The fire of the Lord consumes part of the camp: the manna is loathed: seventy elders are appointed to assist Moses: quails are given in wrath; and many of the people are slain.
Before Christ 1490.
Numbers 11:1. And when the people complained— The when inserted here much flattens the sense, and leads the mind to wrong ideas respecting this event. Read it thus, exactly conformable to the Hebrew, and the spirit of the passage will appear. Now the people greatly murmured: it was evil in the ears of the Lord: He heard it, and his anger was kindled, &c. Houbigant renders it, In the mean time the people murmured wickedly in the ears of the Lord, &c. following the Greek, which has it, γογγυζων πονηρα . We are not told what was the cause of these murmurs; but it is evident from Numbers 11:3 compared with Numbers 11:34 that it was something different from that mentioned in the 4th and following verses. The fire of the Lord means lightning. See 2 Kings 1:12. Job 1:16. As the mixed multitude were in the uttermost parts of the camp, it is probable that this murmuring began with them, and that they were the persons now punished.
Numbers 11:2. The fire was quenched— Εκοπασε, the LXX. it ceased. Scheuchzer is of opinion, as also is Le Clerc, that this destruction might be wrought by one of those fiery, blasting winds, which are incident to those countries, and mentioned in Scripture, Ezekiel 17:10; Ezekiel 19:12 and by one of which Thevenot, in his Voyages, (part 1: b. 2 Chronicles 34 :) tells us, 2000 men perished in one night, in the year 1658.
Numbers 11:3. Name of the place Taberah— The reason of the name Taberah, or burning, is given, as usual, in the next clause; because the fire of the Lord burnt among them: see 1 Corinthians 10:11-12 where the apostle applies this part of the sacred history for the instruction of Christians.
REFLECTIONS.—From the mercies they had experienced, and their promising beginnings, we might have expected a gracious issue to their journey; but, alas! what a change is here!
1. A spirit of murmuring is among them; why or wherefore it is hard to guess. They had every blessing their hearts could reasonably desire; and such extraordinary instances of God's love to them, as should have made them rejoice with joy unspeakable. But a discontented spirit will never be without cause of murmuring, even in the midst of mercies. God heard their repinings; for to him our most secret thoughts are fully known; and justly angry at their ingratitude, as he must ever be with those complainers who find fault with his provision for them, 2. He sends a fire of wrath among them, most probably by strokes of lightning from heaven. It burnt in the uttermost part of the camp; in the tribe of Dan probably, where the chief seat of the murmurers lay. God will not spare, if sinners provoke him; and happy for us if we take warning by others, and repent of the like sins, that we be not consumed with their plagues. 3. Thus did the people; they cried unto Moses; for in distress of soul God's slighted ministers will be the first to be applied to; and Moses kindly interceded for them, and the fire was stayed. The prayers of a righteous man avail much. It is a great blessing to have an interest in them. 4. The name given the place, Taberah, Burning. The place of the sinner's torment shortly will be everlasting burnings. Let us fear to murmur, lest we should likewise perish.
Numbers 11:4. The mixt multitude— See Exodus 12:38. Infected by the example of this mixed multitude, the children of Israel returned again to their former murmurings, and bemoaned themselves for the want of the provisions they had fed upon in Egypt. "Their sin," says Bishop Kidder, "was much aggravated upon the following accounts: 1st, They declared their distrust of God's power and providence, whereof they had had so great experience; see Exodus 16:2. Psalms 78:22; Psalms 100:2 nd, They un-thankfully despised God and his former mercies. 3rdly, They covetously desired flesh, when they had much cattle of their own." Exodus 32:35 with Numbers 32:4.
