Proper 21• Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29 • September 30, 2012
By David Schmitt
This narrative selection from Israel’s wilderness wanderings captures a gracious transformation. The story begins in poverty, but ends in abundance. It begins in memory, but ends in hope. It begins in physical need, but ends in spiritual gifts. This gracious transformation occurs when God speaks and Israel hears his words for them in the present moment.
As our text begins, we are immersed in memory: both the memory of the faithful reader and the memory of Israel. The faithful reader remembers Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. On that day, Israel looked in faith upon her present experience. She saw God’s strength and lifted her voice in a song of praise: “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Ex 15:2). Her song of faith closed with trust in God for the future (Ex 15:17–18).
Israel’s memory, however, differs from that of the faithful reader. Israel remembers her past in a way that is both selective and nostalgic. Her slavery, once recorded in detail, is gone and the food she once ate, remembered in detail, is suddenly free (v. 5). This selective memory transforms Israel. Instead of singing praise, she voices a lament (v. 4–6). Instead of celebrating God’s strength, she cries of her weakness (v. 6). And, when God gives her manna, rather than take and eat, she looks and laments (v. 6).
What we see in Israel is a spiritual disposition, the inability to see God’s present blessing because of a distorted memory of the past. In a sense, this sin is a variation of coveting. Rather than covet what someone else has in the present, Israel covets what she once had in the past. The end result, however, is the same. God’s present gifts are devalued because of the way one remembers the past. God gives Israel manna, yet she looks on it in sinful blindness and laments.
God’s people today can still fall into this sin. Memories of the past can cause us to miss God’s work in the present. These memories may be personal or communal. For example, memories of how the church used to be, the days when we put chairs in the aisles to accommodate all of the people, can cause God’s people to no longer see his present blessing. Glory days of the past hide the glory that is present, hidden in our midst, as God speaks and forgives.
God’s response to Israel’s sin is one of judgment and grace. The judgment is edited out of our liturgical reading (vv. 18–23). When Israel cries over a lack of meat, God answers her with abundance, abundance so great that Israel is sickened by it. God’s judgment invites Israel to see that faith is not a matter of things but a relationship. Faith is trust in the one who gives strength regardless of circumstances (Phil 4:11–13). To a people tempted by a prosperity gospel, measuring God by lack or abundance, this memory can still speak words of warning and guidance today.
While the judgment is hidden, the grace is apparent in our reading. God sees a deeper problem for Israel and Moses. It is not a need for physical food to satisfy their physical craving but a need for his word to shape their spiritual formation, bringing them to deeper trust in him. In response to this deeper need, God answers in abundance, an abundance of the Spirit and an abundance of prophets. Seventy elders gather around the tent of meeting and receive the Spirit, prophesying to the people. Not only that, but even in the camp, Eldad and Medad are prophesying. When confronted with this anomaly, Moses looks with hope to the future, longing for the day when the Spirit of God will be poured out upon all people.
This reading encourages meditation and proclamation upon the gracious, life-giving word of the Lord. Consider the narrative contrast. In the beginning, a word of grumbling came from the outskirts of the camp (v. 4) and perverted God’s people, blinding them to God’s present grace (v. 5). At the end, the word of God comes from the central place of God’s speaking (the tent of meeting) to the farthest reaches of his people (the camp) and reveals his present work. God indeed provides: food for the weary, leadership for the lost, a life of trust in the present, and a vision of hope for the future (v. 29). No wonder that when this event is recalled in Deuteronomy God’s people are encouraged to remember that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Dt 8:3).