Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

No sooner have the Israelites set out from Mount Sinai than the complaining begins.

Ice Water
"Ice Water," by D. Sharon Pruitt via Flickr; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

September 27, 2015

First Reading
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Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

No sooner have the Israelites set out from Mount Sinai than the complaining begins.

There is a memory of Egypt — a false one, perhaps, since there’s no mention of backbreaking slave labor or drowning babies, but it’s a memory all the same — of fish they could eat for nothing, and of flavorful cucumbers, melons, leeks, and garlic. Compared to this memory, the present reality of “nothing but all this manna to look at” is dull and uninteresting. What’s more, it cannot sustain them: “our strength is dried up.” We’ve heard this complaining before. In Exodus, the same complaint sounded like vulnerability; here it smacks of rebellion. By the end of the chapter (and outside of this lectionary selection), God will respond to the complaint by sending so much quail it will come out of the Israelites’ nostrils. God judges complaining Israel with a blessing — or blesses them with judgment; it’s hard to tell.

But what’s surprising about this version of the story is that it draws equal attention to Moses’ disenchantment. Like the Israelites, Moses complains: his burdens are too great, and he questions whether God is really with him. A number of interpretive questions arise. What is the gist of Moses’ complaint? Is he, like the Israelites, wrong to complain? And what are we to make of God’s response to his complaint? By distributing some of Moses’ spirit among the 70 elders, God ensures that Moses doesn’t have to bear his burdens alone anymore. But is this redistribution of the spirit, like God’s gift of quail, an ambiguous blessing that is really a punishment? If Moses must share the spirit, is he diminished in some way?

It’s possible that Moses is wrong to complain. After all, by complaining he is failing to do his proper job of interceding for the Israelites. But Moses does recognize their plight. At the very least, he hears it: “Moses heard all the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents” (v.10). Because hearing often has the connotation of heeding and understanding (cf. Exodus 2:24-25), Moses’ hearing may well be an act of empathy and concern.

Something else blocks his intercession, and this is what provokes his complaint. What displeases Moses is not the Israelites’ complaining but God’s anger. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident, only Moses had found favor with God, and he relied on that favor to intercede for Israel. At that time, Moses argued that having God’s favor counted for nothing if God would not also accompany them: “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” (Exodus 33:15). Moses now faces a similar crisis, and if anything, God’s anger with Israel now casts doubt on God’s favor with Moses.

Caught in a triangle between God and Israel, Moses refuses to claim sole responsibility for “this” people. They are, after all, God’s people, and Moses reminds God, sarcastically, that he was not the one who conceived them, who bore them in his bosom, who and nurtured them “as a nurse carries a sucking child,” and, not least, who promised on oath to give land to their ancestors. In all of these charges, Moses evokes well known traditions about God’s care and concern for Israel. And in the present context of complaining about food, it is no accident that the maternal imagery emphasizes Israel’s utter dependence on God. Moses is not these things to Israel; God is (Genesis 12:1-3; cf. Deuteronomy 32:18). At the heart of Moses’ complaint, then, is a complaint about the divine character. What does divine favor mean, after all, if only Moses receives it? At the beginning of the long trek through the wilderness, Moses legitimately asks what is in store for him as the sole bearer of this people who were supposedly the apple of God’s eye.

Fortunately, God does not respond to Moses’ actual request — “let me die!” but to the substance of his complaint — that he is all alone with this burden. In verses 16-17, God instructs Moses to gather 70 of the elders at the tent of meeting, where God will talk with Moses and take some of the spirit that rests on Moses and distributes it among the elders. In this way, the elders will bear the burden of the people with him. Verses 24-25 describe that event, noting that the elders “prophesied” when the spirit came on them.

But is this redistribution of the spirit, like the gift of quail, a kind of punishment? After all, Moses must now share a sign of divine presence and favor that had once been exclusively his. The episode about Eldad and Medad answers that question. The narrative does not explain why these two elders were not at the tent or meeting, nor does it explain why the spirit also rested on them. But it does draw attention to ordinary human concerns: what is Moses going to think? Shouldn’t they be stopped?

Moses’ response sets aside the zero-sum game of prestige and honor for the far more gratuitous calculus of the Holy Spirit: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them” (11:29). Moses had, after all, asked for divine favor, and he had also equated it with God’s care and concern for the community. If that favor was bestowed upon the community in an entirely unexpected way, Moses could at least recognize the moving of the spirit within the community. Sharing burdens requires the recognition of shared gifts, and Moses was all too happy to share.