Numbers 11:5. We remember the fish, &c.— The author of the observations remarks, that the fish of Egypt are eaten, in common, with pleasure by the inhabitants of that country; but that in April and May, which is the hot season there, they scarce eat any thing else but fish, with pulse and herbs; the great heat taking away their appetite for all sorts of meat. This is Bishop Pococke's account, vol. 1 p. 182 with whom other travellers agree. Whence some have thought, that this complaint of the Israelites arose from the peculiar sultriness of the weather, and their being accustomed, in these hot seasons, to eat fish, and refreshing vegetables. But it is evident from the text, that the complaint of Israel proceeded from a wayward and perverse kind of luxuriousness; and for that reason drew down such a severe animadversion from heaven. De Vitriacho tells us, that some of the more delicate Egyptians pined to death when Damiata was besieged (anno Dom. 1218.) though they had a sufficiency of corn, for want of the food they were used to; pompions, garlick, onions, fish, birds, fruit, herbs, &c. It appears, at least, very clear from ch. Numbers 10:11 that the Israelites did not arrive at this station till the latter end of May, if before June; and it seems to have been some time after their arrival that this murmuring arose; (Numbers 11:4.) so that either the hot south winds do not blow at the same time in the desart, as they are wont to do in Egypt, or this complaint did not arise from that cause.
The cucumbers, &c.— Those who are inclined to enter into a minute account of these plants, will find their curiosity gratified, by referring to the third volume of Scheuchzer's learned and laborious Physique Sacree. He translates the words rendered cucumbers and melons, by melons et citrouilles, melons and gourds; and he observes, that the ancients called all the fruits of that species cucumbers and melons. The word which we render leeks, he takes to signify a plant of the lotus kind, which grew in the low lands of Egypt; and which, he says, was of a very delicate taste, and held in great estimation. Homer says, that the lotus is the first of the plants which grew for the pleasure of the gods, Iliad 22. See Alpinus de plant. Egypt. p. 103. With respect to the onions and garlick, Scheuchzer further observes, upon the credit of the best travellers, that they are far better, and of a much sweeter taste in the east, than in our parts of the world. The Jews, and the Orientals in general, are to the present time very fond of them: and Calmet well remarks, that garlick was in so much request among the ancients, that Homer makes it a part of the entertainment which Nestor serves up to his guest Machaon. Iliad 11.
Honey new prest, the sacred flour of wheat, And wholesome garlick, crown'd the sav'ry treat. POPE.
Juvenal observes, at the beginning of his 15th Satire,
How Egypt, mad with superstition grown, Makes gods of monsters but too well is known—
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
'Tis mortal sin an onion to devour; Each clove of garlick is a sacred pow'r. Religious nations sure, and blest abodes, Where every garden is o'er-run with gods! DRYDEN.
Upon which Calmet and others have started a question, How the Israelites durst venture to violate the national worship, by eating those sacred plants? To which it may be replied, in the first place, that whatever might be the case with the Egyptians in later ages, it is not probable that they were arrived at such a pitch of superstition in Moses's time; for we find no footsteps thereof in the time of Herodotus, the most ancient of the Greek historians. 2nd, Juvenal, and the other writers who speak of this superstition, appear to be mistaken, in imagining those herbs to have been really the objects of religious worship. The priests, indeed, abstained from the use of them, and of several other vegetables: and this might give rise to the opinion of their being reverenced as divinities; but they were not prohibited to the people, as is plain from the testimonies of ancient writers; particularly Diodorus, lib. 1: p. 80.
Numbers 11:6. Our soul is dried away— This expression is of the same import with that of the Psalmist; my heart is—withered like grass. The word נפשׁ nepesh, as we have before observed, is often used for the merely animal life, (see Genesis 2:7.) and the drying away here mentioned, may refer to their want of the moist, fishy, and vegetable food, for which they expressed so impetuous a desire. Their contempt of the manna is shewn by the way of speaking of it: There is nothing at all besides THIS manna before our eyes. Though they had some cattle, Numbers 11:22 yet it would seem that they had them not in such plenty or cheapness, that the populace could eat them for ordinary food.
