What we must keep in mind whenever we study the travels and travails of Israel in the wilderness, is that it’s a picture of humanity. These are not remarkable people vastly different than those of us reading this text. They think like we do. They respond like we do. They have the same emotions and urges and instincts. It’s easy to be shocked by their selfishness and shortsightedness, but we shouldn’t assume we would’ve acted differently in the same circumstances. As we read through this text and see how ungrateful and oblivious and self-absorbed the people are, we should remind ourselves repeatedly, “They are us.”
The Israelites are roughly one year out of Egypt. They’ve already received the Law at Sinai (while worshiping a golden calf) and constructed the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. They gather manna every morning that God provides for them for food. They are nearing Canaan and will soon send spies into the land. They’ve seen God’s power in the plagues of Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, bitter water made fresh, bringing water from a rock, daily manna, and the giving of the commandments at Sinai. They see a visible manifestation of God’s presence every day in the cloud that stays over the tabernacle during the day and the pillar of fire that’s over it at night (both of which lead them when they travel). On several occasions, they’ve grumbled against both Moses and God for the hardships they’ve faced along the way. These incidents of grumbling have ended either with God’s provision or punishment, or sometimes both. The people overall have witnessed great things but have demonstrated repeatedly that they have remarkably short memories.
We don’t know what makes the people upset in these verses, but this brief incident sets up the rest of the chapter. For some reason, the Israelites start complaining like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the Lord. As a result, God sends fire into their midst and it consumes parts of the outskirts of the camp. It’s not clear if anyone is actually killed or if the fire just causes property damage and scares the people. Regardless, the people cry out to Moses and he intercedes and the fire goes away.
What’s notable about these three verses is how scared the people are when God’s wrath comes upon them. It makes sense that fire in the camp has an effect. But notice also how quickly their fear goes away. It doesn’t take long for them to totally forget the ramifications of questioning God and complaining about His provision. The gap from verse 3 to verse 4 shows the heart of man is desperately wicked, enormously self-centered, and amazingly forgetful.
We’re not sure who the rabble refers to, but we know that some non-Israelites left Egypt with the people during the 10th plague over a year ago (Ex 12:38). It’s likely that it’s these people who start the complaining in verse 4.
The problem is that the people are sick of eating manna every day and not getting any meat. They remember that back in Egypt they had their fill of all kinds of different food, most notably plenty of fish. The food in Egypt was wonderful – much better than having to eat the same thing every day, every meal, day in and day out. If only they could have some meat – something other than manna – they’d be happy.
It’s interesting that the complaining starts with the rabble but apparently spreads to the whole camp. It doesn’t take long for people who may not have known they’re dissatisfied to figure out that they are, once they’re told. People are easily persuaded when it’s in their self-interest. Also, it’s easy to remember the good old days as being all good, isn’t it? They long for the days in Egypt when they had great food to eat, but they don’t say anything about what it was like to be mistreated as slaves, beaten for not making quotas, and devastated by having their firstborn sons thrown in the river. And we can probably assume that the food situation wasn’t quite as good as they remember it now (notice that they talk about eating free fish – well, yes – it was free because you were slaves and didn’t have any way of paying and food was provided to you by your owners).
It’s notable too that they complain about meat. We know from other texts that they have vast herds of livestock and they regularly sacrifice animals at the tabernacle. Since that’s the case, we could ask why they don’t supply themselves with meat. It’s likely a matter of scale. For them to eat meat with any regularity, they’d have to consume all their livestock (note what Moses says about this in verse 22). They wouldn’t have any left for sacrifices or for setting up their farms once they reach Canaan. What they want is a ready supply of meat like the fish from the Nile in Egypt. That’s what they don’t have in the wilderness.
So let’s think through their complaint. They’re in the wilderness where they’d have no food if not for the manna. The manna comes down miraculously every morning with the dew. And there’s always enough for every person for that day. They NEVER have to worry about food, even though there are thousands of them and they’re in a place where food is very difficult to come by. They would certainly starve if not for the manna. And God has promised them it will be there every morning (other than the Sabbath) until they reach Canaan. They are a giant multitude of people, they’re in the wilderness, and they have NO WORRIES about food.
