Summary: The Israelites complain that God isn’t looking after them. So he provides them with food, but with conditions.
In 1 Cor 10, Paul warns his readers about what happened to the people of Israel during the Exodus. Listen to what he says: "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come." In case you were wondering why we’re studying a text that was written nearly 4000 years ago, this is why. These things happened to them to serve as an example, but they were written down to instruct us. Listen to what he says about what happened to the Israelites: (1 Cor 10:1-10 NRSV) "I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. 6Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play." 8We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer." He says "Don’t take part in idolatry, don’t indulge in sexual immorality, don’t put the Lord to the test, and don’t complain." Don’t complain? How come that appears in the same list as idolatry and sexual immorality? When was the last time you thought of grumbling as being in the same category as idolatry and immorality. But that’s where he puts it. Idolatry, immorality, putting God to the test and complaining. So why?
Sadly the motif of complaining runs right through the Exodus story. We saw it last week and we’ll continue to see it right through to the end. Have a look at Exodus 16 (p64) "The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." Note the difference between complaining and crying out to God for help. God always hears us when we cry to him for help, but complaining is like the whining of a child with nothing to do on a rainy afternoon - and every suggestion we make is turned down, until we just switch off and don’t listen any more. Is that something you’ve noticed in our church here? People who’ll complain about anything that goes wrong: seeking to apportion blame; decrying the current situation. Perhaps you’re one who’s guilty of it. I think you’ll have difficulty finding a church where it doesn’t happen. Just go to a clergy gathering and listen to the conversation, and before long you’ll hear the grumbling and complaints.
But why is it wrong? Why does Paul lump it in with idolatry and immorality? Well, because as a habit of life, as a primary attitude, it’s dangerous; because it has destructive consequences. It poisons our relationships and undermines our faith. There are a number of elements to this:
First, it has a mythologising base. That is, it sets up an imaginary "What if... " ideal world. The first thing the Israelites say is "If only..." If only things had been different. If only we hadn’t left Egypt. Things are so bad here that anything else is preferable.
Related to this is that it falsifies the past. Looking back we tend to glorify the past. "There we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread." Life was much better back then. We had all we needed to eat: meat and bread. In the parallel account in Numbers 11, they mention not just meat and bread, but fish and cucumbers, melons, leeks, onion and garlic. You can imagine their mouths watering as they talked about it. But they never mention the groaning in great hardship that we read about in chapter 3. They don’t mention the slave drivers who controlled their every waking moment. They don’t mention the execution of every male child who was born to them. No, they look back and glorify and romanticise what happened before. You see that in Churches, don’t you? People looking back and saying how wonderful it all was 20 or 30 or even 50 years ago. Complaining that things have changed so much. As though there were never any problems 30 years ago. But we all suffer from selective memory when it comes to recollecting the past.