Numbers 11:7. The manna was as coriander-seed, &c.— This description of the manna, its excellence as a food, its immediate descent from God, and the easiness of its procural, appear to be subjoined by the sacred writer, to shew the ingratitude and luxury of the people in despising so agreeable a food.
REFLECTIONS.—One sin severely visited prevents not new provocations. 1. The mixed multitude, a mongrel breed, such as followed in hopes of sharing Israel's good, not to serve Israel's God, began the mutiny, and communicated the spirit of infection to the camp. A bad neighbourhood is dangerous, and sin contagious; nor are any so high in grace or attainments, but they need to watch and pray lest they enter into temptation. 2. They lusted for flesh to eat, dissatisfied with God's provision, and wanting to be their own caterers. Indulging our appetites, is usually our ruin: to gratify the body, men destroy the soul. 3. They distrusted God's power to supply their wants, though every day living by a miracle. Unbelief is a sin which miracles cannot cure. 4. They compare their present with their past estate, and draw the most ungrateful conclusions. They remember the leeks and onions, but not the task-masters of Egypt, and speak of that manna, the bread of heaven, as if it famished instead of fed them. Note; (1.) Ingratitude is among the greater sins. (2.) The discontented loath their very blessings, and seem solicitous to make themselves miserable. (3.) It is a strong mark of the curse of God upon the heart, to see repining in the midst of plenty.
Numbers 11:12. As a nursing-father beareth the sucking child— This is a very lively expression to denote that tenderness and fatherly affection which princes ought to have for their people; and, on the other side, as expressive an emblem of the perverseness of the Israelites, wayward as an infant, which rises up with fury against the very nurse who gives it milk, and carries it in her bosom. Happy the people, whose sovereigns are nurses! Isaiah 49:23. Wretched the sovereigns, whose ungrateful and seditious subjects so ill requite their benefits!
Numbers 11:14. I am not able to bear all this people alone— Though Moses, by Jethro's advice, had appointed several persons to assist him, Exodus 18:21 yet all the weighty and difficult causes were still brought before himself, to whom also the last appeal was to be made in every cause.
Numbers 11:15. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, &c.— "If I must carry this heavy burden to the end of my days, I entreat of thee, O my God! as an especial grace, that thou wouldst hasten my last moment, that I may not see my wretchedness;—that I may not see myself reduced to still greater evils." To see death, and to die; to see salvation, and be saved; to see affliction, and be afflicted, are synonimous expressions in Scripture.
REFLECTIONS.—Moses heard the general murmur, and was justly displeased; and God also beheld with anger their base ingratitude. Had Moses rested here, he had done well; but impatience at their perverseness, and despair of supporting the burden of such a people, seem to have provoked him to speak unadvisedly with his lips. He finds fault with that charge which was his highest honour; and wishes for that death with impatience, which he should wait for with resignation. Note; (1.) In heavy trials we are too apt to wish ourselves rid of them by death, rather than glorify God under them by patient submission. (2.) Many have in a passion desired to die, who would gladly unsay their words, if God had granted their request. (3.) They, whom God calls to be rulers of others, have need to look peculiarly to the government of their own spirits.
Numbers 11:16-17. And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me— Though it cannot be denied that the remonstrance of Moses was rather over-passionate, and favoured much of human imperfection, yet, gracious and condescending, the Lord is pleased to shew no signs of displeasure, but gratifies the request of Moses, by ordering seventy persons of gravity and authority to attend him at the tabernacle; where, promising to manifest himself, he assures Moses, that he will put upon them some of the spirit which is given to him; that is, would endue them with the same spirit of government, or with those gifts of wisdom, judgment, courage, &c. bestowed upon Moses: for, the spirit is often put for the gifts of the spirit, or spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:31. Galatians 3:5. To shew that Moses lost nothing by this communication of the Spirit, the Jews make use of the similitude of a candle, which, in giving light to others, loses none of its own light. The phrase, they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, plainly alludes to Moses's complaint in the 11th and 14th verses, and signifies that they should take part of the fatigue arising from the government of this unruly people. The rabbis make this the original institution of their Sanhedrim; which, they say, lasted from Moses to the end of the republic: but to this tradition of their's learned writers find it difficult to subscribe. See Calmet's dissertation Sur la Police des Heb. Lowman thinks that these seventy extraordinary elders were coadjutors "to Moses in his council, how to answer the people's complaints; that they were a constant privy-council to the judge; a considerable part of the states-general of the united tribes: so that all matters judiciary, such especially as were more difficult, and were by appeal referred from the inferior judges, belonged to their cognizance."
Numbers 11:18. Say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves— Houbigant well observes, that the original word here might, with propriety, be rendered, be ye ready: the word is so used Jeremiah 6:4; Jeremiah 12:3; Jeremiah 51:28. Having answered the request of Moses in the former verses, the Lord now proceeds to answer that of the people.
Numbers 11:21. And Moses said, The people amongst whom I am— There is a striking similarity between the present passage and the account we have in the Evangelists of our Saviour's feeding the multitude with the five loaves and two fishes. See particularly John 6:5; John 6:71.
Numbers 11:23. Is the Lord's hand waxed short?— That is to say, Is the divine power diminished?—Have I lost any thing of my power since I created the universe?
REFLECTIONS.—God answers the requests both of Moses and of the people, but with very different regards; Moses in mercy, the people in judgment.
1. Moses receives an instance of God's mercy. He does not upbraid his hastiness, but grants his petition. He is commanded to choose seventy elders, the most approved for wisdom, and God will strengthen them for their office, to bear with him the burden of the people. Note; (1.) None can reasonably conclude they are called to an office who are not qualified for it. (2.) Government is of divine institution, and we must be obedient for conscience sake, not only to the king as supreme, but unto every magistrate who bears with him the burden.
2. The people's request is gratified; better perhaps, for them, had it been denied. Gifts in anger are judgments in disguise. They shall not only have enough to satisfy, but to surfeit: Note; (1.) Evil desire and loathing are nearly allied. (2.) The indulgence of brutal appetite brings its own punishment along with it.
3. Moses expresses some distrust how this should be done for such a multitude. The strongest faith may be shaken by indulging vain reasonings; but God silences his doubts with a convincing argument. His almighty power can effect whatever his grace promises. He who divided the sea, and opened the windows of heaven, is able to give them flesh also. Let God's people be comforted in every trial, that his hand is not shortened that it cannot save; and be encouraged to pray, for his ear is not heavy that it cannot hear.
Numbers 11:25. When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied— Concerning the meaning of the word prophet, we have spoken in the note on Genesis 20:7. To prophesy, says Dr. Hammond, is a large word; and, besides the foretelling of future events, which is the ordinary notion of it, it signifies, SECONDLY, To work miracles; as when it is said of Elisha's body, that, being dead, it prophesied. Compare Ecclesiassicus, Ecclesiassicus 48: 13 with 2 Kings 13:21. THIRDLY, To declare the will of God to any, by revelation or mission from him: and grammarians have observed, that the word naturally signifies no more than this, of speaking from, or in the stead of another, i.e. of God; in which sense, as Christ's prophetic office consisted in revealing the will of God to the world, so all, who have in any degree done the like, are styled prophets; all who have taught men their duties towards God and each other. Thus, when, Exodus 7:1. God said to Moses, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet; the meaning is, that what God commanded, or should command Moses, Moses should (as God to a prophet, — the oracle to the υποφητης) deliver to Aaron concerning Pharaoh; and Aaron should go as a prophet sent from God, and deliver it to Pharaoh: he shall be thy spokesman; he shall be to thee instead of a mouth. Exodus 4:16. FOURTHLY, It signifies to expound or interpret Scripture; as in 1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Corinthians 14:40. FIFTHLY, It is sometimes used to signify wild, raving, mad behaviour, or such speaking as the ενθεοι, or enthusiasts among the heathen, men possessed of diabolic feelings, were wont to use: so, when the evil spirit came upon Saul, he prophesied in the midst of the house; and, in the same fury, cast the javelin at David, 1 Samuel 18:10-11. The reason of this is clear: because prophets did ordinarily both speak and act in a manner far different from the ordinary practice of other men; and accordingly were, by many who looked on them, thought to be mad. So the prophet sent by Elisha to anoint Jehu is called this mad fellow. 2 Kings 9:11. SIXTHLY, It signifies singing and praising God; forming of divine hymns, and singing them to God. Thus, 1 Samuel 10:5-6. Thou shalt meet a company—a college of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp before them; and they shall prophesy: (where the Chaldee paraphrase reads, shall sing,) and the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy: where the Chaldee hath it, and thou shalt praise with them. So 1 Chronicles 25:1. David separated the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, &c. and this, most probably, is the meaning of the word here; for, as, 1 Samuel 10:6. Saul's prophesying was to be an effect of the Spirit of God coming upon him, and was a sign of his being set apart by God for the kingly office, and furnished with abilities for it, which is called turning him into another man; so here God takes of the spirit which was upon Moses,—that is, the spirit of government with which he was endued, and gives it unto the seventy. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied; where, as the other circumstance agrees, i.e. the giving them the spirit, and fitting them for their office by that means, so the evidence of it, their prophesying, may agree also: though wherein their prophesying consisted is no where determined in Scripture. This only is unquestioned, that it was some extraordinary act: a testimony that the Spirit of God, in some extra-ordinary manner, rested upon them; and as such was discernible to all, and so fit to authorise them in the eyes of others as by miracle, and to declare to all that they were assumed to this office. To this notion of prophesying, Luke 1:67 must be interpreted: Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied; i.e. was stirred up in a very extraordinary manner, by the Spirit of God, to compose the divine hymn immediately following. See Hammond's note on the place.
And did not cease— The Hebrew here is יספו ולא velo iasapu, which signifies properly, and they added not; i.e. say some commentators, they prophesied not after that day. This, it must be owned, seems but an aukward mode of expression, and would therefore incline one to follow, with Houbigant, the reading of the Samaritan, which instead of יספו, reads יאספו, (they were gathered,) and places the full stop after prophesied; so as to understand it thus: when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But two of the men were not gathered together, or assembled, but remained in the camp; that is to say, two men who had not assembled with the rest at the tabernacle, but were left in the camp, were also endued with the gift of prophesy. In confirmation of this criticism, Houbigant shews the impropriety both of our version and of that mentioned at the beginning of this note, which, indeed, must be very obvious to most readers. Many conjectures have been offered why these two men remained in the camp; but as this can only be conjecture, we shall not take up room on the subject: sickness, or some legal defilement, might probably hinder their approach to the tabernacle.
Numbers 11:26. Eldad, and—Medad: and the spirit rested upon them, &c.— Mr. Saurin observes, that this prophecy of Eldad and Medad has given handle to an impostor to forge a work under the name of the former: the author of the Book of Hermes says, he borrowed an oracle from thence. Witsius is of opinion, that St. James had the answer of Moses, Numbers 11:29 in view, when he made use of those difficult expressions in his epistle, ch. Numbers 4:5-6. Do ye think that the Scripture saith in vain, the spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? but he giveth more grace. Witsius cannot find, in any part of the Scripture, these words, unless in the case we are now upon; and he thus paraphrases St. James's words: "Do you imagine that the Spirit, which regenerates us, stirs us up to envy, or other passions of the like nature?—On the contrary, it affords us fresh occasion of thankfulness, and inspires us with new pleasure, when our neighbours receive its gifts as well as we: of this Moses is an instance, when he said, Art thou jealous on my account? I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets."
