The children of Israel teach us what it means to become lost, and how we can be found. This lesson is basically a list of examples of times in which they took their eyes off their goal to reach the promised land, and what happens to us when we lose sight of our goal. It also gives examples of the ways in which the Lord tried to help them find their way back. Unfortunately, many of them refused to be found by the Shepherd, and they remained spiritually lost in the wilderness until they died in their disobedience.
A lesson in direction
Have you ever tried to drive or walk forward in a straight line while focusing on something behind you? If you haven’t, try the walking version of this experiment and see how difficult it is to reach your goal when you cannot see it, and especially when you are still focused on where you just came from.
This is what the children of Israel were doing when they were in the wilderness with Moses. The goal, as given by the Lord, and delivered to them by Moses, was to go to the Promised Land. But they couldn’t take their eyes off Egypt where they had been. Every attempt the Lord made to bless them by moving them physically and spiritually forward was met with missteps by the people. Why? Because they were still focused on Egypt, and what little luxuries they were able to experience there when they were slaves.
The lesson of manna
The Israelites had a couple of life circumstances that limited their ability to care for themselves. They had no farm land on which to grow any crops, and they were nomads, constantly picking up and moving to another location. This created a severe limitation on the variety of foods they could eat.
The Lord blessed them with a highly versatile food in the form of manna, a flaky substance that was left behind when the morning dew evaporated. It was white and could be gathered up to be ground like flour then baked into loaves or boiled, or even eaten plain. It was sweet and nutritious.
But if all you had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was oatmeal day in and day out, would it be difficult for you to remain properly grateful that this miraculously provided food kept showing up in your front yard month, after month, after month? I feel safe in guessing that we would all say “Yes, it would be difficult to remain grateful if that is all we had as our mainstay of food. There was some meat, as the occasional animal got slaughtered, but primarily it was milk and manna for most meals. Vegetables and fruits are things grown in gardens and on farms – places where people stay for a while.
No matter how miraculously they were fed while in the wilderness, they still lacked the variety they had experienced in Egypt. And no matter how bad their life was in Egypt, they still ate better there than they did in the wilderness of Sinai.
The Lord’s perspective
The Lord protected his people. They were shaded from the sun every day while in the desert by a cloud that literally followed them around. They were given light at night by a pillar of fire that illuminated the night so they could see in the dark. He even prevented their ankles from swelling from walking all day in the sand and on the rocks of the desert. When they needed food he sent them manna to eat to sustain them. When thirsty he opened rocks and water gushed out, or he would make the bitter water they found become drinkable so they wouldn’t perish.
It is true that they were not carried on the backs of slaves in the wilderness. They had to do their own walking. They didn’t yet have a country to call their own, so they were basically homeless. But God fought all their battles for them when people attacked them, he healed them when they were sick, and they were given the opportunity to possess the highest spiritual blessings known to mankind in the form of priesthood ordinances. Unfortunately they blew their chances at these greater spiritual blessings by focusing on the gods of Egypt and turning their backs on the God of Israel, so they were left with only the lesser priesthood and its ordinances.
The point is, even though the Israelites didn’t have it easy in the wilderness, they were richly blessed. If they had not had the blessings of God with them they would have perished in the desert and never gotten into the Promised Land. So understanding all this they were appropriately grateful for their blessings, right? Wrong.
The people fixated on the food they no longer had access to. They complained so bitterly to Moses that he finally went to the Lord and said, in essence, ‘Am I their father? Did I give birth to all these people that it is my responsibility to feed them? Lord just kill me now and be done with it. I can’t take this any longer.’ So the Lord commanded Moses to call seventy men out of all the tribes of Israel to help him in his governing the people. He put his spirit upon them so they could judge the people. When he had taken care of Moses’s administrative problem He turned his attention to the people and their lack of gratitude (Numbers 11:18-20).
18 And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the Lord, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the Lord will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.
19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
20 But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the Lord which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?
The quail the Lord sent Israel were two cubits deep in the camp. That’s about three feet deep. And it wasn’t just in the camp. They were that deep for a day’s journey on either side of the camp. Quail literally fell from the sky.
They gathered so many birds per family that their lust and gluttony were embarrassingly made manifest. One person has estimated that each of the 650,000 men in all of Israel gathered enough birds to eat to fill the bed of a pickup truck heaped high to overflowing. The Lord let them glut themselves on this meat for a couple of days then he sent the plague to strike them while the food was still between their teeth (Numbers 11:33-34).
33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.
