people ate every day by a miracle, and that was not enough.
We often take God’s care and provision not just for granted, but as something onerous and burdensome. We become accustomed to God’s gifts, much as we become accustomed to speed when riding in a car on the expressway. Accelerating down the entrance ramp, we ease slightly back in our seats, experiencing the acceleration. Yet, before long, 55 seems slow. So does 65. So does 75. And before long, if we are not careful, we are doing 85, whizzing by others, only to suddenly have our daydream interrupted by the flashing lights of the local police department! We become accustomed to speed, forgetting that we are not beings made to go more than a few miles per hour under our own locomotion. So it is with God’s gifts. We cease to notice that those gifts are even there. We start to complain about how slow things feel, how we want more.
Even more, a complaining spirit makes them (and us) revisionist. What do the Israelites begin doing? Talking about how good it was in Egypt! Remember their lives in Egypt? They were slaves, worked to the bone, their children killed, the victims of a genocide. Until God miraculously delivered them. But a complaining spirit forgets all that. They would rather – they think (Remember that they are fooling themselves, too.) – they would rather return to slavery than live in the Lord’s miraculous blessing. Hence, along their journey the place named, Kibroth Hattaavah, “marked graves” or “graves of craving.”
Isn’t it amazing that we do the same thing? We live every day in the miraculous love of Christ. We are fed by his grace, both physically and spiritually. Our every breath and being is sustained by him. Our work and our rest are his gifts. Yet before long we become accustomed to his gracious gifts and start to not just forget them, but to scorn them. We find ourselves saying, “Why do I have to go to this job? I hate it. Why do I have to care for these children? They take so much out of me? Why do I have to serve as a member in this church? I don’t like these people.” We take God’s gifts – jobs, children, church – not simply for granted, but we start to even complain about them.
One might think these Israelites would get the picture, but chapter 12 begins with a third area of complaint, this time against Moses, the leader that God had given them:
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. (Numbers 12:1–2, ESV)
God’s people love to rebel against their leaders. In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron start to gripe about Moses’ leadership. They begin their complaint with ethnic prejudice – racism – the fact that Moses’ wife is from Cush (modern day Ethiopia). Sadly, the church has replicated this type of sin again and again, and we are hardly free from it today.
In verse 2, though, we realize that Miriam and Aaron are just dragging Moses’ wife into it to get at him (another thing that is far too common in the church today). Even underneath the racism is jealousy – they betray themselves with their words: “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” This jealousy is particularly important, as Aaron and Miriam had leadership roles of their own, and jealous infighting among the leaders of God’s people threatens the whole expedition. Now that is a lesson the church today needs to hear!
I must say that I am, sadly, not immune to any of this. None of us are. I am easily piqued and sometimes petty, full of pride. My best charitable moments are often overwhelmed by sin, and even when I think myself free of pride, I dig deeper and find it is still there, just another layer of the onion. I have had my share of being the guilty one (and the not guilty one) in these situations, and I think I am most scared of the times I think I was the “not guilty one.” That just smacks of rationalization. We are easily piqued and petty, and the one writing is the chief of sinners. And jealous infighting among God’s leaders can sink any church.
Thing is, grumbling is a precursor, not a steady state. Grumbling doesn’t simply stay put as low-level aggression and dissatisfaction. Sooner or later, it leads somewhere. In Numbers, it leads to rebellion, which characterizes the next section of the book. Chapter 13 begins with the rebellion of the spies. Israel reaches the southern edge of Canaan, sends in spies to explore the land, and receives back the report: “The land is wonderful…and full of giants. We will be crushed if we try to enter.”
At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. (Numbers 13:25–14:5, ESV)
Only two, Joshua and Caleb, encourage faithfulness, and the people follow the ten other spies, not the two. To make things worse for these rebellious Israelites, God shows up! Who invited him to the party? They are saved only by the intervention of another, Moses. And while God does not immediately wipe them out, he does declare that none of that generation, save Caleb, will enter his land.
They turn around, and some people must not interpret events the same way, or if they do, they have a short memory. Chapter 16 follows with another leadership struggle, a second rebellion, this time led by a leader named Korah:
Now Korah the son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with a number of the people of Israel, 250 chiefs of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men. They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Numbers 16:1–3, ESV)
Nor is this rebellion out of nowhere; God’s people – including its leaders – sadly love to squabble and fight. God responds to Korah by wiping him out in judgment:
And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. And all Israel who were around them fled at their cry, for they said, “Lest the earth swallow us up!” And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. (Numbers 16:31–35, ESV)
How do you think the people will take that? Instead of receiving God’s rebuke, they grumble all the more against Moses and Aaron: “You have killed the people of the Lord!” (v.41), bringing further judgment for their rebellion.
