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B'Midbar/Numbers 21:4 And they travelled from Mt. Hor [on] the road [to] the Sea of Reeds ... and the spirit of the people became impatient on the road.
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Aharon has just died at Mt Hor and Israel has roundly defeated the king of Arad who attacked them. But their next move is surprising. They head south and west - apparently away rather than towards - their destination, the Promised Land. This is the road back towards the Sea of Reeds, perhaps in the direction of modern-day Eilat at the northern end of the Gulf of Aquaba. Some of the English versions show the tension as they translate the last phrase of our text. The NJPS suggests the fairly mild, "the people grew restive on the journey", while the CJB offers the more robust, "the people's tempers grew short because of the detour." What is going on and why are the people so upset? The Torah tells us that although Moshe asked Edom for permission to travel through their land on the King's Highway, Edom refused andHaShem told Moshe, "I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau" (D'varim 2:5, NJPS). Israel is now having to make a large detour to go around the land of Edom in order to approach the Land from the east bank of the Jordan.
Although the last phrase of our text is only four words long, those four words have quite a variety of meaning and attract some attention from the commentators. The verb - the Qal 3fs form of the root - has two distinct families of meaning. Perhaps the best known is the transitive "to harvest or reap", used 36 six times in the Tanakh, from which we get the noun , the harvest but, according to David Clines, a second intransitive set of meanings occurs 15 times: to be short, be curbed, become impatient, displeased, be narrow.1 Our text is one of the latter as there is no direct object. The subject, on the other hand, is a construct: , "soul, life, breath, being, spirit"; and , "the people"; so together "the spirit of the people. The final word, - the prefix pronoun , most frequently "in, on," with the noun , "way, road, path, passage" from the root , "to tread, trample, march, advance"FootNoreRef(2) - gives us some idea of the level of physical effort involved, marching or trampling along the sandy trail through the wilderness in the boiling heat.
Rashi tells us that the trouble is "the hardship of the road, which became difficult for them. They said, 'We were close to entering the Land, but now we turn to our rear. In this manner, our ancestors turned around and languished thirty-eight years.'" He suggests that the preposition does not here mean 'on' - they grew impatient on the road - but rather: they grew impatient because of the road. While Rashi may be right about the disappointment, I'm not sure that it was travel fatigue as such that caused the trouble; after all, they had been this way before, getting to Mt. Hor, and had experienced plenty of desert marches during the past thirty eight years. I think that the Bekhor Shor is nearer the mark when he says, "they had expected to enter the Land immediately and to eat of its produce", but now they were walking away again. Abravanel agrees, suggesting that "they were afraid they would have to spend another forty years in the wilderness."
Thomas Dozeman points out that our text introduces the final murmuring story of the desert wandering. The specific complaint in the next verse about food and drink "is presented as incoherent ranting" and "resembles the first murmuring story after Israel's departure from Sinai." This means that "the stories of Israel's wilderness journey from Sinai to the plains of Moab are framed by instances of murmuring and successful intercession by Moshe."3 Richard Elliott Friedman points out that the last time the verb is used is in that exact first murmuring, when HaShem responds somewhat sarcastically to the complaint about food and Moshe's rather doubtful comment that it would take an awful lot of meat to feed the whole camp by saying "Is there a limit to the L-RD's power? [Lit. Is HaShem's hand getting short?] You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not!" (B'Midbar 11:23, NJPS). "All of this is doubly ironic", he adds, "because back in Egypt, the people were unable to respond to Moshe's announcement of their coming freedom owing to 'shortage of spirit' (Shemot 6:9)."
RabbiHirsch takes the argument on another important step by explaining that " and cannot stand the waiting for the desired end to be reached. Here, especially the , the spirit of life urging forwards could not bear patiently the long long road to the longed-for goal. There was no real concrete cause for dissatisfaction, they had all their requirements." The people got irritated and lost their tempers because they were fed up with waiting and couldn't stand the thought of further delay. As Dennis Olson records, "detours and delays often frustrate people and the old generation of Israelites is no exception."4 Waiting is not something that comes naturally to mankind, particularly when we have expectations or are under pressure.
