Why Did the Jews Complain?

 

Remember the story of the Exodus, of the Jews’ leaving Egypt? From the beginning of their journey, when they encountered the Reed Sea, they complained; they saw the Egyptians pursuing them in chariots, and they were certain they would die. It didn’t occur to them that they would be rescued by G-d. When they were saved, the Torah says that “they had faith in G-d and his servant Moses.”

But did they?

When they left Egypt so quickly, they were unable to bring much food or drinkable water. So, they complained again. Moses asked G-d what they could drink, and G-d showed Moses a way to make the bitter water sweet. So, their faith in G-d was restored. Right?

Not quite.

When they had run out of food, they feared they would starve to death; they assumed G-d had brought them out from Egypt only for them to die in the desert. So they complained. Again. In response, G-d had the manna rain down from heaven. Moses reminded the Jews that G-d had provided the manna, and that they “. . . would know it was G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt and in the morning you shall behold the glory of G-d, because He has heard your complaints against Him.” One has to wonder how long G-d waited before He reacted to their complaints.

A number of questions came up for me as I reflected on these stories: why did G-d wait until the Jews complained about being hungry to provide them with food? Did he expect them to do something other than complain? How long did he wait as their complaints continued before he provided them with the manna?

There is a possible answer to these questions:

There were three incidents early in their journey when the people complained to G-d: the pursuit of the Egyptians, the lack of pure water, and finally the lack of food. G-d might have expected the people to appreciate that they could rely on G-d, that they could trust Him to protect and care for them, especially after all the miracles they had witnessed in Egypt. He might have believed that on their departure, they would realize that G-d could practice miracles on their behalf.

But at the first crisis, their encounter at the Sea of Reeds, they were certain the Egyptians were going to destroy them. G-d probably assumed that in those moments, it didn’t occur to them that G-d could intervene. So, he forgave them for their lack of belief in Him and their lack of imagination.

When they encountered bitter water and complained again, Moses changed the water; again, he was able to transform the bitter water to sweet with G-d’s help.

By the time the Jews ran out of food, they had developed a habit of complaining. What they didn’t do was pray that G-d would once more intervene. It’s possible that at this point, when the Jews appealed to G-d through complaining rather than praying, He realized that the Jews had a long way to go to realize their sacred, spiritual connection to Him. It was easy and familiar to complain; they wanted food. They were hungry. It was not obvious that G-d would hear their prayers and provide the food, even though He called them his children.

So he provided the manna, but insisted on rules for them to collect and eat it. He wanted them to realize that in a sense, He had a shared relationship with them; they would not just receive his beneficence, but He expected them to reciprocate by following his rules and direction; that He was their G-d, and in turn they had to show their gratitude by accepting His direction. Those who refused learned that their extra portion of manna was not eatable.

There were many shifts in the relationship of the Jews with G-d, times when we could see that they were growing and maturing; that they were better understanding the role of G-d in their lives; that they were becoming G-d’s partners in creation; that they began to better understand their role in the world, and how to live as a holy nation.

But understanding how we can relate to G-d can be challenging and take time.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    The complained because they are human and fallen. 

    I love that story because it reminds me so am I. 

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The complained because they are human and fallen.

    I love that story because it reminds me so am I.

    You’ll have to line up behind me, @bryangstephens!

    • #2
  3. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The complained because they are human and fallen.

    I love that story because it reminds me so am I.

    Yeah, first reaction when you read it is, “What a bunch of whiners,” Then you think, “Am I any better?”

    • #3
  4. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    When God does the choosing, it’s not for the faint of heart. 

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    In our own lives, figuring out how and when G-d will act can be tough. Will He act at all? Will He act in a way that I appreciate? Will He act soon? He doesn’t always follow our thinking!

    • #5
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I have no way of knowing the mind of G-d, but somehow I think He’s not big on our complaining and whining, either.

    • #6
  7. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Hypothesis: Maybe the point of complaining rather than praying is to illustrate that G-d and not Pharoah (nor Moses, nor the priests, nor Caesar, etc. etc.) is their sovereign ruler.  A ruled people always has the right to petition their ruler and, unlike Pharoah, G-d actually listened to their grievances.

    • #7
  8. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    In our own lives, figuring out how and when G-d will act can be tough. Will He act at all? Will He act in a way that I appreciate? Will He act soon? He doesn’t always follow our thinking!

    This is an area in which I have a lot of growing to do, I think. My hopes in G-d are great, but my expectations are too low. I trust that He hears me and responds, but not that He will respond in ways I desire. My faith is over-complicated. He is a mystery, but I should know Him better, as a child knows one’s parent. 

    Complaints after long suffering are tested. Complaints before even beginning to pray are immature. For most of us, it is only after repeated experience of rescue by G-d that we remember to pray first, rather than last.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    He is a mystery, but I should know Him better, as a child knows one’s parent.

    I don’t have this expectation of myself, @aaronmiller. I am mostly satisfied with what I know of his expectations of me: that I pray; that I try to remain open to His guidance; and that I work to serve Him. Maybe I don’t have the imagination to think that I can know him better than that!

