Numbers 14:1 says, “That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron…” The Hebrew word for “community” is edah and it can also mean, “congregation, assembly, and multitude.” Notice how the KJV renders Numbers 14:1, “And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried…”
The Israelites on the edge of the Promise Land, were more than a group of freed slaves. This was the congregation, the assembly, the church of the Old Testament. They were redeemed to be God’s gathered community, called to be salt and light, to assemble for worship, witness, and fellowship. When we come upon this church in the Old Testament it is full of instruction for the church in our day.
The entire congregation wept aloud and gave way to grumbling. “Why did you lead us all the way here? We followed you and you bring us here to die? Our wives and children will be taken from us. If only you had left us alone in Egypt!” Then verse 4 says, “And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’”
Moses had led the people to the very edge of God’s promise, and they didn’t want to go in. It was like a bride walking out in the middle of the wedding. The people Moses had loved and led turned on him and God at the critical hour. Not only that, they shamefully accused him again of attempting genocide. Overwhelmed, Moses and Aaron fell prostrate and began to pray.
Seeing God’s community in such dissension, disarray and disorder brought tremendous sorrow to Joshua and Caleb. Overtaken by grief, they tore their robes in front of the assembly. In the ancient world this symbolized sadness, pain, and loss.
They did more than just cry and tear their clothes. They spoke up and drew a line in the sand in Numbers 14: “Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” In God’s eyes, this was a rebellion, a stubborn refusal to believe in his power and promises. When you try to push a stubborn person it only produces anger. After hearing their corrective words the whole assembly talked about stoning them.