There are many parts of the Bible that I wish I could have experienced firsthand. I would love to meet individuals like Abraham, Esther, Samuel, Rahab, David, and so many others. I would love to be in the physical presence of Jesus, and witness the great miracles found in scripture. One part of the great story, however, of which I would not have desired to be part is the Exodus. It is not only that a lifetime of wandering in the desert would have been horrific, but also mostly that I cannot tolerate whining. Perhaps it is because I am the mother of two small children. Perhaps it is because I have spent my entire life in the church. Whatever the reason, I find myself completely frustrated with the entire community of Israel throughout much of the book of Exodus. I wonder if God felt that same way.
The story of the exodus is really a story of God’s mercy. Moses is clearly the first recipient of this mercy as his young life is spared through the ingenuity and wisdom of his mother and sister. As Moses’ story progresses it is clear that he is part of God’s greater plan of mercy for the Hebrews. God chooses Moses as the one to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt and into the land God promised them. Their journey toward freedom is bumpy, and desperately needs God’s miraculous participation. In Exodus 14, the Israelites experience their first great miracle as a community. While being closely pursued by an army, excessive in size compared to the vagabond band of slaves they were pursuing, the Israelites miraculously cross the parted Red Sea. Their pursuers are not so fortunate, and the Israelites are free to run. I believe that were it not for all of the imperfections of the human condition, the great story would have ended here. It does not, however. Instead, the story soon takes a series of turns that lead straight to the desert, and in and out of God’s favor.
According to Exodus 15, it only took three days for Israel’s praise to turn to complaint. After traveling three days to find water, the water they find is not drinkable. Thirsty and discouraged, they grumble. Moses cries out to God and God provides drinkable water. Now, it would seem that after experiencing such miraculous provision by God twice in just a few days that the Israelites’ faith would be at a highpoint. Instead chapters 16 and 17 record the continuation of their pattern of doubt and complaint, even in the face of great divine provision. Chapter 16 takes place a couple of months into their journey. This time the Israelites are hungry. This time they do more than just grumble. They accuse Moses of bringing them into the desert to die. Forgetting apparently the hardships of slavery after just a couple of months, they remember their time in Egypt as a time when their bellies were full and they had plenty to eat. Again, God hears them, and provides for their need.
The timing of Exodus 17 is not completely clear. It is probably not long after “the manna and quail” miracle. Given their short memories, it could have been as soon as a few days later, but we do not know for sure. Again they are thirsty. Again they grumble to Moses, this time so severely that Moses believes he might be stoned. The Lord, again, hears their grumbling and provides water, this time using Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Moses named the place of the miracle Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God as to whether the Lord was with them or not.
I am admittedly hard on the Israelites. They were desperate, after all, and hungry and thirsty. From their vantage point, there was much uncertainty in their future. They were putting their faith in something they could not see with their only tangible representative, Moses, being someone they were not sure they could trust. Their journey taught them that God would provide, but the hunger and thirst of their children was probably more then they could bear. They must have often felt alone and sincerely wondered if the Lord was with them or not.
There are a couple of helpful lessons I think that we can learn from the whining Israelites. First of all, it is human to feel the need to whine, grumble, and complain. Basic physical and emotional needs drive us, and we are not satisfied to not have those met. Babies, after all, instinctively cry out to have their basic needs met. Our propensity to whine, however, does not eliminate or overtake God’s propensity to provide. God doesn’t need our grumbling to provide for our needs. All God desires is our love and trust. God does the rest.
Secondly, Jesus Christ is with us in a way that the Israelites could not fathom. Although I believe that God expected and deserved the faith and trust of Israel, it was not until the incarnation of Christ that humanity really experienced God with us. God became like us to know us better, and so that we would not doubt the presence of the Lord as the Israelites did. I still want to shake the Israelites throughout much of Exodus or at least put them in time-out. Perhaps my frustration with them is the part of myself I see in their story. May the abiding love of Jesus Christ move us from our places of selfishness and fear to a place of awareness of God’s great mercy and provision.