Complaining X10: When Complaining Becomes Chastiseable
Text: Numbers 14:20-24 Sanhedrin 10:3
Authored by Mike Furey
"The famous Mishnah Sanhedrin 10 numbers these three cases, the men of Sodom, the generation of the wilderness, and the company of Korah as the prime examples of those who have no share in the world to come (10:3)." Each one of these groups consisted of persons who were dissatisfied and complained. Of all the subjects that God could have dealt with in the leading books of the Bible, he chose in his wisdom to spend a good deal of Torah space to the nature of complaining. Complaining must be a very serious problem for us since God has made a major theme of it in both Exodus and Numbers. God is very patient with humanity, but as a parent he dares not leave us to ourselves but disciplines us appropriately according to our level of maturity. What mother or father would let her or his child live without correcting the child's wrongs? God also deals with his children as a parent would, but even more than a parent. He deals with us as a God which he is; for, parents do not have the authority to take life as a disciplinary measure, only the life giver may apply this level of disciplinary action. So, at what point does complaining warrant punishment or discipline? That is what this message will attempt to describe.
The New Testament warns believers in First Corinthians 10:1-13 to learn from the examples left by Israel. It was because of their grumbling, murmuring, or complaining that they were chastised so severely. Complaining is a state of dissatisfaction with the Lord's handling of matters and a subtle or bold turning away from submission to self-sufficiency, and a rejection of the belief in the Lord's goodness and an acceptance of the belief in the Lord's incompetence. Such complaining arises from a lack of faith or when the cravings of our flesh dominate our being, or when a person becomes tired of waiting on the Lord and his process of refining the soul or from a host of other reasons... Since God treats this subject in story form or rather from the narrative of Israel's history, the meaning is felt through the story and my analysis can only dilute the power of the meaning that one feels intuitively by hearing the Word of the Lord. As we live in the text we can perceive the power of the message and the best thing to do is to read the entire text as God gave it. Nevertheless, the Lord has also appointed preachers to point people to the text and to explain the life within it and the life we should seek to live. And so I declare on that basis a word from the Lord through Israel's example.
At what point does complaining become punishable? I suggest based on the long narrative in Exodus and Numbers that discipline comes once believers attain a certain level of maturity, once believers have been given specific lessons by the Lord who now expects them to have learned these particular lessons. In the pedagogical process, thus, there are levels of learning and thus, there are levels of grumbling, which serve as temporary handles for our own learning process. I see two stages of discipleship and four levels of grumbling in this narrative.
Outline Of The Levels Of Grumbling:
Learning Stage: Early Discipleship:
1. Ignorant Grumbling: About increased work activity at slavery; at sea before parting of the waters (fear) Ex 14:11
2. Infantile Grumbling: 3 days after the Red Sea experience and in the wilderness desert (thirst) Ex 15:23-24
3. Irritating Grumbling: 1 month later (food), but not punishable Ex 16:2
Living Stage: Responsible Discipleship:
4. Irrational And Impudent Grumbling: They have not learned their lessons
a. Ex 17 Water at Massah-Meribah followed by consequence of war with Amalekites who would antagonize Israel for centuries.
b. Ex 32 Worship of Golden Calf: 3,000 die by sword of the Levites
c. Nu 10:33-11:1-3 Weariness of travel and unnecessary complaining: God sends fire to outskirts of camp.
d. Nu 11:4-6 & 10 Wailing over food. God sent so many quails as food it would come out of their nostrils and they would loathe it. Then a plague is sent.
e. Nu 14:1-4 Witness of the spies. Eighteen months after the Exodus: They complain over the report of the spies and it results in 40 years wandering in the wilderness (a year for each day spent spying out the land). It was only an eleven day journey from Sinai where they received the ten commandments to the borders of Canaan (less than 150 miles).
f. More episodes of grumbling occur in Numbers, but I will stop at the climax in point "e."
