These Israelites astonish me. I guess I should be used to it by now, with the history that I’ve read recently, but they keep on acting like spoiled children. God has delivered them from their oppressive captivity under Pharoah in Egypt, provided miraculously for them in the desert, guided them in obvious ways (pillars of cloud and fire) and yet… here in Numbers 21, just after a significant military victory over an enemy, they are back to their old ways of impatience and grumbling.
3 The Lord listened to Israel’s plea and gave the Canaanites over to them. They completely destroyed them and their towns; so the place was named Hormah.
4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6 Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
Clearly they have some sort of spiritual amnesia, or a death wish, because God has punished them similarly in the past for this sort of behavior. Now, whenever I find myself critical of behavior in the Bible, I want to be careful to examine myself and check whether some of these “punishable” traits are evident in me. Am I ever guilty of forgetting God’s past blessings? Do I have spiritual amnesia and forget what God has done for me? Am I impatient and wishing that God would move things along a little (or a lot) faster than He seems to be? Yes, yes and sometimes.
I think this is one of the reasons God calls the Israelites to place stones of remembrance at different parts of their journey, so that in the future, when they are tempted to forget, they will have a physical reminder to call them back to that time, to cause them to remember what God did and the promises they made.
For myself, I have a photo of my seminary that functions the same way. It reminds me of my calling, my deep desire to be trained to serve God, to make an impact in the world. It reminds me to be faithful and to grasp hold of that which God has for me.
The other thing about this story that strikes me is the extrinsic nature of the rewards and punishments. In child development, a child is initially obedient for extrinsic rewards – “you cleaned your room. Well done. Here’s a cookie” – but we hope as the child develops that they will move from extrinsic to intrinsic – that they will do their homework because they know that this knowledge will benefit them, or at least help them get a better grade. There’s an internal motivation which is not dependent on immediate external reward.
Some great saints talk about maturity in the faith in the same way. The young Christian (young in faith not in age necessarily) will often serve and obey God because of the external rewards – involvement in the community of faith, and an experience of God’s blessing, but the more mature saint loves God for who He is, for His character, not just for what He can do for us.
To be sure, I’m glad of blessing and pray for it, but I’m glad that God is who He is, that he is faithful when I am not, loving when I am ambivalent, grace-giving when I am disobedient.
As a parent, I know that I love what my children “produce” in terms of fridge artwork etc., not because of its inherent quality, but because of who made it. In the same way, I hope that my love for God will not grow primarily because of what he “produces” in terms of blessing in my life, but because of who He is.
Here’s my prayer for today: “God, help me to remember the many blessings you have poured into my life, not least forgiveness, the beauty of Christian community and the promise of eternal life. But help me to love you more for who you are, than for what you give. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.”