Rest Assured, This Will Not Last

Murmuring in Numbers 11

Joey Goodall / 1.11.23

Humans have a predilection for nostalgia, for remembering the past with rose-tinted glasses. Chapter 11 of the Book of Numbers shows us that this predilection is not a new one. During their time in the wilderness, the Israelites began to fondly recall their time in Egypt as slaves. They had tender fish to eat, juicy melons, and savory garlic! Not just God’s bland, provisional manna that would fall with the dew in their camp. 

In times of uncertainty, we opt for the familiar over and over again, even when it’s pretty bad. Sometimes the familiar works, and unnecessary change does seem like a waste of time. There’s nothing inherently better about the new. Yet sometimes the “something different” on the horizon is the work of God.

Despite receiving a tangible means of grace directly from God (manna), the Israelites lack faith that God will continue to sustain them while in the desert. They complain to Moses, “if only we had meat to eat! … our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” We like to think that if we were in their sandals, we would react differently. We’d be filled with grateful praise, because it would be novel for us to see God’s direct intervention in that way. However, the rest of scripture (and human history) teaches us otherwise. To the Israelites at the time of Moses, God’s direct intervention was just the status quo. They didn’t know that what they were experiencing was not how it was always going to be.

We are much the same. We take for granted what we’ve been given, and don’t trust that God will continue to sustain us. We get greedy with what we have because of fear of the unknown. In Getting Involved With God, theologian Ellen Davis writes that, “False desires consume us; our souls waste away for lack of real substance.” We want the meat too, the desire for more than we actually need or could even use consumes us, and in trying to get it on our own, we miss the real substance of God’s intended provision for us. We forget that we’ve been given “food enough.” The Israelites get stuck on the way things were because of nostalgia and a false idea of comfort. They don’t trust that God’s plan for them, (wandering in the desert, eating manna), will eventually lead to something better, so they ask for more of what they’ve grown accustomed to.

After Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites, God does provide them with the meat they requested in the form of quail “swept up from the sea” and left over the camp in every direction in a 2 cubit (~3 feet) deep pile as far as the eye could see. If this sounds excessive, and a little disgusting, Davis believes it’s intentionally so, revealing how “the Israelites wading in quail up to their armpits, stuffing themselves until the meat comes out their nostrils … is meant to be repellant.”

Davis writes that the ugliness of this part of the story helps the people to see “when what they are doing is hostile to God and call them back … to reorient from craving for meat to gratitude for manna … to focus on God’s faithfulness instead of their own wants.” This reorientation, or turn, is ultimately to repentance. As Martin Luther wrote in On the Freedom of a Christian, it stems from having the law compel us to “despair of” ourselves so that we might “seek the help” we “do not find” in ourselves “elsewhere and from someone else.”

Humans have always had difficulty discerning between wants and needs, between what’s actually sufficient and what we think will be sufficient. The wilderness generation went through legitimately trying times. They had lost their home, they didn’t know why they were where they were, and how long they would have to stay. In some ways they were certainly suffering. However, they also had access to our divine creator unlike anyone ever would again, aside from the people who knew Jesus firsthand. It isn’t hard to be both a little perplexed by them, but also completely understanding of their dismay. 

The Jewish and Christian faiths both teach that what we think is intended for evil, like our personal suffering, God often actually intends for good. The Lord’s hand will not be too short. God will provide for us, even in times of wilderness, in times where we can’t see what’s ahead. It is easy to try to scramble and grab for the familiar and the comforting in these times, but those things often just make it harder for us to see what God is actually doing in our lives. They can make us forget that God’s steadfast love is always available to us in prayer. We will occasionally be humbled. We will go through dark times. We will hurt others and ourselves. But if we continue to turn to God, we will eventually get to the praise that Eugene Peterson called the end of all prayer, represented at the finish of Psalm 150 in “a double Amen, nailing down the affirmation of God, his most certain Yes.”

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One response to “Rest Assured, This Will Not Last”

  1. Jerry L Eisley says:

    Thanks for this. My life has been marked by God’s provision yet I fear the future constantly.
    Godis faithful and thanks for this reminder

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