Finally, by chapter 20, we find the third major rebellion of the book, this time about water, and this time at Meribah. Now God had given them water before when they needed it, but we ought not overread the narratives. They are thirsty. It is not as if there has been a rushing Rocky Mountain river beside them as they have wandered in the wilderness. It is dry, and they have had enough, but sometimes barely. Often just enough. And right now, they do not see God’s provision:
Then Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:6–12, ESV)
So, back to their natural default – lack of trust and lots of complaint. And before we are too hard on them, is not that our own natural default? Lack of trust and lots of complaint. This time, even Moses – even amazing Moses, so patient through the book – loses it. Even Moses is not sinless, and he blows it here, in a way that seems self-centered and maybe more than a bit arrogant, in a way that God understands to not be treating the Lord as holy, in a way that costs him entry into the Promised Land.
Section two of the book of Numbers is grumbling, leading to section three, rebellion.
Much of the Christian church today is functionally Marcionite, even if not doctrinally so. Even churches that consider the Old Testament to be the inspired word of God rarely preach it, and most Christians therefore probably do not care what the book of Numbers teaches. Yet the Apostle Paul says we must:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:1–13, ESV)
Paul explicitly references the events of Exodus and especially Numbers. The cloud in verse 1 is God’s pillar of cloud and fire that lead them in the desert. He mentions passing through the sea, water from the rock, eating manna, the sin at Peor, and finally in verse 9 more grumbling against Moses.
The last of these is crucial, if nothing else because Jesus invokes it as a vivid illustration when talking with Nicodemus in John 3. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and in Numbers 21, the emerging second generation army begins to do the same thing their forefathers had done – grumble:
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (Numbers 21:4–9, ESV)
The astute reader looks on in horror. Will this be the same story, yet again? Will the cycle of grumbling and rebellion followed by God’s judgment, which has characterized the book so far, simply continue forever? It seems so, and God moves quickly, sending snakes to punish them. They cry out to Moses, who prays for them, and God says to make a snake and lift it up, such that anyone bitten by one of the fiery serpents could look to it and live.
Such a practice at first seems antithetical to biblical faith, especially a people whose second commandment was to make no graven images. Is this some sort of voodoo-type approach, making a representation of a being to control it? The image is slightly different. God probably means – and Moses probably makes – a snake impaled on a staff. Here we have an obvious reference back to the Garden of Eden. This is what grumbling is: it is devilish because it is a dissatisfaction with what God has given us. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve with the idea that they should be dissatisfied with God, the God who had made them, placed them in a perfect paradise, given them everything they needed, and given them a worldwide mission and purpose. Yet the serpent advised discontentment; they consumed the fruit; and the world collapsed into violence and depravity. So now, God has delivered the Israelites again and again, provided all they need – protection, provision, security, and a mission towards the greater promise of Canaan’s fair and happy land. Yet, they choose grumbling over gratitude. And so, again, do we.
And the answer? A snake impaled – skewered – on a pole. Any Israelite bitten by one of these snakes could do nothing to save him or herself. All that person could do, given by the grace of God, was look at the uplifted bronze snake, and if he or she looked to God’s provision – to the grace of death removed – he or she was saved. The people who look by faith realize that God is going to triumph over the serpent, their ancient enemy.
Well, in John 3, Nicodemus is not getting it. He seems to want to, though he remains scared enough that he only comes at night. Yet, he is not even beginning to understand what Jesus is telling him
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:1–15, ESV)
This can only confound things for poor Nicodemus! Jesus says he must be lifted up, like a snake impaled on a pole, so that people may be saved. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He knew the law, that it said anyone lifted up on a tree was accursed of God, and he knew the prophets, that the Son of Man in Daniel 7 is a powerful figure, glorious. So how could Jesus be saying the Son of Man had to be lifted up? It wouldn’t make any sense…until the resurrection.
Again, Paul simply will not let us discount the events of the book of Numbers. Nor, apparently, will Jesus. Though an ancient book, written to a far-ago people, though on the other side of so many major events of redemptive history, nonetheless Numbers matters for today’s church, for God’s people on this side of Jesus’ earthly life, death, resurrection, and ascension, for those waiting for him to someday return. And yet, grumbling is so incredibly common among God’s people today. We complain about our jobs, our families, our incomes, our homes, our churches, our leaders, our neighbors (especially when they take opposite positions to those we prefer), our politics, and our world. Many of the loudest grumblings come from Christians better off than anyone in the history of the world. Not only do believers enduring great persecution in the majority world evidence joy, not complaint, but the ancients would envy our lives in wonder. King David would have killed for air conditioning!
This problem is by no means limited to the church — it is endemic to much of society these days as grievance politics — but the church has also failed to rise above it. We who have been given the most also often complain the most. God calls us to better and more.
Our Lord, Himself, the only one who had a true right to complain that he had received what he did not deserve, was silent in the face of suffering.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.(Isaiah 53:7–9, ESV)
If ever one could have, should have, grumbled, if ever one got what he did not deserve, it was our Lord, Jesus Christ. But while we whine in the face of God’s blessings, he was silent in the face of God’s cursing. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) Amazing grace, indeed. Maybe just amazing enough grace to transform our grumbling and complaining into gratitude, kindness, and thanksgiving.