When I was eight, I must have asked my mother too many times for another piece of Halloween candy, because she finally said, “Don’t ask me again! I don’t care! Eat it all!” And I did, a whole plastic pumpkin full.
By the next morning, my tongue was so swollen, I couldn’t close my mouth, and I drooled all through Sunday School. Mama believed in suffering one’s consequences, so to suffer-school, I went.
I learned two things. The next Halloween, I didn’t ask Mama, and I ate what I wanted. But I never wanted it all again.
This is something like the way God deals with his people in Numbers.
It’s moving day for the Israelites. After fourteen months camped at the foot of Mt Sinai, the cloud of God’s presence lifts off the tabernacle, signaling it’s time to leave. The cloud’s movement is the pre-arranged sign between God and Moses for when it’s time for them to go and when it’s time to stop and camp, Nu 10:11-13, 34.
An enormous group of 603,550 fighting men, not to mention women and children and old people, packed up to travel to the promised land. Some estimate that the group would have been more than 2 million if everyone had been counted, Nu 2:32 (http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/numbers-1/).
In spite of such a population, they leave in an orderly way, the way God’s instructed them, with the ark of God–the gold covered chest that represented God’s throne–in front of the entire community, and the tabernacle and its furnishings coming in sections between the 12 tribes of people, Nu 10:14-28, 33-34.
Whenever the ark sets out, Moses says, “Rise up, Lord! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” And when the ark settles to rest, he says, “Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel,” Nu 10:35-36.
They’re not only led by God’s ark; they’re also protected by his presence with them. For God, this isn’t a “Hey, let’s meet up at our destination,” kind of trip. It’s a road trip with him, not only navigating the route but providing drinks and snacks on the way. They aren’t setting out on this journey as people being sent out from him. He goes before them, and he hovers over them as he goes with them. He’s pretty much all over them, Nu 11:33-34.
God’s been providing food for his people as they’ve traveled, ever since leaving Egypt. Manna was the first thing he gave them, and it was like coriander seed, gathered and ground, and then baked or boiled in a pot. It tasted something like donuts (honey cakes made with olive oil), and it came down when the dew settled on the camp at night, Ex 16:31; Nu 11:7-9.
God also provided meat and water on the road from Egypt. At least once, he brought them quail miraculously. When they make camp at the mountain, they have their flocks and herds to eat, at least on the festival and feast days. Though they’d had trouble finding water on the way to Mt Sinai, God provided supernaturally for them, even bringing water from a rock, Ex 15:22-27; 16:13; 17:1-7.
The bottom line is this: the Israelites have every reason to believe that God will continue to provide as he has been. God freed them from slavery in Egypt in order to bring them into the promised land because he loves them and wants to be their God. He knows they need food and water, clothing and shelter. All it would take is a quick remembrance of how he’s been providing these things to be convinced he’ll continue.
Besides, during the year at Sinai, he’s patiently instructed them, given them his laws and told them how to worship him. He’s been as near as the cloud they see daily, as audible as Moses’ voice, as pungent as the meat that cooks at the temple. God reaches out in all these ways and more to connect with them.
And now they’re starting out on the last leg of their long journey to freedom–coming into their own land. You’d think they’re giddy, because one thing’s for sure: after all they’ve witnessed of God so far—plagues of locusts and frogs and eight other awful things, a cloud of fire to guide them all night, ocean water that piles up like walls so they can pass through it on dry ground and then floods back just in time to drown all those who pursue them, a mountain of smoke and fire that shakes, booming trumpet-thunder blasts—whatever he has in store, it’s gonna knock their socks off.
As a matter of fact, Moses is giddy. He asks his brother-in-law, Hobab, to go with them because God’s promised to give them good things in the promised land, “If you come with us, we will share with you whatever good things the Lord gives us.” Moses expects God to keep his word to bring them into a land “flowing with milk and honey,” and he knows there will be plenty for everybody, Le 20:24; Nu 10:29-32.
But the very next verse begins in a completely different vein, “Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord.” Not only are they not looking forward to the good things coming, they’re grumbling and complaining to one another about what God’s already provided. And God’s angry. Fire from him burns around the edges of their camp, and they cry out to Moses for help. When he prays for them, the fire dies down, Nu 11:1-3.
Lesson learned? Nope.
“The rabble with them” begins to crave other food, and they stir up the Israelites again, this time about the menu. The rabble is thought to be the non-Israelite people among them, immigrants from other nations who have aligned themselves with God’s people, (http://fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermonds/grumbling/). These folks want food other than manna, and their grumbling infects the Israelites, so much so that their remembrance of slavery food sounds like the all-you-can-eat buffet line at a resort rather than as it more likely was, doled out at a soup kitchen, Nu 11:4.
