Grumbling with the Israelites

Friday, Jun. 18, 2021
By Marie Mischel
Intermountain Catholic

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to know that the Israelites complained bitterly during their sojourn through the desert toward the Promised Land. As slaves in Egypt, they had been beaten and mistreated. Then Moses led them out of Egypt. Once on the other side of the Red Sea, free of Pharaoh, they celebrated with dancing and sang praises to God: “In your mercy you led the people you redeemed; in your strength you guided them to your holy dwelling.”

That rejoicing lasted all of three days. During that time, they walked without water through the desert. Arriving at a place called Marah, they found water, but it was too bitter to drink. With that, the Bible tells us, “the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What are we to drink?’”

Not too many days later, we find the people again grumbling, this time against not only Moses but Aaron: “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!”

The Lord, through Moses, provided water for the Israelites to drink and manna for them to eat, but they grumbled again at the place called Meribah, and then they complained in the hearing of the Lord at Taberah, and then they threatened to revolt at Kadesh.

I’ve always had a secret sympathy for the Israelites, because I know how miserable it can be to wander in the desert heat, although I’ve only done it for a few hours at a time, always well-provisioned with water and knowing that, unlike the Israelites, I had a refreshing shower waiting for me in the comfort of my home when I returned from my trek.

My view changed last week, after I read an ancient Jewish commentary that went something like this: The Israelites grumbled against Moses if he got up early, saying he and his family wanted to collect the largest pieces of manna. But if he didn’t get up early, they accused him of being a slugabed. If he walked among them, they grumbled that he was forcing them to honor him, but if he walked around the group they complained that he was preventing them from doing the mitzvah (a good deed done from religious duty) of honoring an elder.

When I told a friend this story, he pointed out that the Jews had a similar reaction to Christ. As Jesus himself said, “For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

I’ve already admitted that my initial sympathy was with the Israelites, and here I confess that I’ve also raised my eyebrows at the implications of Jesus’ behavior – He can’t REALLY expect me to sit down alongside and actually break bread with the modern-day tax collectors and sinners: people who are homeless, drug-addicted, migrants, refugees, LBGTQ+ or pro-choice, can he?!

The answer, of course, is yes, he can. And he does. Grumbling about it is not only counterproductive but short-sighted. The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land, and if they’d been more accepting of Moses’ leadership, they’d have gotten there a lot quicker. I suspect that if I were to stop grumbling against God’s plan for me and instead join Christ and “the least of these” in table fellowship, I’d be much further along on my way to the Kingdom. After all, as Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic. Reach her at

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