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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 11

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - UnabridgedCommentary Critical Unabridged

Verse 1

And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.

When the people complained ... Unaccustomed to the fatigues of travel, and wandering into the depths of a desert, less mountainous but far more gloomy and desolate than that of Sinai, without any near prospect of the rich country that had been promised, they fell into a state of vehement discontent, which was vented at these, irksome and apparently fruitless journeyings. 'There is considerable difficulty in tracing the course of their matchings on their departure from Sinai. But comparing the account in Numbers 33:1-56 of "their goings out, which Moses wrote by the commandment of Yahweh," with the details elsewhere given, it can be very nearly, if not exactly, ascertained. And taking the result of this comparison, and following them by means of it to the end of their "wanderings," we find a coincidence, which is absolutely perfect between the details of the narrative and the respective localities in the peninsula to which they are assigned. Those stages of their journey where the people are represented as suffering and exhausted in their enterprise, and consequently as desirous to abandon it, are even now recognized as just the distressing stages in a route which, through a considerable part of it, would not entail upon them excessive fatigue, or involve them in unbearable privations. When the history alludes to supernatural help, it represents the people being then in a position where such help would evidently be required for such a multitude. With the sacred narrative in constant view at each stage through which the people are conducted in it, I have traversed the whole of the peninsula, and my praise requires me to ask for attention at this point to the results of this detailed comparison of the history itself with the nature and peculiarities of the ground on which it was transacted' (Drew's 'Examination of Colenso,' pp. 47, 48).

The displeasure of God was manifested against the ungrateful complainers by fire sent in an extraordinary manner. Commentators generally consider that by "fire" is meant lightning. Harmer ('Observ.,' vol. 4:, p. 15) supposes that the reference is rather to the Samiel or sirocco, the fiery deadly wind which sometimes prevails in the Eastern deserts, particularly in the desert lying between Egypt and Mecca, which was in part the scene of Israel's wanderings. The appearance of this wind is, according to Chardin, 'red and fiery, and kills those it strikes by a kind of stifling heat, especially when it happens in the daytime.' 'If,' continues Harmer, 'a wind of this description killed any member of the Israelites, would it be any wonder that it should have been called the fire of the Lord? And would not the account that this sort of fire was quenched [ tishqeea` (H8257)], sank down, subsided, better agree with such a wind than with lightning?'

It is worthy of notice, however, that the discontent seems to have been confined to the extremities of the camp, where, in all likelihood, "the mixed multitude" had their station. At the intercession of Moses the appalling judgment ceased, and the name given to the place, "Taberah" (a burning), remained ever after a monument of national sin and punishment (see the notes at Numbers 11:34-35). The site of Taberah has not yet been identified; but it seems to have been the first stopping place on their leaving Sinai, and lay in a northeasterly direction, near the western side of the Tih range.

Verses 2-3

And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched.

No JFB commentary on these verses.

Verse 4

And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?

Mixed multitude ... fell a lusting. These consisted of Egyptians (see the note at Exodus 12:38). To dream of banquets and plenty of animal food in the desert becomes a disease of the imagination; and to this excitement of the appetite no people are more liable than the natives of Egypt. But the Israelites participated in the same feelings, and expressed dissatisfaction with the manna on which they had hitherto been supported, in comparison with the vegetable luxuries with which they had been regaled in Egypt.

Verse 5

We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:

We remember the fish - see the note at Exodus 7:21.) All classes among the people of Egypt, except the priests, to whom that food was forbidden (Wilkinson's 'Ancient Egypt.,' vol. 1:, p. 275), were accustomed to an almost exclusive diet of fish, either fresh or sun-dried, also shellfish, particularly a small kind of mussels, during the hot season in April and May-the very season when the Israelites were traveling in this desert. Lower Egypt, where were the brick-kilns in which they were employed, afforded great facilities for obtaining fish in the Nile (Exodus 7:21); but the supply was greatly increased by what was obtained from the lakes, ponds, and canals, in which the artificial propagation of the finny tribe was carefully carried on. 'The supply has not failed in modern times. The right of fishery on the canals and lakes is annually farmed out by the government to certain individuals who pay very large sums for the privilege' (Taylor, 'Bible Illustrated by the Egyptian Monuments,' p. 63).

Cucumbers, [ haqishu'iym (H7180); Septuagint, tous sikuous] - now called katteh. The Egyptian species is smooth, of a cylindrical form, and about one foot in length. It is highly esteemed by the natives, and when in season is liberally partaken of, being greatly mellowed by the influence of the sun.