“If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost–also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” Somehow they’ve forgotten that their “free food” in Egypt was paid for by the straps across their backs and meeting their quota of mud bricks, Nu 10:4-6.
It’s surprising to hear them remember their slave life fondly rather than to remember how God has rescued them heroically. After what he’s done to load them with all the loot they can carry when they leave Egypt, and after all he’s done to give them his covenant and laws and instructions for how to worship him, not to mention Moses and God’s very own presence to lead them, it’s an astonishing amnesia of the facts and a big, fat slap in the face of the God who has given them every single thing they need at every step of the way.
And when you factor in that it’s only day three on this part of the journey since they left Sinai and that already, they’re so undone, they’re literally crying about food, well, I just want to shake them silly, Nu 10:33. But that’s not all. It gets worse, because next, Moses loses it, too.
Moses hears “the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to their tent” about their manna-misery, and so does God. God is angry, but Moses is desperate. He asks God why he’s brought him into this trouble, “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth?” Nu 11:10-12.
Moses asks why he has the burden of carrying people to the promised land that God’s promised to give them and their forefathers. And why does Moses have to nurse them on the way? And where is he going to find meat for so many? Nu 11:12-13.
Moses says it’s too hard for him, and with deep feeling he asks God to end his life. “If this is how you’re going to treat me, put me to death right now–if I have found favor in your eyes–and do not let me face my own ruin,” Nu 11:14-15.
Moses falls right into the same sort of emotional exaggeration of the facts that the Israelites have fallen into. They remember an all you can eat, free buffet bar at the Hard Rock Cafe in Cairo, while Moses imagines that God expects him to care for these cry babies as if he’s given birth to them, wiping noses and breastfeeding all the way to Canaan. I kind of want to shake Moses loose, too.
But what does God do?
Well, here’s what he doesn’t do. God doesn’t argue with Moses about what God expects from him or about Moses’ perceptions. He doesn’t try to set Moses straight. He doesn’t smite him with fire the way he flamed up the edges of the camp when the people whined. The Bible doesn’t mention God being angry with Moses here at all, though it’s said twice already that he’s angry with the people for complaining and crying, Nu 11:1, 10.
What God does do is tell Moses to bring together 70 men known as leaders among the people to the Tent of Meeting. God will give some of the Spirit that’s on Moses and put it on them so they’re able to help with Moses’ burden, “…so that you will not have to carry it alone,” Nu 11:16-17.
God gives Moses the relief he needs, regardless of the way Moses pretty much accuses God rather than asks him for it. And I wonder why Moses gets away with what seems like a lot of complaining, while the people get flames around their camp for trash talking their accommodations.
Maybe this: Moses complains directly to God. He prays. This is what prayer is, taking what troubles us to God, even if part of the trouble we’re having is because of our own self-indulgent self-pity. Messy as he is, Moses pours out his unedited, unfiltered frustrations to the only One who can help him.
But the people talk about God to one another. This is gossip and slander, not prayer. They spread around their bad feelings and bad attitudes, and it works like a contagion among them, so much so that by the time Moses hears about it, every family is wailing. The people “complained…in the hearing of the Lord,” implying that God heard them talking to each other, but Moses “asked the Lord” about what was troubling him, Nu 11:1-2, 10-11.
And how does God respond to the people?
He tells Moses to tell them to consecrate themselves in preparation for eating meat the next day because God’s heard them saying, “We were better off in Egypt!” God will give them meat, and they won’t eat it just one day or two or five or ten but for a whole month “until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it–because you have rejected the Lord who is among you,” Nu 11:18-20.
God gives them what they ask for, too, but it’s not the lesson of grace that Moses receives. Their’s is a lesson of God’s judgment, of what happens when they reject him. They’ve experienced God with them, and they’ve decided he’s just not that big a deal. Leeks and onions and meat–these are what they need. Saying they were better off in slavery was like giving God a middle finger, and he doesn’t take those sentiments lightly.
But if meat is what they really want, why would they hate it, even if having it for a whole month straight? Because meat isn’t what they really want, and God knows it. God will give them what they think they want, so much so, that they learn that meat isn’t what they want at all. It was the craving of the moment, not the real cry of their hearts. God says the real problem is this: “…you have rejected the Lord, who is among you…,” Nu 11:20.
Cravings distract us from our heart’s cry. And they can’t be satisfied. As soon as we get the thing we think we have to have, we’re already looking for something else. If a craving could be satisfied when met, we wouldn’t keep running to the next thing. But it’s what we do. It’s only in learning to follow our cravings to their source–the cry of our deepest self for God with us--and to seek him until we find him, that we have any rest.
