Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSV)
You ever found yourself in a relationship with a BLAMER? I bet we all know a BLAMER, even if we have never used the word before. Most groups have at least one. It is the person who says, “That’s what happens when you run so fast on the pavement” as you attend to your young child who falls down, skins their knee, and immediately starts to cry. Or, when your tooth is hurting so much you can no longer hide your pain, he says “why don’t you take better care of your teeth? Clearly you are still chewing ice.”
The BLAMER’S only goal is to cast blame on someone… anyone other than themselves. From the BLAMER’S perspective the circumstances are irrelevant. The only concern for the BLAMER is pointing the finger at the person, or thing, to blame followed by identifying the crime.
Maybe some of us here today use a different label for the BLAMER… maybe we say the VICTIM. You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? This BLAMER blames someone, or something else, for every bad or painful experience in their life no matter what. Sadly, and typically without even knowing it, the VICTIM grates on everyone’s nerves because of their poor-me attitude. Both the BLAMER and the VICTIM are allergic to taking responsibility for anything, including their own actions. In their mind, people are always against them which justifies their unhappiness. As one Psychologist writes, “They portray themselves as unfortunates who demand rescuing, and they will make you into their therapist. As a friend, you want to help, but you become overwhelmed by their endless tales of woe: A boyfriend stormed out…again; a mother doesn’t understand; a diva-boss was ungrateful. When you suggest how to put an end to the pity party, they’ll say, “Yes…but,” then launch into more unsolvable gripes. These vampires may be so clingy they stick to you like flypaper.”
The primary source of feeling like a victim is the feeling of powerlessness, and because we don’t like feeling that we are powerless, we tend to blame someone or something for causing whatever it is we are feeling at the moment, or whatever it is we are having to deal with. This is why the single most important belief responsible for the feeling of victimization is feeling powerless.
Can any of us here today imagine how difficult it must be to live our lives where everyone we encounter points the finger at us and blames us when things aren’t going the way they wanted? Or what about those who might just be experiencing something for the first time and just because they didn’t like the experience, or because they didn’t understand what was happening to them, they blame you. How long do you really think people like this would remain in your circle of friends?
The thing is, when the finger pointing and blaming takes hold, a new narrative is created. A narrative about who you are and about all of the bad things you have done to others. This narrative is then handed down to the next generation and maybe even the one after that and unless this new narrative is challenged, it becomes the dominant narrative spoken about you. It’s amazing really, when you stop and think about how easy it is for a group of people to form opinions and beliefs about who you are based upon the way some in their group describe you or attribute their pain and heartache to you. In these type situations, the mob mentality can become so pervasive that the story of who you are and what you’ve done is no longer your own.
I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have someone else tell the story about who you are. Luckily for us this has never seemed to bother God. As bad as I want to be the one telling the story about who I am, God has always relied on others to tell the story about who God is. Maybe my need to control the telling of my own story, makes God’s decision difficult to comprehend, but make no mistake, the Bible is a collection of sacred stories that reflect a certain people’s understanding of who God is in the context of their journey. In that way, these stories are not just stories about the people, they are stories about the peoples’ understanding of God and who God is.
Not everything found in these stories is easily transferable, but some things are. For instance, these stories are clear that God deeply desires us and deeply desires a relationship with us. In fact, these stories demonstrate how God is willing to go to great lengths, and for reasons we can’t begin to understand, just to be in relationship with us. These stories even demonstrate how God lovingly exists alongside us while we point the finger and blame God for our pain. These stories, in my opinion, show how unbelievably loving God is, and if we look closely we can see this God of love in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. You see, these stories are love stories showing over and over and over again how much pain, how much finger-pointing and how much blame the Lover is willing to take in the hopes that the Beloved will stop running and turn toward the Lover. That, my friends, is why these stories are the stories of Love… of Grace… and of Mercy.
