The book of Numbers can be a theological quagmire.
Today's passage has three interwoven themes that are prominent within the book--the people's complaints, Moses' prophetic authority, and the LORD's judgment. Interpreters tend to over-simplify the relationship between these three critical elements. The LORD is often characterized as just for judging the murmuring masses, while the Israelites are condemned for being an ungrateful and rebellious people.
The complexity in this passage, however, requires more interpretative subtlety. The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God's testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God. Positioned in the middle of the conflict is Moses, who intercedes on behalf of the people in the face of God's judgment. Thus, the wilderness becomes the place in which covenantal loyalty is lived out and tested for all parties involved--the Israelites, Moses, and the LORD.
Numbers 11 contains two judgment stories (verses 1--3 and verses 4--35), both of which end with an etiological explanation for two place names. Verses 1--3 recount the events at Taberah, which in a folk etymology translates roughly to "a place of burning." The narrator associates this name with the LORD's judgment of the people through a burning fire.
The lectionary's selection from this chapter focuses on the second of these two narratives in 11:4--35. The place name in this last narrative is Kibroth-hattaavah or "graves of craving." In the story, the people desire meat rather than the divinely provided manna. Because of their discontent, the LORD causes a plague to fall upon the Israelites, killing many. The disease is presumably connected to the quail meat that is still between the people's teeth when death strikes the camp (verse 33).
These two stories share a similar structure. The Israelites' initial complaint evokes anger from the LORD, who subsequently judges the people through the means of some natural element--fire then quail. In both stories, the people's situation stirs Moses to call upon the LORD. The two tales differ, however, in a couple of key elements. In the first story, Moses prays on behalf of the people, causing the fire to cease (verse 2). In the second, the people's murmurings lead not to intercession but to Moses' personal complaint to the LORD that the burdens of the people are too heavy for him to bear (verses 11--15). The LORD responds favorably to Moses' request by putting the spirit of prophecy on seventy elders.
By contrast, the LORD sends a plague upon the people in response to their craving for meat. Moreover, in this second story, the great prophet of Israel does not intervene between God's wrath and the people. Chapter 11 concludes with a description of the devastating effects of the plague upon the Israelites. These two narratives, along with other stories in the book of Numbers that depict the LORD's judgment, have the overall effect of explaining how a generation of Israel passes away in the wilderness prior to their entrance into Canaan (Numbers 32:13).
The three interrelated themes in this passage--the Israelites' complaints, Moses' prophetic authority, and the LORD's judgment--provide the preacher and congregation with rich resources for theological reflection.
The Israelite's Complaints
This theme is difficult to reconcile with other wilderness traditions within the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus 16, for example, the people complain about their hunger in a strikingly similar way. The people long for the days when they were in Egypt eating rich foods. In the Exodus story, however, God hears the cries of the people and provides meat and manna for them. The Israelites' pleas for food evoke divine pity prior to the establishing of the covenant on Mount Sinai.
In Numbers 11, the same complaint evokes the LORD's wrath. There is no simple formula for determining why the people's complaining leads to God's provision in one case and severe judgment in another. There is a point, however, when complaint moves into the realm of ingratitude, when faithful lament becomes rebellious murmuring. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites have crossed the fine line between God's compassion and anger, between justly advocating for their needs and being dissatisfied with God's miraculous provision.
Moses' Prophetic Authority
In the book of Numbers, Moses is characterized as the Israelite prophet par excellence. Individuals who challenge Mosaic authority suffer harsh consequences (cf. Numbers 12). However, even within this type of centralized authority--the most iconic in the Hebrew Bible--there is a series of checks and balances for human leadership. This passage contains an example in which Moses, the great liberator of the Israelites, cannot bear the peoples' burdens by himself. Moreover, when Joshua tries to limit the spirit of prophecy that has fallen on Eldad and Medad, Moses rebukes him, responding with a statement that de-centralizes authority: "Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (Numbers 11:29).
The LORD's Judgment
Certain traditions within the Hebrew Bible make a direct correlation between human failing and God's judgment. It is tempting to do the same with this story in Numbers 11. However, as the first story in verses 1--3 suggests, there are times when the intercession of a faithful prophet can stay the hand of God's anger. The prayer of the righteous avails much. Moses, like Jeremiah, bears the people's burdens and stands in the gap between human rebellion and divine judgment.
Within the biblical traditions, the LORD remains sovereign and free. There is no certain way to secure the end of the story. Within the drama of covenantal loyalty, however, the righteous are called to stand faithfully with God's people in the wilderness, even in the face of the LORD's anger. Such a calling need not be reserved for a select few. Indeed our desire should be that all of God's people become prophets, filled with a spirit that would enable them to intercede passionately for the well-being of all humanity.