Melons, [ haa'abaTichiym (H20); Septuagint, tous peponas]. The water melons are meant, which grow on the deep loamy soil after the subsidence of the Nile; and as they afford juicy and cooling fruit, all classes make use of them for meat, drink, and medicine. In Egypt the season of water melons, which are especially in request, and on which the common people then principally subsist, lasts only about three weeks. In fact throughout all the countries of the Levant, fruits of the gourd species are extensively made use of, and greatly prized on account of their cooling quality.

Leeks - [ hechaatsiyr (H2682), a word in the singular, used collectively, elsewhere translated grass (1 Kings 18:5; Job 8:12; Job 40:15; Psalms 104:14).] It is a vegetable peculiar to Egypt. Our translators have followed the Septuagint, which has ta 'prasa, the leeks. Theirs, however, is a wrong interpretation. For, 'among the wonders of the natural history of Egypt, it is mentioned by travelers that the common people there eat with avidity and special relish a kind of grass called helbeh, similar to clover. Sonnini tells us that in the month of November they cry, "Green helbeh for sale." in the streets of the towns. It is tied up in large bunches, which the inhabitants eagerly purchase at a low price, and which they eat with incredible greediness, without any species of seasoning. They allege that this singular diet is an excellent stomachic, a specific against worms and dysentery-in short, a preservative against a great number of maladies. Finally, the Egyptians regard this plant as endowed with so many good qualities that it is in their estimation a true panacea' (Hengstenberg's 'Egypt and the Books of Moses,' pp. 209, 210).

Onions, [ habªtsaaliym (H1211); Septuagint, ta krommua] - the same as ours; but instead of being nauseous, and affecting the eyes, they are sweet to the taste, good for the stomach, and form to a large extent the aliment of the labouring classes.

Garlic [ hashuwmiym (H7762); Septuagint, ta skorda] - is now nearly, if not altogether extinct in Egypt. But it seems to have grown anciently in great abundance, as is attested by Herodotus and Pliny, both of whom mention it, in connection with the onion, the chief article of food with the poorest classes. Rosellini thinks he has discovered it upon a monument at Beni-Hassan (Hengstenberg's 'Egypt and the Books of Moses,' p. 214). The herbs now mentioned form a diet very grateful in warm countries, where vegetables and other fruits of the season are much more used than with us. 'Upon one of the pyramids, says Herodotus, 'is signified in Egyptian characters what sum was expensed in the purchase of onions and garlic for the workmen. And I remember my interpreter, when he read the inscription, told me that it amounted to 1,600 talents of silver. This inscription, however, if it ever existed has perished with the removal of the casing (Wilson's 'Lands of the Bible,' volume 2:, page 761). We can scarcely wonder that both the Egyptian hangers-on and the general body of the Israelites, incited by their clamours, also complained bitterly of the want of the refreshing viands in their toilsome wanderings. But after all their experience of the bounty and care of God, their vehement longing for the luxuries of Egypt was an impeachment of the divine arrangements; and if it was the sin that beset them in the desert, it became them more strenuously to repress a rebellious spirit, as dishonouring to God, and unbecoming their relation to Him as a chosen people.

Verses 6-9

But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.

But now ... there is nothing ... besides this manna. Daily familiarity had disgusted them with the sight and taste of the monotonous food; and, ungrateful for the heavenly gift, they longed for a change of fare. It may be noticed that the resemblance of the manna to coriander seed was not in the colour, but in the size and figure; and from its comparison to bdellium, which is either a drop of white gum or a white pearl, we are enabled to form a better idea of it. [The Septuagint renders 'colour of bdellium,' eidos krustallou, a term which the Greeks applied not only to rock-crystal, but to any transparent mineral.]

Moreover, it is evident, from the process of baking into cakes, that it could not have been the natural manna of the Arabian desert, for that is too gummy or unctuous to permit being ground into meal. In taste it is said (Exodus 16:31) to have been like "wafers made with honey," and here to have the taste of fresh oil (see the note at Exodus 16:31). The discrepancy in these statements is only apparent; because in the former the manna is described in its raw state; in the latter, after it was ground and baked.

The minute description given here of its nature and use was designed to show the great sinfulness of the people in being dissatisfied with such excellent food, furnished so plentifully and gratuitously. De Wette, Knobel, and Davidson maintain that this description of the manna is totally different from that given in Exodus-in fact that there are two diverse accounts of it in the Pentateuch. And this allegation they support by further asserting that the narrative here is Yahwistic (J), while that in Exodus is Elohistic (E). This passage however, is supplementary, not inconsistent with the other; and that in Exodus contains the name of "Jehovah" ( Yahweh (H3068)) nine times, the name of 'Elohiym (H430) not at all.