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Hypothesis: Maybe the point of complaining rather than praying is to illustrate that G-d and not Pharoah (nor Moses or the priests) is their sovereign ruler. A ruled people always has the right to petition their ruler and, unlike Pharoah, G-d actually listened to their grievances.

    Very interesting proposal! I think petitioning would be perceived as a kind of prayer, Mis. Complaining suggests helplessness and neediness, and I think G-d expected them to be stronger at first. He finally realized that it was going to be a while until they realized their own power and responsibilities and how they could relate to G-d.

    • #10
  11. Lawst N. Thawt Coolidge
    Lawst N. Thawt
    @LawstNThawt

    Can we draw a conclusion that if we are inclined to complain rather than make a request, that we simply have more to learn?  As I typed that I thought, what is there except to learn?  And what is there to learn, except faith?   

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Lawst N. Thawt (View Comment):
    As I typed that I thought, what is there except to learn?  And what is there to learn, except faith?   

    How lovely. Yes, I treasure learning; it shows up in every part of my life. But not all of my learning is faith learning, although I would hope that in one way or another, everything I learn somehow informs my faith. I’ll have to muddle on that one, @lawstnthawt.

    • #12
  13. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Hypothesis: Maybe the point of complaining rather than praying is to illustrate that G-d and not Pharoah (nor Moses or the priests) is their sovereign ruler. A ruled people always has the right to petition their ruler and, unlike Pharoah, G-d actually listened to their grievances.

    Very interesting proposal! I think petitioning would be perceived as a kind of prayer, Mis. Complaining suggests helplessness and neediness, and I think G-d expected them to be stronger at first. He finally realized that it was going to be a while until they realized their own power and responsibilities and how they could relate to G-d.

    A Few Questions:

    1. What Hebrew word is used for “complain”? 
    2. What word was used for “complain” in Greek and/or Latin translations? 
    3. When was the word “complain” first used in an English translation?
    4. Who wrote the English translation, and why did they use the word “complain”?

    In other words, is it possible that the word “complain” was used by Christian translators to make the Jews appear less faithful?

    • #13
  14. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and
    @Misthiocracy

    Also, were they complaining to G-d, or were they complaining to Moses?  If they were complaining to G-d then by definition it was a prayer, and it illustrates that they still believed in G-d even though they had complaints about his behaviour.  The lesson could be that it isn’t a sin to whinge about G-d’s choices as long as one still believes in G-d’s supremacy and one’s whinging is addressed to Him rather than to an Earthly power.

    • #14
  15. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Misthiocracy got drunk and (View Comment):

    Also, were they complaining to G-d, or were they complaining to Moses? If they were complaining to G-d then by definition it was a prayer, and it illustrates that they still believed in G-d even though they had complaints about his behaviour. The lesson could be that it isn’t a sin to whinge about G-d’s choices as long as one still believes in G-d’s supremacy and one’s whinging is addressed to Him rather than to an Earthly power.

    Great questions, Mis. The people were complaining to Moses or Moses and Aaron (depending on the situation). So that makes the point they weren’t praying to G-d. I had a hard time finding the word by its root or in a Hebrew dictionary, but it appears that it is the word that we would pronounce, yee-lay-noo. My old Chumash from 1966 translates it as “murmur,” which is similar to grumble. It appears that it’s not a common word, but a word close to it is yah-lahl, which is translated as wail or cry out. 

    It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in G-d, but He was not the first to appeal to for rescue. I think at this early stage of developing a relationship with G-d, they probably didn’t consider G-d’s supremacy.

    • #15
  16. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    It’s important to point out that although they were Jews, they were surrounded by pagan practices with many gods. I don’t know how devoted they were to their faith in Egypt.

    • #16
  17. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    When I was taught these Bible stories as a child I always thought, “What’s wrong with these people!” But then I realize that through the method of instruction I was psychologically primed to see the story from the perspective of a loving G-d and not from the perspective of a Jew emerging from generations of slavery. True understanding requires a shift from one point of observation to many. 

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Rodin (View Comment):

    When I was taught these Bible stories as a child I always thought, “What’s wrong with these people!” But then I realize that through the method of instruction I was psychologically primed to see the story from the perspective of a loving G-d and not from the perspective of a Jew emerging from generations of slavery. True understanding requires a shift from one point of observation to many.

    Indeed. Maturity and life experience allow us to see a bigger picture. That’s one positive aspect about growing up!

    • #18
  19. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Admin
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.
    @jon

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The complained because they are human and fallen.

    I love that story because it reminds me so am I.

    Yeah, first reaction when you read it is, “What a bunch of whiners,” Then you think, “Am I any better?”

    Man, haven’t heard that song in ages. Thanks.

    • #19
  20. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    Vance Richards (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    The complained because they are human and fallen.

    I love that story because it reminds me so am I.

    Yeah, first reaction when you read it is, “What a bunch of whiners,” Then you think, “Am I any better?”

    Man, haven’t heard that song in ages. Thanks.

    Anything with the line “ba-manna bread” has to be good.

    • #20
  21. Gary Robbins Reagan
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    I had been thinking about posting on my fight with American Airlines, but after reading this, I think that I will let that go.

    Happy Yom Kippur starting at sundown on Thursday.

    • #21