The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Four)

We continue today in our discussion of the ancient Jewish people’s grumbling against Moses and God.

Lesson 4: Grumbling Can Greatly Harm Others

Grumbling affects more than the one who grumbles. Through it, infectious negativity is set loose. Even if only a small number grumble, it can still incite fear, negativity, and anger in others.

One of the sadder effects the grumblings in the desert was the heavy toll it took on Moses. The people nearly wore him out. At a particularly low moment, when the people were complaining about the quality of the food, Moses lamented to God,

Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? … I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (Numbers 11:11-15).

Yes, Moses was so dispirited that he preferred to die rather than to carry on. In his weariness he spoke rashly and sinned. As a result, God would exclude him from entering the Promised Land:

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?…

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”

And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:2-14).

Many have pondered the exact nature of Moses’ sin and why the punishment for it was so severe. There are a few explanations posited for the nature of Moses’ sin:

  1. Moses sinned by not following the Lord’s instruction: The Lord instructed Moses to take his staff in hand and bid the rock to bring forth water. He was told to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it—twice. The striking of the rock, while not directed according to the passage in Numbers, does not seem particularly egregious because in another description of this event (see Exodus 17:6) God instructs Moses to strike it. Hence, this explanation may not get to the heart of the matter. The Fathers of the Church (e.g., Jerome) did not see sin in this, even mystically interpreting the double striking of the rock as a sign of the two bars of the cross.
  2. Moses exhibited sinful pride: Moses, having assembled the people, reviles them saying, “Hear now, you rebels.” In a possible flash of pride, he then continues, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Of course, it is not Moses or Aaron who bring forth the water; it is God. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpreted this not as pride on Moses’ part, but rather an indication of Moses’ wavering faith.
  3. Moses sinned by speaking harshly and rashly: Psalm 106 seems to favor this interpretation. They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips (Psalm 106:32-33).

This third explanation leads us back to the heart of our meditation: that grumbling causes great harm, not only to those who grumble but also to others, because it sows seeds of negativity and can incite bitterness and anger. Moses was worn out; as Psalm 106 says, his heart grew bitter. He spoke rashly and reviled the people and he may have yielded to a flash of angry pride.

That God punished him so severely is mysterious to us. Basil the Great used it as an object lesson to us all: “If the just man is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (Preface on the Judgment of God)

Whatever the case, behold what grumbling does. It is a bitter thing and makes others bitter. Be very careful, fellow Christians; we can all exhibit the ugly tendency to draw others into our anger, doubts, dissatisfaction, and fears. Misery loves company. Sharing concerns with a friend is good and necessary, but spreading complaints, grumbling, and murmuring can lead others to fear, doubt, despair, anger, and bitterness. A steady diet of grumbling is deflating for everyone and usually brings more heat than light.

Grumbling seems to be everywhere today. In our Western affluence, we often expect and even demand comfort and perfection. This quickly leads to grumbling and complaining. We are very particular and want things solved quickly and without any real demands being placed on us.

Moses was worn down by the consistent grumbling all around him. Be cognizant of the toll that grumbling takes on others. Practice gratitude, an important antidote to the poison spread by grumbling.


The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Three)

We have been surveying several incidents in which the ancient Jewish people grumbled against Moses and God. We have done so not merely to survey their sins but to learn of our own tendencies to do the same. What makes grumbling so obnoxious is that it comes so soon after astonishing blessings and demonstrations of God’s love for us and His will and power to save us. Trust, it would seem, is something very difficult for us to learn.

Lesson 3: They Grumbled against the Very Rewards of God in the Promised Land.

Today we look at the grumbling that sentenced the ancient Jews to wander in the wilderness for forty years. They forfeited the very blessing they left Egypt to obtain. God had promised them a land of their own, a Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. At the critical moment when God was prepared to deliver it into their hands, they balked; they doubted. In their fear, they grumbled that taking the land might require effort or involve risk. You would never know that God had just delivered them, parting the Red Sea, feeding them with miraculous food, and supplying them with water and even quail. All of this was forgotten in a moment and they doubted God could deliver on His promise.

Let’s recall the incident:

God brought them near the borders of Canaan and through Moses instructed them to survey the land in preparation for taking it. Moses gathered twelve men, one from each tribe, and said to them,

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. (Numbers 13:17-20).

They returned with magnificent fruits, but gave this discouraging report:

“We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:27-29).

Only Joshua and Caleb displayed trusting faith.

Caleb said,

“Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Numbers 13:30).

And Joshua said,

The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Numbers 14: 8-10).

Sadly, the reaction of the group was predictable:

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).

They want to go back to Egypt? Really? Cannot the God who parted the Red Sea deliver the Promised Land? Apparently they don’t think so. We may be shocked at their unbelief but we should recognize that we too are of little faith despite innumerable blessings and signs of God’s love and will to save us. We fret and fear at a moment’s notice when challenges beset us. We wonder, can God come through? We sing hymns of faith at Mass and we recall His deliverances past and present, but any bad news can send us to dark places where we fear and then grumble that God permits any test of us at all.

At this point God has had enough. He says to Moses,

How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:11-12).

Moses intercedes and God “relents” in the most severe of his plans, but God tells him, in essence, that the people are not ready to enjoy His promises.

I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live … none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.

But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it.

Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea (Numbers 14:20-25).

