Thursday, March 20, 2014

Lessons from the Murmuring (and Over-Indulgence) in Numbers 11


Numbers 11 has two separate instances in it of murmuring and complaining.  I think it will be helpful to look at the whole chapter.  Here is the first incident in v1-3:

1 And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.
2 And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched.
3 And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the Lord burnt among them.

This incident is notable because the people are complaining, but there is no record of what they are complaining about.  We can only conclude it was general kvetching over camp life.  If it were a real problem undoubtedly they would have gone to Moses about it.  Yet, having read through Exodus, Leviticus, and the beginning of Numbers one sees that they were in fairly comfortable position: They had food.  They had water.  They had priesthood leadership through Moses.  They were free of the Egyptians. They had the tabernacle of the Lord.  They had the Lord traveling with them.  The camp was organized.  What’s to complain about?

Can we see ourselves in this story?  Do we see how even in comfortable circumstances we become so used to it that we begin to cast about for things that could be better and resent when things aren’t absolutely perfect even when they are pretty close to excellent?

Well, the Lord hears their complaining and does the kindest thing He could do—give them something real to be bothered about, in this case, a fire.  It shows them how good and peaceful things were before.  Crisis certainly does help us appreciate having a “boring” life.  I’m reminded of this when I get sick; I realize I didn’t appreciate my health as I should have.

I notice they go to Moses and Moses prays for them and then the fire is quenched. On one hand this makes Moses’ advocacy a type of Christ’s intercession for us.  On another hand, the people don’t seem to have discovered the ability to pray for their own problems.  It is nice to know that we have the right to go to the Lord about our problems and we can take them to our leaders when it becomes too much for us.

Then comes the second incident of complaining, which arises from lust for foods that are no longer available: 

4 ¶And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:
6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.
9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.
10 ¶Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.

The first thing I notice is it says they “fell a lusting” instead of “began lusting.”  Using “fell” there evokes the fall of man and reminds us there were negative spiritual consequences for this intense yearning; it took them away from the Lord.

I can understand food fatigue, but I don’t understand how they could cry about it.  It is almost as if they believe they will never get a chance to eat anything else but manna the rest of their lives and they are grieving over it!

In their distorted thinking, they start to exaggerate the positives of Egyptian captivity, solely on the grounds of what they could eat, and they conversely diminish the positives of the manna, which must have actually been quite nutritious considering it was keeping them healthy as the only thing they ate.  (How many foods do we know of that pack the same healthy punch unassisted?) 

How often do we look back with nostalgia on little positive details in generally negative experiences that were the equivalent of Egyptian captivity for us?  When I find myself missing something about high school, I remind myself that it was generally a painful experience and while the positive parts were enough to help me survive, no way would I want to go back. 

I will give the Israelites credit for doing what they could to create variety for themselves; they tried preparing their manna all different kinds of ways, yet also we get a description of what it tasted like to show us that manna was pretty tasty and their complaints were not valid.  It is not like the Lord was raining on them something that tasted disgusting.  They were just dissatisfied.  And they were very vocal and public about it too—v10 tells us the people were weeping throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent.  It’s like it was a public protest.

It says Moses was displeased, but judging by his prayer, “displeased” may have been a major understatement.  Moses must have really been at the end of his rope.  I am very interested in his prayer, which is recorded for us.

11 And Moses said unto the Lord, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?
12 Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?
13 Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat.
14 I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.
15 And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.

There are some commentaries online that come down hard on Moses for complaining here.  They think he didn’t have a proper respect for his office or some rot like that.  I see something much different though.

Moses called it an affliction from the Lord to lead the people and he was right because the people were complaining and finding fault with the very blessings that were enabling them to survive.  Leading people may be an honor, but if those people are uncooperative and complaining it is NOT FUN.  In fact, if the people being led are always uncooperative, then having leadership of them may be said to be a curse rather than a blessing.  And Moses was starting to feel that curse aspect of it.  (As an aside, this line strikes me as a Messianic type: “wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?”)

Moses asks rhetorically, “Have I conceived all this people?”  It sounds vaguely like Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper?” but Moses is better than Cain, so we must find something better in it.  I think Moses had a testimony that God was the Father of all, so he may have been bringing that testimony to bear as an argument that he couldn’t be everything to Israel because that was God’s job, not his anyway.

“have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child…?” – Moses could see that most of Israel were still babies spiritually.  They were still having troubles with that very first principle of faith in God.

