They even spoke against God himself. Psalm 78:19 (The Message)
The Israelites had a major case of the are-we-there-yet: The journey was long, the scenery boring. They were tired of eating the same fast food from heaven every day, of sleeping in the same dusty tent every night. And so they did what we all would do. They complained: They complained to one another, they complained to Moses, they complained to God.
But, they crossed the line when their complaining led them to question God and speak against God (Num 21:4-7). And with that, the consequence of their choices, attitude, and actions was the onset of poisonous snake bites that sent thousands on their way to an agonizing death.
This incident is often cited as an example of how God punishes the disobedient. Every version and paraphrase of verse 6 says that God sent the snakes. Even the notes in my Life Application Study Bible (Tyndale) say that God punished the Israelites with the snakes. I ‘m not a theologian and I don’t claim to know more than Tyndale and the Bible translators. But I have a problem with the severity of this punishment. Death for disobedience? Really? That too, from a grace-abundant God? Seems incongruent.
Perhaps, it’s us. Perhaps we’ve tied the hands of God.
Like bratty kids, we do a lot of complaining at God’s throne. Yet God, our patient, loving father, puts up with all our drama. He understands our complaints, but He draws the line at rejection. God cannot bend our will to either obey Him or love Him: He knocks, but we must open the door. He offers salvation, but we must meet Him at the cross. To the Israelites He offered direction and protection for the journey from Egypt to Canaan, but when they rejected Him, He could not force his direction and protection on them. They didn’t give God any choice but to step away.
It’s not like the snakes weren’t in the desert before this incident. Since the beginning of time, the desert was their home, the sand their breeding ground (Deut 8:15; plus Planet Earth told me so). All the years the Israelites shuffled their sandaled feet through the sandy wilderness, the snakes were always there. All the negative stuff was always there: the snakes, the heat, the unavailability of water, the lack of food.
It was God’s presence, His loving protection that kept the snakes from biting, that brought water gushing from a rock, that towered a cloud to block the sun, that showered the sand with manna. In spite of all the positive experiences with God, when they began feeding off one another’s whining, they couldn’t see the good stuff. When Israel rejected God, they forced God outside their camp, out of their lives.
When I shut God out, I shut out everything that comes with God–His protection, His grace, His love, His guidance, His Word. I can’t have it both ways; It’s simply illogical and completely unfair: I can’t reject God and at the same time expect to have His blessings. I can’t slam the door on God and expect to feel His presence in my life.
My choices punish me. Not God.