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 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. There were moments of complaining about hardship but a little fire from the Lord on the outskirts of the camp fixed that. This was nothing like their earlier relapse into worshiping the golden calf.  “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. But it was short-lived.

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…but outsiders who have a voice.  They were likely Egyptians who had attached themselves to the Hebrews when they left Egypt. Some say they were the descendants of those who had married Egyptians. I like the language of the old commentators: They were the mixed multitude who “fell a lusting after flesh.” 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 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. is a good example. In 2010, launched a petition platform; one of the first petitions was to stop the police in Boulder, Colorado from ticketing homeless individuals. After unexpectedly gathering 200 signatures, Boulder’s mayor ordered an end to the practice. A few petitions kept Howard Schulze, the CEO of Starbucks from speaking at WillowCreek Church. A similar petition had Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, apologizing for being on a radio program for Focus on the Family. This organization managed to sway the decisions of two large organizations by recruiting a few individuals to sign a petition.  They now organize hundreds of petition campaigns for people with a particular cause and even teach you how to create a successful petition. Today, over 115 million users came to the U.S. platform creating almost 800,000 petitions and gathering 464 million signatures. 

The principles for stirring people up have been the same for thousands of years. Here are those recommended by This is exactly what the rabble did in this passage.

Express the emotional stakes – When people feel that something is wrong, they may be more willing to act and support a petition.

Stir up a sense of urgency – When people sense urgency, they are more likely to take part in the petition.

Help people take the next step – You can help people become more engaged in a cause by showing them how they can take part beyond signing a petition. 

Make your goals clear – Online petitions are not all created equal. Vague goals or targets may be difficult to stand behind if they do not have a clear call to action. While they may raise awareness for a cause, their lack of direction may cause more harm than good.  

Get community support – Causes worth sharing usually have the community’s support; this support can help highlight truly impactful causes versus those that may be more of a personal request.

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 believes 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.”

Begin with their grievances and their sense of being wronged or overlooked and then make yourself their deliverer and the answer to their problem. You may have heard the following recently, “I am your voice. I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” This is classic rabble language.

What did the rabble focus on?  They did not focus on hunger but encouraged dissatisfaction with the variety of food.  They used the tool of “relative deprivation” to compare what they had with others.

Relative deprivation compares what we have with others who are like us – not others who are not like us.  Watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or reading the Forbes 400 does not make us want what they have.  That is entertainment.  We compare ourselves to people who have a little more than we do.  The rabble were comparing themselves to slaves – not Pharoah.  All dissatisfaction begins with comparison.

In the “Screwtape Letters” C.S. Lewis describes what he calls the gluttony of delicacy:

Your patient’s a good example. She would be astonished to learn that her whole life is enslaved to this kind of sensuality, which is quite concealed from her by the fact that the quantities involved are small. She is a positive terror to hostesses and servants. She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile “oh please, please… all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast”. You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before her, she never recognises as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. In a crowded restaurant she gives a little scream at the plate which some overworked waitress has set before her and says, “oh, that’s far, far too much! take it away and bring me about a quarter of it”. If challenged, she would say she was doing this to avoid waste; in reality she does it because the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want. The woman is in what may be called the “All-I-want” state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servant or any friend who can do these simple things “properly” — because her “properly” conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; 

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 often far more motivating than a lot more.

Rabble play on the desire for a little more to be given to them but the rabble are incapable of increasing their fellow complainers ability to create more themselves.  They still encourage the slavery of the people – just slavery with better benefits.

What did the people do?  They did not rebel. There was no insurrection. They did not confront Moses directly.  Instead, they stayed at the door of their tents crying and wailing…and that got to Moses. It was death by a thousand cuts.  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.  They did not want that. They simply wanted to wear him down.

What was his response?  He was not angry but disheartened.  The word here means he became sad and discouraged.  

There is a good article on the effect of sadness on other people.  It is called “emotion contagion” because the picture of someone being sad affects the emotions of the person viewing it.  Thousands of people crying and wailing would have had that effect on Moses.  He was not angry.  He was sad and disheartened. “What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me. Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers?  I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.”

What is God’s response?  Not sadness. Not discouragement. 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 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 charisma. It is not the private imagination of a visionary.  It is a personal endowment from God.  “I will take of the Spirit of who is upon you and will put the Spirit upon them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.” 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. It is not the same as group think or their simply rubber stamping Moses. Look at how he responds to Joshua when he complains to Moses that two of the elders had not joined the group but were prophesying in the camp. “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.” 

What were the qualities of the 70 elders chosen?  Look at Exodus 18:21-23

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.” 

It is not a long list of qualifications for trusted leadership is it? Fear God and hate dishonest gain. If that is true in a life then almost everything else will line up. If not, everything unravels eventually. 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 judgement 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 feared God had lost their fear. Those who were chosen to be examples of righteous living to the people had become examples of corruption. Those who had hated dishonest gain had become greedy. Those who took the burden off Moses put the cross on Christ.

God gives them what they desire.  Read 11:31-34

Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits 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 ten homers.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, because there they buried the people who had craved other food. 

  From Kibroth Hattaavah the people traveled to Hazeroth and stayed there. 

Psalm 106:15  

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 1:14-15

..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. 

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.  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.  They may not physically die from a plague but their souls die and they end up in the same place – the grave of lust and greed.  But, unfortunately, they take their followers with them – even the naive and well-intentioned. They all end up over time as slaves of lust and greed.

And the world moves on – just as the children of Israel did.