Looking at their complaint in that light, it means what they’re really saying is that they’d rather be enslaved in Egypt than subject to God’s provision. Slavery with fish is better than freedom with manna. “We don’t care about God’s miraculous food and we don’t care that God keeps us alive with it; what we really care about is getting some variety in our diet. Give us meat lest we die!”
Last thing to notice – they weep over this issue. This isn’t just some casual observation about how they’d like to see things. They’ve shut down. Verse 10 says they’re weeping at the doors of their tents. The impression is that the camp is on full stop while they mourn their lack of meat.
It’s easy to condemn them for this, but is there any way to put ourselves in their place and see their side? Do they have any justification for their ungratefulness? We could probably agree that we wouldn’t want to eat the same thing every meal (no one in Israel ever comes home and says, “What’s for dinner?”). They’ve figured out different ways to prepare it (vs 8), but it’s still the same thing every day. And its taste is as a cake baked with oil, so there’s certainly nothing to compare with meat. They’re also under a lot of stress generally – wandering in a strange and harsh land, no home, not sure where they’re going or when they’re going to get there, never having any food stored up, never sure how they’ll get water once they start traveling – and the daily grind of “same food, different day” can take a toll. They deal with change all the time – except for the food – and they rarely know from day to day what life is going to be like. All told, it’s a recipe for frustration.
While that’s a nice try on our part, it pales in comparison to how easy it is to condemn them, doesn’t it? They may have their reasons, but the bottom line is they’re thumbing their noses at God’s provision and saying it’s not good enough. They’re the opposite of Paul in Philippians 4. He said he’s learned to be content in all circumstances because he lives in Christ. He focuses on God and God’s miraculous provision and how God sustains him in all situations. The Israelites only see what they don’t have. They’re the anti-Philippians 4:13 – “I can’t do all things through Christ because He doesn’t give me any meat.”
Moses snaps. As we mentioned already, grumbling isn’t a new development with the people. He’s gone through incidents like this numerous times. If it’s not meat, it’s water; and if it’s not water, it’s food; and now it’s not just food, but the type of food. They’ve done nothing but complain and threaten and grouse since they left Egypt. God saved them from four centuries of slavery and Moses has faithfully gone before them, but they’ve complained as if it’s been the worst thing that ever happened to them and they long for their old lives. With all that as background, Moses has had enough and can’t handle it anymore.
He goes to God and does some complaining of his own. What he effectively says is, “WHY did you make me leader? Why did you put this responsibility on me? I’m solely responsible for these people and single-handedly leading them to Canaan and they’re impossible! I’m not the one who created this nation, so I don’t understand why I’m the one who has to nursemaid them to the Promised Land. Where the heck am I going to get enough meat to feed them so they’ll settle down and stop weeping and complaining??”
Moses is a picture of how we tend to look at life and trials when we’re stressed. Who is the subject of all his complaints (or perhaps a better word – ‘venting’)? It’s him, right? He’s totally focused inwardly. Just like the people can only see what they don’t have, Moses right now can only see the problem and how it affects him. He’s not looking at God – except as the target of his diatribe – he’s looking at the impossible task and himself. And he’s done. Remember, this is the guy who spent 40 days on Sinai basking in God’s glory, who will later be described as God’s friend with whom He speaks face to face (Num 12:6-8), and who’s seen God solve every issue they’ve faced. But that’s not his focus right now. He’s human and he’s had enough and he’s at the end of his rope and he sees no way out of the current dilemma. He’s so far gone that he ends his monologue with a plea for God to kill him. “Kill me now rather than let me fail in front of these people.”
