What?! Every single story ramps up the intensity, and you finish this section of the book feeling really disheartened. You might also feel a bit superior. “Surely, I would never act like this,” we say to ourselves as we read. But, the moment you start to think that you would never behave like these Israelites, the stories have worked their magic. You didn’t realize that, in reality, Numbers 11-21 hold up a mirror to the one who reads them. The wilderness rebellion stories function like a cartoon caricature drawing, like the kind you can get at a street fair. The artist looks at your face, takes individual features of your actual appearance, and then magnifies them all out of proportion with the rest of your face. The point isn’t total realism. Rather, it’s trying to highlight something about the human heart and mind, how fickle and short-sighted God’s people can become. Including you.
Who can honestly say they’ve never been ridiculously impatient with God’s timing in their lives? Remember Abraham, who wandered through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. He had his low moments, but in the end, his life was characterized by “faith” in God’s promises despite very difficult circumstances (remember Genesis 15:1-6). In contrast, the people of Israel had more than just divine promises to rely upon. They witnessed the ten plagues and the defeat of Pharaoh in the sea. Yet, these memories quickly faded in the face of hunger, thirst, and an uncertain future. In the end, God’s verdict on Israel and Moses was that they “have no faith” (Numbers 14:11, 20:12). Welcome to the human condition.
We forget to remember. We forget who we really are, and who God has been for us. These stories are an honest portrayal of how you and I actually relate to God in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is why it’s important that all of these really dark stories are followed up by the bizarre narratives about Balaam, the pagan sorcerer, in Numbers 22-24. Unbeknownst to Israel, up in the hills, God is turning the anger and hostility of their enemies into blessings and hope. Even when God disciplines his people in the wilderness, he’s at work behind the scenes to accomplish his ultimate purposes to bless and to save. Remember, this entire story isn’t about how awesome the Israelites are, it’s about the strange and wonderful way that God is going to accomplish his covenant promise to Abraham, to restore divine blessing to all the nations. Whether Israel believes in God’s promise or not, he’s going to fulfill his word.
Take your time through these stories, and ask yourself if you’ve ever thought or acted in similar ways. What would it look like to respond differently the next time you’re tempted to blame God for the difficult circumstances in your life? Allow these narratives to prod you towards a new and deeper level of trust as you journey through your own wilderness.