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Hidden threat in a murmur

21 January 2022

Scripture makes it clear that murmuring is harmful, but have we learned the lessons, asks Erik Varden


Detail from Moses Striking the Rock by Adam van Noort (1562-1641)

Detail from Moses Striking the Rock by Adam van Noort (1562-1641)

NO VICE is condemned more strictly by St Benedict than that of murmuring. Early on in the Rule, he establishes, the heart’s expansion by way of general principle, that the monk must “not be a murmurer”. In the following chapter, on obedience, the theme is developed at length. This is natural.

It is when obedience makes real demands that self-will asserts itself, and may erupt in a murmurous belch. St Benedict won’t have it. Murmuring incurs an immediate warning. If it goes uncorrected, says he, it must be punished. It is one of the misdemeanours that qualifies for excommunication. We know all this and take it to heart.

Why is it, then, that murmuring stays a persistent temptation? When I looked up “murmur” in the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary to check its etymology, I discovered that it is an exceedingly ancient word, derived from Sanskrit marmara through Greek murmuro.

Murmuring, in other words, has been around since the beginning of recorded evidence. The root sense describes a quality of sound, even as we use it still to describe, say, the murmur of traffic. The sound in question is usually neither pleasant nor reassuring.

A murmur is full of foreboding. Latin writers used cognates of “murmur” to describe the distant roaring of a lion, the onset of a wind presaging a storm, or the rumble of an earthquake.

There is a hidden violence in murmuring. This semantic charge enables it, by seamless progression, to assume a tropological sense as the utterance of passive aggression. When someone murmurs, he or she assumes, at least implicitly, a posture of rebellion. Of course, a murmur is vague and indistinct. One can hear that someone murmurs, but rarely what is murmured.

Murmuring is different from speaking up, which is an honest business. What makes murmuring noxious is its quality of stealth, its procedure of secret undermining. This is how we encounter the word in scripture.


IN THE Latin Bible familiar to St Benedict, the first mention of murmuring occurs in Exodus 15.24, where, after several aborted attempts to leave Egypt, thwarted by Pharaoh, the Israelites have at last embraced the path to freedom.

They have crossed the Red Sea, seeing Egypt’s chariots drowned in their wake, “sinking like a stone”. Moses’s exultant canticle, which the Church sings at each Easter vigil, takes up two-thirds of this 15th chapter. It celebrates the Lord’s mighty deeds.

Its thrust is this: it is the Lord who has set Israel free. He has “triumphed gloriously”. He has thrown “the horse and its rider” into the sea. His right hand “shatters the enemy”. He — and this is the crunch — has given proof of his “steadfast love”, leading forth the people he has redeemed. The song (15.1-18) ends on a note of jubilant hope: “You will bring [your people] in and plant them on your holy mountain, the place, O Lord, which you have made for your dwelling.”

The people who earlier (4.31) prostrated themselves in adoration at the mere mention of God’s promise of redemption now know that his promise carries, that the Lord does move among them, a pillar of cloud and of fire, powerful to save. The exodus has vindicated Israel’s hope. It has verified that the Lord acts on their behalf.

Yet the people, still with Red Sea mud on their feet, soon changed their tune. Having walked for three days, they came to Marah, where the water was undrinkable, too bitter. At this, the people murmured against Moses. They said, “What are we to drink?” (15.24).

Striking here is the change of perspective. As long as they were still looking back, recalling their adventure so far, including the crossing of the Red Sea, the people acknowledged God as their guide. When faced with present suffering, however, when the journey through the desert, begun joyfully, makes them thirsty, they abandon their supernatural outlook. They look around for someone to blame. Moses is the obvious target.

They vent their grievance on him, murmuring, then asking, “How will you fix this?” God is praised for good things that happen; difficult things are ascribed to human incompetence. The name of the place, Marah, means “bitterness”. Bitter is Israel’s complaint. Marah water will, for all time, symbolise murmuring, which leaves a foul taste in the mouth, cannot quench thirst, and suffocates hope.