It’s easy to pick apart Moses’ complaint, isn’t it? Has he been single-handedly responsible for leading the people to this point? God caused the plagues, God divided the Red Sea, God brought the manna, God brought the water from the rock, and God’s led them by the cloud and fire – that seems to argue for Moses having help, right? And based on what Moses has witnessed over the last year plus, does it make sense for him to assume he has to supply the people with meat on his own? He’s clearly lost sight of who God is and all God’s done to this point on their journey. He’s seen amazing things but right now he’s overwhelmed and can’t see straight.
God’s reaction to Moses is a little surprising. Does He condemn Moses? Does He rebuke and punish Moses for his faithlessness and complaining? No – not at all. God says nothing about Moses’ short-sightedness, and simply solves the problem. He tells Moses to appoint 70 elders to share the load of responsibility and defuse the pressure of leadership. He doesn’t remind Moses of all the past miracles and doesn’t tell him how foolish it is for him to say he’s led the people all on his own. God just solves the problem Moses brought to him. Instead of rebuke, Moses receives mercy.
That God reacts to Moses’ words brings up an interesting discussion. Did God know Moses could use some help leading the people? When Moses complained, did God say to Himself, “You know, he’s right. I’ve overloaded him and haven’t really noticed it until now. I probably should have given him some help already – there are hundreds of thousands of these people and I’ve put too much responsibility on him. I feel bad that I’ve done this to him so let’s get him some help.” Do you think that’s how it went? Not likely. God’s sovereign and can’t be surprised. He knows what we’re going to ask before we ask it. So why is it that He’s not addressed this before now?
The answer is that we don’t know. But you know what this is a picture of? Prayer. What does Moses really do in verses 10-15? He prays. He prays a little differently perhaps than you and I pray, but there’s no doubt that it’s a prayer. And what does it cause to happen? It causes God to act. Do we fully understand why? No. Do we ever really understand how prayer works? No, we don’t. But this shows us that it does. God didn’t need Moses to tell him the situation in order for Him to know about it. But for some reason God needed to hear it from Moses before He’d act. And that’s a great example to all of us. James tells us we don’t have because we don’t ask (James 4:2), and combined with other texts on prayer and this example of it working, he shows us that it’s vital to take our problems to God. We have to PRAY and we have to pray because prayer works. If we want a vital relationship with God and want Him to work in our lives, we have to pray.
And notice something else about prayer – it’s OK to come a little messed up. Would you hold Moses’ diatribe up as a model prayer? Probably not. But God responds all the same. He knows what Moses has been facing and He knows what Moses feels. He knows what stress is and its effect on His creatures. And He therefore doesn’t require Moses – or us – to come to Him in a certain way or with certain language before He’ll act. It’s OK to come to Him with less than our best. It’s OK to phrase the words the wrong way or to express an irrational perspective on the world. The key is to come and let God work. It’s even OK – to a certain extent and with the understanding that we need to move on and renew our mind and our perspective – to complain to God. God’s a big God and He knows us. He’s not surprised by our shortcomings or our limited vision. We just need to come.
God tells Moses that He’ll provide meat to the people in a way that will make them sorry they ever complained about it. He’s going to overwhelm them with meat for a whole month – to the point that it comes out of their nostrils and becomes loathsome to them.
Why is He going to do this? Because with their complaining they’ve rejected the Lord. They haven’t rejected Moses. They haven’t just been ungrateful. They’ve rejected God. God brought them out of Egypt, God provides food for them every day, and for them to say they wish they were back in Egypt to eat the food they had there is to directly reject God’s provision. Thus they don’t realize the seriousness of what they’re saying. They’ve directly rejected God and said to Him, “Your provision isn’t enough and therefore YOU aren’t enough.”
God’s response to the people shows us the seriousness of living an ungrateful or discontented life. When we aren’t content, as Paul commands in Philippians, we reject God. That’s what is truly at stake. When we look at our circumstances and say things aren’t good enough for us and that we deserve more, we’re telling God that He’s not enough. As we mentioned above, it’s turning Philippians 4:13 on its head – “I CAN’T do all things through Christ because frankly I deserve better.” The next time we’re tempted to complain that we don’t have enough or that we deserve more than life’s giving us, we should remember Numbers 11, and remember that we don’t reject circumstances, we reject God.