In effect God says, “If you don’t want what I offer, you don’t have to have it. If you consider the cost too high or the effort too great, then don’t bother. Go on living in the desert and fleeing your enemies. If you don’t want my help or what I offer, then enjoy the wilderness; it’s all yours. By the way, I see that the Amalekites and the Canaanites are nearby, You’d better start running. Retreat to the Red Sea!”

If we refuse to trust in God, our fears will rule us. The only remedy to the enslaving effects of fear is trust and abandonment to God’s will. Our sinful flesh wants control, not trust. It wants to be confident on its own terms, not God’s.

For many today, the spiritual warfare necessary to obtain Heaven is altogether too much effort. Perhaps we instinctively know that it will involve giving up some of our favorite sins or confronting our fears and sinful drives. Instead of zeal for the sake of the joy of Heaven before us, we yield to sloth (sorrow or aversion to the good things God is offering us). The battle seems too costly, the price too high. We begin to prefer the desert of this world to what God offers. We do this even knowing that this world is a sorrowful exile, a valley of tears. Heaven seems to be just too much trouble and our passions too strong to conquer. Never mind that God promises sufficient grace to win the spiritual battle. In fear, we doubt His power despite the evidence of countless saints who have overcome.

Here, too, God is in essence saying, “If you don’t want what I’m offering, you don’t have to have it. You want the desert? It’s all yours.” Our response is often to grumble saying that God is not fair or that He should not challenge us or demand any effort of us. We claim that our fears are His fault due to the challenges involved, rather than our fault due to our lack of trust.

Thus our grumbling leads to fumbling and to forfeiting our blessings—all because we will not trust God. Scripture warns,

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put me to the test though they had seen my works. Forty years I endured that generation and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray and they do not know my ways.” Therefore, I swore in my anger, “They shall not enter my rest” (Psalm 95:7-11).

Truth be told, we who would put God to the test are ourselves being tested: are we cowardly or courageous? Will we engage the battle or just sue for peace with the world? Only the courageous will inherit the Promised Land; the cowards are condemned to die in and with the world they love more than Heaven.

St. Paul also warns,

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. 13No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10: 1-13).

So do not grumble. Do not fear. Engage the battle! God’s arm is not shortened; His grace is sufficient. Trust Him who is able to save. The choice is yours, but if you do not, your lot will be to live in the desert constantly fleeing from your enemies. It is clear: to grumble is to fumble. To be negative is to negate our faith; it is to block our blessings.

Count your blessings and count on God!

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson Two)

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!

The Grumblings in the Wilderness Have Much to Teach Us (Lesson One)

Here in the last full week of Lent prior to Holy Week we do well to ponder the grumblings of the ancient Hebrew people in the desert, for their grumblings are often ours as well. We are reading these passages in the Office of Readings just now, so it is the mind of the Church that we should meditate on them. The ancient Hebrews grumbled in many ways, and it will take us several days to consider them. We should note that fear and a lack of trust are at the heart of most of their grumbling.

Lesson 1: They Grumbled in the Very Midst of a Miracle Yes, they grumbled even while leaving Egypt. As they fearfully beheld the Egyptian army in pursuit of them they complained to Moses:

Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, “Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14:11-12).

Recall that God had worked signs and wonders for them in Egypt through the plagues He inflicted on their captors. Remember also the miracle of Passover. Finally, recall the astonishing truth that Pharaoh not only let them go but the Egyptians paid them to leave, giving them a great deal gold and silver prior to their departure (see Ex 3:21).

So here they are in the midst of a miraculous deliverance and yet they grumble. Things have not changed, my friends. We, too, are blessed over and over again but will grumble at the slightest thing.

Their fear and ours is not without sin, a sin rooted in a lack of trusting faith. God has shown over and over a will to save them and a capacity to deliver them. In their fear, though, they grumble and vent their anger at Moses. Despite countless blessings, we, too, often grumble at the slightest inconvenience or setback. Fear is at the root of most of this unjust anger, and at the root of most of this fear is a failure to trust God.

Surely God has not brought them this far just to leave them, but they are not convinced. So easily do we fear despite how good God has been to us. We who are Christians are clearly told that even our suffering is a gift, albeit in a strange package: All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).

In their grumbling they declare that they would rather live as slaves than die as free children of God. This is a slap in face of God, who has offered them the astonishing gift of deliverance. It would seem that they seek relief, not true healing. Healing takes guts and requires courageous change.

We also often seek cheap grace—relief rather than courageous healing and the responsibilities that come with being free children of God. In the face of persecution or loss, we too easily prefer to be a slave to worldly notions and demands rather than freely and manfully resisting, trusting that God will deliver us even at the cost of our livelihood or our very life.

The martyrs and confessors of the faith rose to testify against such grumbling, fear, and despair. They courageously, even joyfully, died for Christ knowing that a greater blessing would be theirs. They endured unspeakable tortures and yet we can barely endure being laughed at, disapproved of, or scorned.

Finally, to all of us whose trust in God flags even after centuries under His care, to all of us who cry out to God even after a lifetime of blessings, He asks this piercing question: “Why do you cry out to me?” (Ex 14:15) Through Moses, God says to us, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).

After calming a storm at sea, Jesus posed a similar question: Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)

When God asks a question, we ought to answer it, carefully and prayerfully. St. Paul warned: Do not grumble, as some of them did (1 Cor 10:10). No, prayerfully ponder this question: “Why are you so afraid?” God has something to teach us.

I do believe Lord, help my unbelief (Mk 9:24).

Tomorrow we will ponder more of the grumblings in the wilderness.