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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 11

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-3

A warning from the Lord 11:1-3

Archaeologists have not determined the location of Taberah (Numbers 11:3). It must have been an insignificant spot geographically since Moses did not include it in the list of Israel’s encampments in chapter 33 (cf. Numbers 33:16-17). It was a significant spot spiritually, however. Not long after Israel left Sinai the people began to grumble again.

"A modern traveller [sic] would sympathize." [Note: G. Wenham, p. 106.]

"There is a cyclical nature to Israel’s rebellions against God; obdurate people tend to repeat the sins of the past. The first rebellion of the redeemed people came on the third day of marching toward the Mount of God after their miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:22-24). Now, three days out on their triumphal march to Canaan from Mount Sinai, they fall back into their complaining behavior. The pattern of ’three days’ in both cases shows both similarity of actions as well as an intemperate, impatient attitude on the part of the people." [Note: Allen, p. 786.]

To warn them that their dissatisfaction could develop into more serious rebellion God sent fire on the outskirts of the camp. It is not clear whether the fire (lightning?) that God sent killed some of the people or only burned up things such as bushes and tents. Evidently the people recognized this event as a warning from God and cried out to Moses whose intercession moved God to withhold further discipline. The people named the site Taberah (burning) in memory of this event.

"In the midst of his wrath, the Lord remembers mercy. This is one of the ongoing themes of Scripture and is a particular truism in the Book of Numbers." [Note: Ibid., p. 787.]

This is the third time in the Pentateuch that an event such as this happened. God had wrestled with Jacob after Jacob had parted from his father-in-law and before he reentered the Promised Land (Genesis 31:55; Genesis 32:22-32). God had sought to kill Moses after Moses had left Sinai and had parted from his father-in-law and before he rejoined the Israelites (Exodus 4:24-26). Now God sent fire from heaven to the Israelites after they had left Sinai and Moses’ father-in-law, and before they entered the Promised Land. Each incident casts a foreboding mood over events and hints that something worse may follow soon. Remember the fire from heaven on Sodom in Genesis 19.

Verses 1-35

B. The rebellion and judgment of the unbelieving generation chs. 11-25

These chapters explain why Israel failed to enter the Promised Land immediately and had to spend the next 38 years in the wilderness.

1. The cycle of rebellion, atonement, and death chs. 11-20

The end of chapter 10 is the high point of the Book of Numbers spiritually. The beginning of chapter 11 records the beginning of the spiritual decline of Israel that resulted in God judging the nation. He postponed the fulfillment of His promise to bring her into the Promised Land.

"Chapters 11-20 present a dismal record of their acts of ingratitude and of God’s consequent judgments on his ungrateful people. Within these chapters are innumerable instances of his continuing grace. The reader of these texts goes astray if he or she focuses solely on God’s wrath or on the constant provocations to his anger by his meandering people. The more impressive feature in this text is God’s continuing mercy against continuing, obdurate rebellion. . . .

"These ten chapters now balance and contrast with the ten chapters that present the record of Israel’s preparation." [Note: Allen, p. 785.]

Further events on the way to Kadesh Barnea chs. 11-12

These chapters are similar to Exodus 13:17 to Exodus 19:2 in that they record Israel’s experiences in transit from one location to another.

Verses 4-35

God’s provision of manna and His Spirit 11:4-35

The "rabble" or "worthless foreigners" (CEV, Numbers 11:4) were the non-Israelites who had come out of Egypt with God’s people (Exodus 12:38). It did not take them long to become discontented with conditions in the desert and to complain about their bland diet of manna. Their grumbling quickly infected the Israelites (Numbers 11:4). These malcontents despised God’s provision of manna for them and longed for the stronger flavors they had enjoyed in Egypt. They failed to take heed to the warning God had given at Taberah.

"To spurn a regularly occurring, abundant and nutritious food only because it is boring is understandably human-a pitiable mark of our tendency toward ingratitude." [Note: Allen, p. 790.]

As believers we must be careful of the strong flavors of the interesting and stimulating fare that the world has to offer and not imbibe these things too much. Too much participation in these things can make us feel bored with and lose interest in what God has provided for our spiritual nourishment, which may seem bland and unappealing by comparison. God’s provision for our nourishment and growth, our manna, are His written word and His incarnate Word, the Bread of Life (cf. 1 Peter 2:2; John 6:48-58).

Moses must have felt caught in the middle (Numbers 11:10-15). On the one hand the people seemed to be mutinous, and on the other God was angry because of their attitude (Numbers 11:10). The discomfort of desert travel seems to have affected him too. He failed to look to God for His wisdom and provision. Instead he became frustrated. This frustration seems traceable to Moses’ taking on more responsibility for the people than was really his.

Moses’ use of the mother figure to describe God (Numbers 11:12) is unusual but not unique in Scripture (e.g., Exodus 4:22; Isaiah 49:15; Isaiah 66:13; Hosea 11:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:7). Normally the Bible presents God as a male because He relates to people in traditionally male roles primarily. However, He also deals with us in ways that are more typically female, and in these instances He compares Himself to females.

God again accommodated to Moses’ weakness (Numbers 11:16-23; cf. Exodus 4:14) and provided 70 men to share Moses’ responsibility of explaining God’s will to the people. He did this so their complaining would not grow into mob violence. God’s Spirit rested on Moses in a special measure (Numbers 11:17). God now gave these elders His Spirit in similar fashion and with Him the ability to prophesy.

"Prophesying here does not refer to prediction or even to proclamation but to giving (in song or speech) praise and similar expressions without prior training (see the comparable experience of Saul in 1 Samuel 10:9-11)." [Note: Merrill "Numbers,", in The Bible . . ., p. 227. See also 1 Chronicles 25:1.]

