Tuesday, March 06, 2007

An Evil and Adulterous Generation (Numbers 11, 13-15)

The people grumble…again. They’ve hardly left Sinai, and they are longing for their carefree days in Egypt, where apparently they would lie around in the sun beside the Nile all day, feasting on sizzling meat. God is understandably offended at their absurd ingratitude, and prepares to rain down destruction. We now know the drill – Moses will once again calm God down and talk him out of wiping them out.

Only Moses has had enough. He’s sick of constantly having to mediate between God’s high standards and the people’s incessent whining:
Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?
All of a sudden the roles are reversed, and it is the Lord who provides help for Moses so that he can bear the burden of interceding for the people. Putting up with these folks is a greater task than god or man alone can handle – it requires a tag-team effort!

Soon this too is stretched to the limit. The multitude prepares for the grand invasion of the promised land, and twelve spies are sent out to scope out the territory. They bring back an rich selection of ripe fruit – at least as alluring to their manna-saturated palettes as the memories of Egyptian cuisine. Unfortunately, the only stronger motivation for God’s people than physical craving (which he has consistently satisfied) is fear of their enemies (whom he has consistently defeated). The mob prepares to kill Moses and head back to Egypt.

It’s been ten times now – as many rebellions as there are commandments. There are no more excuses. The people can no longer plead ignorance – they are like a man breaking the Sabbath “with a high hand”. God prepares to annihilate them. As a last resort, Moses makes a desperate appeal to the Lord’s own reputation:
Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. … Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’
The Lord must concede the point. He can not simply kill off the Israelites in a blind rage, as much as he would like to. There is too much invested in them; there's too much at stake. For better or worse, God has inextricably associated himself and his redemptive project with these people, and their destruction means his failure.

So the Lord tempers his wrath somewhat – on the day that they rebel they do not surely die. He agrees to bring the children under twenty years old into the land, but only after the current generation has completely died off. They are cursed to wander the wilderness 40 years, ‘till they return to the dust of the ground. The few who attempt otherwise fall to the flaming swords of the land’s guardians.

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