We’ve been listening in our first Mass readings to the account of the Israelites after God frees them from captivity in Egypt. This week, we have three readings in a row (Tuesday through today) from the Book of Numbers in which God inflicts punishments on His people.
On Tuesday, we heard that in response to Miriam having spoken against Moses, God turns her into “a now-white leper.” Yesterday, God responds to the grumbling of the people by promising them that “here in the desert they shall die to the last man.” And this morning, because Moses did not follow God’s instructions for getting water from a rock (striking it twice rather than ordering it to produce water, God tells him that he “shall not lead this community into the land [God] will give them.”
While it is true that in each case God is responding to some transgression on the part of the people, God seems almost petulant in these passages and his punishments (particularly in the case of Miriam) seem quite harsh.
I’m not sure what to make of such passages. This does not sound like that God who is “slow to anger” and rich in forgiveness. It doesn’t sound like the God of my experience.
As I looked at the three passages together this morning, I had no clear answers, only questions. Was this really what God was like before the Incarnation? Did the people just push God to the end of His rope, so to speak? Or
Are these stories the people’s after-the-fact attempts to understand what caused certain things (e.g., the fact that Moses, who led them from Egypt, did not accompany them to the Promised Land)? Or
Is there some point God was trying to make by these reactions?
As I said, I have no clear answers to which of these it might be or whether something else is at play. But these readings are here and so I think we need to grapple with them.