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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible
Numbers 11

 

 

Verse 1

This, and the next three chapters, deal with some of the numerous disaffections, rebellions, and murmurings of the children of Israel, not with any view of recording all that they did, but with the purpose of setting forth for the benefit of all people afterward several of their deeds as "examples" and for "the admonition" of those upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:11). The account here gives the incident at Taberah (Numbers 11:1-3), the lusting for flesh (Numbers 11:4-9), Moses' appeal to God in desperation (Numbers 11:10-15), the appointment of seventy to aid Moses (Numbers 11:16-23), the endowment of the seventy (Numbers 11:24,25), the case of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:16-29), and the sending of the quails, ending in the plague upon Israel at Kibroth-hattaavah, where many of them were buried (Numbers 11:30-35).

"And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of Jehovah: and when Jehovah heard it, his anger was kindled; and the fire of Jehovah burned among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp. And the people cried unto Moses; and Moses prayed unto Jehovah, and the fire abated. And the name of the place was called Taberah, because the fire of Jehovah burnt among them."

"The people were as murmurers ..." (Numbers 11:1). There is hardly any other word that more effectively describes Israel during their wilderness sojourn than this one. The people appeared to be totally unwilling to accept any kind of inconvenience or hardship in order to achieve their liberty and independence, overlooking completely the fundamental truth that freedom, prosperity, and power simply cannot appear automatically as a bestowed privilege, but must be won by suffering, diligent work and faithfulness. The spirit that came out in this chapter finally resulted in God's rejection of that whole generation and His condemnation of them to death in the wilderness.

"And the fire of Jehovah burned among them ..." (Numbers 11:2). Speculations as to the possibility that this fire was the result of lightning or some other natural cause are futile. The event was of sufficient dimensions to warrant the naming of the place as Taberah in commemoration of it, and, without any doubt, it was a visitation of God upon rebellious men, however produced. This place was on the outskirts of the immense camp of Israel and pertains only to the place of the burning. This is not the name of one of the forty-two stations of Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 33).

Keil discerned the reason for this burning thus: "By thus demonstrating his power that was more than sufficient to destroy the murmurers, He sought to infuse into the whole nation a wholesome dread of His holy majesty."[1] Since this burning was an extremely local incident, "It must not be regarded as a different station from Kibroth-hattaavah."[2] Some, of course, have concocted all kinds of theories about "different sources," various "traditions," and "conflicting accounts" being "woven together" here; but again, as Keil said, "All such efforts are founded upon misinterpretations and arbitrary assumptions."[3] We might also add that such destructive allegations are grounded in a prior bias against the Bible. That Taberah was not a separate encampment is proved by its omission in Numbers 33, and by the fact there is no mention of leaving Taberah, an event covered in the statement that they left Kibroth-hattaavah, the true name of the whole area, of which Taberah was a very minor outpost. This encampment was the scene of two judgments against Israel, the minor one at Taberah, and the greater one in the matter of the quails; and the station deserved to be named from the greater event. As for where, exactly, this was, "The site is unknown."[4] "The name Taberah is from the Hebrew word, meaning to burn."[5]


Verse 4

"And the mixed multitude that was among them lusted exceedingly: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt for naught; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all save this manna to look upon. And the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium. The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and boiled it in pots, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it."

"And the mixed multitude that was among them ..." (Numbers 11:4). Plaut gave the meaning of this as "the riffraff."[6] Owens called them, the rabble, adding that "the word occurs nowhere else in the O.T."[7] They were part of the great mob of people that followed Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:38). In the account here, it is very evident that this vast throng of stragglers and hangers-on were a major source of trouble.

McGee's comment on this mixed multitude is of interest:

"The real troublemakers in any church are the mixed multitude. They are fellow-travelers with the world and with the church. They like a church banquet, but they don't want the Bible school. They do not want to go forward with the ark of God; they want to stay in the back, for they might want to turn and go back some time."[8]

"Who shall give us flesh to eat ...?" (Numbers 11:4). There could be more to this request than meets the eye. We are indebted to Plaut for the comment that, "The words used here are a euphemism for the sexual license they enjoyed in Egypt, but forbidden in the Law."[9] Some commentators find fault here, because, they say, "This lack of flesh is inconsistent with the possession by Israel of great flocks and herds of cattle (Exodus 12:32,38, etc.)."[10] Many recent commentators still follow this old, discredited view. First, the cattle they owned would have been very shortly deleted and consumed if used for food; and besides that, the possession of herds in Israel was by no means universal. The instructions for the offering by a poor man of two turtle doves on occasion proves this. An incredible number of animals were used in the sacrifices, and there was no way that the people could afford to reduce the supply of animals. Furthermore, the employment of many of the cattle in the dairy business would also have forbidden their use as beef cattle.

