Let’s take a look at what life can look like when we don’t reach our destination: when we don’t reach our full potential, in very real ways, parts of who we are decompensate. One of the most famous of biblical figures is the person of Moses. He was born under a death sentence, according to Exodus 1:22. Pharaoh first ordered the midwives Shiprah and Puah to kill all Hebrew newborn males and when that failed, he gave the order to the general populace. Moses was hidden for some months by his mother, Jochabed, and was placed into a basket and set afloat on the Nile.
Adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him home out of pity, he grew up exposed to both his birth family and the royal household. As an adult, he committed murder: when an Egyptian was beating another slave, he killed the abuser. Subsequently, he ran away for forty years because his deed became known to others. The impetus for his speedy departure was as follows: a Hebrew slave was oppressing his fellow and when Moses challenged him, he replied “who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”. He was afraid of Pharaoh’s wrath and he fled, leaving behind everything that he knew.
Having survived sex selective infanticide/ genocide, cross-cultural adoption and the prospect of Pharaoh’s justice, Moses spent years away from all that he’d known. Married, working and with children, he was just “doing life” in the context that was available to him. The narrative next shows us a disruption to the norm, but at God’s hand. A bush in the desert was burning, but wasn’t being consumed by the fire. Attracted by the unusual sight, our hero comes aside and receives a divine commission to rescue his people from slavery. This time, however, he’d have a new set of tools and the backing of a divine mandate and divine support.
This wasn’t enough, initially; Moses argued that he wasn’t a skilled speaker. (Surely there was someone more suited to the task?) How was he going to get the attention of Pharaoh and require that his fellow slaves be released? God answered Moses by sending him proofs of His support and by sending his brother to meet him in order to go forward together on assignment. Now- God had warned that it wasn’t going to be a quick or easy resolution. Apparently, Egypt’s ruler wasn’t of a progressive mindset in any sense of the word.
So began a cycle of Moses announcing his assignment to a resistant Pharaoh and the exchange of problems, promises of freedom, solutions, deceit and more problems. The bosses of the building program also busted any attempts to unionize by increasing production and decreasing supplies. They also beat people who failed when they’d been set up to fail in order to pressure Moses from below. Egypt had their own troubles. God held up His side by weighing in with a series of catastrophes: water turning to blood, hordes of frogs, lice, flies, sickness in livestock, boils, hail, locusts and darkness. Finally, perhaps ironically, He warns that all firstborn of humans and animals will die if Pharaoh won’t relent.
There was a method to the madness from God’s perspective: Hapi was the god of the Nile and water turned to blood, Heket was the frog-headed goddess of fertility and frogs overbred, Geh was god of earth/ dust which became lice, Kepri was creator over the sun, skies and rebirth where flies swarmed, Hathor was the cow-headed goddess of livestock… and they became ill, Isis was the goddess of medicine when ashes became boils… (no magicians could even stand before Pharaoh due to ceremonial impurity from boils-), Nut was goddess of the sky which rained hail and fire, Seth was god of storms and disorder and locusts destroyed any crops that the hail left, Ra was god of the sun which vanished during three days of darkness.
In summary- God might even have outdone the Bad Bosses of Egypt’s building program and He had one very terrible and ironic Bad Thing left: Pharaoh was to either let his slaves go or lots of animals and people would die, at least all of those first born. Sons, based on what I can find… In order to avoid death of all firstborn that night among the Hebrews, God required the sacrifice of a lamb and the application of its blood to the sides and top of the door. Anyone who did not perform the Passover as instructed would be visited by the Death Angel. The plagues are thought to have been visitations of divine wrath that were perhaps carried out by a band of angels at God’s command. There is no single Destroyer or Angel of Death in scripture.
So after a lot of difficulties, Moses gets the people gathered together and they escape Egypt, where they were abused, enslaved and overworked. While Egypt suffered plagues and the slaves suffered from Pharaoh’s wrath, God took the time to explain things during the events leading up to and immediately after the flight from Egypt. To wit, the Hebrews escaped most of the impacts of the plagues (no darkness, loss of livestock, loss of firstborn etc…). But- they’d been traumatized by their circumstances and hadn’t really recovered. Even seeing miracles and gaining their freedom left them unable to enjoy things. They grumbled. A lot.