Verses 10-15

Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.

Moses said unto the Lord ... It is impossible not to sympathize with his feelings, although the tone and language of his remonstrances to God cannot be justified. He was in a most distressing situation-having a mighty multitude under his care, with no means of satisfying their clamorous demands. Their conduct shows how deeply they had been debased and demoralized by long oppression; while his reveals a state of mind agonized and almost overwhelmed by a series of the undivided responsibilities of his office.

Verses 16-17

And the LORD 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 tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.

Gather unto me seventy men of the elders - (see Exodus 3:16; Exodus 5:6; Exodus 24:9; Exodus 18:21; Exodus 18:24; Leviticus 4:15.) An order of 70 was to be created, either by a selection from the existing staff of elders, or by the appointment of new ones, empowered to assist him, by their collective wisdom and experience, in the onerous cares of government. The Jewish writers say that this was the origin of the Sanhedrim, or supreme appellate court of their nation. But there is every reason to believe that it was only a temporary expedient, adopted to meet a trying exigency.

Verse 17. I will come down - i:e., not in a visible manner, or by local descent, but by the tokens of the divine presence and operations, and ... take of the spirit which is upon thee. The spirit means the gifts and influences of the Spirit (Numbers 27:18; Joel 2:28; John 7:39; 1 Corinthians 14:12), and by 'taking the spirit of Moses, and putting it upon them,' is not to be understood that the qualities the great leader were to be in any degree impaired, but that the elders would be endowed with a portion of the same gifts, especially of prophecy (Numbers 11:25) - i:e., an extraordinary penetration in discovering hidden, and settling difficult things.

Verses 18-20

And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.

Say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves - i:e., 'prepare yourselves,' by repentance and submission, to receive tomorrow the flesh you clamour for. But it is evident that the tenor of the language implied a severe rebuke, and that the blessing promised would prove a curse (cf. Psalms 106:15, where the words, "He sent leanness into their soul," implies that the decay which was sent was not bodily, but spiritual.

Verses 21-23

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.

Moses said ... Shall the flocks and the herds be slain? The great leader, struck with a promise so astonishing as that of suddenly furnishing, in the midst of the desert, more than two million people with flesh for a whole month, betrayed an incredulous spirit, surprising in one who had witnessed so many stupendous miracles. Of course, he thought only of its being accomplished in the natural and ordinary course of things. Their flocks and herds, numerous as they were, would soon be diminished and exhausted by the consumpt of so vast a horde. And the problem which was insoluble to Moses was, from what other natural source the supply was to come. Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them? This alternative was probably suggested to the mind of Moses by his being then not far from the Red Sea, as we learn that some of the encampments were, (Numbers 33:10-11, etc.) 'Irwin,' says Harmer ('Observ.,' 4:, p. 127), 'explains it by observing, that a little lower down, toward the straits of Babelmandel, he found fish in abundance in the Red Sea; that the Arabs were very expert in catching them; and that great quantities were to be picked up, from time to time, on the sand banks, which are extremely numerous in the Red Sea, If,' continues Harmer, 'the modern Arabs are so dextrous at catching fish now, the ancient Egyptians, we have reason to believe, were so in their time; and the low, oppressed state of Israel in that country will not allow us to believe that they did not exert themselves with equal assiduity and, in consequence of continual use, with equal success. There can be no reason to doubt that, since many of them found fish a diet so grateful to their palates, they would endeavour to make use of every opportunity to gratify themselves. Manna was an additional supply, only intended to make up a sufficiency of food-not designed to be exclusive of every other species of it.'

Verse 23. The Lord said unto Moses, Is the Lord's hand waxed short? If we are surprised at the perplexing doubts of Moses 'this surprise,' as pagan justly remarked (Trench on 'Miracles,' p. 360) 'rises out of our ignorance of man's heart, of our own heart, and of the deep root of unbelief which is there. It is evermore thus in times of difficulty and distress. All former deliverances are in danger of being forgotten; the mighty interpositions of God's hand in former passages of men's lives fall out of their memories; each new difficulty appears insurmountable as one from which there is no extrication; at each recurring necessity, it seems as though the wonders of God's grace are exhausted and have come to an end.

