Numbers 11: The Rabble

The Rabble

Numbers 11

Carol and I were at a reception this week for a ministry working in the Middle East.  One of the questions was about the Bibles the new believers were given. Did they give them the whole Bible or just the New Testament? 

Just the New Testament until they had become stronger in their faith because there is too much in the Old Testament that might confuse them about God or encourage them to violence with others. I understand that.  The Old Testament is complex and not always predictable, is it? 

For me, that is part of the appeal. It’s not simplistic about faith and our relationships with God and each other.

At the LORD’s command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. When the cloud remained over the tabernacle a long time, the Israelites obeyed the LORD’s order and did not set out. Sometimes the cloud was over the tabernacle only a few days; at the LORD’s command they would encamp, and then at his command they would set out. Sometimes the cloud stayed only from evening till morning, and when it lifted in the morning, they set out. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out. At the LORD’s command they encamped, and at the LORD’s command they set out. They obeyed the LORD’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.”

This is the passage we studied last week.  Remember what we discovered about obedience to the Lord? The task of moving and setting up the Tent required 8,580 men so it was not easy or convenient obedience.  However, they did it and there was no complaining – at least at first.

This was perhaps the best time in the lives of the children of Israel. The Law had been given and they were on their way to the Promised Land. “They obeyed the Lord’s order, in accordance with his command through Moses.” There would not be another time like this for the balance of their lives. They were at peace with God. They followed where He led. They had all they needed. If only the people would have remained grateful and obedient.

But then the people recover their capacity for complaining. At first, it was not serious and the Lord only burned some of the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses and the prayers of Moses kept them from being consumed but the fire made such an impression on them that they named the place – The Burning. 

But only three days later they are complaining again. They are being stirred up by the rabble. (Numbers 11:4)

The rabble are a small group of outsiders and non-Israelites who have attached themselves to the larger assembly of Israelites…but outsiders who have a voice. The word comes from a Latin word to describe a rake which stirs up coals in a furnace. But the Hebrew word means simply a group of people coming together. So, this is a small group of people coming together to stir up another larger group. How can that be? How can a few outsiders without the power of media, websites, Twitter, and Facebook stir up hundreds of thousands of people?

We have many examples of a small group of people who have the power to leverage a larger group.

Change.org on Starbucks and TOMS shoes. This organization managed to sway the decisions of two large organizations by recruiting a few individuals to sign a petition. They organize hundreds of petition campaigns for people with a particular cause and they teach you how to create a successful petition.

Waging a One-Man War on American Muslims is an article about David Caton, a single individual with a bad website who managed to put enough pressure on Lowe’s Home Improvement to cancel their advertising on the television show “All American Muslim” which showed a positive perspective on Muslim-Americans.

Saul Alinsky’s book “Rules for Radicals” is the classic text for community organizing. I cannot help but think he studied the “rabble” and their techniques in our text this morning.

“For Alinsky, organizing is the process of highlighting whatever he believed to be wrong and convincing people they can actually do something about it. If people feel they don’t have the power to change a situation, they stop thinking about it. According to Alinsky, the organizer, especially an outside organizer must first overcome suspicion and establish credibility. Next, the organizer must begin the task of agitating: rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities, and searching out controversy. This is necessary to get people to participate. An organizer has to attack apathy and disturb the prevailing patterns of a complacent community life where people have come to accept a situation. 

Alinsky would say, “The first step in community organization is community disorganization.”

What did the rabble focus on? They focused on what dissatisfied them – the outsiders – even though the Israelites were satisfied. It was not the larger group that was unhappy with the variety of the food but the outsiders. 

It was, in Alinsky’s terms, the first step in disorganizing the Israelites.

They did not focus on hunger itself but encouraged dissatisfaction with the variety of food. They used the tool of “relative deprivation” to compare what they had with others. They used the dissatisfaction of a very small group of outsiders to stir up dissatisfaction among all the people.  It was ingenious. It is also a timeless principle. Focus on the small discontents that have festered.

Relative deprivation compares what we have with others who are like us – not others who are not like us. People don’t typically envy Bill Gates even if they think they would enjoy his wealth. Watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or reading the Forbes 400 does not make us want what they have. That is entertainment. We don’t look at the Kardashian’s and grumble to ourselves that we deserve what they have. No, we look at them as a show and the very fact their lives have nothing to do with ours makes it possible for us to see them as entertainment. 