Take the story found in today’s scripture text from Numbers. Here we find Moses and the people on the move again, though the route is convoluted and not direct. Because they must go around the land of Edom, the people become impatient and speak against God and Moses. Their forceful and clamorous voices become urgent as they ask, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
Wait! What was that? There is no food, AND we detest this miserable food. Yes, you heard that right. At first, they say there is no food, but then immediately, within the same sentence say there is food. There is no logic in a sentence like this, but who of us is always perfectly logical when distraught and over-burdened. You see, when people get upset, logic goes out the window, and we all know this to be true. So, in reality there is food, they just don’t like it.
And their illogical statements don’t appear to stop with the food issue as they then confidently state that Moses and God brought them out of Egypt to kill them. Do any of you think that’s true or could it be that their thinking has been jumbled and twisted by their feelings? That happens sometimes, doesn’t it? As feelings are not always the most reliable foundation for accessing what is true.
What does seem true is that they have grown tired of their life in the wilderness and have now started to believe their life is going nowhere. Let’s remember for a minute what led up to this situation. The older generation is just about gone as most of them have died in the wilderness. The new generation was ready to enter the promised land and thought they were but were then thrust back into the desert. Back to living in conditions they had grown to detest. Could it be that some serious depression had begun to set it?
So, what do people in such a mental state do, they start blaming their condition on someone else. And in this story, with people seeking to blame others, who else was there but God Who was leading them & Moses, God’s spokesman? In what must have felt like Deju Vue all over again to God and Moses, the grumbling began and though this is a new generation, they had learned well from their parents. They pick up the same mantra spouted by them 38 years before . . . “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? This, my friends, is exactly what the previous generation had said time and again in complaint against Moses, even though it was so untrue.
God had actually liberated them from slavery in Egypt. Yes, their community had experienced death while traveling in the wilderness, but the only reason was because they had said they would rather die there than enter Canaan! Yet now they are blaming that on God & Moses! Then as they journeyed through this region, bitterly complaining against God & Moses, their camp became infested with venomous serpents. This seems awfully harsh, doesn’t it? So harsh, in fact, that it took up a large portion of the discussion this past week with my lectionary reading group of pastors. How can any of us reconcile the God of Love, Mercy and Grace, that we preach about weekly, with a god who would do such a thing to God’s people? These were the questions being asked within that group, and maybe some of you are asking the same type questions. They are good questions, I believe.
It just so happened that I recognized something in the text that I wanted to explore with my pastor friends that day. It was something that tended to shed some light and ultimately allowed us, I believe, to reconcile this story with the God of Love, Mercy and Grace. What I recognized was not some hidden gem, or some miraculous discovery. Some even suggested that my lawyering skills were on full display, and I think I understand what they mean. Because here’s the thing, in this text neither God, nor Moses are responsible for saying that God sent the fiery serpents. That makes this story different from other stories where God is recorded as telling Moses what God is going to do. In this story, the one telling us that God sent fiery serpents is an un-named Narrator, and it is said in an absolute conclusory way. And while for some, this may not seem like that big of a deal, to me, it means a lot.
This also makes the rest of the story absolutely remarkable to me because in this story there is a single instance of God talking. This single instance comes after all of the finger-pointing… after all of the blaming… after all of the complaining. It is with this single instance where we discover, or re-discover, the ways in which God hears and responds to our pleas. It is in this single instance where God says to Moses, I want you to take this thing that is causing their death, this thing they blame me for sending, and turn it into the very thing that will sustain life.
How remarkable is that? After all the complaining. After all the finger-pointing and all the blaming. God’s response is to turn death into the source of life. That is amazing and yes, this helps me reconcile this story with my God of Love, Grace & Mercy. This helps me see more clearly the power of the Love that permeates through these stories.
So, my brothers and sisters, may we come to understand that these stories are both the stories of people long ago doing their best to explain their interactions with God, and the stories of us today trying to do the same thing. May we come to understand that in and through these stories it is clear that God deeply desires us and deeply desires a relationship with us. And may these stories help us come to realize how God is willing to go to great lengths, and for reasons we can’t begin to understand, just to be in relationship with us.