By Mike Willis
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. And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched. And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the Lord burnt among them (Num. 11:1-3).
The divine record of the wilderness wanderings of Israel, like all of the Old Testament record, has been recorded for our admonition and learn- ing. Paul said,“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted” (1
Cor. 10:6). Among the incidents that inspiration records is the incident at Taberah when the children of Israel complained against the Lord.
The Historical Record
Taberah is the first stop of the children of Israel following their departure from Mt. Sinai. The journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai took ap- proximately three months (Exod. 19:1). Israel departed from Sinai eleven months later (Num. 10:10-13). Having been to Sinai, I have some appre- ciation for what the terrain was through which they traveled. The area is mountainous with barren rock, little moisture and pasture. Walking through such country would be laborious and wearisome. Perhaps their muscles ached from the journey in the blazing hot sun, after having been settled in one location for nearly a year. And, there was nothing forcing them to move, as had been the case when they left Egypt.
For whatever reason (Scripture does not tell us why), the Israelites started complaining. The text says, “and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled” (Num. 11:1). Consequently, the Lord sent fire that consumed those in the outer perimeters of the camp. When Moses interceded for the people, the Lord heard his prayer and quenced the fire. The place was called Taberah. The word taberah is derived from the verb ba‘ar, “to burn, consume.” The noun Tab‘erah, means “a burning.”
The Sin of Complaining
The word “complained” is translated from ‘anan, derived from the Chaldee word that means “to be grieved, to be sad, to mourn.”The word only occurs in the Hithpolel which signifies “to show oneself sad”; hence, “to complain, to murmur” and, as used in Numbers 11:1 “with the no- tion of impiety” (Gesenius 72). Let’s consider the following truths about complaining:
1. Complaining stems from a dissatisfied spirit, which displeases God. One who complains thinks that he de- serves better from God than he is receiving. How could such ever be true of sinful men? The deserved punish- ment of sin is eternal damnation in hell; what has any of us experienced on earth that compares to the deserved punishment of hell.
Man is an unusual creature. When good befalls him, he generally thinks that it is deserved. How rare it is to hear anyone say, “I don’t deserve this good fortune that has come to me.” However, any perceived evil that befalls him is undeserved and he usually complains about his misfortune at the hand of God.
This dissatisfied spirit cannot (a) be content with the state in which he is (Phil. 4:11); (b) be thankful (Col. 3:15). One has said, “In the City of Happiness, Complaining Avenue and Thanksgiving Lane are miles apart, so that you cannot live on both streets at the same time” (Wendell Winkler, Heart Disease and Their Cure 26). G. Wagner wrote,
Now, we must all feel that right-down murmuring is very sinful, and in its worst forms most Christians overcome it; but not so complaining, for this seems to many to be scarcely wrong, and it often grows on them so gradu- ally that they are seldom conscious of it. The causes of complaint are manifold. Little difficulties in our circum- stances — little acts of selfishness in our neighbours; but complaining is most of all a danger with persons who have weak health — for weakness of body often produces depression of spirits — and this is the soil in which a complaining spirit takes deepest root. Then, too, it often grows into a habit; a tinge of discontent settles on the countenance, and the voice assumes the tone of complaint. And though this, like most habits, soon becomes unconscious, yet it is not the less mischievous on that account. It is mischievous to our own souls, for it damps the work of the Spirit of God in our hearts, and enfeebles the spiritual life. It is mischievous in its ef- fects upon others; for when Christians complain it gives the world altogether wrong impressions of the strength and consolation which the love of Christ affords, and it frequently generates the same spirit; one complains, and another, having the same or other causes of complaint, sees no reason why he should not complain too (The Biblical Illustrator: Numbers II:94).
Even pagan authors recognized the sickness that is in the soul of the man who constantly complains.Aristotle wrote,
If, as we have said, the activities determine a man’s life, no supremely happy man can ever become miserable, for he will never do what is hateful and base. For in our opinion, the man who is truly good and wise will bear with dignity whatever fortune may bring, and will always act as nobly as circumstances permit, just as a good general makes the most strategic use of the troops at his disposal, and a good shoemaker makes the best shoe he can from the leather available, and so on with experts in all fields (Nicomachean Ethics I:2 [p. 26]).
How dare us to reflect on God’s goodness toward us by complaining about his daily provisions for us! This borders on slandering God. Instead, we should be thank- ful for his gracious gifts.
2. Complaining is self-destructive. Certainly one can recognize that complaining does no harm to God. How- ever, it does something to man’s spirit. It creates the feeling of being “victimized” by God or one’s fellowman. It creates a “feel sorry for me” spirit that discourages human activity to change one’s plight. It destroys one’s ability to look at the circumstances of one’s life as a means of searching for what good God might create from those circumstances. Think of how the miseries that Joseph experienced were used in God’s providence to effect the preservation of Israel from a famine and from the even greater danger of being influenced by the pagan influences of the Canaanites. In Egypt, the Israelites were segregated because they were shepherds, thus allowing them to develop as a nation with a lesser danger of being absorbed by a pagan culture. God used Joseph’s suffer- ings to accomplish a greater good for his people.
The story is told of Caesar throwing a banquet for his noble friends. On the day of the banquet, rain poured down. He was so displeased and enraged that he com- manded his soldiers to shoot up their arrows to Jupiter, their chief god, because of his sending the foul weather. The arrows fell far short of heaven, but when they came back down, they injured many of his soldiers. Indeed, complaining is similar to firing arrows at heaven! It falls back on us to injure us!
3. Complaining damages others. Many a church has been restrained in what it can do because of several carping complainers who discourage others from fully participating in the work of the Lord. Complainers rob the church and the home of its joy. Why should visitors want to be part of a congregation that has no joy? The dour mood that settles over the congregation is destruc- tive and, for that reason, such complainers need to be addressed.
God Hears Our Complaining
The text significantly states about the complainers at Taberah, “the Lord heard it.” Our omniscient God is fully aware of our complaining and is just as displeased by it now as he was then. “His anger was kindled” against those complainers. To show his displeasure, he sent fire in the camp. What would happen in our homes, cities, and churches if God sent fire when we complain?
There are times when men have legitimate complaints. The word “complain” occurs more frequently in the book of Job than other books, but who can doubt that Job had reason to complain. In his grief, he took his complaints to God, not merely to others. His complaining was not destructive, but an appeal to God for understanding. In the same manner Moses took his complaints to God when the children of Israel complained when they had nothing to eat but manna (Num. 11:11). To think that one can bear all of life’s burdens without facing disappointment and discouragement is unrealistic. To allow the evils of life to make one ungrateful, bitter, and resentful is something else. When this happens, one becomes guilty of sinful complaining.