Interestingly, Moses – even after God answers his prayer – still doesn’t quite have his mind renewed. He still doesn’t see how in the world God can supply meat to hundreds of thousands of people in a place where there aren’t any visible resources. God essentially answers him, “Is anything impossible for Me? Are you seriously doubting Me? Stand back and watch!”
Verse 23 should be a verse we come to whenever we’re facing a difficult trial that overwhelms us. Just read God’s incredulous response to His ability being questioned – “Is the Lord’s power limited?” (or, “Is the Lord’s hand too short?”). God is amazed that Moses questions Him because NOTHING is beyond the scope of God’s power. When we need encouragement in prayer, we should say to ourselves, “Is the Lord’s power limited?”
Moses goes back to the people and tells them the words of the Lord. Does he include what God said about giving so much meat to them that it will become punishment? We don’t know. But as a result of what God directed Moses to do, he appoints 70 elders and God gives a portion of His Spirit to them so they can share leadership with Moses. The coming of the Spirit on the men results in a Pentecost-like scene as they begin to prophesy (likely speaking in tongues), but they don’t gain the same power of the Spirit that Moses has.
Sometime after the elders are appointed, a wind comes up that brings quail from the sea and the quail begin to fall outside the camp on all sides. We’re not sure exactly how things work, but apparently the quail either fly low enough to be easily caught, or they actually just fall to the ground. The text says they’re two cubits (three feet) deep on the surface of the ground – whether this means they’re heaped up to this height or they’re flying at this height is difficult to know.
Notice that the quail are outside the camp. Under the Law, only those things that are unclean are kept outside the camp. It is likely not coincidence that the quail fall this way.
Regardless of how the people get them, they start to gather them and in their greed they go nuts. They gather up quail for roughly 36 straight hours and the LEAST amount that anyone gathers is ten homers, or about 60 bushels (480 dry gallons). They show with their greed how faithless they are. They’re scared that they’ll never get meat again so they gather like there’s no tomorrow. It’s all about getting everything they can before someone else gets it or before it’s gone. They gather WAY more than they can eat or preserve just to make sure they have all they want. They’re completely given over to their appetites – nothing else matters.
When they start to eat, God acts. The text doesn’t explain how it works, but as soon as the people start to chew they get very sick and in some cases, die. God hits them with a very severe plague – just as He told Moses He would.
It could be that not all the people participate in the gluttony. Verse 34 says they bury the people who had been greedy. Perhaps a portion of the camp stayed away from the quail and knew – maybe because Moses told them – that the birds were a vehicle for God’s wrath. The plague has a profound impact on those who survive. They name the place Kibroth-hattaavah – which means “the graves of greediness.”
One final question to consider after studying this chapter: Why did God punish the people and not punish Moses? They both complained, right? So why did Moses receive mercy and the people receive wrath?
Because the people rejected God and Moses went to God. The people told God He and His provision weren’t enough. Moses went to God and said he couldn’t handle his circumstances. It’s one thing to take our burdens to God and vomit up our stress and fatigue and emotions all over Him. It’s another thing to effectively look Him in the eye and say, “I deserve more” (and remember what we said at the start – we’re just as capable of this as the Israelites in this chapter – we can’t overestimate our depravity). Unrepentant ungratefulness brings His wrath. Overwhelmed cries for help bring His mercy.
One more thing to notice. Did Moses ask God to give him some other leaders? No – he simply told God he couldn’t go on. God’s the one who came up with the idea for 70 elders. God ultimately answered a prayer Moses didn’t even make. Moses just brought a problem without a solution. God provided the solution. We serve a HUGE and LOVING God who can do all things (Is the Lord’s power limited?) and we miss out on so much when we don’t bring EVERYTHING to Him. He doesn’t ask us to come with options; He tells us simply to come.