I’m currently working on a sermon for this coming Sunday (yes! I’m preaching!), and the Revised Common Lectionary has, as it’s Old Testament reading, portions of Numbers 11:4–29. The reading itself largely focuses on the appointing of the seventy elders of Israel to help Moses administer justice and govern Israel. The Spirit of the Lord comes to rest on the tent where the elders are gathered, and the seventy approved elders prophesy.
But two Israelites — Eldad and Medad — who are not on the list, and not in the tent, suddenly find themselves prophesying too. Joshua complains — “My lord, make them stop!” And Moses shows some magnanimity. After all, he knows God better than everyone in this story. “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in Israel could prophesy.” So, Eldad and Medad join the club. Even though they haven’t been “approved.”
In the midst of this reading, and left out of the RCL text (because the focus of these readings is on the Spirit of God going farther and wider than we expect or even want), are the details of Israel’s grumbling. This all begins with Israel thing and complain that the food in the wilderness — manna from heaven collected every morning save on the sabbath — lack variety. It isn’t as tasty as what they had in Egypt.
Because if it isn’t one thing, it is another with God’s people.
It’s at this point both God and Moses both get angry — God with Israel and Moses with God. “What did I do to deserve being saddled with this people? Can I do this alone?” Moses asks.
And God plots a plot to satisfy the “strong cravings” (Num 11:4) of some of the “rabble” of Israel. And the passages hints at more than just a little anger and even vengeance in God’s plan:
18 And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19 You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’” 21 But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month! ’ 22 Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” 23 And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not. (Numbers 11:18–23 ESV)
One of my theories about the Book of Numbers — where God is at God’s absolute worst, always angry, never particularly happy with Israel, and always visiting some kind of plague or disaster in a fit of pique upon Israel — is that God and Israel are busy working out their relationship here. (This theory is not explicit in scripture itself, but it is how I read the torah.)
God has done this marvelous thing, yanking Israel out of Egypt after hearing their suffering and remembering his promises, and discovers rather late that Israel isn’t particularly grateful or even all that happy about its liberation. They whine. They complain. They make an idol from their golden jewelry and madly dance around while Moses is busy up on the mountain receiving the teaching, thinking he may never come back again. After that, Israel’s God is really, really, really angry at Israel. He even has to be talked out of annihilating Israel and starting over again with the descendants of Moses (Exodus 32) when Moses tells him that he will look bad in front of the Egyptians and everybody.
But God is not happy. And Numbers is a reflection of that deep unhappiness. Breathe wrong in the presence of God, and BAM! You are smoted deader than a drowned Egyptian Pharaoh.
In effect, God has to learn how to be God. Not the God of all creation, which he has been since the beginning and can do without much thought, but the God of a very specific people — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God has to learn who we are, and how to deal with us. God has to learn how to have a relationship with us, what it means to be in a relationship with us. (Some call this “process theology,” but I think it’s just a very faithful reading of the Bible.) And slowly, God begins to realize that the people he has called are not really capable of very much, certainly not the kind of faithfulness he’d like to see from his rescued and redeemed people.
From Sinai to Calvary, God slowly surrenders to this people he has called. He surrenders his assumptions, he surrenders his expectations, and he even completely surrenders his power to this ungrateful, misguided, and idolatrous people. In this, God’s wrath is slowly transformed into a self-giving love that willingly lives and dies with us, convicting us of our sin far more forcefully than any angry judgment ever could.
This is what is means to be Israel, to have struggled with God and prevailed. Not because we’re stronger than God, but because God has utterly surrendered to us, thrown the contest in our favor.
Getting back to the reading, the encounter between Moses and God in Numbers 11 brings to mind, at least for me, the feeding miracles of the Gospels.
There are some significant similarities. If we look at the feeding miracles in Mark 6:30–44 and 8:1–10 (because this is the year of Mark for the RCL), we see both are prompted by the need of the people who have gathered and followed Jesus and his disciples into desolate places, much like Israel wandering in the wilderness. In Mark 6, the disciples want the crowd sent away so they can forage, or buy food, for themselves, something similar to Israel’s complaining about the lack of good food, the food they had back in Egypt, on their wanderings.
In all three instances, the disciples — like Moses — wonder at the logistics of feeding so many people in such a desolate place. “Where will we find the money?” they ask in Mark 6. And because they didn’t get it the first time, they ask again in Mark 8, “How can we do this in a desolate place without bread?” Moses asked God if flocks and herds would be slaughtered, or all the fish of the sea be caught to feed God’s miserable people in the wilderness.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.” (Numbers 11:23 ESV)
And just as in the Gospels, it comes to pass — quail are brought on the wind, so many quail that Israel has piles and piles of meat to eat. They have a feast, and God follows it all up … with a “very great plague.” (Num 11:33)
It’s an abundance that God gives Israel, quail meat running out of Israel’s nose, more meat than even whining Israel knows what to do with. But it’s a wrathful, angry, wasteful abundance, an abundance given in spite, to show the people who God is.
And that’s the difference with the Gospel feedings. Yes, there is a similar overflowing abundance. In Mark 6, the disciples show Jesus five loaves and bread and two fish, and twelve whole baskets of leftovers remain after feeding five thousand men. (Mark 6:43–44) In Mark 8, seven baskets of broken pieces are collected. (Mark 8:8)
But most importantly, the people are fed out of a sense of compassion (Mark 6:34 and 8:2), and not spite or anger. They don’t complain about being hungry and thirsty, not the way Israel did in the wilderness, at least we don’t have them complaining in scripture. This is not about God and the people so much as it is about Jesus and the disciples. “See what you can do when you trust me and have me in your midst?” In both Mark 6 and Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” Unlike Moses, who wondered where sheep and fish might come from — because there was none on hand — the disciples have a little bit of bread (and fish, in Mark 6), which Jesus blesses, breaks, and then gives to his disciples to then give to the people.
“And they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mark 6:42 and Mark 8:8) something Israel is not as God piles meat before them and then sickens them. Neither God nor Israel is much satisfied with quail coming out their noses.
But God and Israel are satisfied with bread and fish.
I think this is how God has finally learned to deal with us. To have us take a little of what we have, to bless it knowing that Jesus is still in our midst (always in our midst), and then pass it around. All are fed. And satisfied. This is the miracle. Not meat magically appearing from nowhere, falling upon us like rain, filling us and then some until we are sick of it and can eat no more.