Exodus 14:11-12 (#120-122) is the first in a series of passages belonging to the “murmuring” traditions associated with the wilderness period. These stories repeatedly depict this newly redeemed nation of Israelites as a bunch of faithless and rebellious grumblers who tested Yahweh on numerous occasions.
In this tradition, we find stories about the Israelites complaining that they have nothing to drink and nothing to eat, to which Yahweh responds with indignation providing them with water, manna, and even quails on one occasion (well actually two). There are also stories about disobedience, such as the Golden Calf narrative, stories about lack of faith, such as the spying of the land episode, and stories that question Moses’ authority and Yahweh’s presence. As one scholar put it: “Israel’s conduct during its formative period as a nation served as a paradigm of religious infidelity, callous ingratitude, and blindness to the dramatic demonstrations of God’s providence.”1 In fact, tradition has it that Yahweh eventually destroyed all 600,000 of them because of their rebellious natures and lack of faith, save Joshua and Caleb (Num 14:11-38).
Psalm 78 and 106 are narrative retellings of this generation’s disloyalty and faithlessness served up as a lesson to an audience of a later generation.
Give ear, my people, to my teachings, incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell it to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of Yahweh and his might, and the wonders he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors to teach to their children . . .
That they should not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.
They sinned still more against him, rebelling against the most high in the desert.
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against the god, saying: “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed,
can he also give bread or provide meat for his people?”
Therefore, when Yahweh heard he was full of rage;
a fire kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel,
because they had no faith in god, and did not trust his saving power. (Ps 78:1-5a, 8, 17-22)
Psalm 78 gives us a glimpse at how these stories served as pedagogical lessons to later generations. Centuries later, Paul will even cite this “murmuring” tradition as lessons to his congregation in Corinth (1 Cor 10:7-11).
Far from being records of historical events, however, they are powerful narratives meant to instill faith and trust in Yahweh in the face of dire circumstances on the one hand, and to warn about the dire consequences of not having faith in Yahweh on the other hand. They are parables aimed at their readers: if the generation that witnessed Yahweh’s plagues upon Egypt, the miracle at the Red sea, and the Sinai theophany found it difficult to be faithful and loyal to Yahweh, how much more so for later generations!2
Many commentators have suggested that such a message would have made most sense to exilic Jews in Babylon, many of whom were desolate and lacked the faith to return to Jerusalem. Or then again to the post-exilic community returning to the barren promised land. This is especially so in the Priestly redaction of these stories as we will encounter when we get to Numbers.
Curiously, however, there are two other passages in the Bible that contradict this “murmuring” tradition by using the wilderness generation to claim just the opposite—namely, that the wilderness generation was a paradigm of obedience and loyalty to Yahweh!
The word of Yahweh came to me saying: “Go proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem: ‘Thus saith Yahweh: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’” (Jer 2:1-2).
“Therefore, I [Yahweh] will now allure her [Jerusalem] and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her… There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hos 2:14-15).
These two examples show how ancient stories and traditions were reused and retold to serve pedagogical purposes of the present moment. Although both the traditions surrounding Hosea and Jeremiah were written in two drastically different time periods, they were both nevertheless very similar: the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC.
Here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the prophetic tradition interprets these historical events through a theological prism: Yahweh destroyed both Israel in the north and Judah in the south because they forsook Yahweh’s commandments and laws (see #6). Thus both prophetic traditions invoke the wilderness period as an exemplary time, contrary to the present, when Israel followed Yahweh’s commandments and laws, and were loyal. The present audience to whom this is addressed are presented as falling way short of their devout forefathers. Yet as we have already surveyed this claim utterly contradicts the traditions preserved in the book of Exodus and Numbers, and in Psalm 78 and 106, where this wilderness generation is portrayed as anything but loyal and obedient. What’s going on here?
Far from historical records, the purpose of such stories of the past were often to serve the needs and concerns of the present. Imagine modifying the story of Cinderella, which has a strong moral message, in order to better serve the needs of the audience you are targeting. This is exactly what the Israelite scribes were doing with the traditions they inherited. Here in the two prophetic examples above, the wilderness generation is invoked as a paradigm of faith and loyalty in order to castigate the present generation’s sinfulness.
Furthermore, to legitimate and substantiate this particular use and modification of the wilderness traditions, we clearly see that the authors of the prophetic traditions above expressed their views through the mouthpiece of Yahweh. In other words, authors freely used Yahweh, his person and his voice, to convey their own agendas, views and beliefs!
In both traditions, it is Yahweh who speaks, claiming on the one hand that the wilderness generation was disobedient, faithless, and ungrateful, and yet on the other hand its complete opposite, that their behavior ought to be emulated since it was a paradigm of faith and loyalty. We will see many more examples of this literary technique in forthcoming entries—that is the placing of an author’s agenda and beliefs on the lips of his god, Yahweh.