The children of Israel provide an interesting and instructive study. Maybe I am the only one, but when I read through the Biblical account of their experiences I get frustrated. There are times I see them denying God and I want to shout “are you serious!” There are many flaws that they had, and over the next few weeks we will take a look at a few of them.
Today I'd like to consider their "selective memory", a practice that can plague us all from time to time. Some things are just easier or more pleasant to remember than others. Nothing is more entertaining than listening to middle aged men talk about the athletic prowess they had ‘back in the day’. In their case often the memory is not just selective but also inaccurate! Sadly, selective memory is not a new issue but rather one that has existed for centuries.
I am presently reading through the book of Numbers and just arrived at chapter 11. I must admit the first few chapters of Numbers were tough going but I was delighted when I arrived at this story. Delighted, but also saddened as I saw far too much of myself in the narrative.
The Israelites had been wandering around the desert for quite some time and the options for manna preparation were starting to get limited. I would liken it to being in Nicaragua and discovering there are only so many ways you can prepare rice and beans. The Israelites were tired of their diet and so they started to complain and to cry out for meat. Now the part that struck me as the most interesting is what that leads them to do.
But just before we move on too far, let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s easy to be tough on the Israelites for wanting meat however I can sympathize. I love food, a good meal with good friends is without a doubt my favourite pastime. I’ve got nothing against vegetarians either but I’ve got to say I love a good piece of steak. A nice filet, cooked medium rare, on a sunny summer day certainly ignites thankfulness in my heart.
The Israelites' desire for some meat wasn't, in itself, necessarily an evil thing but there are two things that they got wrong.
Firstly, they were looking in the wrong place for satisfaction. They thought that ultimately their joy would be found in the food that they ate. While I do love good food it would be equally foolish of me to think that food is where my ultimate joy lies. God told the children of Israel why he brought them out of Egypt “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”. God brought them out to dwell with them and commune with them. That is where true joy could have been found and yet they looked to their bellies. An insightful contrast to their failure on this point can be seen in the life of the Lord Jesus in John 4 when the disciples were all concerned whether he had eaten anything, and his response was "my meat is to do the will of him that sent me and to finish his work". What a contrast to those that totally forgot about their God and thought only of their stomachs! We should each ask ourselves which of these examples we are most frequently following?
The second flaw in the Israelites is the main point of this article - their selective memory. Their hungry bellies and longing taste buds led them to think back to Egypt - but look at what they remembered about their experience there! If it wasn’t so sad to read I think I could almost laugh as I read their description of Egypt “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost us nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onion and the garlic but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at”. By the way they are talking you would think their time in Egypt was like a vacation to Hawaii. I’m not sure if they actually did get to eat those things, personally I think they were guilty of the same thing that leads middle aged men to think they could have played in the big leagues if not for some freak injury. However, even if we suppose that they did in fact eat those foods during their time in Egypt, they conveniently forgot one overwhelming detail. They were slaves in Egypt! They remembered the minor pleasure offered by Egypt and forgot about the tremendous affliction.
In conclusion, I would like to apply this to our lives. Firstly, too often we allow our desires and cravings to influence our better judgment. It was a craving for meat that led the children of Israel to start complaining here. For us it is unlikely to be food but it could be selfish ambition, sexual desire, or self indulgence that leads us to make poor decisions. We need to constantly remember that our purpose is to honour our Lord, our greatest joy is to walk and commune with him and the secret to meaning, purpose and fulfilment in life is to live it for his glory not to gratify our own fleshly appetites.
Often in these moments when we are facing fleshly temptation, we too can suffer from selective memory. We are quick to think of the pleasure that sin offers and yet we pay no regard to the slavery that it entails. We look back to past experiences, ones that we have since been freed from by the grace of God, and we remember the pleasure but forget the slavery. Our selective memory leads us to desire things that we shouldn’t desire, to lust after things that our hearts shouldn’t be drawn towards.
What is the solution? When writing to Timothy Paul said “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead…as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!”
What preserved Paul? He didn’t think back to the way his wrists felt when he was a Pharisee and had no bonds. He didn’t think of how comfortable it was to sit a Gamaliel’s feet and learn about the Law. No! He remembered Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!
The Lord Jesus told us to remember him, not only because this brings honour and glory to him - but because it also brings benefit and joy to us! When we take our eyes off him we are prone to forget where our joy comes from and prone to be selective as we remember the past.
So as you face your day today, and (if the Lord doesn't return) as you make your way through this coming week, you may find yourself feeling down and, like the children of Israel, life may seem a little bland to you. What is the answer? Don't fall victim to selective memory and the clouded judgment it brings. Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead! Look to him. As Hebrews 12 encourages us: "Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith . . . consider him who endured such contradiction of sinners against himself lest ye be wearied and faint in your hearts".
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