Numbers 11:28-29. Joshua—the servant of Moses, &c.— See Exodus 33:11. Joshua, it should seem, thought that these men's prophesying, or teaching in the camp, tended to make those gifts common, and to disparage Moses in the eyes of the people: or, perhaps, he thought that it tended to breed a schism, by calling the people away from the tabernacle, the appointed place of meeting, where the rest of the seventy elders were regularly assembled. Thus the disciples forbad one who cast out devils in Christ's name, because he followed not with them; Luke 9:49-50 and it appears, from the answer both of Moses and of Christ, as if some degree of jealousy rested in the heart of Joshua, as well as of the disciples. Enviest thou for my sake? says Moses; or, rather, art thou jealous on my account? "art thou afraid that their exercise of these prophetic gifts should be a diminution of my honour?"—Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, &c.—"would to God that they were all inspired to sing the praises of Jehovah, to recommend holiness and religion one to another!"—How excellent an answer! How characteristic of the good man! who will not only set others an example of holiness, but will rejoice to see holiness and piety prevail in the world; who will not only wish that all the Lord's people were prophets, but will contribute, as much as he can, towards enabling them to be so: not envying the blessings which God bestows upon others; but, on the contrary, glad to see the glory of God promoted, either by himself, or any of his fellow-creatures.
REFLECTIONS.—Moses obeys the divine mandate, and having told the people the words of the Lord, he gathers the elders before the tabernacle, and the glory of the Lord appears. God never fails to meet those who are found waiting upon him. As they were selected by his order, he furnishes them for their place, bestowing upon them a portion of that spirit which rested on Moses; not diminishing his gifts, but increasing theirs. Grace is an inexhaustible fountain; no man has the less, because of others who partake with him. Hereupon they prophesied. But Joshua, jealous for Moses's honour, is ready to condemn and silence them for irregularity. Note; (1.) The gifts and graces of others are too often the occasion of envy to us. (2.) What we may think irregular for ourselves, we should not be too hasty to condemn in others. (3.) If men prophesy in the name of Jesus, and souls are edified, we should therein rejoice, though they may not follow with us. (4.) If others increase in usefulness, and we decrease, yet so as the cause prospers, we should be willing to be the last and the least. If God be glorified, that is enough.
Numbers 11:31-32. And there went forth a wind from the Lord, &c.— See Exodus 16:13. As we have met with no commentator who has explained this passage so well and fully as the author of the observations, we here subjoin his very judicious and entertaining remarks. The famous Ludolphus, and after him Bishop Patrick, and the late Bishop of Clogher, believed that they were locusts and not quails, which the children of Israel ate in the wilderness. Dr. Shaw strongly argues the contrary; but he takes no notice of the difficulties which induced Patrick to suppose they were locusts, and which he gives an account of in his comment on this passage. These are their coming with a wind; their immense quantities, covering a circle of thirty or forty miles diameter, two cubits thick;—their being spread in the sun for drying, which, he says, would have been preposterous if they had been quails: for it would have made them stink the sooner. Interpreters, therefore, he thinks, pass over this circumstance in silence; whereas all authors say, that this is the principal way of preparing locusts, to keep them for a month or more, when they are boiled, or otherwise dressed. These difficulties, or at least the two last, appear pressing; nevertheless, I have met with several passages in books of travels, which I shall here give an account of, that may soften them: the reader may think they do more. "No interpreters," complains the bishop, "supposing they were quails, account for the spreading them out in the sun." Perhaps they have not. Let me then translate a passage from Maillet, (let. 4: p. 130.) which relates to a little island that covers one of the ports of Alexandria. "It is on this island, which lies farther into the sea than the main land of Egypt, that the birds annually alight, which come hither for refuge in autumn, to avoid the severity of the cold of our winters in Europe. There is so large a quantity of all sorts taken there, that, after these little birds have been stripped of their feathers, and buried in the burning sands for about half a quarter of an hour, they are worth but two sols the pound. The crews of those vessels, which, in that season, lie in the harbour of Alexandria, have no other meat allowed them." Among other refugees of that time, Maillet, in his ninth letter, p. 21 expressly mentions quails; which are therefore, I suppose, treated after this manner. This passage then does what, according to the bishop, no commentator has done; it explains the design of spreading these creatures, supposing they were quails, round about the camp:—it was to dry them in the burning sands, in order to preserve them for use. So Maillet tells us (let. 11: p. 110.) of their drying fish in the sun in Egypt, as well as of their preserving others by means of pickle. Other authors speak of some of the Arabs drying camel's flesh in the sun and wind, which, though it be not at all salted, will, if kept dry, remain good a long while; and which oftentimes, to save themselves the trouble of dressing, they will eat raw. This is what St. Jerome may be supposed to refer to, in vita Malchi Monachi, when he calls the food of the Arabs, carnes semicrudae, half-dressed flesh.
