Lesson 15: “Look to God and Live”
Numbers 11-14, 21
Purpose: To encourage class members to overcome worldly desires and fears and look to the Savior and his prophets for guidance.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. The Lord answers the Israelites’ desire for meat by sending them quail and smiting them with a plague.
2. The Lord chastens Miriam and Aaron for speaking against Moses.
3. Moses instructs 12 men to search the land of Canaan.
4. Moses makes a serpent of brass and tells the people that if they look at it, they will be healed.
Today we move into the book of Numbers. Its English title comes from the several censuses that are recorded in this book – the counting of the various tribes of Israel and all their families and possessions. But the Hebrew title for this book is translated not as “numbers” but as “in the wilderness” – this book is a record of events that occurred among the Israelites after the escape from Egypt, after they have left Sinai with the new Mosaic Law, and while they wander in the wilderness, learning to become a nation and a people capable of inheriting the promises made to Abraham about his descendants becoming numerous as the stars in the heavens, carrying the gospel throughout the world, and inheriting the Promised Land.
As yet, the Israelites are none of these things. They are not especially numerous, despite the numbers claimed for them in this book of Numbers – scholars believe that the word translated as “thousand” does not mean literally one thousand (as in, one more than nine hundred and ninety-nine), but refers instead to a kinship group, a clan, a group probably closer to scores or hundreds, rather than literal thousands. They have not yet inherited the Promised Land – our lesson today will get the Israelites to the very border of the Promised Land, but they will not be fit to enter it, and will instead be destined to wander in the wilderness for a generation, until most of those who came from Egypt have died and a new generation arises. And certainly, the Israelites are not yet ready to carry the word of God to all the nations – as we will see in the episodes we’ll talk about this afternoon, the Israelites of this generation are complainers, unable to understand the word of God and barely able to take direction from Moses, the servant of the Lord.
Let’s turn to Numbers 11, where the Israelites again take up their march in the wilderness.
1 And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.
2 And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched.
3 And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the Lord burnt among them.
There isn’t enough detail in this first story to satisfy our desire to know just what happened. We don’t know what complaints the people had, or quite what is meant by “the fire of the Lord.” But even so, these three verses set the pattern for many of the incidents to follow: The people complain about something – either something that is so trivial that they shouldn’t complain, or else something about the way they complain is unsuitable and unjustified, because it displeases the Lord. The Lord punishes the people for their ungrateful complaining – their whining; the people ask Moses to intercede with the Lord and save them from his punishment; the Lord relents and gives the people another chance; and Moses gives the place a name that will forever remind the people of what happened there. Watch for that pattern as we go through these incidents.
4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
“Mixed multitude” – we’ve run into this phrase before, although no doubt we all passed right over it without considering what it might mean. Exodus 12 describes the day that the children of Israel fled from Egypt in great haste:
38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them [the children of Israel] …
My study books tell me that the Hebrew word translated here as “mixed multitude” has a negative connotation. It is often translated as “riffraff,” rabble,” or “motley throng.” What image does that create in your mind – what kind of people are traveling with the children of Israel? Why would that sort of people have come with them? How might such a group of influenced the people they were with? How do you recognize such people today in the circles where you move? Do you think anyone would ever describe you as one of that “mixed multitude”?
Numbers 11: 4-10
4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
5 We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:
6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. ‘
7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.
9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.
10 Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.
When the Lord sent manna the first time, it was also in response to a complaint from the children of Israel:
3 And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for yet have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
There is a lot in common between these two incidents – the children of Israel complain, they remember their lives in Egypt – but in the first instance the Lord blessed them with manna to feed them, while in this second instance the Lord becomes angry. What else is different between these two instances? [In the first case, the people were truly hungry, with nothing to eat; in the second instance, the Lord has given them perfectly good food, which they can gather with little effort, but they are ungrateful and demand something else.]
Take a close look at verse 4 again – who is it who is complaining? What is the response of the Israelites? [It is the few, the rabble, who complain, but rather than standing up to them, the children of Israel are persuaded to be miserable, too.]
