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Were the Israelites destroyed for saying the wrong words?

1Co 10:9-10 ESV  We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents,  10  nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.

Why was there such a harsh punishment for their ‘grumbling’?

The Israelites complained and grumbled about many things. A fairly complete list can be found here.  Their words were simply an expression of what was in their hearts.

God was angry at them because:

The did not believe God.

“They did not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done” (Num 14:11-12)

They were ungrateful to God

Num 21:5 ESV  And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food [which God miraculously provided each day].”

The accused God of desiring to kill them and  their children.

This was another sign of their ingratitude. It also severely misrepresented God’s intentions for His people – He was saving them!

God was not angry at them because

They said ‘God kills people’

First, this is not what they said. They were not talking generally but specifically. They said that God brought them and their children into the desert to kill them.

Second, they knew very well that God killed people. Not long before they had seen 1000s of Egyptians die in all sorts of plagues and in the Red Sea. The whole congregation had even written a song declaring how God delivered them by killing their enemy. The song is full of affirmations of how God delivered them by killing people with ‘His right hand’.

Exo 15:1-12 ESV  Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.  2  The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.  3  The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.  4  “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, and his chosen officers were sunk in the Red Sea.  5  The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.  6  Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy.  7  In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.  8  At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up; the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea.  9  The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’  10  You blew with your wind; the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.  11  “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?  12  You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.

Third, Moses said directly to God that He should not kill the people. Moses not only believed it was possible for God to kill but feared that it would soon come upon Israel. And He said this directly to the Lord,

Num 14:15 ESV  Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say,

God did not chastise Moses for saying something blasphemous. God was about ‘to kill the people as one man’. Moses knew God better than any many that had lived – ‘He spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with his friend.’ Rather than the Lord chastising Moses for suggesting something that is abhorrent to God’s character (ie the killing of all the people), God listened to him and pardoned the people.

Num 14:20 ESV  Then the LORD said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.

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