Summary: The remedy for rebellion against God is found in the one who was lifted up on the cross.
Remedy for Rebellion
In the 70s, when I was studying for my Ph.D at the University of Iowa, one of the books I studied was titled Why Men Rebel (Princeton 1970). In it the author, Ted Robert Gurr, tries to explain why riots, rebellions, and civil wars occur. He cites statistics of nations that have tried to overthrow their governments, usually through violent means.
He makes lots of interesting observations, but I am particularly intrigued by his claim that the primary cause of rebellion is discontent. He says that discontent arises from a feeling that people are being deprived of something they expect or feel they are entitled to. As a simple example, let’s say that fast-food flippers at Burger King get $1 more than fast-food flippers at McDonalds. When McDonalds workers find out, they say “we are doing the same kind of work; we ought to get the same pay.” They become discontent because of that difference in pay. And it is that discrepancy between what people in a society have and what they think they deserve that drives the feeling of discontent. Gurr calls it relative deprivation.
He used a graph to explain what he meant. The line of what people have remains flat while the line representing what people want goes up. And you can substitute whatever you want on that graph: wages, health benefits, working conditions, education, or whatever.
We could probably use that theory to explain the discontent of the people of Israel in the 20th and 21st chapters of Numbers. They ran out of food. They didn’t have any meat. They experienced hardship. In Chapter 20 they ran out of water. The image they had of their new land was one of fresh produce and lots of water to raise it. But now, according to 20:2, “there was no water for the congregation.” There was a discrepancy between what they had and what they expected, so they felt deprived of what they thought belonged to them.
Gurr’s theory of relative deprivation helps to explain some things about conditions in our world. It is an interesting theory, but it doesn’t go far enough. It does not fully explain what was going on with the people of Israel. And it doesn’t account for the cross of Jesus.
The Bible records several stories about the complaints of these people. In our passage for today, we learn that they ran out of water and they quarreled with Moses. Moses lashed out at them and failed to follow God’s instructions. As a result, Moses and Aaron were not permitted to enter the promised land. In chapter 20:12, God faults Moses for not trusting in him to bring about what God said he would do. When we get to chapter 21 we read that the people became impatient. In the Hebrew language it means “short of soul.” Their faith was no longer as strong as it should have been. Then we also read that the people spoke against God and against Moses.
But when we read Psalm 78, we see what was really going on. It was not just discontent, mistrust, or impatience. It was called rebellion.
Interspersed between statements about God’s promises, gifts and provisions in this Psalm, we read words such as these: