I was peeling a cucumber yesterday and thought of the whining Israelites and their cucumber craving. This cucumber was part of our weekly CSA farm share pickup, but I won’t be eating it. I have a large number of food sensitivities, so cucumbers are just one of dozens of foods that I like but won’t be eating any time soon. I don’t complain about it. You can ask the people who know me: I don’t whine about the foods I can no longer eat.
Not so the Israelites. They fell into grumbling about the food they could no longer eat—foods they had left behind in Egypt, the land of their long slavery—while God was in the process of rescuing them, refining them, and forming them into something new. He was preparing them for a new place, for a new way of life with its own good things.
The riffraff among the people had a craving and soon they had the People of Israel whining, “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”
Manna was a seedlike substance with a shiny appearance like resin. The people went around collecting it and ground it between stones or pounded it fine in a mortar. Then they boiled it in a pot and shaped it into cakes. It tasted like a delicacy cooked in olive oil. When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna was right there with it.
Numbers 11: 4-9 (MSG)
There are no cucumbers in the desert. But there is usually no manna there, either. And it was all they really needed.
There are no cucumbers in the desert.
But there is usually no manna there, either.
You know what else wasn’t in their particular part of the desert? Enough quail to feed more than half a million people for a month (Numbers 11:21-23). But God had quail flown in (Numbers 11:31-34). So much quail. And he struck the people with a severe plague because he was so angry with them for rejecting him again (Numbers 11:10). Graves of Gluttony is what the Israelites named the place in the desert where they buried the people who had rejected God in this weird way that sounds so harmless: craving meat from Egypt and wishing they were back there (Numbers 11:34).
What the story says to me is this:
When you are rescued by God from one place, and he is carrying you on his back to a new place, this is not the time to whine about wanting cucumbers like you used to have. That is a sign of ingratitude. It demonstrates a focus on the wrong things. What the Lord does not put before you, he does not intend for you. If God has provided manna for nourishment in the desert—when he could have provided anything—or even nothing—be grateful for manna and shut up about cucumbers.
The Israelites’ problem had started earlier. As most things do. This particular episode had been brewing since they left Sinai, the mountain of the Lord (Numbers 10:12, 10:33), during the second year after their dramatic rescue from Egypt (Numbers 10:11). You can hold your breath for a year, but after that, when it starts to look like your situation isn’t improving, it gets harder. And, of course, the enemy always provides plenty of opportunities for ingratitude. A well-placed comment that doesn’t even sound bad can quickly flip the switch of ingratitude and complaining (Numbers 11:4-6 and 11:10). Those sound like minor infractions, until I see that God linked the Israelites’ whining (Numbers 11:18) to rejection of the Lord (Numbers 11:20), and treated it an offense punishable—and punished—by death (Numbers 11:33-34).
The crux of the problem was not the whining, it was the rejection behind it:
“… you have rejected the LORD, who is here among you, and you have whined to him saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?””
Numbers 11:20 (NLT)
They didn’t want the God they had, a God who would make them march across the wilderness of Sinai and Paran and feed them manna (Numbers 11:6-9). They wanted cucumbers and melons and onions and leeks and garlic and fish and oppressive slavery (Exodus 1:11-14) under a regime that had killed many of their infant sons (Exodus 1:22). They wanted golden idols of beef to worship (Exodus 32) and meat to eat. But manna and marching was all this God seemed to offer. They had been rescued by a God who didn’t appear to be rescuing them. Their lives still weren’t perfect. What good was freedom from cruel slavery—without cucumbers!?
What good was freedom from cruel slavery—without cucumbers!?
Moses, their human liberator, was very aggravated with them (Numbers 11:10). God, their divine liberator, was extremely angry (Numbers 11:10). And I’m wondering if maybe, even though I don’t grumble about cucumbers or fish or melons, I’m no better than they were.
After all, I said I wanted God to lead me, and I said I would follow. When things became really imperfect-looking at some point, I assumed—as the Israelites probably did—that it was just a short-term jaunt through the desert, a quickish (or maybe even medium-ish) jaunt from point A to point B. But after a few years, when I notice I’m not at B, and I can’t even see it from here, and I’m not even sure that B is where this God is headed at all, I find myself at the doorway of a tent in the wilderness (Numbers 11:10). I can either whine about cucumbers and the other things that aren’t in the desert, or I can be grateful that the Lord is here with me (Numbers 11:20), and that he keeps putting just enough manna on the ground for each day (Numbers 11:9).
Scripture quotations marked MSG are taken from THE MESSAGE, copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.