The first learning stage and the first grumbling I feel in the story of Israel is what I call "the level of ignorance." Israel had been in Egypt for over four hundred years and had been slaves for over two hundred years. Their cries to God as slaves were justified and were not pooch-lipped complaints. When we are under pressure and suffering, it is not unspiritual for us or bothersome to the Lord for him to hear our cries. The Lord finally answered their petitions of groaning and sent a deliverer to take them out of bondage and into freedom. I wonder how much the people knew about the Lord when they were in Egypt. The promises made to Abraham seemed so old and distant, yet the people had some sense that God had given their forebears a promise of their own land. When the Lord sent Moses to them, they were pleased and the fulfillment of the promise of HaAretz (The Land) began to become more than a story they had heard for the last four hundred years. It seemed too good to be true. The process of liberation began, however, with a mere request to take three days off from work and to worship God in the wilderness. When Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded the people be allowed to go into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to Yahweh for three days, Pharaoh decided to increase the work load of the people since they must have had too much idle time telling Hebrew folk tales and dreamy stories. When the taskmasters were forced to increase the productivity and work load of the Hebrew slaves, the Hebrews complained to Moses that he should not have offered his prophetic services. Their lives were worse off now with this talk of going out to worship Yahweh. It was true. The burden of producing bricks under the hot African sun was terrible enough as it was and now the bosses were requiring more than what could be done. Moses has messed up their lives in a sense, but the people didn't have eyes to see the whole situation. God does not correct them or chastise them for voicing their complaint because at this level they are spiritually untrained or ignorant and at this level with infantile eyes they are not liable. We do not expect an infant or a two year old to know what a four year old or a sixteen year old knows and we treat their "verbal rebellions" accordingly.
Next, I think that their complaint was justifiable when they stood between the advancing army of Pharaoh with his crack infantrymen and charioteers and the waters of the Red Sea afraid and complaining of all that has happened to them since God and Moses started to become visibly active in their lives. In Exodus 14:10-12 it says:
"As Pharaoh got closer, the children of Israel looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching right after them. They were scared and called out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the wilderness to die? What is this you have done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Isn't this the message we gave to you in Egypt, `Let us alone; so we can serve the Egyptians'? It is better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!"
They were in the early learning stage and God did not place unreasonable expectations on these people, so he gave Moses to answer as follows in verses 13 and 14: "Moses responded to the people, 'Don't be afraid. Hang tight and you will experience deliverance which the LORD will bring you today. You will never see again the Egyptians you see today. The LORD will fight for you; you just got to be still.'" I believe they are still in the stage of ignorance but approaching the stage of infancy. The Lord heard their justifiable complaint and came to the rescue. They were not held accountable. God opened the Red Sea and they walked through it. The Egyptians were held back by a pillar of fire. After the last Hebrew made it to dry land, the Egyptians were allowed to race into the separated sea waters and then God closed the sea in upon the enemies of Israel. God came to their rescue and saw no grounds for disciplinary action.
But, now begins a new stage. They enter the stage of infancy. It is an early discipleship stage. They have a minimum knowledge base and have some definite experiences with the Lord. They know that God has power to do wonderful things for them. They know God can do miracles and has already provided a number of miracles with liquids. He turned the waters of Egypt to blood, he separated the waters of the Red Sea and made a dry path for them to escape. But now they were thirsty. Can God provide them a simple drop of drink in the desert? Can God do another miracle with water? At this infantile stage and at this infantile level of grumbling, only after three days since God had parted the sea the people now complained for water. Exodus 15:22-24 says, "Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went off into the wilderness of Shur. They journeyed three days in the desert but didn't find any water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water there because it was not drinkable. (That is why the place is called Marah or Bitter. ) Therefore, the people murmured against Moses, "What are we going to drink?" God did not chastise the people, but he set a lesson before them. He laid out a challenge, a promise, a test for them. They were expected to learn. The text says in Exodus 15:25-27:
Moses called out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a stick of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became drinkable. Then the LORD issued a statue and a law for them, and by that he set up a test for them. He said, "If you pay attention to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you listen carefully to his commands and obey all his statues, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians; because I am the LORD, your healer." Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they set up camp there close to the water.
So, at the infantile level of grumbling, they were given a clear lesson to learn. The irony of it all was that if they had not stopped to grumble and had just continued in their journey they would have run into the oasis of Elim with a water source for each tribe. Complaining delays blessing and only makes things worse. Were they acting like Pharaoh who had hardened his heart ten times? When we know God is in control of the world and our lives, we should have spiritual eyes to see a different world around us and to live differently from a person with just eyes for the physical world.
The third stage is what I call the irritating stage. At this level of grumbling our grumbling walk with God is irritating to him, but it does not require severe chastisement. Our level of discipleship is not pleasing to the Lord, but does not warrant strong correction. This irritating type of grumbling is seen in the scene in Exodus 16. One month after their release from Egypt they complained of the food situation. God has already made provisions for them with their physical needs, but they have not learned that truth. Exodus 16:1-3 has it that:
"The entire assembly of the children of Israel departed from Elim and went into the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month since their departure from Egypt. In the wilderness the entire assembly murmured against Moses and Aaron. The children of Israel said to them, "We should have died through the LORD's hands in the land of Egypt! There we used to sit around pots of meat and ate all the food we could, but you brought us out into this wilderness to starve everybody in this assembly to death."
