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11. Opposition In The Wilderness, Pt. 1, (Num. 11:1-12:15)

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We continue our study of the Israelites’ wilderness journey. We have already studied their journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. Now we follow them from Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan, the promised land. During this extensive journey, they would have been exposed to the significant dangers of the wilderness, such as the nature of the terrain and climate, wild animals, enemy tribes, food and water, and the many other day-to-day practical realities associated with such a vast crowd of people traversing such a barren land.

In spiritual terms, as we wander through the spiritual wilderness of this world, we are exposed to danger as well – danger from outside our company of fellow-travelers and danger from inside. Externally, we are vulnerable to the attacks of our arch enemy, Satan, who takes particular aim at those who are seeking to make a difference for God. The more your life is like the world, the less Satan is interested in you because you already have one foot in his camp – you’re no threat to his agenda. But the more your life is a reflection of Christ, then Satan has you as a target to attack (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8-9).

Internally, we are vulnerable to attack, particularly those of us who are engaged in the leadership of God’s people. Wilderness journeys are not easy and our fellow-travelers can and do, from time to time, become weary and unsatisfied. When that happens, we face disputes within our congregations, families, friends etc. and even outright opposition against us personally (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12; 2 Cor. 11; Phil. 1:28; 2 Cor. 7:5).

The subject of this study is: “Responding to personal opposition.” The primary theological principle that we learn from this study is that the right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you.

Specifically, this experience in the wilderness deals with attacks that originate from opposition within the ranks. Opposition can be burdensome for us all, especially for leaders and especially when that opposition comes from inside the people of God. The first theological principle that we learn from this passage is…

I. Opposition From Within Can Easily Produce Discouragement (Num. 11)

Complaints in the ranks can become so discouraging. The Israelites had been at Sinai just over a year. Hardly, had they received the law of God, hardly had they fabricated the tabernacle of God, hardly had they packed up to move on from Sinai, hardly were they on the way for 3 days with the cloud of the Lord over them by day, than the people “began complaining openly before the Lord about hardship” and, in response, God “consumed” some of them with fire (11:1). Only through Moses’ intercession was the fire extinguished and the rest spared (11:2-3).

Among the Israelites was “a mixed multitude” (11:4), literally “a rabble, riffraff,” non-Israelites (presumably Egyptians) who accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt. Perhaps they too had suffered under the Pharaoh in Egypt and, when the Israelites made their escape, they took the opportunity to escape with them, perhaps hoping for a better future. These were unbelievers, who thought they would benefit from the Israelites and their God. They soon proved to be a constant thorn in Moses’ side, a greedy, discontented group of hangers-on.

Hardly had they been in the desert for long and they “had a strong craving for other food” (11:4). They lusted intensely for the food they had been used to in Egypt. These kinds of people always infect the rest - people who don’t belong there but are going along for the ride. People who don’t have the same faith, the same goals and values. People who, often, aren’t believers at all – they are “mixed” in. People who only want personal benefit without any personal cost. People who seem to always drag others down to their level. Once this factious group started complaining of course it soon spread to the Israelites, who also wept again and said: “Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish we ate freely in Egypt, along with the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now our appetite is gone; there’s nothing to look at but this manna” (11:4-6).

When a leader faces a group of complainers long enough, you can get discouraged. Rankling among the fringe crowd, the ragtag group, burdens you down and drags everyone else down to their spiritual level. Their spiritual condition comes out under pressure. Some aren’t believers at all and they drag true believers down with them. When their hopes are not immediately satisfied, they turn on you. They’re always comparing their present circumstances with “the good old days.” The present for them is never as good as the past. Funny that such good old days should produce a people with such bad attitudes toward the present circumstances, isn’t it?

The issue here was over the food that God had provided for them, “the manna” (11:7). They “ground it on a pair of grinding stones or crushed it in a mortar; then boiled it in a cooking pot and shaped it into cakes. It tasted like a pastry cooked with the finest oil” (11:8). They prepared and cooked it the same way and it always tasted the same. “Moses heard the people, family after family, weeping at the entrance of their tents” (11:10a), standing around complaining to each other and “the Lord was very angry; Moses was also provoked” (11:10b). The scene was a disgrace among God’s people who should have been so thankful for God’s redemption and provision. Instead, they were grumbling, standing around in private, family groups, bemoaning their fate. Rebellious factions were agitating for action. Eventually, this can wear a leader down.