This drying of flesh, then, in the sun, is not so preposterous as the bishop imagined. On the other hand, none of the authors I have met with, who speak of the way of preserving locusts in the east, so far as I can recollect, give any account of drying them in the sun. They are, according to Pellow, first purged with water and salt, boiled in new pickle, and then laid up in dry salt. So Dr. Russel says, "The Arabs eat these insects when fresh, and also salt them up as a delicacy."
Their immense quantities also forbad the bishop's believing they were quails: and, in truth, he represents this difficulty in all its force; perhaps too forcibly. A circle of forty miles in diameter, all covered with quails, to the depth of more than forty-three inches, is, without doubt, a startling representation of the matter: I would beg leave to add, that the like quantity of locusts would have been very extraordinary. But then this is not the representation of Scripture: it doth not even agree with it; for such a quantity of either quails or locusts would have made the clearing of places for the spreading them out, and the passing of Israel up and down in the neighbourhood of the camp, very fatiguing, which is not supposed.
Josephus, Antiq. lib. iii. c. 1. supposes that they were quails, which, he says, are in greater numbers thereabouts than any other kind of bird; and that, having crossed the sea to the camp of Israel, they, who in common fly nearer to the ground than most other birds, flew so low, through the fatigue of their passage, as to be within reach of the Israelites. This explains what he thought was meant by the two cubits from the face of the earth—their flying within three or four feet of the ground. And when I read Dr. Shaw's account (p. 236.) of the way in which the Arabs frequently catch birds, which they have tired, viz. by running in upon them, and knocking them down with their zerwattys, or bludgeons, as we should call them, (in which account the doctor mentions the quail, along with the wood-cock, the rhaad, the kitawiah, and the partridge,) methinks I almost see the Israelites before me, pursuing the poor, fatigued, and languid quails.
This is, indeed, a laborious method of catching these birds, and not that which is now used in Egypt; for Egmont and Heyman (vol. 2: p. 206.) 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 observed many nets placed for catching quails, which come over in large flights from Europe, during the month of September. If the ancient Egyptians made use of the same method of catching quails which they now practise on those shores, yet Israel, in the wilderness, without these conveniencies, must of course make use of that inartificial and laborious way of catching them above described. The Arabs of Barbary, who have not many conveniencies, do the same thing still.
Bishop Patrick supposes a day's journey to be sixteen or twenty miles, and thence draws his circle with a radius of that length: but Dr. Shaw, on another occasion, (p. 319.) makes a day's journey but ten miles, which would make a circle of twenty miles diameter; and as the text evidently designs to express it very indeterminately, as it were a day's journey, it might be much less. But it does not appear to me at all necessary to suppose the text intended their covering a circular, or nearly a circular piece of ground, but only that these creatures appeared on both sides of the camp of Israel, about a day's journey. The same word is used, Exodus 7:24 where round about can only mean on each side of the river; and so it may be a little illustrated by what Dr. Shaw tells us (p. 409.) of three flights of storks, which he saw when at anchor under mount Carmel, some of which were more scattered, others more compact and closer; and each of which took up more than three hours in passing, and extended itself more than half a mile in breadth. Had the flight of quails been no greater than these, it might have been thought, like them, to have been accidental; but so unusual a flock as to extend fifteen or twenty miles in breadth, and to be two days and one night in passing, and this in consequence of the declaration of Moses, plainly determined that the finger of God was there.
