From time to time I find myself listening as a friend vents about a relationship. He or she will unload the significant other’s laundry list of short-comings and issues worthy of resentment. In my 20s—along with my friends—I was still figuring out what it meant to be an adult and how to respond to the needs of other people in serious relationships. In general, we could be a bit immature and this impacted the type of advice I imparted (as well as how I saw my own relationships).
Though not always good about this myself, I often suggested my friends put themselves in the other person’s shoes. How might they have seen certain situations they found infuriating? This advice tends to unearth a few key details, like what led the significant other to react to…oh, let’s see, my friend not coming home one night? Perhaps it’s just human nature to see things exclusively through your own point of view. But life is easier (and better informed) when you appreciate a variety of perspectives.
This is why it’s easy to forget that there are always two sides to every story. Especially if you only care about your or your friend’s side.
In Numbers, the Israelites do a WHOLE LOT of complaining, and God and Moses aren’t having any of it. The details we receive depict the Israelites as whiny ingrates. We don’t have enough food. We don’t have enough water. Life in the desert is hard. Why did you take us out of Egypt? Given this consistent annoying refrain, you understand God’s wrath. But are these gripes warranted? They’ve been wandering the desert for years. They’ve squeaked by with food, struggled to find water, and basically had no sense of a stable home. I get that they should have faith, etc., but how long would you squeak by in life if you thought you had a way to improve your lot?
The tension reaches a head when a select group takes a stand—about 250 men, to be exact. Numbers portrays this uprising so that we side with Moses and God—clearly, the people are wrong. Yet it’s hard not to appreciate these people’s suffering. They’re almost like an early form of a union fighting for their future. Although they’re not being exploited like laborers, they are looking to have more of a say in their lives.
Perhaps they go about this the wrong, confrontational way; but really they are asking to be granted a discussion about the direction of their lives. If what separates man from the rest of the animals is our ability to think, why not embrace this? Moses—perhaps in some respect is justifiably annoyed that after all that he has done for these people that they don’t trust him—and God are insulted. Instead of reasoning with them, God singles out the three leaders of this disgruntled group. In front of their tents, along with their wives and children, God opens the Earth, which swallows them alive, and then closes it.
Sure, this reminds everyone who is in charge. But still. Though it’s unclear why they turn their resentment on Moses—not like he has that power, right? But maybe they didn’t want to confront God. If you were dealing with someone who was capable of opening the earth and then closing it, would you push things? Although the Israelites had been down this road before, here is the first time they really assert themselves. Given that they knew they could be punished—they’d all been witnessed to God’s power and miracles (etc.)—their act shows how important their gripes were, not that they were faithless little ingrates.
Yet like any good family—uprisings and all—they manage to hang (mostly) together (nine and a half tribes who will cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land). Perhaps the greatest lesson here is how human they all were in the end. They struggle, they complain, but they persevere. But would their humanness come through just as effectively if we’d been able to spend more time with their point of view?