If you remember, Israel’s complaint was “Who shall give us flesh to eat?” and Moses was profoundly aware of his own inadequacy as a provider.  By himself he didn’t have the resources to provide flesh for the whole camp of Israel to eat.  Moreover, he felt the injustice of their demands in the face of the constant miraculous providence of manna, so he probably didn’t feel like he could ask for Israel to be given flesh in full confidence of having his prayer answered.  Yet they were putting so much pressure on him. He was caught between a rock and a hard place and he couldn’t just walk away from his responsibilities.  Only death would release him from his prophetic calling.  This is why he says, “kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.”  He just wanted to be released.

Happily, the Lord sees through Moses’ frustrations and doesn’t grant his request for death.  He sees Moses needs to offload some of that pressure to other men who can bear the burden with him.  It truly makes a difference when there are multiple testimonies to the truth to quench the whiners and complainers.  Not only that, the Lord decides to give the Israelites what they want, though we will see this has mixed results.

16 ¶And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.
17 And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
18 And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the Lord will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.
19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
20 But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the Lord which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?

The Lord promises Moses seventy elders of Israel who will help him bear the burden of Israel.  They are to have a portion of the same spirit that helps Moses lead.  This gathering to the tabernacle must have been like a big priesthood leadership training meeting to help them catch the vision of what they were to do so they could all be unified in that great work.

The Lord also commands the Israelites to sanctify themselves for the next day with the promise that they will be given flesh to eat for a whole month until it comes out of their nostrils and becomes loathsome.   I don’t know about you, but that promise sounds more like a warning than good news.  And the command to sanctify themselves for it hints that if they do not repent quick the food that comes will be to their condemnation rather than blessing.  And we will see that this turns out to be the case.

As I was reading v20, at first I thought it was just predicting food satiation would happen again, but later I started to see that it was actually a spiritual problem being described.  The Lord understood that if the Israelites despised His first gift of manna He rained on them, they would similarly come to despise any other gift of food He rained down on them as well.  The problem wasn’t in the Lord’s gift but in fallen man.  The Lord gives bountifully and we sin by being eventually disgusted by it. 

This made me stop and think if there was something the Lord was giving me bountifully but which I was despising.  The Lord has given me a lot of time right now and I complain far too often about being bored and lonely when I should be using that gift as best I can.  Other times I have been blessed with good work and people to be around, but I have complained about not having enough time for the projects I wanted to do. 

21 And Moses said, The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month.
22 Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?
23 And the Lord said unto Moses, Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.

Some commentaries I have read blast Moses here for relying on the arm of flesh and doubting the Lord, but I don’t see it that way.  It is clear that Moses is calculating the amount of meat required to feed the camp of Israel for a whole month and is wondering just where that meat is going to come from.  Who wouldn’t do that in his spot?  But it is almost as if Moses goes into problem-solving mode, trying to think of ways he can do his part to help the Lord provide flesh for the people, which reminds me of the brother of Jared in the Book of Mormon who brings a possible solution to the Lord for a problem that has to be solved of how to get light for his barges.

Notice, Moses is no longer asking to die; he’s back in the saddle and engaged in the work, counseling with the Lord.  I’d say that’s a pretty quick recovery.  He’s a pretty spiritually resilient man with the Lord’s help.

Moses comes up with an obvious solution—just slaughter all the camp animals—but the Lord has something else in mind that won’t require that.  And if you notice, the Lord doesn’t tell Moses what He’ll do, so Moses has to go to work and gather the 70 elders and proclaim the promise of meat to Israel without knowing how it will come to pass.  I have to hand it to Moses; that took a lot of faith.   

24 ¶And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the Lord, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.
25 And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.
26 But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.
27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.
28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them.
29 And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!

Next we have a little dust-up because all the 70 elders were supposed to go to the tabernacle to meet with Moses, yet two of them—Eldad and Medad--remained in the camp and prophesied there.  Joshua was all for forbidding Eldad and Medad from prophesying separately from the rest of the 70.  It is likely that he disapproved that they hadn’t come to the tabernacle with the rest when they had been commanded to come and worried it indicated rebellion and worried Eldad and Medad were causing dissention. 

Happily, Moses gives this great line in response—“Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”  It shows us that Moses wanted everyone to enjoy the spiritual gifts and felt Israel would be better off if it could be so. 

