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), and 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. They become world class complainers. 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:
Israel criticizes God’s provision: “Who will give us meat to eat? (Num. 11:4)
The LORD sends quail from the sea and the people foolishly eats until they are sick; therefore, the LORD strikes them with a very great plague
Miriam and Aaron speak out about Moses’ choice of a wife: “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2)
The LORD calls them out and inflicts Miriam with leprosy.
Israel responds to the negative report of the twelve spies: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” (Num. 14:2-3)
The LORD promises that the carcasses of all the complainers shall fall in the wilderness, everyone from twenty years old and above, except for Joshua and Caleb.
Leaders criticize Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership: “You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation is holy, everyone of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (Num. 16:2)
The LORD splits open the ground to swallow up Korah and all the men of Korah along with their households.
Israel blame Moses and Aaron for the consequences of their own obedience: “You have killed the people of the LORD” (Num. 16:41)
The LORD sends a plague and fourteen thousand seven hundred perish.
Israel responds to their lack of water at Kadesh: “And the people contended with Moses and spoke, saying: “If only we had died when our brethren died before the LORD! Why have you brought up the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our animals should die here? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink.” (Num. 20:2)
God promises to provide water through the Rock, commanding Moses merely to speak to it. When Moses acts in anger and strikes the rock instead of speaking to the rock as the LORD had commanded, the LORD prohibits Moses from entering into the land of promise.
Israel gripes about having to take the detour by Way of the Red Sea to go around Edom: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” (Num. 21:5)
The LORD sends fiery serpents among the people, and they bite the people. Many die, and when they cry out to Moses to ask God to remove the snakes, God instead provides a bronze snake on a pole, lifted up. Everyone who is bitten and looks up to the bronze serpent lives.
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.”
Complaining and unbelief diminish Israel’s soul and stymie their intellectual growth. A life of complaining becomes their new normal.
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