How does this mirror life today? How often does discontent begin with a vocal few, and spread to the many? How can you guard against this tendency yourself, or how can you help others who fall victim to this tendency?
Here is another tactic of those who spread discontent among the people: They may often tell the truth when they number their complaints, but they often do not tell the whole truth. It may be true, for instance, that when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they “did eat freely” of cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic – that is, they may not have had to pay money for those things, or they had plenty of those things to eat their fill, perhaps – but in reality, what did they pay to have those melons and onions? [They were slaves.]
Do you see anything else in these verses that suggests why complaints take such hold of us? [Perhaps the loving way they enumerate all the foods they miss – it isn’t just “fresh produce,” it’s this and that and the other thing, as if each missed food were a separate complaint that makes the overall complaint seem so much worse. They do recall the good taste of manna – it tastes like coriander, and fresh (not stale) oil – but the emphasis in their complaint is less on the pleasing aspects of the manna and more on the work they go to in preparing it.]
So the Lord is angry with the complainers. So is Moses – so angry, in fact, that he can’t bear it, and says he would rather die that have to put up with it any more.
14 I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.
15 And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.
I’ve never been in ward or stake leadership, or in the family of such a leader. Those of you who have: Is this a realistic response? How often do or did you feel like Moses, like just giving up in the face of the complaints and the unending neediness of some of the people in your stewardship? How do or did you handle it?
Let’s read how the Lord responded to Moses:
Numbers 11: 16-17:
16 And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.
17 And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
At the beginning of this story, we have a relatively small part of the people complaining and spreading their discontent to the entire people. The Lord’s solution for Moses is to gather another small part of the people, for a very different purpose than complaining. What is the purpose of this second small group?
Isn’t it interesting that the solution is so very nearly the same as the problem – a relatively small group who share the spirit of the leader and who can influence the entire group for good or ill! [Sketch a line on the board, and mark off small segments at both ends.] So there were basically three divisions among that people in the wilderness: The relatively small group of complainers, the relatively small group who shared the burdens of the leader, and the bulk of the people in the middle, susceptible to the influences of either end.
Think about the last conflict you were involved with, in your family, in the ward, at work, in the community. Does this three-part model describe that conflict or discontent? Which group do you tend to fall in most often?
If you’re in the middle, how do you decide which end you will let influence you? How can we become supporters of those who are trying to lead us out of problems, rather than making a problem worse by unproductive complaints?
The Lord blessed Moses and the council that shared his spirit, by blessing them with the gift of prophecy and sending his spirit to teach them.
But to the children of Israel – both those who had stirred up the complaints and those who had merely let themselves be overcome by the spirit of complaining, he sent something else. He granted their demand for flesh.
31 And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day’s journey on this side, and as it were a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.
34 And he called the name of that place Kibroth-hattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.
The name Kibroth-hattaavah means “Graves of Lust,” a place name that would certainly remind later generations of the dramatic outcome of this episode, and that follows the pattern I mentioned at the beginning of the lesson.
Mortal life – even mortal life within the Church – is never going to be absolutely perfect, because we are imperfect people with imperfect understanding, subject to the weaknesses of mortality. When things are not going as well as we thing they should, the first tendency may be like the children of Israel, to listen to complaining voices and allow ourselves to be drawn into conflict and discontent. What are things we can do that would be more productive than complaining?
The next chapters of Numbers provide other examples of the children of Israel giving into the tendency to complain, and the aftermath of those complaints:
Even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’s brother and sister and his closest advisors, complained about Moses and the way he governed the people. From the way the story is told, it was Miriam who raised objections, and Aaron simply went along with her – like the Israelites’ complaints about their food, one of them, Miriam, was the active promoter of discontent, while another, Aaron, was more passive. That may be why Miriam, but not Aaron, was the one to be afflicted with disease and put outside the camp until Moses asked the Lord to heal her.
In another instance, when the Israelites reached the borders of the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 scouts into the land to see what resources there were, and what opposition the Israelites would find when they went into the land. Even though the scouts brought back with them reports of a land “flowing with milk and honey,” and bearing the evidence of huge clusters of grapes that grew in the land, 10 of the 12 scouts gave way to a spirit of complaint. They focused instead on the strength of the people who lived in the land, and the difficulty the Israelites would have in taking possession of the land.
