When the Hebrews were set free after over 400 years in slavery, they were a people without identity and structure. They had always belonged to someone else and followed rules of life set by their masters. But now they were gathered together and led out into the wilderness (Exodus). Freedom is good, but what’s next?
To the people who had no identity and structure, except for the scattered stories of the glorious past, God renewed their identity as God’s beloved people. God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was now their God as well. The absence of 400 years is not addressed, but to people who were experiencing freedom for the first time, they were overjoyed he showed up when he did.
At Mt. Sinai, God gave them the Ten Commandments and directed them to live at the base of the mountain for a year. The Ten Commandments was a formal declaration and a contract that sealed God to his people (Commandment 1-4), and the social rules of behavior for people new to it (Commandment 5-10).
And so for a year, living under the mountain of the Lord, the former slaves became accustomed to both religious structure and social structure. They were already accustomed to obedience and devotion, and so worship part was easier at first. But they worked on personal goals and planning for the future, of work and money, and with relationships with one another, and social structure of leadership and governance.
But the obedience and devotion toward God grew in tension with self-centered living. The two structures stood in tension.
We understand too well the grumbling of the Israelites in Number 11:1. It had been a year of peace and comfort. Free from bondage, of being ordered around with threats hanging over them, they were living a life of freedom, and relative plenty. Every morning, they walked out to find heavenly grain (manna) surrounding them. Every morning, they had the freedom to decide what to do for themselves. It was peaceful. It was plentiful. But then, it wasn’t enough. We are familiar with this pattern, aren’t we?
People complained against Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (v.4-6). The complaint itself is suspect. As slaves, it’s doubtful they ate too much meat and fish – except for leftovers they fought over. And so they are painting the most favorable picture of the past in order to complain about the present. In this, they are putting a mirror on our own complaints against God. We are critical of their ungrateful behavior. Their clothes and sandals never wore out. They received cloud covering during day from the scorching sun and fiery pillar covering at night from the desert chill. And every morning, they received plenty of food to last the whole day while doing nothing to deserve it. They were receiving all of that for free! And yet, they found things to complain about. Ingrates.
But that’s a reflection on us. We really are quick to blame God for all thing things that don’t go our way. Or things we don’t have. And we point to all the blessings others have – the comparison game that’s never ending. But like the Israelites in the desert, we are quick to forget the basic protection and provision that God offers to us, by grace, every day. And that angered God (v.1). So he should be.
It’s a lesson for us to really, seriously, count our blessings. And play our comparison game a little bit differently – not with envious eyes toward those that have, but with compassionate eyes toward those that don’t.