Thus, once already the Lord had covered the camp with quails (Exodus 16:13); yet, for all that, even Moses himself cannot believe that He will provide flesh for all that multitude' But it is probable that it was only a feeling of the moment-at all events, the incredulous doubt was uttered only to himself, and not, as afterward, publicly, and to the scandal of the people (see the note at Numbers 20:10). It was therefore sharply reproved, but not punished.

Verse 24

And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.

Moses ... gathered the seventy ... and set them round about the tabernacle ... That place was chosen for the convocation, because, as it was there God manifested Himself, there His Spirit would be directly imparted-there the minds of the elders themselves would be inspired with reverential awe, and their office invested with greater respect in the eyes of the people.

Verse 25

And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. The Lord came down in a cloud, [ be`aanaan (H6051)] - in the cloud. The purpose of this visible descent was in order to speak to Moses and the seventy elders in the presence of the people.

They prophesied, and did not cease, [ wayitnab'uw (H5012)] - they spoke under divine influence. It was originally applied to those who were recipients of divine revelations or the subjects of divine inspiration (cf. Genesis 20:7; Exodus 7:1; Exodus 15:20; 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 10:10-15; Psalms 105:15; Luke 1:68-79), but did not predict the future. Since those elders were constituted civil governors, their "prophesying" must be understood as meaning the performance of their civil and sacred duties by the help of those extraordinary endowments they had received, and by their not "ceasing," either that they continued to exercise their gifts uninterruptedly the first day (see 1 Samuel 19:24), or that these were permanent gifts, which qualitied them in an eminent degree for discharging the duty of public magistrates.

Verses 26-29

But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.

But there remained two. These did not repair with the rest to the tabernacle, either from modesty in shrinking from the assumption of a public office or being prevented by some ceremonial defilement. They, however, received the gifts of the Spirit as well as their brethren; and when Moses was urged to forbid their prophesying, his answer displayed a noble disinterestedness, as well as zeal for the glory of God, akin to that of our Lord (Mark 9:39).

They were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle. Foster ('Sinai Photographed') enlists this passage in support of his favourite theory, that the Sinai Inscriptions were the work of the Israelites, interpreting it thus: 'Eldad and Medad went not out unto the tabernacle, because they were elsewhere occupied in executing or directing the execution of those records of the exode, graven with an iron pen and lead, in the rocks forever.' Such a view is exceedingly forced and altogether groundless. [The word is bakªtubiym (H3789), among the inscribed or enrolled, being summoned in writing, instead of the more common term, qªruw'iym, called.] (See the note at Numbers 1:16; also, Havernick's 'Gen. Historico-Critical Introd. to the Old Testament,' p. 238.) The fact of these two elders remaining in their usual places, without accompanying their colleagues to the tabernacle, to receive in public form the divine commission, and yet being endowed with the gifts of the Spirit, showed that God could perfect His strength in human weakness, and that He is independent of the limits of place in His procedure.

Moreover, it was a visible proof that their call emanated not from Moses, but from God Himself; and 'once more, in the dividing of the Spirit which Moses had, upon the seventy elders of Israel, so that they all did prophesy, we recognize an earlier though a weaker Pentecost, in which, however, the latter was surely implied; because if from the servant could be imparted of his spirit, how much more, and in what larger measure, from the Son?' (Trench 'Hulsean Lectures,' p. 68).

Verse 30

And Moses gat him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verses 31-35

And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.

There went forth a wind from the Lord, [ naaca` (H5265)] - to pluck or tear up; frequently applied to pulling up the stakes or pins of a tent; hence, to break up an encampment, to remove: but here to the sudden rise of a violent wind. Nothing is stated as to the quarter from which it blew; but in Psalms 78:26 the east and south winds are poetically mentioned as being the most impetuous in Eastern regions.

And brought quails from the sea. These migratory birds (see the note at Exodus 16:13) were on their journey from Egypt, when the "wind from the Lord," forcing them to change their course, wafted them over the Red Sea to the camp of Israel.

Let them fall ... a day's journey on this side, and ... on the other side, round about the camp. If the journey of an individual is meant, this space might be 30 miles; if the inspired historian referred to the whole host, 10 miles would be as far as they could march in one day in the sandy desert, under a vertical sun. Assuming it to be 20 miles, this immense cloud of quails (Psalms 78:27) covered a space of 40 miles in diameter. Others reduce it to 16 miles (see Rosenmuller's 'Biblical Geography,' vol. 1:, p. 25). But it is doubtful whether the measurement be from the center or the extremities of the camp. It is evident, however, that the language describes the countless number of these quails.

