There is one important motif which comes throughout the story of the trek from Egypt to the Promised Land: that of the Israelites’ ‘grumbling’. Today’s passage is the third example: they have already moaned at Moses in chapter 15 because of the nasty-tasting water, and in 16 because they were missing the exotic meats of Egypt. In Numbers 11, my favourite example, laughable because of its sheer stupidity, they are missing the Egyptian melons, leeks, garlic and cucumbers. Come on! Who has ever wailed over a lack of cucumber? If only I could go back to making bricks in the mud and getting whipped for my troubles, as long as I just had some melons! But for now the problem is less silly and in fact potentially quite serious. There’s no water at all, not even the bitter sort, and once again the people turn on their leader.
The resulting story is one of the people’s ungratefulness, Moses’ prayerfulness and God’s faithfulness, and as such forms a good template for anyone in leadership in the church, whether of a small group, a congregation or a diocese. It is not a coincidence that leaders in the Bible are often likened to shepherds: it can often feel as though the people have the intelligence of a piece of mutton combined with the viciousness of an angry ram (and, incidentally, the memory of a goldfish). Later on in Numbers 11 we’re going to hear even more deeply Moses’ anguish at having to lead this particular flock, but there is one thing which each of these stories has in common. Moses, almost as though he had already heard Joseph Scriven’s hymn, takes it to the Lord in prayer. In fact whenever there’s a crisis of any kind, Moses’ immediate and instinctive response is to go back to the God who had landed him with this thankless task in the first place. There’s a challenge for us: I tend to get angry, discouraged, depressed and despairing in approximately that order. Moses prays, and in every case God does something as a result of that prayer, and the crisis is averted.
I never cease to be challenged by Moses’ leadership. He was commissioned by God to get the people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, by hook or by crook, whether they wanted to go there or not. I love his determination, but like most church leaders I have also felt often his sense of hopelessness, of his calling having become a burden to him. Many leaders have had ‘Gethsemane’ moments when we have had to re-surrender ourselves to the will of the God who called us in the first place, and some have even had ‘Jonah’ moments when we felt as though death was a preferable alternative to Christian ministry. I note too that Moses takes not just the situation but also his anger and despair about the situation to God. He doesn’t feel the need to be polite, but he is painfully real.
The big question for me has to do with whether or not God would have sorted things out anyway without Moses’ intercession. I don’t know, but I do wonder how many miracles I’ve missed out on because I have not shared Moses’ instinctive prayer life. When I have only become angry and frustrated but have not thought to cry out to God about it; when I have decided I can sort this out by myself, it might just be that I have denied God the opportunity to work a saving miracle.