The scene: Israel has a working tabernacle, the tribes are organized and prepared to leave Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, this road trip goes south quickly. Numbers 11-21 contains seven narratives about Israel’s rebellion as they journey through the wilderness. These narratives tell you a great deal about the dark side of humanity, but also the covenant faithfulness of God (even when the Israelites don’t know it).
Once the people leave Mt. Sinai in Numbers 10, things go terribly wrong. Every story to follow begins with a moment of Israelite insurrection: the people complain or rebel or grumble.
“And the people complained about their hardships.” (11:1) “And the rabble among them had greedy desires… and said ‘Who will give us meat?!’” (11:4)
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses.” (12:1)
“And all the community raised their voice… and grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (14:1-2)
“And Korah… with Nathan and Abiram… with two hundred and fifty leaders of the community… rose up against Moses.” (16:1-3)
“And the entire community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.” (16:41)
“And the people quarreled with Moses.” (20:3)
“And the people spoke against God and Moses.” (21:5)
That’s a lot of angry, grumpy people. Each story highlights a different type of rebellion that starts for different kinds of reasons. It’s worth whipping out a colored pencil or highlighter and taking note of all the repeated words that connect ch. 11-21.
If you pay attention, you’ll see how these seven stories are a work of literary brilliance. Each one is interconnected. They are designed together as a symmetry, with each story corresponding to its concentric pair.
A 11:1-3: Rebellion and fire in the camp B 11:4-35: Manna and Moses’ complaint against God C 12: Rebellion against Moses D 13-14: Rebellion against the Exodus (remember, we are in Numbers, this is a reference to earlier events, despite the book title.) C 16-17: Rebellion against Aaron B 20:1-13: Water and Moses’ rebellion against God A 21:4-9: Rebellion and fiery snakes in the camp
The outer pair of stories (A), 11:1-3 and 21:4-9 are fairly short and describe a general complaint among the people. Both lead to “fire” of some kind, whether it’s actual fire (most likely lightning strikes, see 11:1-2), or the “fiery” feel of a snake bite (in 21:6 the word “poisonous” or “venomous” in our English translations render the Hebrew word for “fire”). Both crises are resolved by Moses engaging in intercessory prayer (11:2 and 21:7).
The next inner pair of stories (B), 11:4-35 and 20:1-13 are connected by their focus on the people’s angry demand for food and water. The complaint for meat in ch.11 is answered as God sends a superabundance of quail to the people, that ends up poisoning them due to gluttony. Their demand for water in ch.21 ends up provoking Moses to act and speak in a way that dishonors God and ultimately disqualifies him from entering the promised land. In both stories the people long for the food and “security” they once had in Egypt (notice how 11:5-6 is similar to 20:4-5). Can anyone say amnesia?!
The following inner pair of narratives (C), ch. 12 and 16-17 are each a rebellion against Israel’s leaders, specifically their prophet Moses (ch. 12) and their priest Aaron (ch. 16-17). In each case, the coup is launched from the inside, as Moses’ own siblings betray him, and later as Aaron’s extended family betrays him. In both instances, the unique calling of Moses and Aaron are reaffirmed in a very public and memorable way.
At the very center of this entire collection (D) is a two-chapter story (ch. 13-14) about the people wishing they could reverse the exodus and go back to Egypt. The twelve tribes of Israel each pick a representative to spy out the land of Canaan, and ten of the twelve come back and start a rebellion among the people. They convince the people that certain death awaits if they enter Canaan, and they decide to appoint a leader to go back to Egypt.
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, 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. The point of Numbers 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.