Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
These verses stand near the beginning of part II of Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness, having just departed from Mt. Sinai (10:11-36:13; see Exodus 15:22-18:27 for part I).
The entire book of Numbers is set in a journey through the wilderness (‘In the wilderness’ is the Hebrew title for Numbers). When you are reading Numbers, think journey — journey through the wilderness of life.
This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and landedness for the sake of forming this identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God. The people have been taken out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next.
The introductory note in 11:1-3 introduces a pattern in both form and content for several episodes that follow: murmuring; judgment; cry (of repentance); intercession; deliverance. God’s anger is provoked because of the people’s complaining and the fire of the LORD, perhaps lightning (see Exodus 9.23-24), consumes outlying areas of the camp.
The coherence of 11:4-35 is difficult to fathom, perhaps reflecting different traditions. Yet, good sense can be made of the awkwardness. These verses interweave concerns about food and Moses’ leadership. The lectionary text focuses on the leadership issues and, except for the introductory note in 11:4-6, eliminates the texts having to do with the provision of food in the wilderness (11:7-9, 17-23, 31-35; see 20.1-13). I will comment on the entire text.
In 11:4-15, the “rabble” (non-Israelites, Exodus 12.38), joined by the Israelites’ and their nostalgia for Egyptian food, despise God’s gifts of food (verses 6, 18) and deliverance (verse 20). Complaining has become a pattern of life. Nostalgically recalling the (mostly vegetable) diet typical for Egyptians, they cry out for fish. God’s gift of manna, which corresponds closely to a natural phenomenon in the Sinai Peninsula (see Exodus 16:14-21), was not thought to provide the strength they needed (though it was tasty and choice). This amounts to a request for the Exodus to be reversed.
In response to God’s anger (11:10) and in language typical of lament psalms, Moses complains that, given what the people have become, God has mistreated him. God has placed too heavy a leadership burden on him (see Exodus 18:18), and provided insufficient resources. Moses uses striking maternal imagery for God: God has conceived and birthed this people (see Deuteronomy 32.18; Isaiah 42:14; 66:13) and hence God should assume the responsibilities of a wet nurse and see to the people’s nourishment. Moses should not have to carry this burden alone, implying that God is negligent. Feeling caught in the middle, Moses asks for either relief or death.
A lively exchange between God and Moses follows. God replies to Moses’ complaint in two respects: (1) God will share the spirit given to Moses with others, who will help to bear the burden (see verses 16-17, 24-30); (2) God will provide the meat for which the people have asked (see verses 18-23, 31-35).
(1) As for burden-sharing (see verses 16-17; 24-30), Moses obeys God and gathers seventy elders around the tent (in the center of the camp). God shares Moses’ spirit (ruah; not quantitatively understood), which had its source in God, with the elders, and they prophesy. Such a charisma was given to various leaders, both within and without Israel (24:2; 27:18; 1 Samuel 10:5-10), and it was transferable (see 2 Kings 2:9).
Unlike Moses, however, they prophesy only once, but may assume some ongoing burdens (see 16:25). Even two elders who remained in the camp (Eldad and Medad) receive a share of God’s spirit. Despite efforts by Joshua to stop them, Moses refuses any protection of his authority or restriction of the divine word to established channels (see 12:1-16). Indeed, Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive this charisma!
(2) As for food provision (see verses 18-23; 31-35), God declares that they will indeed get meat. But it will be so much (a month’s worth!) that it will become loathsome. Moses responds by wondering how meat can be found for so many people (only soldiers are counted; see 1:46). God responds with a rhetorical question (verse 23): in effect, God’s hand is not “too short” (see NRSV footnote; no general statement is made about divine power; see Isaiah 50:2; 59:1) to provide this amount of food. God will show that his word is good.
The food comes in the form of quails (see verses 31-35; Exodus 16:13; Psalm 78:26-31), carried into the camp on a wind (ruah) from the sea, the Gulf of Aqaba. The quails cover the ground for miles to a depth of two cubits (about three feet); the least gathered was ten homers (probably sixty bushels). Before they had finished eating, God’s anger was provoked and a plague (related to the food?) swept the camp.
The reader should beware of both ‘rationalization’ and supernaturalism in interpreting wilderness stories such as this. The provision of water and quails is not to be divorced from a recognition of nature’s God-given potential. God is not creating something out of nothing here; neither water nor quails materialize out of thin air; water courses through rock formations and quail fly through this part of the Sinai Peninsula. God works in and through the natural to provide for his people. Even in the wilderness God’s world is not without resources.
Israel’s time in the wilderness is finally shaped by God’s extraordinary patience and mercy, and the divine will to stay with Israel in this time of adolescence. No divine flick of the wrist is capable of straightening them out without compromising their freedom. If God wants a mature child, the possibility of defiance must be risked. But it soon becomes clear that the process of maturation will take longer than a single generation.