Saturday, April 21, 2007

Numbers 11

Numbers 11: Fire and quail from the LORD


For the last couple of chapters, things have been going pretty well. The LORD has handed down various commandments and instructions, and the people have followed His instructions very well. In this chapter, however, things go a bit sour.

It starts with the Israelites complaining about “their hardships” (verse 1). (It’s not specified what those perceived “hardships” are, just that the people are complaining about them.) This displeases the LORD, and He sends down fire, which “burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp” (verse 1). I don’t know if this means any of the people are killed; when it says that “the outskirts of the camp” are “consumed,” I don’t know if this means people or not. (I assume not, however, I don’t have much to back that up.)

When this happens, the people go to Moses, and he prays to the LORD, who then stops the fire. The people then name the place “Taberah,” which means “burning.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the trouble. After this:
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (verses 4–6)
You will notice, here and in future chapters, that the Israelites don’t always remember their hardships in Egypt very accurately. The “rabble” among them seemed to remember their time in Egypt as much better than it really was.

In any event, word comes to Moses that this is happening, and he becomes troubled. The LORD, of course, also becomes angry—“exceedingly angry,” according to verse 10. So Moses approaches the LORD, to talk to Him about it—except that Moses’ talk with the LORD really becomes a complaining session of his own!
He asked the LORD, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (verses 11–15)
Because of this, the LORD commands Moses to bring seventy of Israel’s elders—people who were already known to Moses as “leaders and officials among the people” (verse 16)—so that He can take some of His Spirit from Moses, and put that Spirit in them. This way the leadership responsibilities will be more divided, and the burden won’t be completely on Moses.

But the LORD doesn’t forget about the people, either:

[the LORD said to Moses] “Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The LORD heard you when you wailed, “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!” Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the LORD, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’”

But Moses said, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?”

The LORD answered Moses, “Is the LORD’s arm too short? You will now see whether or not what I say will come true for you.”

(verses 18–23)

So Moses does as he is commanded. First, he gathers seventy of Israel’s elders, and brings them to stand around the Tend of Meeting. (Verse 24 just says “had them stand around the Tent,” and I assume that means the Tent of Meeting.) The LORD comes down in a cloud and speaks with him, and then takes some of the Spirit that was “on” Moses, and put it on the elders.

Verse 25 then has an interesting problem for the people who tried to translate from Hebrew into English: It can either be translated “When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did not do so again,” or it can be translated “When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied and continued to do so.” In a situation like that, when the original wording in Hebrew can be rendered in two ways—in this case, two ways that are actually opposite to each other!—how do you translate it into English? Of course, in this case, even if we were reading the original Hebrew text, the problem would remain…

You might be wondering, at this point—if you haven’t already read the text, which, really, you should have—if this would make Moses jealous. Now that the LORD has taken some of His Spirit off of Moses, and given it to others, will Moses feel slighted? Not at all:

However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the Tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!”

But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

(verses 26–30)

As a child of God, this is the perfect response for Moses to have. The Spirit that has been given to him, he seems to consider to be a responsibility, rather than a proof that he is somehow better than his fellow Israelites. This is one example of Moses’ humility.

After all of this, the LORD sends a wind, which drives quail from the sea to the Israelites. In fact, He sends so much quail that it covers the entire camp, to a depth of a metre! The Israelites go out and gather it up, and begin to eat. However, the LORD is still angry with them for wanting it in the first place, so “while the meat [is] still between their teeth and before it [can] be consumed” (verse 33), He strikes the people with a plague. Again, it is not specified if anyone dies from the plague, and, if so, how many. Because of this, the people name the place “Kibroth Hattaavah,” which means “graves of craving.”


I quoted verses 11–15 above, when Moses complains to the LORD. I always get a bit uncomfortable, when Moses talks to the LORD this way. I get a bit worried that the LORD is not going to take such talk from a mere mortal—someone that He Himself has created! “Who is Moses to question the LORD?” I think to myself. However, the LORD usually—or always?—takes it very well. Which might mean one or all of the following:
  • The LORD is very patient with Moses, and understands where he is coming from
  • There are cultural issues that I don’t understand, and what Moses is saying to God, in the context of his culture, isn’t as confrontational as it seems to my twentieth century self
  • The LORD does rebuke Moses, and it’s just not captured in the text in the Bible
I don’t see any clues, at least in this chapter, that any of these things are happening. I’m just trying to explain to myself what might be going on. It should also be noted, however, that the LORD is similarly patient with other people in the Bible, so His treatment of Moses here is obviously in His character. (For example, see Elijah’s discussion with Him, in 1 Kings 19:9–18.)

When Moses questions the LORD about how He is going to provide meat for the people, it reminds me of the disciples questioning Jesus, in Mark 8:1–10, about providing food for the 4,000. He had already fed the 5,000, in Mark 6:30–44, and yet the disciples still didn’t know how he could possibly feed so many people.

When it comes to the LORD’s anger with the people, when they crave meat, I think it has more to do with their attitude, than their desire for meat. They’re not satisfied with what He has provided them, and want their own way—even though they know that their lives in Egypt were worse than their lives in the desert. Any time we think our ways are better than the LORD’s ways, we’re begging for trouble.

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