We find something in Numbers 11 that is common to human nature: complaining. The complaints in this passage are not peculiar to Israel but are typical of all mankind, so I want to begin this section by pointing out that no other group of people would have done any better about keeping a positive attitude all the time. I am not sure I ever make it through a day without complaining about something. While studying Chapter 11 we must keep in mind that even when life is going really well for us we still tend to complain about minor inconveniences. When life is all topsy turvy we find it even easier to complain. The Israelites are being led by God through the wilderness and they are being provided for by God through the wilderness, but let's not forget that their lives are pretty topsy turvy right now. They have left the only land they've ever known and are currently someplace they've never been and are headed for a land they've never seen. Although we'll find God becoming justifiably perturbed by their murmuring against Him and their lack of trust in Him, we---as mere human beings like they were---have no right to judge them considering how often we murmur and complain.
"Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when He heard them His anger was aroused." (Numbers 11:1) In yesterday's passage they received their orders to break camp and move out of Sinai. We don't know what specific hardships they are complaining about in verse 1. All we know is that it didn't take long for complaints to start. The Lord has just rescued them from hundreds of years of slavery, has provided for them all the way from Egypt to Sinai, has given them the law, has given them a tabernacle where He can meet with them, has handed down the regulations for going about their religious lives and forming a government and society, and is giving them a land flowing with milk and honey. When He hears the complaints He is displeased. He never promised that leaving Egypt and moving across the desert and taking over the promised land would be like a walk in the park, but He's providing for them every step of the way. The visible sign of His presence is always with them in the cloud by day and the fiery cloud by night. He never said everything they'll face along the way would be easy, but He promised to be with them and take care of them.
"Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the Lord had burned among them." (Numbers 11:2) The word "Taberah" simply means "burning". The Lord dwells among them not only as their provider and comforter but also as their judge. God is a God of love but also---because He is righteous---He is a God of wrath. He blesses obedience, not sin.
The people call out to Moses to intercede for them with God. He calls out to the Lord and the Lord causes the fire to go out. This is proof that the fire which broke out was sent from the Lord and was not simply a natural occurrence. It appeared at His command and it dispersed at His command.
This is going to teach everyone a lesson about complaining, right? No. You'll recall that we were told in Exodus that a mixed multitude went up from Egypt with the Israelites when they departed. These other groups are going to start griping about the limited menu in the wilderness. The Israelites (who feel the same way about eating manna day after day after day) will begin to voice their dissatisfaction with the food as well. "The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, 'If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost---also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!'" (Numbers 11:4-5)
Food was provided to them in Egypt because they were slaves. The Egyptians weren't going to allow their workforce to starve to death any more than a farmer is going to allow the ox that pulls his plow to starve to death. But the food wasn't free because the people weren't free. Food was provided to maintain their lives so the Egyptians could maintain their country through the forced labor of the people they had oppressed. By contrast the manna actually is free. The people are free of Egypt and a nutritionally complete food is being provided to them by God for free. But they want to eat flesh (and we can safely assume that some of the meats provided to them in Egypt were either from unclean animals or were prepared by unclean methods) and they want more variety in their diet and they want seasoning to spice up their diet.
But aren't we all like this? God gives us what is best for us and yet we crave something else. We crave things that are outside of His will for us and we complain about not having those things as if God is deliberately keeping something good and pleasurable from us. We think the grass is greener on the other side. Or we think that some of the things we enjoyed while living in sin were more exciting than the things we experience now as children of God. That's what's happening to the Israelites in Chapter 11. They are operating on selective memory. They are pushing aside all the memories of their centuries of slavery in Egypt and remembering only that they had plenty of food and plenty of variety and plenty of spices. Never mind that they ate that food while their backs ached from a long day of hard labor. Never mind that they ate that food in homes they weren't free to leave. The food was of a type that satisfied the carnal desires of the flesh and that's all they can think about right now.
We all become carnally minded from time to time, which is why the Apostle Paul warns us not to be live by what the flesh tells us but to live by what the Spirit tells us. "The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace." (Romans 8:6) In Chapter 11 the minds of the Israelites and the minds of the other people with them are being governed by the flesh.
Whatever manna was, it was a perfect food. It was designed to support every function of the human body. It contained every necessary vitamin and mineral. It was far better for them than the Egyptian menu they craved. But again, aren't we all like these people in the wilderness? Even when the Lord gives us the family that's best for us, the job that's best for us, the home that's best for us---we sometimes look around us and think others are living better lives than we are. We sometimes compare what we have to what others have and feel like we're coming up short. Or we'll think back to the things we said and did before we came to faith and we'll remember that lifestyle as being easier. Back then we weren't governed by the Spirit. We did what we wanted when we wanted. We look back on those days with selective memory, forgetting how miserable our sin made us, forgetting the nights when we tossed and turned worrying about the fate of our eternal souls, forgetting that we had no true peace and contentment when we had no relationship with our Creator.
Remembering sin fondly is a dangerous thing. It causes us to crave things that have no place in our lives. It causes us to forget how miserable sin made us and how much it caused us to fear the wrath of God. When I was living in sin I had many a sleepless night worrying about what would happen to my soul if I died in my sleep. In the daytime I was living it up, so to speak, and doing whatever I pleased and even enjoying the fact that I was living in opposition to all I'd been taught was godly and right. If I chose only to think back on the way I lived in the "pleasures of sin for a season" (Hebrews 11:25) I might start to forget how truly awful it was to live at a far distance from the God who loves me. In today's passage we find the people who were recently rescued from Egypt thinking back only on the huge variety of food that was available to them in Egypt. But while they were in Egypt they had very little freedom of religion. They could pray quietly in their own homes but couldn't bring sacrifices and offerings to the Lord. They couldn't hold public worship services. Now that they are free they are free to know and worship God in a way never before possible. This is what they need to focus on. They are on their way to a land where food better than that of Egypt will be available to them. That is what they need to focus on. You and I may be going through hardships right now but we mustn't let that cause us to yearn for sinful easy living and we mustn't let it cause us to be content with a mediocre relationship with the Lord. He has far better things in store for us, spiritually speaking, than anything we've left behind.