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Shemot/Exodus 16:12 I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel ...
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Following the general rule that "nouns with a prefixed usually denote the action of the verbal root from which they are derived" 1, the noun here translated 'complaints' - is derived from the root , "to complain or murmur". Davidson gives the noun the meanings "a murmuring or complaining", while the JPS prefers "grumbling". Even though the noun is plural,Targum Onkelos makes it singular - murmuring - and paraphrases away the anthropomorphism by making the verb passive: "The murmuring of the sons of Israel has been heard before Me" (Drazin & Wagner). This softens the Israelites offence by suggesting that they were not complaining directly against HaShem, but only against His words or commands; more, HaShem doesn't actually hear the complaint, rather He is aware of it. The Mekhilta seems to disagree, putting these words in the mouth of HaShem: "You have asked for bread; since it is impossible for human beings to live without bread, I have given it to you. Now you turn round and, out of a full stomach, you ask for meat!", clearly feeling that the request for meat is an affront to HaShem, as if the Israelites are questioning His ability to feed them properly.
TheRamban, looking back to the complaint - "If only we had died by the hand of the L-rd in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!" (16:3, JPS), explains that our text "makes clear that the manna is not an act of G-d's freely given love, nor something that they deserved (which it was originally intended to be), but a response to the sin of complaining." The Israelites sinned because they did not believe in G-d's ability to carry out His promises to provide for them and bring them into the Land; the grumbling was an open expression of their unbelief, so although HaShem had to feed them in order that they would physically survive through the desert, the Ramban suggests that this becomes a matter of duty or necessity rather than the bestowal of love and relationship that G-d had wanted it to be. Confirming some of the Ramban's feelings, Sarna - while providing an excuse "that livestock is the most valuable possession of the pastoralist, who can seldom be induced to part with an animal" and that other animals may already have been lost on the journey - comments that "the cry for bread was reasonable; the craving for meat was not." The people would not feed themselves from their own flocks and herds and were insisting that G-d should provide both bread and meat; effectively they were calling Him on His promise and demanding service!
How often do we find or place ourselves in the same wrong position before G-d? He graciously provides the air we breathe, the food that we eat, the money that we earn, our very life comes from Him. Yet either because we do not like where we are, are not satisfied with what we have, or think that it is time to move on, we adopt an attitude of complaint, grumbling against G-d, reviewing what we consider to be His promises to us before Him in an accusing tone of voice as we have the right to challenge His wisdom and authority. Clearly there is a balance to be struck here, for Isaiah prophetically speaks to all generations when he says, "You who call upon Adonai, give yourselves no rest; and give Him no rest until He restores Yerushalayim and makes it a praise on earth" (Isaiah 62:6-7, CJB). Yeshua taught the talmidim about persistence in prayer by using the illustration of the widow allowing the corrupt judge no peace until he granted her justice: "Because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wear me out" (Luke 18:5, NASB). On the other hand, Rav Sha'ul tellingly reminds us, "Nor let us try the L-rd, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:9-12, NASB).
Nechama Leibowitz sees the provision of the manna as a test that G-d was using to challenge our people during the years of the desert experience. She suggests that in one of two ways, either by the monotony of the diet and their inability to provide an alternative, or in the potential idleness with nothing else to do, G-d was challenging the people over their relationship with Him. By forcing them to be totally dependent - over and over, every day for forty years - G-d was testing their hearts: "that I may prove them, whether they will walk in My law or not" (Devarim 16:4). In Egypt, although forced by a taskmaster to work, make bricks, finish their allotted tasks, they nevertheless imagined that they had some responsibility for their own destiny, their own livelyhoods, even if that boiled down to choosing what they ate for supper. Now that they were free, the people were discovering that they were totally dependent on G-d - as in fact they always had been, although they had not realised it - and they did not like it. "The trial then consists of living in continual expectation, in outright dependence on G-d." This same trial is ours today; to acknowledge our dependence on G-d, feeling and gratefully receiving His grace in our lives, or to struggle to produce our own bread from the ground, the while complaining to G-d because we don't have everything we think we should.
1 - Andrew E. Steinmann, "Intermediate Hebrew Grammar" (Virtualbookwork.com, 2004), 1-58939-611-1
Further Study: Lamentations 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:14-18
Application: Ask yourself whether you are a grumbler or a beseecher. Are you protecting your rights or seeking the advancement of the kingdom, often through or for someone else? The response to our prayer is often conditioned upon our attitude as much as our motives and we need to remember who we are!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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