The Bible Says What? ‘The Israelites complained, so God burnt down their camp’

The Bible Says What? ‘The Israelites complained, so God burnt down their camp’

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith takes a controversial topic from the Torah and applies a progressive response

The people took to complaining bitterly before the Eternal. God heard and was incensed: a fire of the Eternal broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. Numbers 11:1 

We understand the devastating effects of fire that escapes control. From the recent murderous fire-bombing of a house in Salford to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower, forest fires in California and South Africa and the burning of synagogues on Kristallnacht, fire poses a grave danger to human life and property.

So what is God doing using fire to quell rebellion?

This part of the Torah is the section where the Israelites become desperate on their journey through the wilderness. They are demoralised, hungry and even willing to return to Egypt to slavery. They do what communities do when they cannot seem to find a way through: they begin to fight among themselves, not for the sake of the future, but for the sake of the egos of the community members.

Thereafter rise false prophets aiming to guide the people, spies of the Land of Israel who sap the people’s morale and the challenge to Moses’ leadership from his cousin Korach. Perhaps the fire on the edge of the camp is a metaphor for how the Israelites come close to destroying their own community.

Synagogues and Jewish organisations can easily do the same, when co-operating for a better future becomes complaining and backbiting. If they are not careful they can destroy themselves, making a place that no one would wish to join, or to lead. Perhaps it’s not God here who is the arsonist, but the complainers.

  •  Mark Goldsmith is a rabbinic partner at North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth)


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