Content or contempt?

I have been dwelling on the ancient Israelites of late in their journeying through the wilderness, more specifically, on their grumbling and complaining.

If you trace a line from Exodus 15 through Numbers 11, and on into Deuteronomy, counting each time they grumble, complain, or lament, wishing they would either return to Egypt or have simply died in Egypt in the first place, it would be hard not to agree with God that this was a “stubborn and stiff-necked people.”

And you wouldn’t be wrong. Beginning in Exodus 15, we read the Israelites singing the song of Moses and of Miriam, both joyful, exuberant songs of praise to God for defeating their foes. The horse, the might of Egypt, is drowned, along with its rider. This was God’s doing, and he is on our side.

But then, three days later, the grumbling begins.

They begin to thirst, so they look for water. When they find it, they realize it cannot be drunk. Naturally, they complain, naming it the waters of Meribah (or, bitterness). Who wouldn’t? Which is why I think God didn’t chastise them in this instance, but simply shows Moses what to do in order to make the bitter water sweet.

But things go downhill from there. Shortly afterward, they complain about water again, followed by food. In response, God gives them water from a rock and manna from heaven. Every time the Israelites complained, God gave it to them. As in the garden, all God asked was that they trust and obey. They needed food, they needed water, and the Lord provided both.

Then we arrive at Numbers chapter 11.

Numbers 11 is fascinating. It begins with them complaining about their misfortunes. If you have read Exodus and Leviticus, and up to chapter 11 of Numbers, their complaints were very specific, targeted at their needs. They needed food and water to live. And, we read, the Lord provided.

But now their complaining is different. In verses 4-6, we read they have gone from complaining about things they need, to complaining, and even weeping at the front doors of their tents. But what is making them weep?

“Oh that we had meat to eat!” they wail. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic … there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

In essence, they’re weeping because they didn’t have their seasoning. They had all they needed, but they craved their variety.

And if they have everything they need, then why in the world are they grumbling and complaining, weeping and lamenting about their misfortunes?

“What a stiff-necked, ungrateful people!” I often say when reading of these Israelites, judging them. I would have obeyed. I wouldn’t have complained.

But then I remember “Miserable Mondays.”

Mondays were miserable growing up.

Every Monday – without fail – mom would fix us oatmeal for breakfast and tuna fish sandwiches for lunch – two of the worst foods ever concocted by man. But they were cheap, and they were healthy.

I griped and complained about mom’s food selection so much and so often that she eventually decreed the day, “Miserable Mondays,” and would greet my grumblings with a smile as she handed me the bowl of disgusting gruel for breakfast and terrible tasting dead fish for lunch– which smelled exactly as it sounded.

My friends got to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch at their leisure. My friends got to eat pizza for breakfast. My friends got to eat whatever they wanted. Here I was, forced to shovel down this barely edible stuff every single Monday of every single week growing up.

I didn’t like it and let mom know it every chance I got.

When I remember “Miserable Mondays,” and how poorly I treated mom’s love in making food for us every single day as something that was harming me, I realize how similar to the wandering Israelites I was – and in many ways, still am. Mom showed me her daily love and I returned it with complaints that she didn’t truly love me. If she did, she’d give me what I wanted – or what I thought I needed.

But that’s human nature. Even when we have everything we need, we will still find a way to complain, to find something we don’t agree with, something we think is wrong. We elevate our wants and claim they’re things we need.

I think that’s why Paul used these Israelites as an example in 1 Corinthians 10.

He writes concerning what happened to these Israelites, how God punished them because of their continual grumbling and complaining and unfaithfulness, “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction.”

Lest we think that human nature has changed, that we are somehow better than the Israelites 4,000 years ago, Paul wrote to them (and us) that these things were written down for the sake of us, so we won’t make the same mistake. In doing so, it is a reminder that we still need it. We still need to be reminded of our weakness and tendency to complain about every single thing. It’s a reminder to be grateful for what we have, and more so, to be grateful to the God who provided Israel and us with everything we need.

I know God provided me with a salvation I didn’t deserve and could never earn. I know he has given me everything I need.

I am reminded by Paul in another letter he wrote to a young minister, teaching him to be content, and not to chase after the riches and glory of the world, because “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

Be content with what you have and grateful to the God who gave it.

–Joseph Hamrick
Deacon at C3

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