It helps to remember that the spirit of prophecy is defined by John in Revelation as the testimony of Jesus.  Moses also knew that if Eldad and Medad had the same spirit as Moses and the other 68, they were prophesying aright and saying the same things as Moses and the other 68 elders.  There would be automatic unity.  It is likely that he realized that if all the camp of Israel could have attained to that spirit of prophecy and testimony, the complaints about the manna would never have happened at all and his own job would be much easier.

Eldad and Medad probably hadn’t made it to the tabernacle because there was someone who needed their prophecy/testimony.  (It would be like a bishop not making it to a priesthood leadership meeting because someone in the ward had a sudden faith crisis and needed counsel.)

That the spirit came upon Eldad and Medad the same as the other 68 elders shows us that the Lord knew who was on Moses’ list and blessed them all, regardless of where they were.  This teaches us that geographical proximity is not required for the Holy Ghost to be meted out.  (I’m assuming they were all previously ordained..)

30 And Moses gat him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
31 ¶And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day’s journey on this side, and as it were a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.
34 And he called the name of that place Kibroth-hattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.
35 And the people journeyed from Kibroth-hattaavah unto Hazeroth; and abode at Hazeroth.

I like that Moses called it “a wind from the Lord.”  It may have been very destructive, blowing down tents and such, but they knew it was from the Lord when they saw it brought all that quail and fulfilled the Lord’s promise they would have meat.  This reminds me that sometimes I can only tell at the end of an experience that it was from the Lord when I can finally see how it fulfilled promises. 

All that meat and the people go absolutely crazy and gather all they can.  You’d think they were starving or they were never going to see meat ever again the way they stayed up 36 hours straight gathering quail.  Except they weren’t starving; they were just greedy.  Intemperate.  Self-indulgent.  Excessive.  Grasping.  Gluttonous. 

We don’t do anything like that, do we?  (Cough.. Black Friday shopping.. cough) 

It says that the person who gathered the least amount gathered ten homers, which is supposedly ten donkey loads.  That’s a lot.  And they spread all those quail out around camp, probably to dry and preserve it. 

What are we to make of v33 where it says there was a very great plague from the Lord, which hit the people while the meat was still in their mouths?  I have to wonder if all the dead meat lying around bred some kind of deadly bacteria or something.  Maybe their efforts to preserve the meat were badly done? 

So they called the place Kibroth-hattaavah, which the footnote says means, “The graves of lust.”  It seems a lot of people died of that plague.  Was getting all that meat worth it if it meant dying from eating it?  No.  Would they have survived if they had been more temperate?  Probably. 

In addition to the danger of complaining, there’s a nice little principle that this teaches us—over-indulging our appetites kills.  I think that’s precisely what the name of the place was supposed to teach—Lust leads to the grave.  Thus, a reminder to keep desires, appetites, and passions within the bounds the Lord has set is only meant to keep us safe, not rain on our parade.

I think this is a very helpful lesson for us in first world countries where there is an over-abundance of food, material goods, and entertainment options.   It’s easier and easier to overindulge and get addicted to all kinds of things, so we all have to learn for ourselves what are those bounds the Lord has set and learn to ration appropriately.  Sure, we’ll look strangely abstemious to people, but if that means we stay alive spiritually, it’s all worth it.

I’m pretty good (though not perfect) at eating moderately, though it requires care.  I try to eat moderate amounts, stopping only when I feel satisfied, which comes before I feel full.  (That is hard at the occasional buffet when there are so many interesting foods to try.)  I also eat desserts rarely, and when I do, I have them in very limited amounts.   I’m sharing this with some trepidation, since it seems like whenever I share successes I tend to lapse into bad behavior afterward..  So I’ll need to take extra care now.. 

I’m not so good at moderation in other things.  I am a bookworm, so I have to ration my reading so that other things get done.  I’ll set a timer so I know when it is time to put my book down.  I have some troubles with reading the internet too much.  Sometimes I’m good, other times I’m not so good.  If I read books or internet too long, I feel really guilty and lazy.  Too much internet in particular makes me feel like I’m wasting my life.  When I find a TV show I like, I may go on a TV-watching marathon, but afterward I feel like it has taken over my mind and that makes me annoyed.  Thankfully that doesn’t happen often. 

How about you?  Where have you managed to institute moderation and how?  Where do you struggle?  What kind of problems have you seen from your over-indulgence?