The people’s discontent with God and His will for them (Numbers 11:20) had given them an unrealistic picture of their situation. They claimed to have been happy in Egypt (Numbers 11:18; Numbers 11:20). They forgot that they had been slaves.

". . . in ancient times meat was eaten in Israel only on special occasions. In the wilderness it would have been very much a luxury. In any event, the offense of the demand for meat was just part of the larger offense of romanticizing the time in Egypt, where there had always been an abundance of fish and fresh vegetables. They were saying in effect that the entire so-called ’deliverance’ from slavery had turned out to be one huge disappointment." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 39.]

God’s gracious provision of meat was a mixed blessing. He gave them what they requested but kept them where they were for a month (Numbers 11:20) and allowed them to get sick from the meat (Numbers 11:33; Psalms 106:15). This punishment was not vindictive but disciplinary and designed to teach the people to accept what God sent them as best for them. God permitted their trials in the wilderness to prepare them for the hardships they would face when they entered the land.

"The people were to be broken by the experience because they had despised the gift of God, glorified their stay in Egypt, and characterized their redemption from slavery as a meaningless event." [Note: Ibid., p. 41.]

God’s promise to provide meat stretched Moses’ faith to its limit (Numbers 11:21-22). God reminded him that His power was limitless. Even Moses had temporarily forgotten the miracles in Egypt.

Evidently the elders’ prophesying was a singular occurrence; it happened only on this one occasion (Numbers 11:25). This incident indicates that God’s bestowal of the Holy Spirit at this time was temporary. The Spirit had not previously been on these elders. Furthermore it was selective. The Spirit was not on all the Israelites as He was on these elders. Contrast our day when the Spirit indwells all believers permanently (John 14:16-17; John 16:7; John 16:13; Acts 2).

"Though the Old Testament does not contain a fully developed theology of the Holy Spirit, it does reveal enough to show that the Spirit was a manifestation of God Himself and not merely a way of referring to some divine attribute (see, for example, Genesis 1:2; Genesis 6:3; Exodus 31:3; Numbers 24:2; Judges 3:10; 1 Samuel 10:6; 1 Samuel 10:10; Isaiah 11:2; Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 61:1)." [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," in The Old . . ., p. 112.]

It is not surprising that Jewish interpreters see this Spirit as Moses’ human spirit rather than the Holy Spirit. [Note: See, for example, Ze’ev Weisman, "The Personal Spirit as Imparting Authority," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93:2 (1981):225-34.] We have no reason to believe that God withdrew the Spirit from the elders, though the text does not say one way or the other. Perhaps only their ability to prophesy ceased (Numbers 11:25). [Note: See Allen, p. 794.] This ability was a divine sign to the people that dampened their rebellious spirits. Leon Wood refuted the view that prophesying involved ecstatic utterances. [Note: Leon J. Wood, The Prophets of Israel, pp. 39-56.] And this passage does not support such a view. The prophesying in view probably involved praising God (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:1). [Note: Ibid., pp. 90-91.] It was not Moses who was indispensable for Israel, but the Lord’s Spirit.

Joshua’s jealousy for Moses’ honor in the nation (Numbers 11:28-29) is understandable (cf. Mark 9:38-39), but he had greater concern for Moses’ honor than for the good of the people. Moses realized that Israel would be better off if God had given all the people His Spirit and the gift of prophecy. He has given all Christians His Spirit and the ability to praise Him. God may have included this incident involving Joshua in the narrative because of his later role as Israel’s leader. He also may have done so to emphasize the value of the gift of the Holy Spirit that God graciously gave the people even in their rebellious condition.

"Behind these words [in Numbers 11:29] lay a world of faith. We see that Moses understood that the issue was not for him to decide but for God. If necessary God would act on his servant’s behalf." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 42.]

The Spirit (Heb. ruah) of Yahweh settled the leadership problem (Numbers 11:29), and now the wind (Heb. ruah) from Yahweh would solve the food problem (Numbers 11:31). The wind blew from the southeast (Psalms 78:26) and apparently brought quails from the Gulf of Aqabah (Numbers 11:31-34). Normally quails migrated to the northeast, from central Africa, so the direction from which these quails came was an abnormal provision of the Lord. [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," in The Bible . . ., p. 227; Keil and Delitzsch, 3:72.] The NASB interpreted Numbers 11:31 as meaning the quails lay three feet deep on the ground, but the NIV translators understood that they flew about three feet above the ground. The latter interpretation seems more probable to me. The sickness of the people was a judgment for their greed. They wanted something for themselves that God had not chosen for them. [Note: See Theodore Ouzounellis, "Some Notes on Quail Poisoning," Journal of the American Medical Association 211:7 (Feb. 16, 1970):1186-87.]

"The central purpose of the narrative appears to be to show the failure of Moses’ office as mediator for the people [Numbers 11:14]. . . . The ideal leadership of God’s people is shown in the example of the seventy elders. . . . In other words, this narrative shows that Moses longed for a much different type of community than the one formed under the Law at Sinai. He longed for a community led not by a person like himself but a community guided by God’s Spirit [Numbers 11:29; cf. Deuteronomy 30:6].

"The view expressed by Moses in this narrative is precisely that of the later Israelite prophets in their description of the new covenant [cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 36:22-27; Joel 2:28]." [Note: Sailhamer, pp. 385-86.]

After their month at Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed on to Hazeroth (lit. "enclosures") where the events recorded in the next chapter took place (cf. Numbers 12:16).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 11". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-11.html. 2012.
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