“The Israelites Gathering Manna” by Ercole de’ Roberti, probably 1490s
The Israelites, with Moses as their guide, were making their way from slavery and oppression in Egypt, to freedom in the land God promised them. The journey was long and along the way God provided for them.
At the beginning of Numbers, chapter 11, we hear complaining.
A group of people, who Numbers calls “the rabble,” complain about the food God has been providing for them. Every morning this stuff called manna appeared and people gathered as much as they could use that day. Manna wasn’t fancy … but it was what they needed to make it through each day.
7The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. (Numbers 11.7-8 NIV)
The “rabble” lost their taste for manna.
4The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11.4-6 NIV)
This is outrageous!
This is the craziest complaining!
There are two big problems:
- They are craving fish as they make their way though a desert wilderness. Because of the nature of the wilderness (dry, not much water around) coming across fish is a long shot. They are craving something that would be pretty much impossible to find in their present situation.
- They remember life in Egypt as better than it really was. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost … the cucumbers … onions … garlic …” It was so tasty … It was so, free.
Free fish – what were they thinking?
They were slaves in Egypt!
Maybe the Egyptians fed the Israelites, but no way was that food free. Those fish and vegetables cost an awful lot. It cost freedom. It cost dignity. It cost time … energy. They paid for that fish with their lives and their children’s lives. Had they forgotten about forced labor? Had they forgotten Pharaoh’s hard heart and heavy hand? Had they forgotten the whole point of why they were where they were … why they were doing what they were doing … why they were eating strange food, that manna, in the first place? They were on their way to a better place. Manna was just holding them over until they entered the land of freedom … the land they believed would flow with milk and honey.
They escaped a brutal life.
They were on their way to something better.
They were complaining about food that was more free than anything they ever tasted before.
It wasn’t just the “rabble” complaining.
“Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents.” (Numbers 11.10 NIV)
God’s people seemed to be rejecting God’s protection and generosity.
The whole idea seems so ridiculous. How could they forget? How could they reject the God who had done so much for them … who had brought them so far?
Their complaining rubbed God the wrong way and annoyed Moses. Actually, the Bible says it in a more intense and concerning way – “God was angry … Moses was troubled.” (“Troubled” might be an understatement.)
Moses had it up to here.
Moses asked the Lord,
“Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Numbers 11.11-15 NIV)
Moses has this larger than life reputation, but Moses is not Superman … he is very human … his is painfully human. As obnoxious as the Israelite’s complaining can be, Moses can complain with the best of them.
God’s response is encouraging for Moses, but troubling for the Israelites.
16The Lord said to Moses: “Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.
18“Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The Lord heard you when you wailed, “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!” Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. 19You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, 20but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’”
21But Moses said, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ 22Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” 23The Lord answered Moses, “Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” (Numbers 11.16-15 NIV)
Complaining. Losing focus. Rejecting this God who rescued them and has provided so much for them. A leader who seems like he is on the edge of completely losing it. And this God who seems completely put off when these people he loves reject his provision.
What a mess!
24So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and had them stand around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied—but did not do so again.
26However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp.
27A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”
28Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”
29But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp. (Numbers 11.24-30 NIV)
That young man … Joshua underestimated the Spirit God poured out on those elders.
Moses wasn’t interested in stopping Eldad and Medad. The people Moses had been called to serve were more protective of his role than Moses, himself, was. Moses wasn’t insecure about his share of the spirit. He didn’t have much interest in protecting his position as lone prophet. Moses seemed to like the idea of God’s spirit resting on other people. Maybe he was just relieved to have someone share the responsibility of leadership and communicating God’s word. Moses seems to be onto something … the Spirit of God isn’t a limited resource. The Spirit of God isn’t something people can tun off or on, boss around, or contain.
Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the fulfillment of Moses’ longing (“O, that the Lord would put his Spirit on all people”) and what was spoken by the prophet Joel;
‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2.17-18 NIV)
This is the heart of Pentecost … It is core to our understanding of who we are as disciples … it is central to our understanding of the church. God’s Spirit is poured out on his children … God gives people a share … responsibility … power for the work of ministry … God gives us agency for sharing the good news of Jesus and the promise of God’s kingdom.
When Lillian Daniel, a pastor and writer, went to her daughter’s elementary school musical, she noticed something in the printed program – a sentence that explained,
“This musical was originally written for 15 actors, but it has been adapted to accommodate our cast of 206.”
The musical was what you imagine a musical with 206 parts would be like – long and chaotic. Lillian realized that musical could be an example for the church. She says:
The church is called to be like the volunteer geniuses behind the elementary school musical that took a play with 15 parts and creatively made room for 206 … we take a task that we could simply pay someone to do, and we divide it into fifteen parts so that everyone has a job. Is it efficient? No. Not if all you care about is getting the job done.
But in the church we should care less about getting the job done and more about the people doing it. We are not in the efficiency business. We are in the business of making disciples. We want to offer as many people as possible the chance to know Christ in service and in community. (Lillian Daniel, “This Odd and Wondrous Calling” pp. 115-116)
So often we can be like that young man, or even like Joshua, trying to guard and protect the movement of the Spirit … we want the Spirit to move through particular people in specific ways … Maybe we need to be more like Moses and long for more people to be involved? Maybe we need to be more like the people behind the elementary school musical who figured out how to include 206 kids?
As Jesus’ disciples, God has given each of us a share of the Spirit … how can the church … how can we … create space for each of us to use these gifts?