I don't think there's a piece of Biblical text that gets such short shrift as the Book of Numbers.
Some say it's just a bunch of complaining by an ungrateful people. Others only look at the surface and see ugliness, and wonder how in the world can this be the word of God.
I want to suggest that the book deserves better, and, even more, its Writer expects better.
In Numbers, (B'Midbar, in Hebrew), we find ourselves in the wilderness, physically and spiritually. We've been to the mountain, experienced Divine revelation, and entered into a covenant with God. But now we're away from the mountain; we're in the real world and on the ground.
It's not that God is not available. God is indeed near, with us, as the text says, by day and by night.
But, we see ourselves as alone and anxious and independent, and, as John Milton wrote, we then tend to "trespass, Authors to ourselves."
Last week we saw how a people can go astray, beginning with contention from the "outskirts," that extends through the riffraff and infects the whole community.
This week we learn how leaders can be so short of spirit they can push a whole community - weak in itself - into faithlessness and an abandonment of God's path.
We would do well first to understand that we moderns are not exempt from such weakness and that God intends this text to instruct us, too. Waywardness was not a condition practiced only by the ancients.
But the beauty of this text is not only in its truth about our problem. It's also in its gift of solutions. If we dive into and swim in the deep waters of this text we can find support that helps and strengthens us.
We see remarkable examples of God-fearing people such as Caleb and Joshua and learn from their exemplary faith and action.
We continue to learn from Moses' courage, steadfastness, love, and instruction.
We see and learn from God's reactions to our waywardness. God may impose consequences, but God always seeks our return, always shows paths back, and always provides tools for us to stay in community with each other and covenant with the Divine.
We learn how to build up in strength from weakness, how to deepen our faith, how to shore up our courage, and how to live, though anxious and tempted, in ways that are true to God's expectations.
The case for studying this magnificent book of the Bible begins with the humility of recognizing that we, like all people, are prone to weakness, even in the presence of God. It's important to acknowledge that, and then explore and understand through all the many stories we encounter here how such weakness is actually manifested in our lives. If we read carefully, God shows us how to respond to that weakness with strength.