As it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. Some have supposed that they fell on the ground above each other to that height-a supposition which would leave a vast quantity useless as food to the Israelites, who were forbidden to eat any animal that died of itself, or from which the blood was not poured out. Others think that, being exhausted with a long flight, they could not fly more than three feet above the earth, and so were easily felled or caught. (So the Septuagint oosei dipeechu apo tees gees; also Josephus, b.

iii., ch. 1:, sec. 5.) A more recent explanation applies the phrase, "two cubits high," not to the accumulation of the mass, but to the size of the individual birds. Flocks of large red-legged cranes, three feet high, measuring seven feet from tip to tip, have been frequently seen on the western shores of the Gulf of Akaba, or eastern arm of the Red Sea (Foster, Stanley, Shubert).

Verse 32. People stood up - i:e., rose up in eager haste; some at one time, others at another; some, perhaps, through avidity, both day and night.

Ten homers - ten donkeys' loads; or "homers" may be used indefinitely, as in Exodus 8:14; Judges 15:16; and "ten" for many: so that the phrase "ten homers" is equivalent to great heaps. The collectors were probably one or two from each family; and, being distrustful of God's goodness, gathered not for immediate consumption only, but for future use. In eastern and southern seas, innumerable quails are often seen, which, when weary, fall down, covering every spot on the deck and rigging of vessels; and in Egypt they come in such myriads that the people knock them down with sticks.

Spread them all abroad for themselves - dried and salted them for future use, by the simple process to which they had been accustomed in Egypt - i:e., after having stripped them of their feathers and buried them in the burning sands for a short time (Maillet, 'Lett.' 4:, p. 130, quoted, Harmer's 'Observ.,' vol. 4:, p. 362).

'Egmont and Heyman tell us that in a walk on the shore of Egypt, they saw a sandy plain several leagues in extent, and covered with reeds, without the least verdure. between which reeds they saw many nets placed for catching quails, which come over in large flights northward in March or April, and returning southward from Europe during the month of September. If the ancient Egyptians made use of the same method of catching quails that they now practice on those shores, yet Israel in the wilderness, being without these conveniences, were obliged of course to take the more inartificial and laborious way of catching them by striking down the wearied birds with bludgeons or stones. The Arabs of Barbary do this still' (Harmer's 'Observ.,' vol. 4:, p. 363; see also 'Quarterly Review,' July, 1863. pp. 62, 63).

Verse 33. While the flesh ... ere it was chewed, [ Yikaareet (H3772)] - consumed, cut off; i:e., ere the supply of quails, which lasted a month (Numbers 11:20), was exhausted. The Arabs and many other Orientals, though they do not frequently make use of flesh, eat voraciously when they obtain it, and it produces upon them the hilarious effect of ardent spirits. This seems to have been the case with the Israelites. The probability is, that their stomachs, having been long inured to manna (a light food), were not prepared for so sudden a change of regimen-a heavy, solid diet of animal food, of which they seem to have partaken to so intemperate a degree as to produce a general suffeit and fatal consequences. On a former occasion their murmurs for flesh were raised (Exodus 16:1-36) because they were in want of food. Here these proceeded, not from necessity, but wanton lustful desire: and their sin, in the righteous judgment of God, was made to carry its own punishment.

Verse 34. Called the name ... Kibroth-hattaavah - literally, the graves of lust, or those that lusted; so that the name of the place proves that the mortality was confined to those who had indulged inordinately.

Verse 35. Haseroth. The extreme southern station of this route was a watering-place in a spacious plain, now identified by Burckhardt, Robinson, and Stanley with Ain-el-Hudhera, at the east of the great sandy district, Debbet-et-Ramleh. Stewart ('Tent and Khan,' p. 161) identifies Taberah with Wady Berah and Kibroth-hattaavah, as Sarbut-el-Khadem. Foster ('Sinai Photographed') eagerly adopts this theory, and, following the maps of Ortelius and Goldschmidt, in which, according to the notions of the mediaeval geographers, they placed the Sepulchra Concupiscentioe, the graves of lust, near this latter spot. In support of his views he considers Taberah 'a remote outskirt' of the encampment at Kibroth-hattaavah, 'lying along the plain for ten or twelve miles'-which he thinks is intimated by "a day's journey" (Numbers 11:31). But as this theory assumes mount Serbal to be Sinai, the mount of God, we must reject their hypothesis as to the site of Kibroth-hattaavah as untenable.

Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Numbers 11". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/numbers-11.html. 1871-8.
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