Summary: Ties together Israel’s disobedience during the Exodus, people’s failure to recognize Jesus when he came, and our own obliviousness to the warning signs around us. Lesson: Hardships aren’t for punishnment, it’s to point us to God.
Have any of you ever watched a movie or a TV show about a wagon train? You know, a column of Conestoga wagons, what they called prairie schooners, with the rounded canvas tent-tops? When I was young Westerns were the commonest sort of show, and everyone knew the conventions: The square-jawed hero, the ignorant tenderfoot, the feisty school-marm, the grizzled mountaineer, the unwashed troublemaker. There were a number of standard crisis situations that could create the central drama on a wagon train western. You could break an axle, stop at a polluted water hole, contract an epidemic disease, be attacked by Indians, run out of food, a mutiny against the wagonmaster or a conflict between two members of the company could break out. But you could always tell something was going to happen; the music would slow down or speed up or the key would shift; the camera might back up until you could see the skulls scattered around the waterhole or a feathered head ducking down behind a rock. You always knew when danger was lurking.
The people in the show never knew, though, except one or two experienced veterans (the John Wayne role) who would warn them. But mostly people wouldn’t listen, they’d just go about doing their own thing, complaining, or bickering, or trying to exploit the situation, or just doing their best to survive. They never heard the ominous note in the music, and they were always looking the other way when the enemy was briefly silhouetted on the horizon. And there you’d be, in the audience, knowing that disaster was about to strike, sitting on the edge of your seat, saying, "Circle the wagons!" or "Don’t drink the water!" or "You idiots, why don’t you listen?" But they wouldn’t, and the expected calamity would fall. They hadn’t seen the movie.
Good thing it was just a movie, right?
Too bad you can’t say the same about the Exodus. You think 4 months to get across the Western plains was bad, you should try the Sinai for 40 years. And they had pretty near every calamity Matt Dillon ever had to cope with (remember him from Wagon Train?), some of them twice. But did they ever learn? Listen to them. "Moses, we’ve been on the road for three days, Moses, we’re running out of water, Moses, maybe we should go back to Egypt." It had only been 3 days since they’d crossed the Red Sea, hardly time to forget what God could do with water when pressed. But Moses talks to God, and God provides water. But do they learn their lesson? Listen again. "Moses, its been 15 days, Moses, we’re running out of food, Moses, maybe we should go back to Egypt." Back to Egypt? Remember what it was like for them in Egypt, slavery, forced labor, bricks without straw? And they want to go back? What’s it going to take to get them to think?
But Moses talks to God again, and God talks to Moses, and Moses says to the people, "All right, pilgrim, God’s gonna feed you, but you’re gonna have to do as he says, okay? And remember, I’m not the one who brought you here, quit yammering at me, this is all God’s doing. You wanna gripe, remember who you’re gripin at and take your chances he won’t get tired of listenin to you whine." This, by the way, is when God starts with the manna. And he feeds them. And he feeds them. And he keeps on feeding them.
And they complain again. And God provides water again. And they are attacked by hostile natives, and they win. And Moses consecrates them to God’s service, and God speaks to them out of a cloud around the mountain, and thunder rolls and lightning flashes and trumpets blast and the earth trembles, and the people make all kinds of promises, and seal it with blood, and practically the minute Moses is out of their sight on his camping trip up Mt. Sinai, what happens? They forget all about everything that has happened up to now and make an idol and get drunk and party.
And God by this time is totally fed up.
Wouldn’t you be?
He has freed them from slavery.
He has saved them from Pharoah’s soldiers.
He has brought them victory in battle.
He has given them just laws to live by.
And he has fed and watered them for months in a hostile and barren wilderness that they would have died in long ago if left to their own devices. And now they decide they’d rather try a different God, one more to their liking. Haven’t they gotten it yet?
Well, God’s just about ready to try a different people.
But Moses talks him out of incinerating the lot. About 3,000 died, instead of the whole caravan. But it did get their attention. For a while. They make the tabernacle, and this keeps them busy and out of trouble for almost two years. But then they start traveling again. And whaddya know.