The Good Old Days
In the book of Ecclesiastes, the author advises, “Don’t say, ‘How has it come about that things were better in earlier times than now?’ for you are not asking about this out of wisdom” (7:10). The word “wisdom” (hokhmah) in Ecclesiastes often means something like the search for truth (see Eccles 1:13, 2:3, etc.). What he’s saying here is that if you ask such a question, you’re really not looking for an answer, and certainly not calling for some detached, scientific inquiry. All you’re doing is complaining.
This verse comes to mind in contemplating this week’s Torah reading, and more generally the whole biblical book of Numbers. So many things go wrong! In this week’s reading alone, the people first complain about the manna (which elsewhere had been praised for its taste, Exod 16:31); then two men, Eldad and Medad, apparently cause a flap about Moses’ authority; after this come Miriam and Aaron, who challenge Moses’ standing as God’s prophet. In subsequent weekly readings come all sorts of other troubles: the cowardly spies who spread panic among the people; Korah’s rebellion; Moses and Aaron striking the rock, which resulted in their both dying before the entrance into the land of Canaan; the bronze serpent, the sin of Baal Peor, and more. All these things are packed back-to-back in what seems like an unending series of woes. What’s the point?
Normally, there is a point. Biblical narratives don’t usually seem to have been told just because they happened; usually, their retelling has an apparent purpose. Often, the past is recounted in order to explain the present: in the book of Genesis, stories of Israel’s meritorious ancestors help to explain their descendants’ special connection to God. The book of Exodus likewise explains this connection. Jacob’s sons went down to Egypt and increased greatly; then a wicked Pharaoh enslaved them until God set them free and brought them to Mount Sinai, where He adopted them as His special people.
All in all, this ought to have been a happy story, Israel’s march from slavery to freedom, and from the lowliest of peoples to God’s chosen favorite. And perhaps in some other retelling of Israel’s history, that is all that would have been said. But the Torah’s account is clearly determined to assert that even within this triumphal framework, things kept turning awry. This, it seems, is indeed the whole point—not only of this week’s reading, but of much of the book of Numbers.
When, in this week’s reading, some of the people complain to Moses about the manna they have to eat, they utter this telltale sentence: “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…” (Num 11:5). Ancient commentators pointed out the falsity of such a “memory.” The Egyptians wouldn’t even give the Israelites straw with which to make bricks. Did they ever give their slaves such delicacies? Truly, here is a case of what Ecclesiastes had in mind: “Don’t say, ‘How has it come about that things were better in earlier times than now?’ for you are not asking about this out of wisdom.”