Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 20, 2009)
The Book of Numbers continues the account of the formation of the community of God’s people. Our present passage makes clear that progressing from liberated slaves to being at home in the promised land was slow and difficult.
On the surface, we read here of “murmuring” led by people labeled “rabble” who “had a strong craving” (Num. 11:4) for all the great food they remembered from Egypt (as slaves!). They had grown tired of the manna God provided.
On a deeper level, though, what’s at stake is their identity as God’s people. God intervened to rescue the people from slavery (a time of great suffering and trauma, despite their later nostalgia for Egyptian food). However, God’s agenda was not simply to provide freedom from slavery and happiness ever after. Rather, God wants a community that might bless all the families of the Earth.
Growth into maturity
What might it take for such a community to be an agent of genuine healing? It would take growth into maturity as people who know how to depend on God’s love.
This growth into maturity stands as the central challenge for the people as they move toward the promised land. The “rabble” resists such growth — with terrible consequences.
In the midst of this struggle for Israel’s soul, Moses agonizes. God has called him to lead the people in this growth process, but the people challenge him because they want meat now.
Throughout the story Moses’ humanity shines forth. He does agonize, even to the point of wishing simply to die and be shed of his impossible task. And he complains, bitterly. Remarkably, God responds and grants Moses help in the form of a body of elders to share leadership.
That God responds favorably to Moses’ complaints shows us that it is not a problem to voice our fears and frustrations. The “rabble,” more fundamentally, rejected God’s entire agenda of moving the community from the injustices of Egypt toward authentic transformation into a faithful community.
We may draw a challenge and comfort from this story. God is relentless in pushing God’s people toward fulfilling our true humanity. This requires a bedrock trust in God. Yet, God does honor our struggles and will provide for us on the journey.
Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.