Moses wanted his people to rise to the occasion, to know the God he had encountered at the burning bush and at the top of Mt. Sinai, to rejoice in God’s provision of the manna and the quail, to thank God for his protection and guidance by the cloud and the fire, to grow in their relationship to and understanding of God. But instead these people weren’t getting it. They didn’t get the vision. They hadn’t bought into the experience. As soon as things got a bit tough, they wanted out. So, we can understand how Moses felt and reacted (11:11-15). He was about as low as it gets - the complaints were weighing him down. The more he tried to inspire them, instruct them, and direct them the more they became a burden to him.

School teachers can relate to this. You pour yourself into your students only to be dragged down by a few who don’t want to learn, don't want to obey. Church leaders can relate to this. They give themselves day after day to the service of the church, often going beyond the call of duty, only to suffer, sometimes, vicious complaints and accusations.

There always seems to be a rebellious, rabble crowd in every group of any significant size. They’re in your office and in your school. They’re in our churches, Bible colleges, mission agencies. All of us at some point have to decide how to deal with the rabble. Will we join their complaints and rebellious attitude, or will we stand firm for what we believe? Every church has a mixed crowd of believers and unbelievers, of complainers and workers, of happy people and despondent people, of cooperative people and uncooperative people, people with a positive outlook and people with a negative outlook.

I’ve had to decide sometimes what to do about the rabble. And I’ve found that unless it involves a genuine cause (e.g. a doctrinal matter or matter of morality) you’re best to separate yourself from the complainers or else you might soon find yourself becoming like them, complaining and whining. It’s so easy to let the opposers get the best of you.

Moses expressed his feelings in an earnest petition to the Lord. He had become discouraged to the point that, in his view, the Lord had brought this “trouble” on him, the Lord was “angry” with him, the Lord had laid these people on him as a “burden” (11:11). He questioned God, as though it was God’s fault (11:12-15). “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth so you should tell me, ‘Carry them at your breast, as a nursing mother carries a baby, to the land that you swore to give their ancestors?’” (11:12). In desperation he pleads: “Where can I get meat to give all these people?...I can’t carry all these people by myself. They are too much for me. If you’re going to treat me like this, please kill me right now if I have found favor with you, and don’t let me see my misery anymore” (11:13-15). Just as the people were disenchanted with Moses and God, so now Moses was disenchanted with the people. You can hear the pain in Moses’ words. You can understand what he must have been thinking: “Dealing with Pharaoh was a piece of cake compared to these people. The Red Sea was nothing compared to these people.”

And God responded to Moses plea (11:16-20). Moses complained that the people were a burden and God relieved the burden by appointing 70 elders and officers to help him (11:16-17). Of course he couldn’t bear this burden alone. He needed a leadership team of elders who could assist him. “They will help you bear the burden of the people, so that you do not have to bear it by yourself” (11:17).

Furthermore, in response to the people’s complaint about the food, God promised them meat the next day, which they would eat for an entire month “‘not for one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes nauseating to you – because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and wept before him, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (11:18-20). To despise God’s leader by moaning and complaining is to despise the Lord himself, just as Paul’s persecution of the church was persecution against the Lord himself (Acts 9:4).

Moses is in disbelief (11:21-22). “I’ve got 600,000 men here and you’re going to feed them with meat? What are you going to do? Are you going to slaughter flocks and herds for them? Or, will all the fish in the sea be gathered together for them? How is that possible? Like, it’s hard enough as it is without these over-the-top promises.”

Then God answers with resounding assurance. “Is the Lord’s arm weak? (11:23a). In other words, “Do you think that I can’t do this, Moses? Do you doubt me? Now you will see whether what I say will happen to you or not (11:23b).” Moses and the people needed to remember that He is the God of the 10 plagues, He is the God of the exodus, He is the God of the Red Sea, He is the God of Sinai.