"Israel also wept again ..." (Numbers 11:4). "This points to the former complaint of the people respecting the absence of flesh in the desert of Sin (Exodus 16:2ff)."[11] This truth frustrates all allegations about the two occasions being merely various accounts of one event. As a matter of fact, it is not mentioned that "they wept" in the first account, but the mention here of their weeping "again" proves that they did. This type of narrative is common in the sacred writings. (See Jonah 1:4). Furthermore, the riffraff, remembering the quails they got the first time, were, in this case, the leaders of a demand for more. It appears a little later that they even organized this demonstration.

The description of the manna given here is not exactly like that in Exodus, but so what? Ask any two or three people today to describe the taste of an olive and see what happens. To one the manna tasted like honey, to others like fresh oil; to some it appeared "white," and to others the color of bdellium. Since nobody on earth today knows anything at all about bdellium,[12] it is mere cavil to allege "a contradiction." Furthermore, even the phrase rendered here "as the taste of fresh oil" actually means, "its taste was like that of a dainty prepared with oil."[13] Thus, it is clear that no problems whatever exist with regard to these passages on the manna.


Verse 10

"And Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, every man at the door of his tent: and the anger of Jehovah was kindled greatly; and Moses was displeased, And Moses said unto Jehovah, Wherefore hast thou dealt with thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth a sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness."

"Every man at the door of his tent ..." (Numbers 11:10). How can it be supposed that this was anything other than an organized demonstration? We believe that this very fact lies behind the statement that Jehovah's anger was kindled "greatly." "Such a public and obtrusive a demonstration of grief must, of course, have been organized."[14]

One can easily understand the frustration and desperation of Moses. From his point of view, the situation was just about unbearable. His request that God would slay him is like that of Jonah and Elijah, other great men of God, who requested God's release of them from the duties and burdens of life. It cannot be that Moses was without sin in the events of this chapter. There is one vast difference, however, between Moses' sin here and that which took place at the waters of Meribah. That sin was in the presence of the people, and this one was committed in his subjective attitude toward the Lord. It appears that Moses' failure at Meribah to sanctify the Lord "in the presence of the people" was a far greater transgression. To say the least, Moses' desperate situation here is understandable enough.


Verse 16

"And Jehovah said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the Spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and ye shall eat flesh; for ye have wept in the ears of Jehovah, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore Jehovah will give you flesh, and ye shall eat. Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you; because that ye have rejected Jehovah who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt? And Moses said, The people among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month. Shall the flocks and herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them? And Jehovah said unto Moses, Is Jehovah's hand waxed short? now shalt thou see whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not."

This paragraph recounts God's answer to Moses' desperate appeal. Help would be supplied by the commissioning of the seventy. Also, the complaint of the people which had precipitated the crisis would also be met. God would give them flesh.

"I will take of the Spirit that is upon thee, and put it upon them ..." (Numbers 11:17). In one sense, the Holy Spirit is somewhat like a fire in that spreading it to others does not diminish the intensity existing in another, just as a flame kindled from one fire does not put out the first. What a lack of discernment there is in the comment by Wade: "The spirit resting on Moses is regarded as a quasi-physical fluid, capable of being divided and imparted to others."[15] One may only wonder as to where such an idea originated.

Later Jewish leaders traced the origin of their Sanhedrin to this place, but it is significant that on a previous occasion, at the suggestion of Jethro, Moses had also appointed a "Seventy." The two events are not to be understood as supplementary accounts of but one.

"Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow ..." (Numbers 11:18). The blessing promised was not to be unmixed, for it would involve a judgment also.

"Ye shall eat ... for a whole month ... until it come out at your nostrils ..." (Numbers 11:19,20). Moses himself was incredulous that even God could do such a thing, as indicated by his protest. However, Moses had enough faith to command the people as God had said. Despite our conviction that sin must be attributed to Moses for his attitude here, many commentators, including especially the Jewish family of writers, "tend generally to exculpate (exonerate) him."[16]

"Is Jehovah's hand waxed short ...?" (Numbers 11:23). Here is one of the great questions that abound in the O.T. The simple meaning of it: "Is anything too hard for God to do?"

Plaut rendered Numbers 11:20 here, as follows; "Oh why did we ever leave Egypt?"[17] It would be only a short time after this that God would declare that whole generation unfit to enter the Promised Land. The feeding of the people with quails is momentarily shelved at this point to make room for the parenthetical account of the giving of God's Spirit to the Seventy.