34 And he called the name of that place Kibroth-hattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.
Kibroth-hattaavah means “the graves of lust.” A fitting tribute to the wickedness of the people. In Doctrine and Covenants 59:21 it says:
21 And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.
The examples of ingratitude in this lesson bear this verse out. The Lord can handle our weaknesses just fine. It is when we stop keeping his commandments and demonstrate no gratitude for all that has been done for us and given to us that causes his punishments to come upon us.
Israel was in the desert only a short time before reaching their destination of Canaan. Moses chose twelve men from among the tribes of Israel to go into the land and spy it out. He wanted to know what they were up against.
The men were gone for 40 days, and when they came back they all had to admit that the land truly did flow with the proverbial milk and honey. The bunch of grapes they cut to show Moses and the camp was so large it had to be carried on a pole by two people. The land was rich in resources.
However, we see that despite all the miracles the Lord had performed in their behalf they still didn’t trust that he would do what he said he would. All but two of the men gave a negative report of the land.
Joshua and Caleb were optimistic that with the Lord’s help they could easily overcome the people that lived in the land, but the others were so pessimistic that all of Israel began to call for Joshua and Caleb to be stoned. They wanted to pick a new leader to take them back to Egypt.
Here are the words of the men who spoke against entering the land and claiming their birthright with the Lord’s help (Numbers 13:31-33).
31 But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.
32 And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.
33 And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.
Compare this doomsday report with the one delivered by Joshua and Caleb in Numbers 14:7-9.
7 And they spake unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land.
8 If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.
9 Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not.
This is when the people decided that Joshua and Caleb needed to be stoned. In verses 11-12 the Lord pronounces judgment on the people.
11 ¶ And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
12 I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.
And as happens often with the prophets, who love those whom they serve, Moses had to intercede and plead for the mercy of the Lord to be given to the people, instead of his judgments. This is what the Savior does for us all the time (Numbers 14:19-20).
19 Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.
20 And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word:
Because Moses acted as intermediary for Israel, the Lord showed them mercy. However, there would be a punishment mixed with that mercy. Here are the words of the Lord to Moses concerning Israel’s stubbornness (Numbers 14:28-31, 34-35).
28 Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the Lord, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you:
29 Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me,
30 Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.
31 But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.
34 After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, shall ye bear your iniquities, even forty years, and ye shall know my breach of promise.
35 I the Lord have said, I will surely do it unto all this evil congregation, that are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this lesson is a grocery list of Israel’s rebellions and the Lord’s efforts to help them find their way back to him. I think these two tales are sufficient to show the pattern.
What does this have to do with us? Well, have you ever had a time in your life when it was obvious to others that the Lord was blessing you, but you were so focused on past sins or bad situations that you couldn’t see your blessings? I remember the time when I went through a divorce, it was all I could talk about. I was in a tough situation being a single father with four children, and homeless. But as tough as it was, the Lord opened doors for me all along the way, but I couldn’t see my blessings for my insistance that I focus on the pains of my divorce. I am most fortunate that he didn’t pass judgment on me because of my inability to see his goodness in my daily life when it was so apparent to others.
One of the things the Savior does for us more often than anything else in his long list of kindnesses is to intercede on our behalf with the Father to grant us mercy rather than our well-deserved judgment for our stubbornness and sometimes unwillingness to follow the Lord and keep his commandments. The prophets do that too. This is something we don’t see happening, but I know the Prophet and all the Brethren pray for us to the Lord. They all ask the Lord to show us mercy and to grant us strength to be obedient.
The house of Israel, though former slaves and wanderers in the desert, were richly blessed by God to be accepted as his people. He offered them everything while they were in the wilderness, everything that was for their own good. Yet for all this they could not turn their heads away from Egypt and their former life there to focus on what the Lord wanted them to have. This is why he finally had to wait until all the older generation died off, leaving their children to receive the blessings they could not bring themselves to accept.
There are times in our lives when it looks for all the world like we are grasshoppers in a world of giants, just like the report of the ten men who said Israel couldn’t win against the people of the land. But Caleb and Joshua saw the same things the others did, yet they saw the land with an eye of faith. They fully believed the Lord would strengthen them and deliver the people into their hands.
When we choose to exercise our faith in God’s promises, instead of our doubts, there is nothing we cannot accomplish. As you reread the verses for this lesson look for ways in which you can change your life and be more faithful in your attitude toward God’s promises. He really does want to take us into our own land, flowing with milk and honey. It is called the Celestial Kingdom. But we have to first learn to stop focusing on our current lives where we are still emotionally in Egypt, so we can focus instead on the blessings that await us in the Promised Land.