The children of Israel, about a month after being delivered from Egypt, were beginning to feel differently about their circumstances.
They had witnessed a series of miracles culminating in the parting of the Red Sea. They left Egypt with a high hand, leaving behind a life of slavery—endless hard labor and abuse from cruel taskmasters—and even plundered the spoils of their captors. After living through these incredible events, they rejoiced and sang praises to God (Ex. 15:1-21).
But this excitement and gratitude did not last.
Immediately following this celebration, we read, “So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter…And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink?” (vs. 22-24).
Time and time again, God met Israel’s needs—and remember, this was a nation of millions! He provided water, manna, quail and many other things for them.
But did the lesson sink in?
The account continues, just over a month after the first Passover: “On the fifteenth day of the second month after their departing out of the land of Egypt…the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness: And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16:1-3).
Even many months after the exodus, having seen God’s providence, the Israelites were still falling into the same mindset.
“And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes” (Num. 11:4-6).
It seems unbelievable that even a carnal, stiff-necked nation like Israel would want to go back to a land where they were slaves. What could they possibly have missed?
This incredible story contains a number of lessons related to our conversion.
Why Did Israel Long for Egypt?
The Israelites quickly forgot the weight of their burden in Egypt. They succumbed to a common quirk of human nature—feeling that “the grass is always greener on the other side.” Think of your own life for a moment. When you are in the midst of a trial, does your mind drift back to earlier in your life—and somehow you find yourself thinking that those were the “good old days”? A verse in Ecclesiastes gives some instruction concerning this tendency: “Say not you, ‘What is the cause that the former days were better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this” (7:10).
There are things Israel may have looked back upon that resulted in their saying, “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt.” Each one has spiritual parallels from which we can learn.
- Physical Comforts and Conveniences: At the time of the exodus, Egypt was one of the most advanced civilizations on earth, and those who lived there enjoyed material benefits—even the slaves, to some degree. When we repent of our own ways and begin to follow God’s way of life, it can often involve a change in our standard of living. How many in the Church have lost their jobs, or have not been called back for a second interview, or have been passed over for a promotion because they keep the Sabbath and annual Holy Days? How many times has a new prospective member’s employer heard of his new beliefs, and concluded that he has become a “religious fanatic,” no longer an asset to the company? Many of God’s people have “war stories” in this regard—and God allows these trials to test our conviction. Do you ever find yourself longing for your former life, before any of these tests ever entered your mind?
- A Familiar Routine: Human beings have an innate fear of the unknown. We have all seen children who are afraid of the dark or fearful of “monsters” in a closet. While most outgrow these childhood phobias, upon conversion, elements of our life that we take for granted can be changed forever, and sometimes they simply must vanish: employment (as mentioned above); relationships with family and friends; our previous interests and hobbies, which may not be in line with God’s standards; our status in our community. While the Israelites’ “routine” was awful, they generally knew what to expect. And, faced by the uncertainties of following Moses in the wilderness, they actually began to long for what they had known well—even though it was a deplorable life of slavery!
- Safety in Numbers: Israel left Egypt as a relatively small, militarily weak, nomadic nation—vastly outnumbered by the surrounding nations. Of course, with God fighting their battles, they had nothing to fear. But, as carnal human beings who did not have real faith, they must have instantly felt like a vulnerable minority. To “go with the flow, fit in,” and go along with the crowd is easy (Matt. 7:13). It is much harder to take a much more difficult, and therefore unpopular, path. This is the assignment of every Christian: “And be not conformed to this world: but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Furthermore, God’s instruction regarding the world around us—compared to Egypt and other world empires in the Bible—is to “Come out of her, My people, that you be not partakers of her sins, and that you receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). We are all in training to be leaders in the World to Come, and leadership is lonely!
- Idols: Egypt is still known for its abundance of imposing religious icons—the Sphinx of Giza, ancient temples and other relics remain popular destinations for sightseers. Remember, as soon as they had a chance, Israel reverted to idolatry: “And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me. And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron. And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:1-4). Those in God’s Church have progressed beyond bowing down to graven images or worshipping “birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). But it can take a long time for us to learn to truly rely on an invisible, spiritual God, and not to trust in physical things—possessions, status, or even other people. God will surely break down all of the idols that can linger in the mind of one of His begotten children, consciously or unconsciously.
During this spring Holy Day season, as you read through the account of the exodus and the Israelites’ journeys in the wilderness, do not just view it as a dry history lesson (I Cor. 10:11). And do not assume that the attitudes, reactions, tendencies and weaknesses shown by ancient Israel have no bearing on us today. Look for the lessons that apply to your life!