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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Rabble Among Them

It’s all about who’s doing the driving ...
“Now the rabble that was among them [Israel] had a strong craving,” the book of Numbers tells us.

The King James translation of this verse is a lot more fun. It reads, “the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting”. There’s something more than a little amusing about the “fell a lusting” archaism, though the story that follows about this mixed multitude is far from humorous.

Craving led the “mixed multitude” that travelled with Israel to complain, which led to the Israelites around them complaining, and before too long the camp of God’s people was full of weeping and wailing.

Over their diet, of all things. Their very temporary diet. They were on their way to a land of milk and honey, after all.

The ‘Mixt Multitude’

These were not native Hebrews that started the ball rolling. They were people who had thrown in their lot with Israel and followed them out of Egypt when the opportunity arose. If “rabble” sounds harsh, it’s because the original Hebrew word is a bit contemptuous. These were the collected “scrapings” of what was likely the lower end of Egyptian society.

One wonders about their motivation. I’ll speculate a bit here, but it’s speculation that is historically informed. These folks were not native Egyptians, but probably fellow slaves from other ethnic groups whose ancestors may have gone down to Egypt hundreds of years prior to escape famine just as Jacob and his family had done, and who had either developed a taste for freedom or prudently rejected the fate that would surely befall them once hundreds of thousands of Hebrew slaves departed Egypt and left them behind as the sole available source of cheap, non-native labor. Leaving Egypt along with Israel was hardly the worst option open to them, and the mixed multitude had seen enough miracles in Egypt to know a strong hand when they saw one.

Every Opportunity to be Elsewhere

So while we cannot be too definite about the motives of this “rabble” in throwing in their lot with the people of God, we can say that if they merely used Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery as a convenient way to gain their own freedom, they had every opportunity in the year or so Israel had been in the desert to go their own way and return to their various homelands, as Moses’ brother-in-law at one point proposed to do. Nothing held them back. They were neither slaves nor hostages. Yet, for whatever reason, this had not happened.

Having opted to stay then, the mixed multitude had experienced Jehovah’s descent on Sinai that unambiguously authenticated Moses’ leadership; his outbreak in judgment against Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, for their unauthorized offering; his outbreak in judgment against the people for their idolatry at Sinai; the giving to Moses of the dietary laws and other moral restrictions that would apply to them equally as strangers and sojourners in the camp of Israel, for God had said, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you”. Finally, they had only recently watched the Israelites around them grumble over their lot and seen the outlying parts of the camp incinerated by the “fire of the Lord”.

They heard and saw all this, and still they stayed. They bought into the worship of Jehovah sufficiently to enjoy the benefits of newfound freedom, ongoing provision and direction, an exceptional moral framework for society and the promise of a land of plenty in which they too would be welcomed despite their ethnic origins.

And yet they craved the delicacies of Egypt. So, fresh from observing the consequences of grumbling and complaining, they promptly began to do … more of the same.

Pentateuchal Grumblefests

Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of evidence the people of God were perfectly capable of whining, fussing and complaining all on their own. There are at least seven other grumblefests recorded for us in the Pentateuch (conveniently listed here). Nothing that happens here in Numbers 11 is unique. But the Spirit of God seems to go out of his way to remind us here that — this time at least — it was the example of the “rabble” Israel had brought with them that got God’s people into serious trouble. Their sin was that they paid attention to the wrong crowd. It was the ethnic tag-alongs who displayed the strongest craving for Egyptian goodies, and it was primarily the very same mixed multitude Israel buried there in a place they named Kibroth-hattaavah (in English, “graves of craving”) after the meat they craved turned out to come complete with a fatal plague. Those that went after the quail most voraciously died quickest, with the meat literally “between their teeth”.

It was the mixed multitude that led the charge, and the mixed multitude that reaped the worst consequences.

‘Rabble’ in the Church

Is there something in this story we can take away for ourselves as Christians? I’d suggest there is. For the most part, the first century church was made up of committed Jews and Gentile converts who bought wholeheartedly into a new understanding of the Old Testament centered around the person of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems, and very serious ones: there were many, and we are wise not to minimize them or create a picture of the early church in our minds that is unrealistic and at odds with scripture.

Still, with persecution a regular feature of early church life in the Roman empire, I suspect there were not many dilettantes among them. The early church shared generously, but nobody got rich from it. Beyond spiritual attraction, there was little appeal to gathering with a persecuted people. The “rabble” came later, if I can be so crass, when the Church became an acceptable part of Roman society. In our generation mixed multitudes exist in droves, particularly in churches that welcome thousands whose role is primarily that of audience rather than participant; habitual churchgoers whose interests are more social than spiritual.

A Mixed Multitude Behind the Wheel

Is there anything wrong with Christian churches full of unsaved, uncommitted people who are just along for the ride? Not necessarily. It may be that repeated exposure to the word of God challenges and changes the occasional indifferent heart. Who would want to stand in the way of that?

What IS wrong is when the Body of Christ takes its cues from the rabble. What’s wrong is letting the tag-alongs dictate the faith or practice of the people of God. What’s wrong is letting complaints that are entirely natural to the unregenerate or immature heart modify and redirect the goals and desires of the local church fellowship. The real people of God have a higher calling. Still, when we hear grumbling, we may find ourselves tempted to join in the disenchanted chorus or validate the discontent in some way, just as Israel did. Instead, keeping in mind that the mixed multitude will be with us until the Lord returns, our first question ought to be, “Who’s doing the complaining?”

Nothing against the rabble, you understand. They’re welcome to tag along as far as they wish as we make our way toward the Promised Land.

But the tastes, cravings and desires of the “mixed multitude” are not where Christians get our direction.

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