Numbers 11

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD heard the people griping about how hard they thought things were, and the LORD was angry and sent a fire that burned the outskirts of the camp. 2The people cried out to Moses, who prayed to the LORD, and the fire died out. 3They called the place Taberah (“the burning”) because the LORD’s fire had flamed among them.

4The grumblers among the people complained about their limited diet, and the Israelites began to complain. They said, “Why can’t we have more to eat? 5In Egypt we ate fish, free of charge, and a variety of foods – cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6We’re sick and tired of this ‘manna’.”

7The manna was like the seed of an herb known as coriander. It resembled tree sap in appearance. 8The people went around gathering it, and they would break it up in a grinder or beat it with stones. Then they would boil it in pots and shape it into buns. It tasted like grain cakes mixed with oil. 9It fell on the ground with the dew during the night.

10Moses heard all the people complaining from their tents. The LORD was angry with them, which bothered Moses. 11He said to the LORD, “Why have you laid this problem on me? What have I done to anger you, that you would burden me with all the problems of these people? 12Am I their Daddy? Did I bring them into the world? Why do you tell me to coddle them in my arms like a woman nursing a baby, all the way to the land you swore to their ancestors that you would give to them? 13Where I am supposed to find meat to feed all these people? They keep carping to me about giving them meat to eat! 14I can’t carry all these people on my back; they’re too much for me. 15If this is what you expect of me, just go ahead and kill me now. If you care anything about me, don’t let me fail and be ruined!”

16The LORD said, “Moses, gather seventy of the elders, people you know to be leaders whom the people respect. Bring them to the meeting tent and have them stand there with you. 17I will come down and speak to all of you, and I will take some of the inspiration I have given you and put it on them and they will share the burden of leading these people. 18Tell the people to prayerfully prepare themselves for tomorrow, for they will have their meat. Tell them I have heard their complaining and wailing about not having meat and about being better off when they were in Egypt. Tell them the LORD will give them meat and they will eat it. 19They will eat it not just for a day, or two days, or five days, or ten days or twenty days, 20but for a whole month. They will eat it until it runs out of their noses and they hate it. They have rejected me, the LORD, who is with them, and have complained, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’”

21Moses said, “Here I am, surrounded by six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say you will give them meat for a whole month? 22How many flocks and herds will they have to slaughter? Or do we have to catch all the fish in the sea for them?”

23The LORD said to Moses, “Do you think my reach is limited? Now you’re going to see whether or not I’m telling the truth.”

24So, Moses went out and told the people what the LORD had said. Then he summoned seventy of their leaders and gathered them at the meeting tent. 25The LORD descended in the cloud and spoke to Moses and took some of the inspiration that had been given him and put in on the seventy elders, and when the LORD’s spirit came upon them, they were inspired to utter prophesies, but just that once and never again.

26Two of the seventy chosen men, Eldad and Medad, had not come to the meeting tent, but the LORD’s inspiration entered them, and they uttered prophesies where they were. 27A young man ran and told Moses what they were doing, 28and Joshua, son of Nun, who had been Moses’ assistant from his youth, cried, “My lord Moses, tell them to stop!” 29But Moses said, “Why? Are you jealous on my behalf? I wish all the LORD’s people were prophets. I wish the LORD would give the spirit to all of them!” 30Then Moses disbanded the elders and they all returned to the camp.

31Then the LORD caused a wind to begin to blow, and it blew quails from the sea and they fell all around the camp, a day’s journey on every side, three feet deep. 32The people worked day and night and the next day gathering the quails. Everybody had at least sixty bushels, spread all around the camp. 33But while they were still chewing the meat, before they could even swallow, the LORD’s anger burned against the people and the LORD struck them with a deadly plague. 34That place became known as Kibroth-Hattaavah, which means ‘tombs of desire,’ because that is where they buried the people who died because of their craving.

35From Kibroth-Hattaavah they traveled to Hazeroth and camped there.

Commentary

Numbers 11 begins a series of three “complaint stories.”

1-3: Immediately upon departure from Mt. Sinai, the people begin to complain. The complaint is not specified other than it is about their “misfortunes.” A fire breaks out in the “outlying parts” of the camp and people die. It is not hard to imagine a fire spreading through a tent village, but the emphasis on outlying parts of the camp seems to be designed to demonstrate that God’s power and the obligation to follow God’s laws are not dependent on nearness to the sanctuary.

4-15: They have moved from Taberah to Kibroth-Hattaaveh (see verse 34), and some of them complain that they have no meat (I suppose they are forbidden to eat the animals they have been sacrificing). They are tired of manna, although this is only the second time manna is mentioned. The exchange between Moses and God in verses 10-15 is remarkable. Moses challenges God in a way that no one else in the Bible dares. It is much more direct and demanding, for example, than Abraham’s argument with God to spare Sodom.

16-23: God tells Moses to summon 70 elders before the “meeting tent.” In this case the “meeting tent” does not seem to be the sanctuary but another location outside or on the outskirts of the camp (see verse 26 where it is said that two men did not go “out to” the tent, and verse 30 where they all return to the camp from the tent). God tells Moses that the people will eat meat until it runs out their nostrils. Moses is flabbergasted and wonders how that much meat can possibly be provided. I am reminded of the story of Jesus telling his disciples to feed the multitudes and them responding, “Where are we to get enough to feed this crowd?”

24-30: The spontaneous worship of the 70 is uncontrolled but doesn’t last long. It spills over into the camp into two leaders who for some unstated reason are not present at the meeting. They, too, are touched by the Spirit and begin to prophesy. Somebody runs to tell Moses, and Joshua thinks the two men should be silenced, but Moses says to let them be. The story illustrates the conflict that often arises between organized religion and spontaneous worship.

31-34: Quails come into the camp – some sort of mass migration, perhaps – and the people eat until they are sick and many of them die. That can happen with improperly cooked fowl. Maybe the message has to do with what happens when we are not satisfied with the modest blessings God sometimes provides. God sends manna, the people demand meat, God relents, and the meat makes them sick.

Verse 35: They move camp again, from Kibroth-Hattaavah to Hazeroth.

Takeaway

Honestly, I think it’s probably better to complain about how God is leading us than to ignore God altogether. In the first case God may punish us, but in the second case God will simply let us go, and that is far worse.