It’s noteworthy because God immediately rains down fire to hush them up.
God doesn’t always do that. When the Israelites complain that the water is bad in Exodus 15, and that there’s not enough food in Exodus 16, and that there’s not enough water in Exodus 17… each time God patiently gives them what they are whining for.
Here, in Numbers 11, they complain about their hardships. As someone who has spent a good bit of time in the wilderness, I can vouch that life there is generally hard and often complaint-worthy. But God is having none of it: “…when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1).
This is not an isolated incident, either, lest we think God was just in a bad mood that day. God gets angry when the Israelites complain again in Numbers 11, and again in Numbers 20, and again in Numbers 21.
A pattern emerges… Patiently giving them what they want when they complain in Exodus; responding with anger when they complain in Numbers.
The difference is a covenant.
In between Exodus and Numbers comes Moses’ time with God on Mt. Sinai. God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and many other instructions on how Israel is to be God’s people. God, in turn, promises to take care of them. “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” God says, “then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession” (Exodus 19:5).
Think about it like this: A 3-year-old is adopted into a house. During their first year living together, the parents will probably show that child a lot of patience. Rules will be taught and enforced, of course, but it’s expected that the child will take a while to remember them. Also, it will take a while for the child to really know and believe that the parents love him as their own.
Fast forward 7 years. The child is 10. He knows the house rules. He also knows very well that his parents love him and want what’s best for him. When the child acts out now, he’ll probably get quick discipline. Why? Because he knows better.*
And the Israelites, post-covenant, should know better.
So the message here seems to be, “Don’t complain… unless you should.” And sometimes, I think we should. When we are new in our relationship with Christ, then we might complain because we are still learning to trust that God loves us and will take care of us. When something unprecedented happens – like unemployment or the death of a loved one – we complain because we are in uncharted territory. With the Psalms as our model, we cry out to God. It’s perfectly OK.
But sometimes… we should know better.
A lot of times… we should know better.
We are a people of a covenant, just like the Israelites. It’s the new covenant in Jesus Christ: “This cup,” he said at the Last Supper, “is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Through Christ we have forgiveness and eternal life. Through Christ we are God’s children. Through Christ we know that God is good, all the time.
When I complain over something relatively small, I’m acting like I don’t know all that.
But I do. I know better.
So this week, try to complain… less.
When you want to complain, ask yourself: Should I know better?
If it’s a worthy cause, cry out to God like the Psalmists do.
But if not, instead of complaining, remember:
All the time, God is good.
* Credit to the Bible commentary “Interpretation” for this analogy.