Moses cries out to the Lord. The Lord in response shows him a tree, telling him to cast it into the water — not just a twig or a bit of bark, but the whole tree. At once the water is sweetened. Israel can drink. The memory of this event will later inspire the Church’s contemplatives, who recognised the tree as foreshadowing Christ’s cross by which sin is forgiven.


THE rebellion of Marah, the proto-murmur, is thereby linked to our sinful condition as such, our fallen humanity, and rightly so. For what is sin if not a lack of faith and trust, the presumption of assuming that God cannot, will not, reach or help us?

God’s oracle to Moses at Marah, once the people had drunk, merits attention. If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his eyes, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon you which I put upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord, your healer (15.26).

The first plague that struck Egypt was the poisoning of water. So, at Marah, the people assumed: God is doing to us what he did to our enemies. “How could you think such a thing?” retorts the living God. He reminds them that their journey is a journey of faith, whose map is a covenant.

From the outset of the Lord’s revelation to Moses, he had stated his intention “to bring them up out of [Egypt] to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (3.8).

Is he not a trustworthy God? Is he not the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? He has proved that he fulfils his promises. The point of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to show that God’s power can vanquish human opposition. The point of making the Red Sea waters stand “like a wall” (14.29) was to show that the forces of nature are subject to a providential plan. God is a faithful God. But will Israel have faith?

At this crucial juncture, the people are reminded that God’s saving work is premised on their loyalty. They have entered a covenant. A covenant, by definition, is two-sided. God treats Israel like a man fit to give his word, expected to keep it. Israel’s murmuring gives God an occasion to rehearse the “If” on which the covenant is premised.

God will keep them, save them, heal them if they listen to his word, do what is right, keep his commandments. This includes going forward in faith even when their path passes through waterless places. They must walk, and not murmur.

There is a twist in this tale, of course. It occurs in the very last verse of Exodus 15, in an observation mentioned as if by the way. In fact, it gives the key to the whole narrative. Having moved on from Marah, we are told: “The people came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they encamped there.” Israel’s murmuring had erupted on the threshold of a delightful oasis towards which God was leading them.

They had bitterly complained “we have no water”, just as God was about to surprise them with bountiful springs and shade in sweet abundance. In this there is a perennial lesson.


MURMURING displays the capitulation of hope through a nursing of retrospect, a refusal to move forward. Yet our life of faith is a journey. Its destination is glorious if only we look up to behold it. May we not be like the murmurers of old who absurdly “despised the desirable land” (Psalm 105.24). “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the God who saves us.”

This is the invitation that our call holds out to us. We, too, are on a desert journey, having retired, like our 12th-century Fathers, to a “wilderness”. The Lord guides us still, a cloud by day, blazing fire by night. Our itinerary is set out by means of our regula, our Rule, which indicates the most efficient way of reaching the goal we say we desire.

The Lord has called us together in this place to be an image of wandering Israel, to manifest the Church in via. He has given us to one another as brothers, friends, supporters, to encourage each other when the way is wearisome, to lead by good example, good zeal, good cheer.

The joy to which we are called is no temperamental accident. It is the expression of a soul that tends forward, drawn by love’s yearning to see the Beloved, with a heart enlarged to embrace and contain whatever companions the Lord will give us to carry on our way.

As long as our shared progress on this royal road is marked by lightness, gratitude, and faith, we shall, by God’s grace and shared resolve, keep the acid rain of murmuring far from our horizon.


This is an edited extract from Entering the Twofold Mystery: On Christian conversion by Erik Varden, published by Bloomsbury at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99); 978-1-47297-944-5, reviewed here.

Join the online launch next Wednesday, 26 January, 6.30-7.30 p.m., with Erik Varden in conversation with Sarah Coakley, hosted by Church House Bookshop in association with Bloomsbury.

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