Grumbling in the Wilderness - Saint John's Seminary
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Grumbling in the Wilderness

March 14, 2023

At this past Sunday’s Mass, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, we heard some wonderful readings related to faith and doubt. In his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, St. John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) famously wrote that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” And yet, we read in the book of Exodus that Israel doubts God’s providential care for her. “[T]he people grumbled against Moses […], saying ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’” (Ex 17:3, 7).

First, one shouldn’t fail to notice a particular word from this passage: grumbling. While my knowledge of Hebrew is virtually nonexistent, I can say that the Greek translation of the Old Testament – i.e., the Septuagint – contains this word most frequently in the books of Exodus and Numbers; and it could be translated as grumbling, or murmuring, or complaining. But ‘grumbling’ isn’t just an expression of frustration or anxiety, it implies a lack of faith. St. Luke, interestingly enough, also uses this word in his Gospel to describe how the Pharisees view Jesus (Lk 15:2; 19:7). In short, grumbling is the outward voicing of an inner doubt.

Second, it’s important to notice where in the story of Exodus this scene takes place. It occurs almost immediately after the parting of the Red Sea!!! Three days after witnessing the glory of God and the destruction of pharaoh’s army, the supernatural event that granted Israel her liberation from Egyptian servitude, the complaining begins (Ex 15:24), and continues (16:2), and continues (17:2). In fairness, the grumblings are in relation to some pretty important things; especially if one is in the wilderness, i.e., water and food. So one could easily give Israel a pass on that first complaining session. But, time and again, the people murmur in their insecurity, and God sends them precisely what they need. In fact, if we look to the end of Israel’s wanderings, we discover that God even preserved their clothes and sandals (Deut 29:5) – for 40 years!!!

Further, I hope it did not go unnoticed that the psalm we sang at Sunday Mass provided another account of the same story from Exodus. “‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the desert’” (Ps 95:8; cf. Ex 17:7). The moment of doubt at Meribah and Massah was so palpable in Israel’s consciousness that Scripture attests to it in multiple sources. And remembering that doubt is enshrined in our liturgical tradition, as well. Psalm 95 is the invitatory psalm for the Liturgy of the Hours. So that if one says the Divine Office of Readings, one will recite Psalm 95 every day.

We tend to think of doubt as a modern phenomenon. Surely there are features of doubt that are unique to our age, but doubt itself is a perennial temptation. Though Israel witnessed the 10 plagues visited upon the Egyptians, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the destruction of pharaoh’s army, she still murmurs. In the words of the Psalmist: “they tested me though they had seen my works” (Ps 95:9). This Lent, let us not fail to see God’s presence in guiding us and preserving us through life’s journey. Despite doubts or merely difficulties, let us remember that God is “merciful and gracious, […] abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6).

Dr. Anthony Coleman

Dr. Coleman brings more than a decade of experience working in higher education as a teacher, administrator, and scholar. Having earned a B.A. in Theology at St. Anselm College, and an M.A. in Theology and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology (with a minor in Historical Theology) at Boston College, he has taught theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Anna Maria College (Worcester, MA), St. Gregory's University (Shawnee, OK), and has previously served as an Associate Program Director for St. Joseph's College of Maine and Director of the Albany Campus for St. Bernard's School of Theology & Ministry. He is the author of Lactantius the Theologian (2017) and editor of Leisure and Labor: The Liberal Arts in Catholic Higher Education (2020). He is the most blessed husband of AnneMarie and a father of four. A native of Braintree, MA, Dr. Coleman is excited to be moving back home, near family, and to serve an institution that was pivotal in his own spiritual and intellectual formation.

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