Their murmuring at this point was not damaging to their spiritual life, but I sense an irritation later in the Lord in verse 28. "Then the LORD asked Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my laws?'" The Lord gave specific instructions on how to gather the food each day. On a work day an homer of food per person was to be collected which is about the size of a double liter of cola bottle. This was more than enough food per person. On the day of the preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, two homers per person was to be collected. If more than this share was collected, the food would become infested with worms by the next day. On the Sabbath no food was to be collected. There was a large group of persons who violated these gathering instructions. The Lord was displeased. He asked them about their behavior and waited for them to grow in maturity. At this level, only verbal instructions were used in the disciplinary process. God was trying to talk some sense into his people.
Irrational And Impudent Grumbling
By now the children of Israel should have known God was quite capable of providing water and food for their needs. It was completely irrational for them to complain at this next stage. The time for learning the lesson that God was their provider had passed. They should have known by now who the source of their living water was. They have moved from the learning stage to the living stage; they were expected to be living at a certain level of faith. They have already complained about water and God provided. They have already complained about food and God provided. But in Exodus 17, they were back complaining again about water. Exodus 17:1-4 says:
"The entire assembly of the children of Israel departed from the wilderness of Sin, moving from one place to another whenever the LORD gave the order. They set up camp at Rephidim, but there wasn't any water for the people to drink. So they argued with Moses and said, "Give us some water to drink." Moses answered, "Why are you arguing with me? Why are you putting the LORD to the test?" But the people were so thirsty for water that they complained against Moses and said, "Why did you lead us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and cattle die of thirst?" Then Moses called out to the LORD, "What am I going to do with these people? They are about ready to stone me [to death]."
Indeed, God provided water for the people to drink. But I take notice of the degeneration of their attitudes and the context of this chapter. Their complaining spirits have escalated into quarrelsome and violent behaviors. As a consequence of their quarrelsomeness and violence born of a complaining heart, it appears he has sent an enemy against them. The Amalekites attacked Israel in their first battle since their liberation from Egypt. These Amalekites would antagonize Israel for many centuries to come. To us moderns, this chastisement seems extremely harsh. Of course, it is possible that the Amalekites were not sent as chastisement for Israel since the text does not explicitly make such a claim, but it is no coincidence that these two events in Exodus 17 are aligned in sequence and are connected by literary design. The fact is they complained violently and the fact is war came. Is it true that sometimes we must face awful situations to cause us to appreciate the gifts in life because we have become so complacent and demanding? Children who live from a silver spoon tend to become scorners and impatient demanders. "Rich kids are always screwed up," observed a character in one of Hollywood's numerous movies.
The next scene of murmuring appears completely irrational. The people had witnessed God's presence at Mount Sinai. They saw the mountain shake, heard the shofar trumpets blow, saw the lightening explode, and felt the presence of God as Moses received the Ten Words, the ten commandments. But Moses spent too many days away and the people became restless and complained. In Exodus 32:1 it reads, "When the people felt that Moses was taking too long to come back down from the mountain, they assembled around Aaron and said, "Come on, make us a god to lead us. As for this Moses guy who lead us out of Egypt, we are not sure what is going on with him." They grew tired of waiting for something to happen, so they rose up to play and demanded from Aaron a statue to worship. They fabricated a golden statue of a calf. They cranked up the music, danced, and sang, which seems a lot better than kvetching, but it was their dissatisfied and griping hearts that led them to form and worship an image. They partied so hard and furiously that the sound of it all sounded like war to Joshua as they came back down the mountain. They were so happy to be doing something beside being obedient to a righteous God. As a consequence, in this situation three thousand Israelites die by the sword of the Levites. God's chastisement was strong. Complaining is the seedbed of sin. In the dissatisfied heart is conceived the will to disobey, the will to find an unhealthful alternative, the feeling of tiredness for the spiritual life and the craving for something carnal. To leave the path of spirituality is to invite death in any of its forms. Death is not just physical but includes jealousy, hatred, alienation, anger, alcoholism, psychosomatically induced sickness and all its manifestations. Complaining overrides our sense of reason and leads one into temptation.