Just in case Moses comes off too well, we get another faith-fail on his part. After God tells him about the meat that will soon be coming out of their noses, Moses throws another hissy fit with God, paraphrased here, “I am one man among 600,000 men, let alone all the rest, and you promise meat for a month? Do you know the magnitude of the meal train you’re signing up for? Even if we slaughtered all our livestock and emptied the sea, would it be enough for all of these?” Nu 11:21-22.
What God doesn’t say, again, are any words that condemn. Instead, God simply asks Moses if he thinks God’s arm is too short. And he says words of gentle, genuine humility to his road weary warrior, “Now you’ll see whether or not what I say will come true for you,” Nu 11:23. God’s understatement and self control is masterful, because he could have pointed out all the times he’s kept his words in much more dire circumstances than these. But he doesn’t. He just tells Moses to get where he can see.
God is gentle, humble, patient, kind. And he gives us what we most need. Sometimes it’s help and a word of grace and sometimes it includes suffering consequences for our mistakes. Each of us gets what God designs for us, which is to lead us to more of himself, where our deepest longings are met.
God is the one who’s all over us.
Jesus elicits strong feeling from five types of people…
1. The chief priests and the teachers of the law, who are the religious professionals at the temple. They “were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him,” but not during the Passover because they feared a riot by the people, v 1-2. These men understand Jesus’ influence and want to kill him because they see what his teaching will do to their good ole’ boy, power-lunch lifestyles at the temple. Already he’s chipped away at their credibility and authority with the people. Getting rid of Jesus is their mission, because he’s exposed them. These people hate Jesus.
2. The woman, who comes into Simon the Leper’s home where Jesus is eating, breaks a jar of expensive perfume, and pours it over his head. Jesus says she’s done a beautiful thing, and has prepared his body for burial, and what she’s done would be always remembered, v 3-9. This woman adores Jesus.
3. The other guests at Simon’s house who are indignant with her waste of perfume. They think social justice matters most, so selling expensive perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of this resource than pouring it over the Son of God’s head, v 4-5. These men don’t understand who Jesus is.
4. Judas, who goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus. He tells them he’ll let them know where and when they can arrest him without a crowd around, v 10-11. Probably no one would want to claim Judas’ response to Jesus, but it’s certainly common, isn’t it? The desire to get rich, to overwork to get ahead, to short cut and stretch and steal-a-little to make ends meet—as keeper of the group’s wallet, Judas often helped himself to what was in it—amount to loving money more than Jesus. This trusted man trades making a quick buck for Jesus.
5. The disciples, who eat the Passover meal with Jesus and are sad to hear that one of them will betray Jesus. They protest with, “Surely not I?” rather than take what he’s said to heart, v 17-19. The truth is, they all desert Jesus when he’s arrested except for Peter, and Peter denies he knows him three times. These men don’t know how much they need Jesus.
Jesus still pisses people off. For one thing, he says he’s gentle and humble, and those who know him are, too, Mt 11:29; Ep 4:2. Proud, goody-goody rule followers like those who run the temple have no place with him, and they hate him because his death says they can’t be good enough to earn heaven. I know, because I’m a recovering goody-goody myself. Jesus is sometimes hard for me still.
Of course, the one who pours her love all over Jesus, holding back nothing, giving her all for him is the one we’re to emulate. I love how the person who does this is a woman and how Jesus defends her in front of the men who despise what she’s done. The smell of the perfume would have filled the room, lingering and rebuking them long after the moment has passed, marking the One to whom they should be falling flat.
The perfume was a scandalous display of affection and worship, the act itself a kind of incarnation of the incense in the tabernacle before the curtain of the Most Holy Place. Only there was no curtain here on this day. There was only Jesus, holy and fully present before them, God himself wrapped in human skin and hair with blood pulsing. Only Mary sees him for who he is in that moment.
We can’t see Jesus for anyone but ourselves. As much as I’d like to do that for those I love, I can’t decide what’s truth for them. We can really only know and see and decide about our own response to Jesus. We can point to him and speak for him and do extravagant acts of love for him, but ultimately, we have to accept that we only get to make our own choice about Jesus, no one else’s.
The responsibility of faith is on each of us.
My take away today is God’s all-over-us kindness and grace. When I see it as I have in Numbers today, I’m overwhelmed by his tenderness with Moses and his tenacity with his craving people, and all the while, leading and loving them and offering them himself.
At various times, I’ve had all five responses to Jesus from Mark’s passage, but the one I most want to win-out in me is the Adoring Perfume Pourer. God, will you do this? I’m often not paying attention, or tempted to put making (or saving) money ahead of faith, or mad I can’t earn my way, or caught up in a cause rather than concerned with love.
I can’t do this faith-life myself. Thank you that I don’t have to.
God’s kindness and grace,
goes before me, hovers over me,
gets all up in my face.