We compare ourselves to people who have a little more than we do. It is not class warfare. The rabble were comparing themselves to slaves – not Pharoah. All dissatisfaction begins with comparison. 

It is easier to motivate people to get what they think they deserve than what is out of the question. A little bit more is far more motivating than a lot more. Saul Alinsky put it this way: “The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Have-a-Little, Want Mores.”

Rabble play on the desire for a little more to be given to them even while the rabble are incapable of increasing their ability to create more themselves. They do not encourage the people to figure out ways to increase the diversity of their food themselves, do they? They don’t come up with innovative ideas for options? No, they still encourage the slavery of the people – just slavery with better benefits. They still want others to provide for them without their being productive.  “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost.”

What did the people do? They did not rebel. They did not suggest options. They did not confront Moses directly. They stayed at the door of their tents crying and wailing…and that got to Moses. They knew how he handled rebellion from the way he responded to the people that formed the golden calf. Thousands of them died by the sword. But they also knew that he had just prayed for them to be delivered.  It was hard to predict how he would react so they just stood in the doorway of their homes and wailed.

What was his response? He was not angry but disheartened. The word here means he became sad and discouraged. I guess!  Nothing wears leaders down like constant complaining. Even outright rebellion and idolatry is easier to deal with than the incessant wailing of ungrateful people.

Thousands of people crying, moaning and wailing would have had an effect on Moses. He was not angry. He was discouraged. He looked around and wondered why he had to carry all their burdens. What had he done to displease the Lord?  He would rather die instead of facing his inevitable failure. He was sad and disheartened. There was no one to encourage him.

What is God’s response? Not sadness. His anger is kindled. His anger is stirred up against those who stir up the people. But he responds to the dilemma of Moses in a unique way. He tells him to create his own rabble – his own small group. This group will not stir up people but it will be a rabble of the righteous and the wise…and the Spirit of leadership will be on them.

Biblical leadership is not a talent or a personal charisma. It is an endowment from God. I will take of the Spirit of who is upon you and will put him upon them.” It is a preview of Pentecost when the Spirit settled on the leadership of the early church.

The elders cannot bear the burden until they share the same Spirit. Otherwise, they are simply part of the burden.

What were the qualities of the people chosen? Look at Exodus 18:19-23:

Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.

Sadly, this righteous rabble over time is corrupted and becomes the Sanhedrin (literally “sitting together”) and they are the ones who stir up the people against Christ. Mark 15:11 “The chief priests stirred up the crowd” Those who sit in judgment become those who make the people dissatisfied. Men who were trustworthy become men who are envious and deceptive. (Mt 27:18 – “It was out of envy they had handed him over.”) Those who took the burden off Moses put the cross on Christ.

God gives the people what they desire. Numbers 11:31-34:

Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to six feet deep all around the camp, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than 60 bushels. Then they spread them out all around the camp. But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah (graves of lust), because there they buried the people who had craved other food. From Kibroth Hattaavah the people traveled to Hazeroth and stayed there.

David writes about it in Psalm 106:

In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test. So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease among them.

James warns us about it in his letter:

“..but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

It is a process – not a sudden event. At any point in the process they could have turned back but they didn’t. In the KJV it says, “And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.” That is exactly what happens, isn’t it? They get the desires of their heart – and more – but they are walking dead. Their souls are gone. Like the rich fool in the Gospel of Luke.  His soul is required of him.

Finally, the rabble who stirred up the people are buried in the “graves of lust” and forgotten. The people move on.

This is an ancient story with just as much application today. The fate of those who stir people up to be discontented and complain about what they have from God is still the same. Those who enrage people by telling them they deserve more than they are getting.  Those who encourage conspiracies and fear and anger. It may just take longer. The end result of manipulating people to believe they are being short-changed by God or to create dissatisfaction or to stir people up for no good purpose is still the same. The end of those who take advantage of relative deprivation to enrich themselves by selling what people don’t need is still the same. The end of demogogues and rabble is the same. They may not physically die from a plague but their souls die and they end up in the same place – the graves of lust. And the world moves on – just as the children of Israel did.

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