In the next scene in Numbers 10:33-11:1-3 not much detail is provided only that there was some weariness from traveling and some unnecessary complaining. The circumstances do not have to be given in detail in this scripture because the reader already knows the character of the people as chronic complainers. The writer is justified to leave the details of the circumstances out. Only the basic facts are stated. They grew weary in the flesh of the hardships of travel in the desert and got tired of God's leadership, so they complained in unison. For some reason God did not take the people on a direct route out of the desert. When they first departed Egypt they did not take the King's Highway along the west coast, which would have been the logical route, but instead headed into the wilderness, which God probably lead them to do so as to bolster the haughtiness of Pharaoh to lead him and his troops to chase the confused looking Hebrews and bring events to a smashing climax at the Red Sea. Here the cause for the traveling delay is not as apparent to the reader's imagination except that God was exercising his sovereignty and testing his people. If sin lies within his people, he will cause them to face it head on and either his people will repent and be blessed, or succumb and suffer the consequences. Growth is that way. We must face the evil qualities within us and get victory over them. God would rather keep us in the school of hard knocks and cleansing than to allow his people to carry on ignorant of their faults and not growing more and more into his image and likeness. Because they chose to allow the flesh to dominate and did not take the care to cleanse their hearts and mouth of a complaining and rebellious spirit, they allowed their mouth to say foolish words and sin. As a consequence, God sent fire to the outskirts of the camp. He sent a heavy hand of judgment. The text says:
"They left the mountain of the LORD and were on the road three days. The ark of the covenant of the LORD went ahead of them during those three days to find them a resting place. The cloud of the LORD was over them by day when they departed from the camp. Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, "Rise up, O LORD! Let your enemies be dispersed; let your enemies run away from you." Whenever it stopped, he said, "Return, O LORD, to the thousands of thousands of people in Israel." Now the people complained about their hardships just about in God's ears, and as he heard them his anger got hot. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outer areas of the camp. When the people called out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD and the fire slowed down to nothing. That area was called Taberah, because fire from the LORD had burned among them."
Does God still send lightening bolts from heaven on the impudent? I think that God made an example of Israel here and in other places in scripture and that his current "policy" is not to send down lightening on the wayward as he used to as evidenced in numerous Old Testament passages because he has reserved a future day of judgment on which to settle all accounts. He expects the whole world to learn from the history of the nation of Israel (and the early church). This is not to say God never intervenes in contemporary history, nor to say he could not do so today in any specific way; but, as a basic principle, the time of lightening will come again at the end of the age as described in Revelation and the mini apocalypses given by Jesus in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 when the stars fall, the signs of the heavens speak, and the lightening strikes its whip at rebellious humanity. Also, at the time of the early church when Christians sinned before God, God took drastic immediate action as seen in Acts 5 in the account of the lies and the subsequent deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. He struck these two liars down dead on the spot. Yet, how many lies have been told in churches, synagogues, and mosques since then? They were given as examples. Today, the general principle is that liars or sinners of any kind will pay at a future date of judgment. Actually, the very sin we commit has built in it a punishment. "Our own sin corrects us." "Be sure your sin will find you out." "Whatsoever a man sows, that also he will reap." These are sayings of scripture. Complaining is a grievous sin that results in behaviors which influence one's destiny, demoralize one's attitude, and destroy relationships.
Right after the field burning incident, there follows another round of complaining. Numbers 11:4-34 describe another situation of complaining over food. They wail over food. God responds by sending so many quail that they would be sick of this meat source. It would come out of their nostrils and they would loathe it. By verse 33, their complaining is so sickening to God that he sends a plague upon them. Here are verses 4-6:
The riff-raff among them craved for other food, and the children of Israel also wept and said, "If only there were meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free--also the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. But now we are bored stiff since we see nothing but this manna!"....
A great deal of detail is packed into this passage. The main difference is that the people were agitated by "a mixed multitude, a crowd of riff-raff rabble," which probably refers to the influence of non Hebrews who had joined the exodus march. This series of grumbling began with the aliens among the Hebrews, but inspite of their infectious demoralization, though it was not completely the Hebrews fault at this point, they were still held accountable. We should not join the crowd or fall into the temptation to not hold ourselves responsible because "everyone else is doing it." In contrast, Moses' complaint is legitimate. He was truly ruling over an unruly mob like people. His leadership troubles were great and without thanks, much like today's politicians' thankless jobs. Moses' complaint was not illegitimate but paralleled even God's own dissatisfaction and complaint over his people's rebellion. The children of Israel's complaint was based on appetite and nostalgia which escalated into aggression against Yahweh's leadership. Their murmuring was born of lack of faith, forgetfulness, and ingratitude.
The people should have known by experience that God could provide food and a variety of it at that. Instead of asking and receiving, they used sour words of ingratitude to communicate their need. As a result of breathing threats on Moses and getting "mouthy" with the Lord, he sent disease on them. The first mini covenant he made with them at Marah just before the oasis at Elim (Exodus 15) was that if they were obedient, he would keep disease from them. They made the choice to disobey and became aggressive against their leadership, which led to sickness. But, their physical sickness was preceded by a psychospiritual sickness.