President Gordon B. Hinckley drew a parallel between these ten scouts and complainers in the Church today:
Ten of the spies were victims of their own doubts and fears. They gave a negative report of the numbers and stature of the Canaanites. … they compared themselves as grasshoppers to the giants they had seen in the land.
“We see some around us who are indifferent concerning the future of this work, who are apathetic, who speak of limitations, who express fears, who spend their time digging out and writing about what they regard to be weaknesses which really are of no consequence. With doubt concerning its past, they have no vision concerning its future.” (Conference Report, Oct. 1995, 93-94)
Pres. Hinckley’s remark about “doubt concerning [the] past” especially resonates with me, because for many years now I have worked in researching and writing Church history. I recognize the difficulties that come with facing some aspects of the past – about violence, about racism, about understanding where modern-day scriptures come from. Other people have reservations about the present – what is the place of women in the Church? How do we respect the civil rights of others while protecting the religious rights we cherish? Still others may have questions about the future – what will be the nature of marriage in the next life? Any one of these questions could, if we let it, become the nucleus of discontent and complaint. There is danger that a few prominent voices might persuade the great mass of members [point to diagram on board, indicating the middle] to become discontent and to rebel.
Are these questions legitimate ones to ask?
Why are they so hard to answer to our immediate satisfaction?
With so many voices offering contradictory “answers,” where do we find reliable sources?
What is the right way to respond to complaining voices? To loved ones who are struggling with such voices?
As the children of Israel lived in and moved through the wilderness, their complaining often led to punishment. Were they punished merely for having questions? Then what was it that angered the Lord and led to punishment? How does that relate to people today who have questions?
In one of the most symbolically powerful episodes of this part of the Old Testament, the children of Israel were plagued by a particularly nasty trial.
6 And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
When Nephi recalled this incident for the children of Lehi, he called them “fiery flying serpents” (1 Nephi 17:41). The “fiery” part is easy to understand, if the venomous bites were especially painful. the “flying” part may take more effort to understand. There are a number of place sin the old testament where serpents are described as “flying,” but of course no species of flying serpent is known to us today. Scholars suggest that these snakes “flew” in the same sense that “flying fish” or “flying squirrels” can appear to fly by gliding, or else that the serpents had body parts that were reminiscent of wings – perhaps these serpents were a kind of cobra, with its hood that might be described as flying. In any case, there is no mistaking the horror of this event.
By instruction of the Lord, Moses crafted a serpent from bronze, which he lifted up upon a pole so that it could be scene from a distance – an event that Christians easily see as a foreshadowing of Christ being lifted up upon the cross. All that people had to do to be healed from snakebite was to look up and see the brass serpent – yet many of them would not look, and they died.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma found a reason for their not looking:
19 … a type was raised up in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it might live. And many did look and live.
20 But few understood the meaning of those things, and this because of the hardness of their hearts. But there were many who were so hardened that they would not look, therefore they perished. Now the reason they would not look is because they did not believe that it would heal them.
I think there is a lot more at work here than the lack of faith – after all, how much will power would it take not to look at the brass serpent? Wouldn’t you look out of curiosity, or by carelessly following the gaze of someone else? Not to look would take an active disbelief: “I do not believe, and therefore, I refuse to look.”
I like the Old Testament in part because the people it talks about are so very recognizably human. They aren’t good and noble and unwavering. They’re dirty, they’re hungry, they whine, they get tired – just like me. I recognize myself and the people around me in these stories from Numbers. Sometimes it’s easy to resist the complainers – they get tiresome, and it’s often easy to see their tactics of telling only part of the truth, or distorting the truth that they do tell. But other times – especially when I’m dirty or tired or hungry – I am tempted to let the complainers speak for me, rather than trying to be among those who support appointed leaders and who can have just as much influence as the complainers, if only I’m willing to look to them instead of to the “mixed multitude” around me. Above all, I need to remember to look to Christ, and his gospel and his kingdom.