Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Murmuring has consequences. COVID complaints and challenges in our context may bring out a sense of judgement. The generous God in the early murmuring stories of the Pentateuch gives way to a God who provides but also brings intrinsic punishments to bear. In Numbers 11, unlike Exodus 16, God punishes the people who raise concerns. Some murmuring narratives have divine anger and others point only to divine responsiveness. This pandemic too requires theological reflection on the providence and the judgment of God.
The literary context of the passage begins with the story of when the people complained in the hearing of the LORD. God’s anger was so kindled that it consumed the outlying parts of the camp. The fire relented when the people appealed to Moses, who appealed to God. The literary context that follows the lectionary reading tells the story of quail (see Numbers 11:31-35); meat that the people have requested comes. Their “eyes were bigger than their stomachs.” They consume quail to the point of discomfort, appetites that lead to toxicity. The literary context of the lectionary reading in Numbers 11 makes clear that punishment comes with the complaints.
From the very first word of the passage, one sees a difference between Numbers 11 and Exodus. The craving came from the entire congregation in Exodus 16, but the cravings come from a more limited group in Numbers 11, the “rabble.” The Hebrew word occurs only here, leaving the reader to surmise a more limited group of reprobates. They may have been limited in number, but the craving was powerful. The craving links to a weeping that precedes the speech. The language of Numbers 4b echoes the Exodus 16:3. Both are self-destructive, nostalgic pictures of enslaved life in Egypt. Yet Numbers 4b is a more detailed remembrance.
The rabble were “hangry” for meat (4B) but they manufactured false memories of Egypt. God’s liberation of the Hebrews story arc includes stories of human aspiration for that which enslaves. Embedded in this large narrative we find food (Exodus 16:1-35; Numbers 11:4-34; 21:4-9; 11:1-3) and spring (Exodus 15:22-27; 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13) narratives. The Exodus 16 narrative depicts rebellious “hangry” people who will live on the providence of God. Numbers 11 describes a rebellious “hangry” people who will have their desires for satisfaction turn on them like a visitor to the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.
Moses heard the weeping of the people. The transgression began with a small group of malcontents or rabble but spread in a visceral way. We might think of weeping as contagious. The writer gives us a picture of the entrance to each tent filled with loud weeping. The weeping that Moses heard annoyed God to the point of anger. The writer uses the metaphor of kindling God’s anger (Numbers 11:11). Moses is displeased; in Moses eyes it is evil and disastrous. This echoes Numbers 11:1-3.
Moses takes his complaint to God. Moses hints that he deserves a better congregation. It might seem that this focuses on the leadership challenge but that would miss that the passage gestures to the relational life of humans. The people are a burden. The term for burden can also be a revelation (Zechariah 9:1; 12:1-3) The people function as a burden, but also like a prophetic message, they provide an interpretive lens through which to see the world. Moses moves from a language of leader and prophet to parent when he uses the metaphor of conception and labor. The pair of items form one whole that spans from impregnation to delivery. These metaphors point to the people and family as the context of challenge, responsibility, and illumination.
Moses raises a question of the task of transition which he compares to the process of a mother carrying a suckling child. The metaphor of “carrying” allows the speech to reference the process of moving from the house of bondage to the land promised to the ancestors in Genesis. Moses shifts to the second person accusative when Moses says to God: the land you promised the ancestors.
Moses asks, “where am I going to get meat?” echoing the wistful complaint of Numbers 11:5. During the feeding of the five thousand stories (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; John 6:1-13) the disciples ask Jesus for a solution to the hunger of the people. The disciples argue for individual responsibility, let them go find their own food. Moses’ speech locates his problem in responding to the cry of the people. Once again, the language of weeping crops up.
Moses confesses his inability (verse 14). The speech turns on Moses’ status as a man alone. This speech points in two directions. On the one hand it points to the instruction of Jethro to Moses (see Exodus 18) that Moses needed to distribute the leadership tasks. On the other hand, Moses’ confessions set the stage for the seventy elders (Numbers 11:16).
God’s more inclusive model Numbers 11:24-29
Moses tells what he has received from God but also gathers the seventy elders at the location of the tent. A traditional theophany of God comes down in a cloud. God speaks to Moses but also dispenses some of Moses’ spirit to the seventy elders. For this one occasion, the gift of spirit allows the elders to prophesy in a one-time occurrence. Two of these, Eldad and Medad prophesy in the camp. Joshua reports that they are functioning as prophets (Numbers 11:27). Joshua sees this as a breach in theological protocol. Moreover, Joshua presses Moses to rebuke them. Instead, Moses envisions the ubiquity of prophecy and the spirit of God among the people.