Numbers 17


If [you] do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will [you] be persuaded though one rise from the dead. - Luke 16:31


Back in my commuting-to-work days1, there were two ladies on my staff – I’ll call them Sally and Judy. They began their actuarial careers about the same day; they became closest of friends; and two or so years later, they ended their actuarial careers within weeks of each other. Sally had resigned in order to enroll at Harvard Divinity School, and is today ministering in Japan; I had the unpleasant experience of escorting Judy to the door one day, for fear she would cause internal damage if I had permitted her to give notice. They had each had Exit Interviews, and Human Resources had batched the two interviews together, and I received them simultaneously.


The so-called summary of an Exit Interview was about a dozen pages. I skimmed through most of it. (An Exit Interview rarely told me anything I didn’t already know.) But I spent significant time – perhaps even an hour – pondering the comparison to the way they responded to one particular question. The question was followed by two boxes (one for Yes and one for No), followed by a space for comments.


Did your job provide opportunities for advancement?


Sally checked the Yes box, and commented that the opportunity was there, but she wasn’t willing to invest the time into preparing for the exams. Judy checked the No box and said that they required you to pass exams in order to advance. Sally and Judy had the same set of facts before them, and they had the same comprehension of the facts. They wrote the same comment. Yet one answered Yes, and the other answered the same question No, and both believed in her heart she was telling the truth.


A mere difference in attitude can completely skew your entire sense of whether the circumstances of your life create an opportunity for you, or whether those same circumstances create a life so unbearable that escape is the only solution.


I stayed at my desk, and re-read the story of Aaron’s rod in Numbers 17. Israel was a mere two years past a great deliverance from Egypt. And they had a tremendous opportunity before them. And if they had only believed the minority report from Joshua and Caleb, they would have already fulfilled that opportunity. But rather, they spent the time complaining. They viewed an opportunity that required a season in the desert as no opportunity at all.


Numbers 11:1 – the wilderness life is hard; 11:4 – they wanted better food; 12:1 – Moses’ wife is Ethiopian; Chapters 13-14 – we cannot prevail over the people of Canaan; 14:39 – we tried to repent, but God didn’t deliver; 16:1 – The Levites want to manage the priesthood their own way; 16:41 – the people side with the Levites in their power grab.


The truth is that complainers complain – it’s what they do. It is futile to try to satisfy a complainer. You can momentarily quiet a complainer. But complaining is what a complainer does best. And human nature tends to gravitate people to the activities they are good at.


The people complained to God, and they complained about God to Moses. Korah, along with Aaron and Miriam complained to Moses about Moses. Even Moses, who was not by nature a complainer (Numbers 12:3) was complaining to God that he was placed into the middle.


God had a plan to end the complaints (Numbers 17:5b). The plan was simple enough – Each tribe would contribute a shepherd’s rod. And God would cause the rod of the tribe He is choosing to blossom. Joseph appears to be one consolidated tribe in this exercise because the house of Levi submitted a rod, and the total number of rods was twice enumerated to be twelve. But it hardly matters: The house of Joseph was not the people God chose to be Priests. Aaron’s name appeared on the rod contributed by the Levites.


There are two types of complainers: those who complain with regard to a specific issue, and those who have a complaining heart. Since man cannot judge the heart, it requires wisdom to discern. For complainers of the heart claim to be concerned about an issue, and they tend to behave that way too. But complainers of the heart have an insatiable appetite for issues. Numbers is full of complaints, and some are concerned about an issue. It’s interesting to watch how God replies.


When God acts, God ACTS. Aaron’s rod was the one that blossomed. And bringing a dead stick of wood back to life should be proof enough that God had acted. But God went further – the blossoms sprouted almonds, and the almonds were already ripe. This, of course did not end the complaining. Complaining Israel merely concluded that God – by selecting Aaron – had a plan of death for Israel. Numbers 17:12 almost sounds like the losing party of an election warning America: You have spoken, and we will honor. But keep in mind that these are the calamities you voted for.


God had already told Israel Aaron was his choice. But by reaffirming that decision, God exposed them as complainers of the heart, and not as those with an issue related complaint.2 In Numbers 17:10, God’s decision was announced. In Numbers 17:12, they started complaining again. They complained that God’s will was so unbearable that escape was the only solution.


There is a difference between people who are motivated because of an issue, and people who are motivated by a desire to complain. Jesus complained about being thirsty – because He was thirsty. Israel was complaining that they wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. And of course it takes wisdom to discern the difference between a complainer and someone who is addressing issues. With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, I suggest the following clues:


·         If you demand the solution come from someone else, and not from within yourself, then you might be a complainer.


·         If someone else actually does solve the issue, but you find that a consequence of the solution produces a second issue to complain about, then you might be a complainer.


·         If your happiness depends on the circumstances around you, and not solely within yourself, then you might be a complainer.


·         If you spend more time anticipating the next issue to complain about, and less time enjoying the benefits that are before you, then you might be a complainer.


·         If you spend any time explaining away the act that God has just performed, then you might be a complainer.


1 By vocation, I am an actuary. The trade association of actuaries has its own training and education process not available in colleges and universities. The education goals are validated through exams; there are ten exams and each exam must be passed. There are no electives. To put these exams in context, about 500 hours of preparation goes into one exam, and the pass rate is typically between 35% and 40%. A failed exam must be repeated. Though production on the job is important, exam progress is vital. Missing a work deadline here and there can be overlooked. Failure to advance in the exams is grounds for dismissal at many jobs.


2 Examples of issue related complaint appear in Numbers 9:6, where a man wanted to celebrate the Passover notwithstanding he was unclean by carcass, and the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 36).


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