A third difficulty with the bishop was, their being brought by a wind. A hot southerly wind, it is supposed, brings the locusts; and why quails might not be brought by the instrumentality of a like wind, or what difficulty there is in that supposition, I cannot imagine. As soon as the cold is felt in Europe, Maillet, in his 11th letter, p. 21 tells us, that turtles, quails, and other birds, come to Egypt in great numbers: but he observed that their numbers were not so large in those years in which the winters were favourable to Europe; from whence he conjectured, that it is rather necessity than habit which causes them to change their climate: if so, it should seem that it is the increasing heat which causes their return, and consequently that the hot, sultry winds from the south must have a great effect upon them to direct their flight northwards. It is certain, that many of these migratory birds return about the time when the south wind begins to blow in Egypt, which is in April. Maillet, who joins quails and turtles together, and says that they appear in Egypt when the winds begin to be felt in Europe, does not, indeed, tell us when they return: but Thevenot may be said to have done it; for, after he has told his reader (part 1: p. 247.) that they catch snipes in Egypt from January to March, he adds, that in May they catch turtles, which turtles return again in September. Now, as their go together southward in September, we may believe they return again northward much about the same time. Agreeable to which, Russel tells us, (p. 63.) that quails appear in abundance about Aleppo in spring and autumn.
If natural history were more perfect, we might speak to this point with greater precision. At present, however, it is so far from an objection to their being quails, that their coming was caused by a wind,—that nothing is more natural. The same wind would in course occasion sickness and mortality among the Israelites, at least it does so in Egypt. See Maillet, let. 2: p. 57 and Egmont and Heyman, vol. 2: p. 62. The miraculousness, then, of this event does not consist in the Israelites' dying, but in the prophet's foretelling with exactness the coming of that wind, and in the prodigious numbers of the quails which came with it; together with the unusualness of the place, perhaps, where they alighted. See Shaw, p. 449.
Nothing more remains to be considered, but the gathering so large a quantity as ten homers by those who gathered fewest. But, till that quantity is more precisely ascertained, it is sufficient to remark, that this is only affirmed of those eager and expert sportsmen among the people, who pursued the game two whole days, and one whole night, without intermission; and of them, and of them only, I presume, it is to be understood, that he that gathered fewest gathered ten homers.
Numbers 11:33. And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, &c.— It is impossible to determine, as Calmet justly remarks, how many days they used this food, or what was the plague wherewith the Lord smote them. Some say that this plague was a pestilence, others a consumption, others a fire, such as that spoken of at the beginning of the chapter; an opinion, which seems to be supported by Psalms 78:21. Calmet conjectures, that the quails themselves might prove destructive to the gluttonous and intemperate Israelites, long unused to flesh; but one may more rationally conceive, that the plague was an immediate punishment from the avenging hand of God. It is most probable, that this plague happened not to them till they had fed upon the quails for a space of a month, promised Numbers 11:20.
Numbers 11:34. Kibroth-hattaavah— The reason of which name, as usual, is given in the next clause; because there they buried the people that lusted.
REFLECTIONS.—The people now obtain their desire, and suffer for their lust.
1. God sends them flesh to eat. Now they have enough, and riot in plenty; but when the sinner is most joyous, the sword of vengeance is then descending.
2. God smote them with a very great plague. They who indulge their lusts must pay dear for them. The meat was yet between their teeth, when the wrath of God came upon them. How short-lived is the prosperity of the wicked! when his possession of what he coveted is to appearance most firmly secured, death snatches him away, and all his hopes perish.
3. The name of the place; Kibroth-hattaavah, the graves of lust. Note; This title may suit every tombstone. By lust sin entered into the world, and death passed upon all, because all have sinned.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 11". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany