Influential Sojourners

 

In the 11th chapter of Numbers I learned something that came as a surprise to me.  I had just assumed that everyone on the trip from bondage in Egypt to prosperity in the promised land were the children of Israel, the Hebrew children, Jews—a monoculture. But in the fourth verse of this chapter a different reality is revealed.  Modern translations like The New Revised Standard Version for instance speaks of the rabble among them who lusted for the culinary delicacies they had known in Egypt. But a clearer translation of the Hebrew says ‘and the mixt multitude that was among them fell alusting’.  A mixed multitude! Well that changes our whole perception.  That helps us wrap our minds around the fact that the Exodus was an enormous migration numbering six hundred thousand persons.  It struck me that probably the most important lesson in this passage of scripture is that even when you are wandering in the wilderness of your pilgrimage you can’t avoid having to deal with the influence of the world.


 

 

In the 11th chapter of Numbers I learned something that came as a surprise to me.  I had just assumed that everyone on the trip from bondage in Egypt to prosperity in the promised land were the children of Israel, the Hebrew children, Jews—a monoculture. But in the fourth verse of this chapter a different reality is revealed.  Modern translations like The New Revised Standard Version for instance speaks of the rabble among them who lusted for the culinary delicacies they had known in Egypt. But a clearer translation of the Hebrew says ‘and the mixt multitude that was among them fell alusting’.  A mixed multitude! Well that changes our whole perception.  That helps us wrap our minds around the fact that the Exodus was an enormous migration numbering six hundred thousand persons.  It struck me that probably the most important lesson in this passage of scripture is that even when you are wandering in the wilderness of your pilgrimage you can’t avoid having to deal with the influence of the world.

 

According to the text, it wasn’t the Israelites that started the disgruntled rumbling against Moses and God.  4The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat!5We  remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;6but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”

 

Now just to be fair, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic aren’t high on my list of desired delicacies.

 

This Numbers passage is chocked full with great lessons and information. We are told how the people gathered and prepared manna.  We learn that Moses was very modest. We learn that the Lord got mad on hearing the Israelites weeping over being forced to survive on manna.  Moses was so displeased with the people that he asked God why God had burdened him with wet nursing this mutinous bunch to the land promised to Abraham.

 

I don’t know whether manna was organic vegetarian fare or not but when the people came asking for meat to eat in the desert Moses threw up his arms and said ‘they are too heavy a burden for me’.  Where we wonder in reading this passage how these people could turn up their noses at God’s perfect food,  Moses was worried where he could find the meat God promised for 600,000 people. Moses was so distraught that he asks God to end his life.  He says to God “if I have found favor in your sight—put me to death and do not let me see my misery’.  God doesn’t comply. Maybe it’s good that all our prayers aren’t answered.

 

Instead what God did was to relieve Moses of having to carry by himself the responsibility for all the people.  God tells Moses to call into the tent of meeting 70 persons already known by the community to be elders. God takes some of the Spirit that he had placed on Moses and put it on them.  That way they shared with Moses the burden of caring for all the people. This is one of a very few places that I know of where ‘spirit’ appears as a commodity, something that can be divided  up and distributed.  For the folks deeply into metaphor it refines in a different way Jesus feeding thousands on a few loaves and fish.

 

To these newly spirit anointed elders God says that he had heard them say ‘If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.’  So, to paraphrase what God promises, God said ‘O.K. You asked for it’.  You will have meat to eat, not for one, two, five, ten or twenty days but for a whole month.  You will eat meat until it comes out of your nostrils and become loathsome to you –because you have rejected the Lord who is among you… because you asked “why did we ever leave Egypt’

 

Now you’d think Moses would have been pleased by God’s plan.  The evidence is that he had a hard time grasping the fact that he no longer had on him the whole burden of the people.  So, here in the middle of all this we are taught a couple of important lessons. The first is that the responsibility to lead is supposed to be shared and that once you’ve had them it’s really hard to let go of the reins.  Moses begins to complain that he didn’t know where there were enough flocks and herds or not enough fish in the sea, to feed them.  God asks Moses a question that sometimes fits our situation. He ask Moses if Moses thought that God’s power was limited.

 

To teach yet another lesson the story line reverts to Moses bringing the seventy elders into the tent of meeting, that is all but two of them, and how the spirit rested on them and they prophesied.  The two AWOL elders, left in the camp, Eldad and Medad, began to prophesy as well.  A young man comes running to tell Moses and Joshua what Eldad and Medad were doing. Joshua begs Moses to stop them.  It’s a great line and for those of us post Pentecost Christians. It points to the future. Moses said “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

The text returns to finish the story about the meat.  God, in God’s great way of bringing surprises, didn’t produce cattle, sheep or even fish to feed the six hundred thousand, he  brought quail from the coast and had them drop to the ground two cubits deep a day’s journey all the way around the camp.  The people ate quail until it was coming out of there ears.  Before they were done, according to Numbers, God sent on them a great plague – no, a very great plague.

 

The children of Israel, those who were on pilgrimage from bondage to prosperity, had a problem. They weren’t alone.  I love the language. There were those among them who ‘fell a lusting’ for the rich and spicy foods of Egypt.  These were of this mixed multitude, the rabble as it is often translated. These others weren’t children of the promise.  They hadn’t heard it drummed into them year after year that they were the beneficiaries of the promise God had made to Abraham,  that ahead of them lay this land of plenty.  They didn’t grasp, as did the children of Israel, that they were a very special, chosen people and that God had covenanted with their ancestors to give them the very best life had to offer.

 

But despite all the words of hope and promise, despite knowing that the very manna that had been sustaining them in their walk through the wilderness, despite their knowing that they were a very special chosen people– they couldn’t keep the noise of the rabble out of their heads, they couldn’t resist the temptation to desire the rich foods of their past.  They joined in the rebellion.

 

That’s what struck me most about this passage.  It wasn’t simple ingratitude.  It was a failure to remember who they were.  An almost irresistible urge overcame them to join the crowd.  God’s people are warned again and again about the temptations of wanting to be part of the majority, to join the band wagon.

 

Lloyd Lee Wilson in his book on Quaker Gospel Order makes an invaluable  observation.  He tells Friends that people come among Quakers as either immigrants or refugees.  Immigrants come wanting to learn all the songs, stories, games and language.  Refugees come with all the baggage they can and attempt to recreate what they left in the place to which they have come.  The challenge for Friends is to adequately educate those who come among us so that they know where they are, who they are.  Our failure to do this became apparent in the recent conversations among pastors serving churches in the Yearly Meeting, folks called to serve local churches who have come from other Christian traditions or no tradition at all.  The temptation to join with the rabble, the mixed multitude, and want something other from God than that with we’ve been gifted can be great indeed.

 

Look closely at your life.  You’ve been richly provided.  The people in your life are gifts.  You are, at least according to 1st Peter 2:9 “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you…” But, like the children of Israel you’ve got company on your walk through the wilderness.  We are all somewhere in a mixed multitude with messages, goals and standards contradictory to what we hold dear. And like the Israelites we too can become attracted to that for which the rabble lusts.  The solution to the challenge is relatively simple.  It is to remember who you are and that to which you have been called.

 

 

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