Life, as much of a cliche as it is to say it, is a journey from point A to B. Along this path we call “Life,” we are prone to ask questions -questions about who we are, where we’re going, why we’re here, etc. Numbers 21 tells the story of Moses (see, I told you last week that we’d be following his story a little further) leading the people of Israel towards the land there God eventually plans for them to settle. But their journey doesn’t go as planned exactly. And despite the fact that everything is taken care of for them supernaturally during this trip and they are no longer enslaved in a country not their own, the Israelites become disgruntled, outspoken, and defiant. Their rallying question becomes:
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (21:5)
But first, a couple things…
There is this belief held in some circles that an ancient text such as the Bible (especially the Pentateuch) is irrelevant to our post-Enlightenment, 21st Century society. I disagree, and find that this passage provides an insight to the human condition, which has unchanged over millenia:
1. Human nature is to become discontent. It doesn’t matter how good or bad a situation, eventually it is never good enough. I have a friend who is a teacher (shock, right?). He would express frustration about our principals always being in his room to speak with students, conduct performance observations, etc. Then the next year we complained about never seeing our principals.
And that’s the thing about discontentment; sometimes it is obvious and sometimes it is stealthy. Someone who in passing poses a question about how _____ can be better (when it is already great) in reality is reflecting a seed of discontent.
2. Human nature is to use hyperbole. To provide context to this section in Numbers: After Moses and the Israelites leave Egypt, Egyptians try to chase them down and end up drowning in the Red Sea. Because they are in the desert, God provides water and sufficient food to sustain them on the journey. And still they express that they are being brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. Sound like anyone you know?
And now to address this week’s question, which in case you forgot it is this:
“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”
What happens when we become impatient, start making accusations (of God, people, etc.), and decide to run off and do our own thing because the journey does not match up with our own perceptions and expectations for what the trip should be like?
What happens when we feel that things have become unfair and we decide to strike out on our own because no one can provide us with the answers we want?
If we use the Israelites as our example, the hardships are unavoidable. They have to go through the difficulty of wilderness in order to get to what is waiting on the other side. Seeing this, God doesn’t remove the wilderness from their path, but he tries to provide creature comforts to make the journey more bearable.
Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them… (21:6)
So then, seemingly out of nowhere, because Israel has questioned God and his servant Moses, poisonous snakes show up. While it is possible that the snakes were a disciplinary action, I don’t believe God is to blame for the snakes showing up for four reasons:
1. There are plenty of examples of others in the Bible who challenge God who do not get bitten by snakes: Jacob (Genesis 32), Elijah (1 Kings 19), Job (whole book…), Jonah (Jonah 4), etc.
2. The culture, not just of Abrahamic bedouins, but of all peoples in those regions, was to attribute everything that happened to some deity. Your crops did well= God. Your crops didn’t do well= God. You found an extra coin in your pouch= God. You stubbed your toe on a rock accidentally= God.
3. It is absolutely normal to stumble upon a large den of snakes in the desert.
4. God does what he has done the whole journey so far and tried to relieve some of the burden for the Israelites. If stumbling upon a snake den was part of the trip, God was simply following his established pattern and the writer after the fact tried to make sense of what happened.
Next week’s installment in the “Questions” series will focus on Gideon and a question everyone has asked at one point or another.