The climax of their complaining in the Pentateuch comes in the fourteenth chapter of Numbers, which I urge the reader to consult. Here are verses 20-24:
The LORD replied, "I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times-- not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.
The text describes that they wept and wailed, gaggled and grumbled all night over the spies' report. They wanted a new leader to take them back to Egypt. They rejected Moses' leadership and most importantly, they had rejected Yahweh's leadership. God was about to rid himself of this incalcitrant and contemptuous people, but because of Moses' intercession he allowed them to live, except they now had to live in the wilderness wandering till death. Two of the twelve spies, Joshua and Caleb, brought messages of confidence in Yahweh's guidance through hearts of faith and hope. Joshua and Caleb were suffered the consequences of the punishment of the children of Israel, but they would live through the forty years in exile and were permitted eventually to enter the land of promise while the ten negative spies were put to death immediately. Our complaining has consequences for those within our sphere of influence like family, friends, co-workers, and other citizens. God may certainly choose to forgive, but forgiveness does not mean we escape his discipline. Instead, we may forfeit his highest blessing which is reserved for the faithful.
They had been in the wilderness for eighteen months. After one and one half years of training, discipline, and learning experiences, God expected them to live at the level of faith and obedience, the living stage. But another failed lesson occurs. It was their tenth time to complain and accuse God of his insufficiency. Of course, the entire Old Testament is full of records of their complaining against the Lord. But, here is the climax for this generation of Israelites. It is the so-called tenth time of complaining. I don't think the narrative actually tells the reader of every instance of their grumbling, but Numbers 14:22 says, in a poetic way, that they had tested God ten times with their attitudes and actions seethed in grumbling. The number ten does not represent ten occasions of complaining, but the fulness of such a spirit. This number ten also links the hardness of heart demonstrated ten times by Pharaoh with the hardness of heart shown by Israel in ten episodes of complaining. The "tenth" complaint, full of disbelief, doubt, and despair, warranted severe disciplinary action. Here complaining is viewed as outright rebellion. At first, the Lord was going to send another plague of disease against them as he promised in the mini covenant of Marah and he was going to start a new nation of people. But, because of Moses' intercession God spared the people the full penalty, which evidently amounted to extinction or death, and instead he placed them into "a seclusion room," "a time-out room," or if you would "solitary confinement." That is, they were to do forty years time in the wilderness with nearly two years already served counted as time. This passage is so sad and tragic. Are we really any different from these people, though? Later, in this chapter more recordings of their grumbling will be listed which seem to serve as a denouement to the climactic moments of Numbers 14. Lastly and ironically, when the spies went out, it was neither by the command of God nor against it, but by the wisdom of human leadership. They did not have to send spies out except they had felt it was wise to do; but, their overanalysis lead to an erroneous conclusion and only fueled their impudent complaining.
In sum, complaining only makes things worse. They acted like the Pharaoh who hardened his heart ten times. Faith should change us. When we know Christ is our Lord, as king of kings, we should have eyes to see a different world around us and to live differently. The whole premise of Christianity is that Jesus becomes the boss of our life and our circumstances. If we complain it becomes an accusation against our Lord in whom we have entrusted our lives. We should be thankful. Thanksgiving is the expression of gratefulness and faith in God and is the very opposite of complaining.
In handling negative situations of life we need to grow from our natural reaction of complaining and resistance to a supernatural reaction of praise and yieldedness. We naturally complain, but we must teach ourselves through reliance on the Holy Spirit to have spiritual responses to a negative situation. First we might complain out of our natures, but then our spiritual self should "kick in." That is, as we develop ourselves in faith, we should begin to have reflexive responses of praising faith and not of murmuring doubt. The "old man" complains, but the "new man" in Christ must learn to be a Joshua and a Caleb. God will discipline those who do not learn the lessons he teaches them. God expects us to grow from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity and responsibility. To refuse to grow is to die. To refuse to grow is to wallow in complaining and grumbling and permit the stranglehold of death's process into our lives. Submit to the Lord and delight in him. Be ready to be tested and train yourself to praise him because to allow negativity and darkness to rule us is not the path to the promised lands God has for us in particular.
1.J.D.G. Dunn, "Jesus And Factionalism In Early Judaism: How Serious Was The Factionalism Of Late Second Temple Judaism?" in Hillel And Jesus: Comparative Studies Of Two Major Religious Leaders, Ed. James H. Charlesworth and Loren L. Johns (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), pp. 164-165.