The Layperson’s Bible: The Israelites Complain

Many Jews are of the opinion that Christians still hold a grudge against them for being responsible for the death of Christ. Not so. If Christians have a biblical cause for disliking the Jews, it has to be because, as portrayed in the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites were a bunch of whiners.

We all know that God came along and instructed Moses on how to deal with Pharaoh, sent down the plagues, and so on, and ultimately freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt. So now they’re on the run, in the wilderness, being pursued by Pharaoh’s men, and are understandably perturbed by their current condition, having fallen, so to speak, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11). “For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness,” (Exodus 14:12) they cry, unaware that the Lord is on the verge of parting the Red Sea and thus ensuring their escape.

However, this is merely an escape from Pharaoh, not from the harshness of the wilderness, which is woefully incapable of providing bread for the multitude. Being even more of a slave to his belly than to any human master, a man naturally becomes ungrateful when he is hungry, ungrateful even for being rescued from bondage:

“Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

God’s a good sport, and understanding, and sends down manna from heaven, enough to feed the entire people. Pretty sweet, but still not enough, because now they’re out of water:

“Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3)

Again God heeds the cries of the people, directing Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water, which finally satisfies them:

“All that the Lord hath said we will do, and be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7)

That is, they remain satisfied until we get to the book of Numbers. Now they’re sick of manna; they remember fondly the variety of dishes they enjoyed in Egypt, and now they want meat to eat, too. (Numbers 11:4-6)

At this point, God is starting to get a little testy. He provides the meat, but hits those who eat it with a plague while the flesh is yet between their teeth. (Number 11:33)

Finally the Israelites reach the promised land, and wouldn’t you know? It’s occupied. The heavens again resound with their groaning:

“And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!
And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (Numbers 14:2-3)

Now God is no fool; he’s put a lot of work into this project, and he’s getting pissed.

“And the Lord said unto Moses. How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?” (Numbers 14:11)

It’s up to Moses now to talk him down. He convinces the Lord not to smite the Israelites on the grounds that the Egyptians will hear about it and poo-poo God’s abilities and power:

“Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:16)

In the end, the Lord heeds Moses’ eloquent plea:

“Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Numbers 14:19)

But matters worsen even further when their travels lead them into the desert of Zin. Again Moses is forced to strike a rock to bring forth water, and again the Israelites begin cursing him for ever even leading them out of Egypt.

“Would God that we had had died when our brethren died before the Lord!
And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us into this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” (Numbers 20:3-5)

Chosen people or no, now God has had enough. The next time the Israelites start complaining, he lets loose his temper.

“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water: and our soul loatheth this light bread.
And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:5-6)

The Israelites finally learn their lesson, admitting their sin in questioning the ways of the Lord and asking Moses to pray for them. Back on God’s good side, they begin taking possession of the lands which were promised them. Which is potent proof that, in spite of the holy wrath which runs as an undercurrent throughout the Old Testament, that the God of the Hebrews was in fact merciful, patient, and forgiving; a parent with a wayward child who somehow cannot cease to love, even when the little brat sasses and disobeys him at every turn.

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