Verse 24

"And Moses went out, and told the people the words of Jehovah: and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tent. And Jehovah came down in the cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and put it upon the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but they did so no more."

"And Moses went out ..." (Numbers 11:24). It is not stated in this chapter that Moses went into the tabernacle to register his complaint; but the statement here that "he went out," "obviously implies that he did."[18]

"Round about the Tent ..." (Numbers 11:24). "This does not mean on all four sides, but in a semi-circle in front of the Tent."[19]

"They prophesied, but they did so no more ..." (Numbers 11:25). The diverse opinions about this verse are a bit perplexing, but we feel perfectly safe in receiving the meaning to be as it is in our version. Wade noted that, "Their gift was only temporary."[20] "The gift was temporary, solely to mark their entrance into their sacred office."[21] Unger also pointed out that the Hebrew here literally has, "and added not"; and from this Owen gave as an alternate meaning of the passage that: "They prophesied only that which the Spirit gave them and did not add anything to it."[22]


Verse 26

"But there remained two men in the camp, the name of one was Eldad, and the other Medad: and the Spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but had not gone out unto the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp. And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp. And Joshua the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them. And Moses said unto him, Art thou jealous for my sake? would that all Jehovah's people were prophets, that Jehovah would put his Spirit upon them! And Moses gat him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel."

"There remained in the camp ... Eldad ... Medad ... of them that were written ..." (Numbers 11:26). We do not know why these two were not with the others before the Tent, for they were "written among them," meaning that they surely belonged. Amazingly, their absence did not prevent their also receiving the blessing.

Perhaps one reason for the inclusion of this incident by the Divine author was the typical nature of the response of Moses. Moses' unselfish forgiveness of others and his total lack of any desire for the glory of men were indeed typical of those same wonderful qualities in the Saviour himself. In a similar way, the disciples of John the Baptist were jealous for their leader and complained that the Lord's disciples were baptizing more people than were the followers of John the Baptist. The traits of men appear to be the same in all ages.

The efforts of Biblical critics who find in two accounts of the appointing of seventy men what they call "divergent accounts" of but one event "are unfounded and untrue."[23]


Verse 31

"And there went forth a wind from Jehovah, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, about a day's journey on this side, and a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and about two cubits above the face of the earth. And the people rose up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and gathered the quaffs: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp. While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of Jehovah was kindled against the people, and Jehovah smote the people with a very great plague. And the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people that lusted. From Kibrothhattaavah the people journeyed unto Hazeroth; and they abode at Hazeroth."

"Two cubits above the face of the earth ..." (Numbers 11:31). "If we suppose that they were drifted by the wind into heaps, which in places reached the height of two cubits, that would satisfy the exigencies of the text."[24] The exact meaning of the text here is somewhat uncertain, and Cook thought that the reference to two cubits described the height "at which the birds, exhausted from long flight, flew above the ground."[25]

"Ten homers ..." (Numbers 11:32). The exact size of this measure is not known. Whitelaw gave it as 5 1/2 bushels, Plaut as 10 bushels, and others as "a donkey's load." The meaning is clear that they had more than enough!

"Ere it was chewed ..." (Numbers 11:33). As noted above, this paragraph is of uncertain meaning in places, and since this verse seems to be opposed to the promise of God that the people would "eat the flesh" for a whole month, it is best to take the meaning here as that given by Gray: "Ere it ran short ..."[26] with the meaning, "before their supply ran short, or before they ran out of quails."

"There went forth a wind from Jehovah ..." (Numbers 11:31). Because the natural agency that the Lord used in this wonder is here stated, some are unwilling to see anything miraculous in this whole event, but the supernatural element surely appears in the timing and the extent of this fantastic number of quails, and also in the divine judgment that resulted in the death of a great many of the lustful people.

"Kibroth-hattaavah" means "graves of lust,"[27] the same being the name which the people gave to this encampment. There seems to have been a propensity in Israel to perpetuate their unpleasant memories, as it will also be remembered that they christened Marah (which meant bitter) after the bitter waters they found there, despite the fact that the Lord sweetened those waters. Could they not have named some such place, "God's Answer to Prayer" or some other more appropriate name? The underlying theme of all these chapters is the utter unwillingness, or inability, of Israel to accept inconvenience and hardship and to manifest an attitude of happiness in the service of God. Alas, there are some people still like that today.

 


Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 11:4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/numbers-11.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.

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Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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