Is complaining really that grave of a sin?
Chapter 11 of Numbers begins with complaining. The Israelites in the wilderness complain (we aren’t told about what) and God burns the outsides of the camp. The people cry out to Moses, who prays to God and the fire stops. Immediately after this episode, the mixed multitude that came out of Egypt with the Hebrews start to complain– about food –and the people of Israel take up the cry. In verse 10 it says that “Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent…”, which seems to indicate that a large portion of the Israelites had joined into the craving and complaining.
The people “despise” God by implying that He is not good, that rather Egypt was good.
Moses then joins in the complaining! Well, not exactly– he begins complaining, not about missing meat, but rather like a parent who’s “had it up to here” and is ready to quit, he complains to God: “Why have You put me in charge of this people!? I can’t deal with them! Just kill me now!” There is no doubt however, at least in my mind, that Moses’ complaint was different in kind than the sinful complaining of the people. The people grumble against God, whereas Moses talks directly to God. The people “despise” God by implying that He is not good, that rather Egypt was good (which requires some serious forgetfulness of the slave labor, starvation and murder of their children, not to mention forgetting how God saved them). Moses complains against the people, and recognizes that he is not capable of dealing with them. Does he perhaps sin, or come very close to sinning, by challenging God’s decision to put him in charge of the people? Maybe, but he also seems to put the failure at his own feet, and asks God to take him. God’s response is telling. He gives other leaders to help Moses rule the people, and He declares that He will punish the complaining cravers, in a very fitting way, by giving them exactly what they want:
…And say to the people, ‘Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow, and you will eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat, for life was good for us in Egypt?” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat.  You will eat, not just one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days,  but a whole month, until it comes out your nostrils and makes you sick, because you have despised the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we ever come out of Egypt?”’”… So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. …
Now we arrive at our arced passage. God brings quail, blows them in from the ocean and they land all around the camp. The people go out to gather and there is a huge amount. They lay them out, lick their chops, take a big bite, “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague.” (vs 33)
Wait…what? I thought that having to eat meat until it “comes out of your nostrils and makes you sick” was the punishment for the craving and complaining. And it seemed a very fitting punishment. What happened? Take a look at verse 24: “So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord…” Moses told them what God had said. Moses told them that they were sinning in their craving and complaining. Moses told them there was a punishment coming and what that punishment was. The proper response of the people to being rebuked, to being confronted with their shocking ungratefulness and despising of the God of the Universe, should have been shame, remorse and repentance. But there is no response that we are privy to. They seem to miss the point completely, hearing only that meat is coming. They add sin to sin. Instead of turning from their sin and repenting they continue on the same path of craving, and so beg an even fiercer punishment than the first; a final punishment on those who craved, that serves as yet another warning to everyone else.
The proper response of the people to being confronted with their shocking ungratefulness and despising of the God of the Universe, should have been shame, remorse and repentance.
They call the name of the place “קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה” Graves of Craving, because there they buried the people who craved. They didn’t put their sins of craving and complaining to death, but followed them down to the graves and were buried with them. “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23a). Like all of Israel’s wilderness wandering, this episode serves as a serious warning to us. What cravings tempt you? When you are tempted, do you turn your eyes away from God and allow your cravings to supplant Him in your heart? When you cannot get what you crave, do you start to complain? “For the wages of [your] sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23). So take the warning seriously, but do not despair! Your sins have been buried with Jesus, and He gives you the strength to bury your cravings and complaints.