In yesterday’s post we pondered how the Jewish people, despite having witnessed signs and wonders during the plagues in Egypt, failed to trust in God and to call upon Him confidently when they saw the Egyptian army in pursuit. Today we consider how they grumbled about the food that God provided for their sustenance.
Lesson 2: They Grumbled against the Very Food of Salvation
The Hebrew word often translated as grumbling or murmuring is lō·nū or liyn. Its root meaning is simply “to stop by” (usually overnight). More fully, it means to overstay or wear out one’s welcome by complaining (all night). It means to be obstinate and demanding, like a thankless guest who feels entitled and complains about the accommodations he has been freely offered. Whatever the host has generously provided is never enough; it is the wrong sort of food or the wrong kind of room. The basic picture is that of an annoying guest who wears out his host with complaint after complaint.
We see a lot of this in the grumbling we will focus on today. The ancient Jews had just been delivered by God in the most astonishing way. He had parted the Red Sea and led them through while the waters stood like a wall to their right and left. In the morning watch, the Lord, from the pillar of fire, cast a glance on the stubbornly pursuing Egyptian army and threw them into confusion as the waters came back upon them (see Exodus 14). Complete victory and deliverance was theirs! A hymn of praise broke out among them. One would think they would never have doubted God again.
Within three days, though, they seem to have completely forgotten. They wear Moses out with their complaints: Where is our water? Where is our food? Can God feed us in this desert? Did you lead us out here to die? We don’t like this food.
God, too, is “worn out” by their complaints, and “grieved” by their lack of faith.
This is not merely an attack on the ancient Jewish people. We do this today frequently, especially those of us who live in the affluent West. It is hard to argue that God has not blessed us with amazing abundance and comfort. Instead of being profoundly grateful and trusting, though, we can turn on a dime and yield to fear and grumbling, often about the littlest of things. Our problems are often “First World” ones: my cellphone is on the blink, my taxes are too high, I’m having a hard time paying off my credit card bill. We do suffer, and some of our sorrows can be crushing, but hasn’t God consistently and abundantly blessed us? Yet we who have the most are so often the least grateful, the quickest to complain; we are frequently fearful and anxious.
Let’s look at the details of some of the grumbling of the ancient Jews so as to learn more about our own. We begin a mere three days after the miracle at the Red Sea:
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet (Exodus 15:22-25).
Just three days after the miracle of miracles they doubt. In their fear they grumble. Why do they fear? They have seen how God can deliver, but still they doubt.
Instead of crying out in trust, they grumbled against Him. It is one thing to say, “Lord, we trust you. You have blessed us in the past and so in confidence we cry out to you, knowing that you will hear us.” But the text says that they grumbled. In other words, they were petulant, doubtful, and demanding.
The Book of James says, You have not because you ask not (James 4:2). It does not say, “You have not, so go ahead and grumble, doubt, and complain like an obnoxious, presumptuous, demanding guest.” No, call out to God, who loves you and has shown his solicitude a thousand times over. Ask him for what you need, confidently and humbly.
Next, regarding the food, they sink even lower. Remember that they were given a miraculous food to sustain them. In their continuing lack of faith, they grumbled against Moses and the Lord. The Scriptures report,
Then they set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the sons of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The sons of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the LORD’S hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into the wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:1-3).
What more can we say about their lack of trust? They steadfastly refuse to trust that God, who saved them, will sustain them. But God, who is ever merciful, does not forsake or reject them. He says to Moses,
And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.’” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over till the morning.” But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted …. The people of Israel ate the manna forty years, till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan (Num 11:1 ff).
Here is a miraculous food from Heaven. They called it “manna,” which does not mean “bread” but rather “what is it?” This name attests to it mysterious character. It was also called the “bread of Heaven” and the “bread of angels.” The point is, it is miraculous. It is like bread. It can be kneaded and baked like bread, but it is not mere bread—it is something more. It points to the Eucharist. Without this bread they will perish. With it, they will be sustained unto the Promised Land. So too for us and the Eucharist!
Yet despite this miracle they grumble. They consider ordinary what God has chosen to save them. They prefer the worldly food of slaves to the miraculous food of God’s own children! The text says,
The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? “We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this wretched manna” (Numbers 11:4-6).
This is a horrible insult and a rejection of God’s great gift, the heavenly bread. It alone can sustain them for their journey through the desert to the Promised Land. They prefer satisfying their palates to what their soul requires. They want what is tasty not what is necessary. They prefer melons, leeks, cucumbers, and stews to what is necessary and is most able to sustain them. They will even long for slavery so as to be able to please their palates. They will forsake the freedom of the Children of God, sell their very birthright, for a mess of pottage.
I have written more on this topic here: Melons and Leeks or the Bread From Heaven? To summarize, does this not sadly resemble the many Catholics who will forsake the Bread of Life in the Eucharist to run to some denomination with a plexiglass pulpit, a potted plant in front of it, a charismatic preacher, and a contemporary Christian rock band? Granted, we should work hard to ensure our preaching is more anointed and our liturgy more understood, but nothing—nothing—is more valuable than the Bread come down from Heaven, who presents Himself to us in the humblest and most imperfect of settings.
Too many today say, “I am not being fed in the way I like. I am not being entertained. I do not find nourishing or relevant the liturgy that sustained the ancients.” In other words, “I want the melons and leeks of popular culture. Take that wretched manna out of here.”
God was so displeased with this rejection and with the grumbling against His manna that He sent punishments to them:
And the people became impatient and grumbled on the way. 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 we loathe this wretched manna Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people (Num 21:4-6).
Pay attention, fellow Catholics. God is not pleased with our demands to make His manna more pleasing to our palates. He does not accept our demands that liturgy should conform to modern standards of entertainment. Our most necessary food is not that which merely pleases our palates; it is that which our souls most need. The best medicines are, at times, hard to swallow, but they are the best, for they are God’s medicine.
Are we listening? These ancient grumblings are too easily ours! Let God feed you in the way He sees fit. It is not for you, the patient, to say to the doctor, “Here is the medicine that pleases me.” Take the medicine offered. Acknowledge that the Doctor knows more than you do.
Grumbling leads to stumbling and to foolish falls. Take the manna; take your medicine. If it seems ordinary, fine; God works in humble ways to save us.
Stop grumbling. Stop insisting. Submit to God and He will save you, but it will be on His terms not yours.
More tomorrow on the grumbling that may cost us the promised land of Heaven itself!