The land of Canaan provides the womb in which the patriarchs of Israel were born while Egypt provides an incubator, physically, morally, and racially, for the newborn nation to grow. Noted theologian Paul Benware describes this Egyptian incubator:
“First, it protected Israel physically. Although the Egyptian army was unaware of it, they were guarding Israel against countless kings and robber bands that could have wiped out this young nation in a matter of hours. Second, Egypt shielded Israel morally. Although Egypt may not have been known for its righteousness, it was superior to the wicked Canaanites. By removing Israel from the degrading influence these perverse Canaanite people. God was preserving His people from moral failure, which surely would have come if they had been left in Canaan. Third, Egypt secured Israel’s racial purity. Israel would certainly have intermarried with the Canaanites (as Genesis 34 reveals), but they would not intermarry with the Egyptians. The Egyptians looked down on the Israelites because of their occupation of shepherding (46:34), an this was a key factor in keeping the two peoples apart” (emphasis added).
In God’s timing He brings His people out of Egypt into the wilderness. In the wilderness this toddler nation, stripped and alone with God, begins its walk of faith. It is in the wilderness that Israel discovers that sin’s hold upon them is greater than their enslavement to Egypt. Animal sacrifice and rules and regulations cannot remove this tyrant. They fail again and again.
The book of Numbers highlights a number of complaining episodes and their consequences:
The Apostle Paul refers to Israel’s complaining (as well as to Israel’s lusting after evil things, their idolatry, sexual immorality, and unbelief) as examples for us all, “Now these things became our examples . . . Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the end of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:6, 13). Prior to their complaining the entire nation of Israel had experienced God’s protection during the ten plagues, the opening of the Red Sea from their crossing and the destruction of the Egyptian army and the leadership of the cloud by day and fire by night. They had a history with God. Their liberation created an unfamiliar new normal. And they didn’t like it!
Although God frees Israel from Egyptian slavery, their slave worldview shackles them still. Therefore, the wilderness is God’s appointed place of liberation. Instead of aligning themselves with God and cooperating with His maturation process, Israel complains against God and His servants.
Israel would not trust God with what they saw or what they couldn’t understand. Slavery of mind does that. And it manifests itself in complaining. Complaining, therefore, is a symptom of unbelief, of entertaining a small view of God and wrong expectations. Israel would continue taking baby steps, with more falling down than actual walking until they learn to trust God with what they see and with what they don’t understand. Complaining is the mouth’s response to a heart attitude.
Francis Jeffrey, a Scottish judge from a past century, ascribes complaining to a small-souled person, “The tendency to whining and complaining may be taken as the surest sign [or] symptom of little souls and inferior intellects.”
Unbelief diminishes Israel’s soul and stymies their intellectual growth. A life of complaining becomes their new normal.