They’d gotten into it with Moses and with God over the hardships that had accompanied their preparations to leave Egypt, the threat of harm and death during their escape from Egypt when they were chased, and they’d even had a massive orgy and festival of idolatry when Moses was off communing with God and getting the ten commandments issued on their stone tablets. Moses broke the first set of tablets, melted the golden calf in fire, ground it to powder, sprinkled it on water and had the Israelites drink it before departing to get the second set of stone tablets with God’s commandments.
In fact, when the narrative unfolds in Numbers 11, they’ve already taxed the patience of their leadership and even of God. By this point, they’ve decided that God is trying to kill them in the desert. They’d seen some badass demonstrations of divine power, but it didn’t stick. Which just goes to show that mindset…matters! I mean it REALLY matters when it comes to fulfilling all of your potential. They eventually carried on to the point that they had to turn away from the new land promised to them and would remain tiresomely stuck in the muck (well, okay, in the desert) for some time.
And to make matters clear- they weren’t going to get to the Promised Land. Everyone aged twenty and over at the time that they declined to go INTO the land and fulfill their destiny was under a sentence of death. (Well, a life sentence. They’d die off in the desert and generation two would go in.) Everyone died off with the exception of a couple of people who’d been Pro Team New Digs: Caleb and Joshua.
Even Moses lost out for failing to follow directions because anger, anxiety and stress overwhelmed his better judgement and God wasn’t doing excuses post-miraculous deliverance. This event was later in the timeline than the event involving grumbling over manna and meat, but it’s worth noting because habits, once set, have consequences that continue to accumulate. Mindful habits such as curiosity, resiliency and competent self-management have one set of outcomes. Mindless habits such as being highly reactive, black and white thinking, grumbling, and pessimism have a different set.
So in the circumstance of Numbers 11, the grumblers kept on grumbling. Here- they were tired of the food on hand. Egypt had fish, onions, melons, garlic and stuff. They were stuck eating manna. You could bake it into bread, boil it into porridge and do other stuff with it. Divine C-rations, but sure, it’s limited. One core group of grumblers started grouching and the whole group took up the lament. More than 600,000 men and their families comprised the people hanging out outside of their tents and wailing for meat. Somebody was SICK of it. (Well, God and Moses both, apparently.)
God decided to serve up a new menu of meat for a month, but He wasn’t happy with the whining. People gathered a ton (literally) of quail per person blown in from the seashore. Dried them. Cooked them. Chowed down. And some died. Is wanting meat wrong? Nah. It’s not an endorsement of veganism. It’s more the case that after all of the energy and effort invested in leaving Egypt, they seemed never to have fully left. Sure, they packed up, got payment for their prior labor from the Egyptians by “borrowing” a bunch of stuff to worship God before departure, performed the first ritual of Passover so that the Death Angel wouldn’t come to their families and walked on out.
They’d crossed the Red Sea and moved on, accompanied by a visible sign of the divine presence in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The difficulty was in their inner self. Call it worldview. Call it mindset. Call it a trauma bond. Call it a lack of spiritual regeneration. Somehow, they didn’t get hold of their change in circumstances and leverage it. The lack of change in their ways of thinking and being lead to a corresponding lack of change in their ways of doing things. THAT lead to trouble engaging with their new environment that lasted through multiple of them testing the patience and goodness of those guiding them.
What about us? Well, I’m not in the desert and there’s a lot of privilege and provision in my life. Occasionally, I lose my cool when stress is crazy. Not as often as I used to. Not as badly as I used to. Those close to me say I’m not the same person that I was a few years ago. I know from experience that mindset matters. Grumbling is human, but left unchecked, these habits of complaining and grumbling can become weeping and wailing. Life has its challenges. But our responses are up to us. Let’s make some inroads into our own resilience by increasing the capacity for mindful self-regulation. Whatever the Promised Land is for each one of us, let’s leverage the wisdom we’ve gleaned from our experiences to date and get there sooner, rather than later (or not at all).