Their life in the wilderness must have really fallen apart for the Israelites to long for slavery back in Egypt. Somehow, they had forgotten the terror, the back-breaking work, the domination, and the chains of slavery. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of cloud by night that guided them out of Egypt also faded into the recesses of their mind. They lost the image of the mighty waters of the Red Sea blown to the sides as marched across in a parade to freedom on dry land. Had they forgotten too, what God had done for them?
A month had already passed since God liberated them from Egypt. The Israelites were in this awkward, in-between time that bridged departure and destination. They were ready to arrive somewhere, anywhere, and establish a life and regular routines. But instead, they were in this middle passage of uncertainty, with no end date in site—it is enough to try anyone’s patience, as we have all learned ourselves these last six months. It is difficult to remember what God has done in the past, when right now feels pretty awful, and we do not know when this awful is going to end.
The wilderness environment the Israelites found themselves was making matters worse—they went from the Nile basin—the breadbasket of the middle east with plenty of water and grain, to the harsh arid heat of the desert. It was difficult to find food, even harder to procure water—how were they to keep everyone fed in a place like this? It was not safe—they could not go anywhere and feel safe—safe from the elements, safe from unseen dangers of the wild, safe from starvation and dying of thirst.
The passage of time and uncertainty about their future made the Israelites re-think their past. They looked back through rose-colored glasses, revising their history and re-writing their memories: slavery started to feel like security, oppression began to look like 3 hots and a cot, and chains became a safety fence that kept the wilderness at bay.
• The passage of time, the uncertainty of our future, and the lack of safety in our current environment are dynamics that are remarkably similar to the Israelites in the wilderness. Do you find it surprising that Scripture based in oral stories from the Bronze Age still speak to our experience today?
• Do you tend to think nostalgically about life before the pandemic? Is it easier to gloss over the difficulties you had then given current circumstances?
• It might be therapeutic to write out your “COVID complaints” as a lament to God and a release of stress.
It only took a month of hardship for life to fall apart for them. Thirty days and they are mess. Do you ever wonder why God commanded us to stop and worship once a week? Well here is why—amnesia about God’s saving acts, and revisionist history in four short weeks of hardship. What had God done for them lately? They could not remember. But they did remember there was food in Egypt. So they complained and fussed at Moses and Aaron about how much better it would have been to live in slavery in Egypt, than to die of starvation in the wilderness. What kind of plan was this? Is there a plan? What is the plan? Where is God? What is this God going to do now that we are out here?
Don’t you find it a bit unsettling to focus this much on complaining? Where is their stiff upper lip? Where is their faith? Trust and complaint can feel mutually exclusive. Can we bitterly complain to God and trust God at the same time? That does not feel right. We would expect that after all God had done for them, that God was probably thinking about sending them back to Egypt and starting over with a whole new group of people. I know I would!
• What helps you sustain faith in hard times? Are there “God-moments” in your life that your return to remind yourself of God’s faithfulness?
• Do you feel uncomfortable with complaint? That someone always has it worse? That you should just toughen up? Where does this come from and what would it take to let some of this go?
But that is not what God does. Instead of rejecting this people or firing back with a litany of God’s complaints about these ingrates, God has two responses to the complaints of the Israelites: First, God hears their complaints—four times our passage tells us that God hears their complaints: “he has heard your complaining against the LORD, “LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him,” “he has heard your complaining,” “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites.” Alright already! I think God has heard their complaining.
God’s response of hearing their complaints shows the Israelites that bellyaching to God is actually an act of faith because to complain to God is to trust that God is listening, that God cares enough to pay attention. This was no “One and Done” God—one big miracle to get you out of Egypt and then you’re on your own—no, this is a persistent God, a patient God, a long-haul God who is always there, always listening, always present, always in relationship.
Second, after hearing their desperate pleas, God responds to their complaints by providing for their needs—manna in the morning and quails in the evening. This liberating and complaint-hearing God is also a gift-giving and life-sustaining God. In the wilderness, in this time for the Israelites between departure and destination, in this time of COVID between onset and vaccination—it is the most challenging time to keep trusting God to show up. So, God says, “I will give you enough bread for today, and enough quail for tonight, and a double portion to feed you on the Sabbath. You will have to trust that I will provide again tomorrow.” Does not Jesus, in the Lord’s Prayer, teach us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread”?
Every morning the Israelites wake up with daily bread on the ground and every evening when quails appear, they build a deeper and deeper trust in the provision and reliability of God. The rose-colored glasses come off, and they remember what God did for them yesterday, so they can trust that today, knowing with complete certainty that God will show up again. This liberating, complaint-hearing, gift-giving, life-sustaining God seeks an intimate, loving relationship with faithful people who will deepen trust daily.
• Are you surprised by a God who not only listens to complaints but responds to them? Does this encourage you to let God know your frustrations, and laments?
• What makes it difficult for you to trust God for what you need daily?
Being a complainer may not make you a great dinner companion if you do it every night. It may not win friends and influence people. But the Israelites’ experience of wilderness whining reminds us of the great Scriptural tradition of holy lament and complaint. Complaint can be and often is an essential, honest, and even necessary part of our conversation with God. For where would we be without grief and complaint, knowing that when we are at our wit’s end, we can cry out to God and let God know of our misery, trusting that God hears us and responds to us with the daily bread we need?
Job cries out, “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” Psalm 55 complains, “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.” Psalm 42 laments, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” And Jesus himself cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For certainly the God who put on the limits of human skin, the finitude of this earthly life, and who hung on a cross, defeated, and alone empathizes with our pain, our frustrations, and sorrows.
Complaint is not the opposite of faith—rather, it is an act of deep faith—trusting that God will hear our prayers and give us this day our daily bread.
Image: Roberti, Ercole de', -1496. Israelites Gathering Manna, from Art in the Christian Tradition, http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55968.