Petulant People; Perplexing God
“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then God sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” – Numbers 21:4-9
Long journeys can reveal, deeply, the nature of the traveler. A person in a hard wilderness behaves differently than the same person comfortably at home. At this point in the Israelites’ journey to Egypt, we witness humanity at its most petulant: “There’s no food, and besides that it tastes lousy.” Seriously?
Could God be so easily bothered that the answer to griping was to deploy venomous snakes? Go just a bit deeper and we see that the story doesn’t state positively that the serpents were a response to the muttering: we jump to that conclusion because one follows the other. Travel a bit further through a study Bible, and we find that snakes were common fertility symbols in ancient cultures of the region: Seriously?
There’s more than one way of understanding our vast and mysterious God. It could be that the story reminds us of untamed divine anger. The story could also illustrate what happens when, stressed by hunger and fear, we forsake gratitude and replace it with complaint: now our world, stripped of praise, becomes filled with peril.
Hunger is terrible: not to be ignored. The snakes still have so many meanings they wriggle out of our grasp. The story continues — and in the continuing, despite our complaining, God cures.
O Merciful Provider, O Mystery, O Perplexing One: may my spirit and mind and belly be open to all that you are giving. May my complaints, like chaff, be blown away. Even in my perplexity, grant me grace to live in awe. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.