And the Lord sent quail as far as the eye could see - one day’s journey each way and about one meter deep (11:31). And “while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the Lord’s anger burned against the people, and the Lord struck them with a very severe plague” (11:33). And there, Moses buried the rebels, the people who had complained to God and doubted God and His leader, all for the sake of some meat to eat (11:34).

There are times when God will give you “what you asked for but send leanness into your soul” (Ps. 106:15). There are situations which arise where God provides a way out but there are consequences, as we saw last time.

Personal attacks can cause us heavy burdens as we journey through this wilderness. Often those attacks come from within. We’ve already seen, first, that opposition from within can easily cause discouragement. Now second…

II. Opposition From Within Sometimes Involves Betrayal (Num. 12:1-15)

I don't know why or when Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Maybe Zipporah had died. In any event, it gave occasion for Moses’ older brother and sister to “speak against him” (12:1), to start a behind-the-back campaign to tear him down. This was Aaron’s and Miriam’s opportunity to lower Moses and exalt themselves. God had said that the Israelites were not to intermarry with the Canaanites; they were not to enter into spiritual unequal yokes, for how can a follower of the one true God marry a worshipper of idols? But God did not prohibit them from marrying people of other nationalities, like Zipporah who was a Cushite (an Ethiopian).

It turns out that Aaron’s and Miriam’s complaint had nothing to do with who Moses had married. That was just an excuse to launch a smear campaign so that they could try to seize control of the leadership. This was politics at its dirtiest – betrayal from within. It seems that if you want to get ahead in politics, one way to do so is to tear down your opponents. That’s what Aaron and Miriam attempted to do to Moses – tear him down.

Aaron’s and Miriam’s rationale was that they could speak for God just as much as Moses could. Their word, they reasoned, was just as authoritative as Moses’. “Does the Lord speak only through Moses? Does He not also speak through us?” (12:2a). The inference is: “Who does Moses think he is? He doesn’t have exclusive rights to God. God has spoken through us just as much as through him. We’re just as entitled to tell the people what to do as he is.”

What was God’s reaction? “… and the Lord heard it” (12:2b). When you read that comment by the narrator it has a distinctly ominous overtone. They were speaking against God’s man and God is a loyal God. He hears what we say against others and against his leaders. Perhaps Aaron and Miriam felt snubbed because Moses had married this woman without consulting them. They may have reasoned: “We are his older siblings. Surely he should have consulted us before he got married. After all, we have more experience about life than he does” Regardless of their rationale, they reacted with a degree of hostility. They weren’t going to stand by and let this happen without taking some sort of corrective action. Pride raised its ugly head and said: “We can do what Moses does. We are going to give him a run for his money. We’ll have a crack at the leadership of this crowd. If this is the way he makes decisions – arbitrarily and without consultation with us - these people need new leaders, and who better than us?”

The author now gives us a bit of inside information: “Moses was a very humble man, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” (12:3). Remember our thesis: The right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you. What a contrast between Moses’ attitude and that of Aaron and Miriam! You wouldn’t even think they were related.

Now God vindicates Moses. “Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, ‘You three come out to the tent of meeting’” (12:4). God summoned them to meet with him at the entrance to the tabernacle, just like children are sometimes summoned to the principal’s office at school. That was alright with Moses. He was used to meeting with God. He delighted in meeting with God. This posed no threat or fear for him. But it must have sent chills up Aaron’s and Miriam’s spines.

God tells Aaron and Miriam to step forward: “Listen to what I say. If there is a prophet among you from the Lord, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream” (12:6). God explains first that anyone through whom God speaks to the people (i.e. a prophet) will see Him (i.e. through a vision) and hear Him (i.e. through a dream). “That’s how it works,” God says. “I establish those who are authorized to speak on my behalf. They don't decide to set themselves up as my spokesperson. I do that. And I let them know very clearly that such is the case.” But, “not so with my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my household. I speak with him directly, openly, and not in riddles; he sees the form of the Lord” (12:7-8a). “It’s my house and Moses serves me faithfully there,” God says. “I can trust him. And when I speak with him it’s not through a vision or dream. Oh, no! My relationship with him is much closer than that. I speak with him face to face. He even sees my form.”

