This chapter has some pretty profound applicability to parenting – at least insofar as it’s a great illustration of what not to do.

So at this point, the Hebrews have been out of Egypt for about two years, and eating bug poop for most of that time. Not only that, but with all the sacrifices and burnt offerings that have been going on, they must be pretty much constantly surrounded by the succulent scent of bien cuit meat.

Having taken about all they can stand, the Hebrews complain “in the hearing of the Lord” (v.1), leading to a rather nasty hiss fit in which God all but screams: “If you don’t quite yer crying, I’ll give you something to cry about!” In what would be some rather beautiful poetic imagery if divorced from its context, God’s “anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (v.1).

Seeing this, Moses prays and this seems to placate God. The fires abate, and they name the place Taberah – or burning. We haven’t seen this kind of naming since Genesis. We must be getting closer to home!

Death by quail

Unfortunately, God only punished the whining, but did not address the underlying issue that had prompted it. The people are still hungry and they are still bored with eating nothing but manna for two years.

As a parent, I’d call this very bad form. When you have kids, you want to be trying to anticipate and address issues as they arise – if not earlier. If you miss it and get to the point where your kid is actively complaining, you want to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. If you wait until the kid is throwing a tantrum, everyone is going to be far too upset, frustrated, and angry to resolve the issue productively. And this is precisely what we see happening in Numbers 11.

Predictably, the people quickly start complaining again:

We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. (v.5-6)

The Miracle of the Quails, by the circle of Otto van Veen, c.1600

The Miracle of the Quails, by the circle of Otto van Veen, c.1600

Now, I think that we need to pause a moment and remember that in Exodus 16, whining is what got the people the manna in the first place. Then, as now, God completely failed at anticipating their needs. They were starving, they complained, and God acquiesced and gave them food. Is it any wonder that, the next time they have a need, they might think whining would work again? God’s reinforced the very behaviour he doesn’t want to see.

God took on the responsibility for the Hebrews without giving any thought to human needs. At least he has some oversight – Moses is there to interface between the human and the divine. So where was Moses? Why didn’t he notice the grumbling before it turned into full-blown whining that would ignite God’s wrath? Why didn’t he intervene long before it came to this?

Well, God listens to the people complain and “the anger of the Lord blazed hotly” (v.10). He tells Moses to say to the Hebrews:

Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come forth out of Egypt?” (v.18-20)

Moses, having apparently forgotten about manna, is confused and can’t imagine how God could possibly accomplish this.

It’s also interesting to note how he frames his objection: “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot” (v.21). Except, no. In Numbers 1, we learned that there were 603,550 men – which makes sense given the cultural context if we’re only counting eligible soldiers. It does not  make sense if we’re counting people who need to be fed. Women, children, and the elderly also have stomachs.

Well, in any case, a big wind comes and blows the quail in from the sea. Then the quail all fall out of the sky in a big circle (a day’s walk in every direction) around the camp. Predictably, the people go out and gather a bunch of the quail. But “while the meat was yet between their teeth” (v.33), God sent a plague to kill them.

Incidentally, my Study Bible claims that this episode may be inspired by a natural phenomenon. Quails do “migrate over the region in great numbers and, when exhausted, are easily caught” (p.178).

I find it interesting that in Exodus 16, God sends quail along with the manna. Yet the quail is quickly forgotten and no one in this chapter seems to have any recollection that it ever happened.

In any case, they name the place where this happened Kibrothhattaavah – or Graves of craving – and then move on to Hazeroth. Presumably pausing to bury their dead first.

Delegation

In the middle of all this, we get a little story about Moses feeling overwhelmed. He breaks down and complains to God:

Why hast thou dealt ill with thy servant? And why have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou dost lay the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that thou shouldst say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the sucking child, to the land which thou didst sweat to give their fathers?’ Where am I to get meat to give all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me. If thou wilt deal thus with me, kill me at once, if I find favor in thy sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (v.11-15).

A little on the dramatic side, but it certainly conveys the problem. And God seems sympathetic. He tells Moses to gather 70 elders – notably not the 12 tribal chiefs who were brought in to help in Numbers 1 – to the tent of meeting so that he could delegate some of Moses’ responsibilities to them. I’m assuming that this is a variation of the story where Moses appoints judges in Exodus 18:21-22.

There are times when I wish I were reading primarily from the King James Version, because it just seems like so much more fun. This is one of those times. According to the KJV, Moses’ speech includes the words: “Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child.” Now, when I described the culture of ancient Israel as “alien,” I did not mean that they were actually aliens. But the translators working on the KJV were clearly a little fuzzier on that point.

Well anyway, the elders gather and God takes up some of Moses’ “spirit” and puts it over the 70 elders, and which point “they prophesied” (v.24). Now that’s some strong stuff!

Apparently, not all of the elders called actually responded. Two, Eldad and Medad, stayed in the camp. We’re not told why, or why their failure to respond doesn’t seem to have earned them any reproach. But since they had been called, they were also given some of Moses’ special spirit, and so they also began to prophesy. Being inside the camp, they are witnessed by the plebs.

Joshua, son of Nun, is apparently concerned – perhaps that they may be competition for Moses. He runs to tell Moses what happens and tells him to stop them.

Moses rebukes him, saying: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (v.29).

At first glance, this is a rather democratic sentiment. It posits an ideal world in which everyone is a leader, and wise, and perhaps even able to interface with God. But in practice, it’s incredibly despotic. “It would be wonderful if the people could participate in their governing, but unfortunately, they just don’t have the divine mandate that I and my chosen elders have.”