In today’s chapters all Israel, including Moses and Aaron, suffer for their impatience with God’s timetable. He simply doesn’t do things fast enough and so they take things into their own hands. God doesn’t give up on them as a result, but continues to lead and bless them. Yet their actions have consequences.
Moses and Aaron in chapter 20 seem to forget that the miracles which have happened through them are the work of God, not some near-magical power at their disposal. Back in Exodus 17:7, at Hope, God had instructed Moses to strike the rock and water came out. Rather than praying to God to provide water, Moses seems to act as if he himself is the miracle worker, as though he knows how to do this now. God seems to honour his intention of providing for the people’s needs, but there’s a bitterness to the water as something between God and Moses is soured.
Perhaps there’s a constant danger in assuming that because we’ve seen how God’s acted once, we can take it for granted that he will always do the same thing. God may have other ideas.
Then in chapter 21 the people complain against Moses and against God. They’re fed up with a manna-and-quail diet, and tired of the wilderness. Slavery and genocide in Egypt are now a distant enough memory that they can be seen through rose-tinted glasses. At least there you had a house, and garlic to go with your gravel – textured bread. God reminds them of their need for constant depending on him. He sends snakes among them, but also provides a miraculous antidote to the venom (which much later becomes an image used to help us understand the work of Jesus on the cross). It’s worth noting that he doesn’t take the snakes away; he leaves the problem there, but also provides the answer. In that way Israel will be reminded of the lasting need to depend on God for guidance and protection as well as for provision of food.
I don’t believe that all our problems are sent by God to test and try us, but I am aware that I tend to look too quickly for God to take away the problem rather than asking him to be in the middle of the problems with me and provide an answer.
There’s another side to the challenge to our ‘go it alone’ tendencies here as well. In chapter 19 there’s another of those sections we find it hard to comprehend, that of the red heifer, a complex ritual to give a means of cleansing those who have come into contact with death and so have become ritually unclean.
As before, we’re so far from the world of thought that’s behind this that it’s hard to take anything from it. But there is one thing that struck me. For cleansing, those who are unclean must depend not only on the water produced by the ritual but also on the action of others to sprinkle them with the water. Those who are already clean are to sprinkle water on those who are not, to cleanse them who in turn can cleanse others.
We depend not only on God but on one another for healthy spiritual lives. And that’s all the more true when life is difficult and faith is a challenge; even more so when as with uncleanness, we feel cut off from the very people we need to depend on to help us. Perhaps this passage is a reminder to reach out more willingly and fully to one another in blessing and restoration.
In short – depend on God, depend on each other.