So, God’s question to Aaron and Miriam is this: “Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (12:8b). He says, “The relationship that I have with Moses is never going to be usurped by anyone – certainly not you. He is my servant and you’re not going to take his place. Doesn’t that just scare you to death, to even hint at a criticism of my servant, Moses?”

And God’s judgement falls. “The Lord’s anger burned against them, and he left” (12:9). And as the Lord departed, he made his point loud and clear. “Miriam’s skin suddenly became diseased, resembling snow” (12:10). When Aaron turned and saw what had happened to his sister, he got it. They had overstepped the mark. And he did the only right thing in that situation - he confessed their sin and their foolishness (12:11). “What were we thinking?” he says. He begs for Miriam’s healing. “Please don't let her be like a dead baby whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb” (12:12).

Once more Moses is the gracious intercessor. Moses did what you would expect the humblest man on earth to do. He interceded before God for his sister’s healing (12:13). Despite being betrayed by his own flesh and blood, despite being slandered by his own brother and sister, he pleaded with God to heal his sister. And once more, God responds to Moses intercession. Justice and holiness said: “She will bear the consequences of her sin and shame by being set apart in solitary confinement outside the camp in disgrace for seven days.” But grace and mercy said: “After that she may be brought back in again” (12:14-15). And all Israel remained in that place until the 7 days were up. Her shame was public – everyone knew it.

As we noticed last time, (1) God’s grace does not exempt you from the consequences of your sin (Ex. 32:15-29); (2) The only relief from sin is confession and forgiveness (Ex. 32:30-35); (3) After confession and forgiveness, we receive God’s assurance (Ex. 33:11-34:9). Such is the case here with Aaron and Miriam. Thank God that He is gracious and, though there are consequences to our sins, he forgives us when we confess and repent.

Sometimes public, congregational discipline is necessary. Sometimes sin is of such a nature that church discipline has to be carried out publicly. Everyone needs to know that acts of willful, unconfessed sin incur God’s judgement. God will not let you get away indefinitely with open defiance or defaming His servants.

There’s a good lesson for godly leaders here too. Godly leaders don't try to defend themselves – they leave that to God. He defends them: “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). The action of a godly leader is to follow the example of Jesus who “when he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:23).

Let’s beware of betraying a godly leader. God may step in, particularly if your betrayal or criticism is false, and if it is you’ll fall flat on your face. Leaders aren’t perfect but be careful about accusing them. If you do know something about a leader’s life that needs to be investigated, let such an accusation be done only with the corroboration of 2 or 3 witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). And, those of us who are leaders, let’s not make a federal case out of everything you hear said about you. Wherever possible, leave it with the Lord, unless, of course, it is something that is true or that detracts from your ability to lead.

Final Remarks

This passage shows us: (1) Opposition from within can easily produce discouragement, and (2) Opposition from within sometimes involves betrayal. The practical application of this for us is that the right response to personal attacks is humility, while trusting God to vindicate you.

Now, let’s draw some concluding principles concerning leadership…

1. Godly leadership isn't easy – nobody said it would be. You’ll face rebellion, opposition, criticism, betrayal, and outright rejection. You’ll be the object of attack, not just from outside but, even worse, from inside. Beware of inside jobs – they come out of left field.

2. Godly leadership has its perils and burdens. You’ll sometimes wonder why you agreed to be a leader. You might even be so desperate as to ask God to take your life. You’ll face repeated discouragement.

3. Godly leaders are a prime object of Satan’s attack. Satan will attack you through the grumblings and disloyalty of those you try to lead. And it will irritate you like a thorn in your side (cf. 2 Cor. 12:7-9). This is true spiritual warfare. It’s real and it can be deadly. But in all of this…

4. Godly leaders can count on God to sustain them. He will vindicate you and he will defend you. When people say things that are untrue, when they complain and grumble, when those you thought you could count on betray you, God is your shield and defender.

Perhaps God uses these times, as he did with Paul, to keep us humble and dependent. Thank God that He is faithful and will vindicate us at the right time.

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