Two years into his reign as king of Israel, Saul had rallied the troops of Israel at Gilgal, facing a huge Philistine army. The conditions were not good: "When the men of Israel saw that they were in trouble -- for the troops were hard pressed -- the people hid in caves, among thorns, among rocks, in tunnels, and in cisterns. Some Hebrews crossed the Jordan, to the territory of Gad and Gilead" (1 Samuel 13:6-7, NJPS). Samuel had told Saul to wait for him at Gilgal, to come down and offer sacrifices and tell him what to do, but "he waited seven days, the time that Samuel had set. But when Samuel failed to come to Gilgal, and the people began to scatter" (v. 8, NJPS). What was he supposed to do now - his army was scattering and breaking up. Even though he was not a priest and knew that this was outside his remit, Saul went ahead and offered the burnt offering. When Samuel then arrived, he somewhat lamely explained that "I saw the people leaving me and scattering; you had not come at the appointed time, and the Philistines had gathered at Michmas. I thought the Philistines would march down against me at Gilgal before I had entreated the L-RD, so I forced myself to present the burnt offering" (vv. 11-12, NJPS). His impatience cost him his kingdom as Samuel told him in no uncertain terms: "But now your dynasty will not endure. The L-RD will seek out a man after His own heart, and the L-RD will appoint him ruler over His people, because you did not abide by what the L-RD had commanded you" (v. 14, NJPS)!
Just as Yeshua told the disciples to "wait for the promise of the Father" (Acts 1:4, ESV) in the days coming up to Shavuot, we too are a people who are commanded to wait. Rav Sha'ul reminded the communities in Rome that "we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we continue waiting eagerly to be made sons - that is, to have our whole bodies redeemed and set free" (Romans 8:23, CJB). We "wait for His Son Yeshua, whom He raised from the dead, to appear from heaven and rescue us from the impending fury of God's judgment" (1 Thessalonians 1:10, CJB), keeping ourselves in G-d's love as we "wait for our Lord Yeshua the Messiah to give [us] the mercy that leads to eternal life" (Jude 21, CJB).
As we wait, we watch what is going on around us and like the Psalmist of old, we see "the peace of the wicked" (Psalm 73:3). Like Jeremiah we ask, "Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the treacherous all thrive?" (Jeremiah 12:1, CJB). Sha'ul warned Timothy that "the time is coming when people will not have patience for sound teaching, but will cater to their passions and gather around themselves teachers who say whatever their ears itch to hear" (2 Timothy 4:3, CJB). But G-d has already prepared an answer for us, His command to wait for His timing: "'Therefore wait for me,' declares the LORD, 'for the day I will stand up to testify. I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms and to pour out my wrath on them-- all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger'" (Zephaniah 3:8, NIV). He will resolve all these issues in His good time and attempts on our part to force His hand or demand action will just result in our frustration. Like our people on the road from Mt. Hor, we may find the road difficult, we will wonder at times where we are going and why what we expected hasn't happened, but we must not copy their response. No incoherent ranting!. Rav Sha'ul again: "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer" (Romans 12:12, ESV). This is no easy task, but we can do it: "Always be humble, gentle and patient, bearing with one another in love" (Ephesians 4:2, CJB).
1. - David J. A. Clines (ed.) The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), page 400.
2. - Clines, pages 82-83.
3. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), pages 773-774.
4. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 135.
Further Study: Philippians 3:20; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; Hebrews 9:27-28
Application: Do you become impatient in the journey? Do you long to get there now and can't bear to wait along the way? Do you ever find yourself saying, "here we go again ..." and then sitting up and howling? You need to relax and talk to the Boss. He has it all in hand - ask Him to give you the grace to take the long view and leave the detail to Him.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2020
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