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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Numbers 11

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 11 The Grumbling Of The People and The Men Of The Spirit.

With the journeying beginning again after the stay at Sinai the previous problems of Exodus 16:1-12; Exodus 17:1-3 recommenced. The way was unquestionably difficult. The sun was scorching, the wilderness dry, the desert ‘road’ rough and definitely not suitable for such a large group of travellers. And in the way of people it was not long before the murmuring and grumbling began. Their eyes were not on Yahweh but on themselves, and as they struggled through the sweltering heat with no real end in sight, they began to feel sorry for themselves, and to think that deliverance was not all that it was cracked up to be.

In the midst of their troubles God brought home a powerful message which contrasted their desire for fleshly gratification with His willingness to provide the Spirit.

The whole of this chapter quite clearly demonstrates the chiastic principle inherent in Moses’ writings so remarkably that it can surely not be denied. It is constructed as follows:

a The people murmur against Yahweh (Numbers 11:1 a).

b The anger of Yahweh is kindled and He smites them with judgment (Numbers 11:1-3)

c The rabble commence lusting and the people crave for the pleasures of Egypt which causes them to sin (Numbers 11:4-6).

d The people had gathered the manna (Numbers 11:7-8).

e The manna had fallen from heaven (Numbers 11:9).

f Moses was disturbed at the people and receives a reply (Numbers 11:10-15).

g The Spirit will come on the seventy elders (Numbers 11:16-17).

h The people will eat the flesh they craved (when they should have been craving spirit) (Numbers 11:18 a).

i The people’s craving for flesh makes them declare, ‘It was well with us in Egypt’ (Numbers 11:18).

i They will be satiated with flesh because they said, ‘Why came we forth out of Egypt?’ (Numbers 11:19-20).

h Moses puzzled how Yahweh can provide the flesh they crave, but they will eat it (Numbers 11:21-23 a).

g The Spirit comes on the seventy elders (Numbers 11:24-26).

f Joshua was disturbed at the two elders and receives a reply (Numbers 11:27-30).

e The quails fall from heaven (Numbers 11:31).

d The people gather the quails (Numbers 11:32 a).

c The people’s craving for the quails causes them to sin (Numbers 11:32 b).

b Yahweh’s anger is kindled and the plague comes from Yahweh so that the people are smitten (Numbers 11:33).

a The malcontents and lusters are buried in the Graves of craving (Numbers 11:34).

The chapter commences with a short, sharp warning, which is not heeded.

Chapter 12 The Jealousy of Aaron and Miriam.

In this chapter the position of Moses is firmly established. It can be compared with Numbers 16-17 where the position of Aaron was firmly established. In both cases they had been directly appointed by God, not by man.

Possibly Aaron and Miriam had become jealous because of the Spirit coming on the seventy elders as they stood with Moses. Aaron was ‘the Priest’ and Miriam a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). Perhaps they felt, unreasonably, that Moses was supplanting them and raising up others with spiritual insight. Whatever the cause they began to mutter against Moses.

Because they dared not attack him openly they attacked his wife. She was a Cushite woman and not a true-born Israelite. This then enabled them to get at Moses himself. ‘Why should he think he was different from them?’ they asked. Did Yahweh only speak with Moses? Did He not also speak with Aaron and Miriam? How dangerous it is when we become proud of what God has given us, or the position in which He has placed us. But Yahweh immediately stepped in to make clear Moses’ unique position and in the end the two had to plead with Moses to intercede for them.

The construction of the passage is clear.

a They journey from Kibroth-hattaavah to Hazeroth (Numbers 11:35).

b Miriam, with Aaron, turns against Moses (Miriam named first) (Numbers 12:1-2).

c Moses is the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3).

d Yahweh speaks to Moses, Aaron and Miriam and calls them into His presence (Numbers 12:4).

e The cloud comes down to the door of the Dwellingplace (Numbers 12:5).

f Yahweh’s definition of a prophet (Numbers 12:6).

f Yahweh’s declaration about Moses (Numbers 12:7-8).

e The cloud departs from the Dwellingplace leaving Miriam leprous (Numbers 12:9-10).

d Aaron pleads with Moses to go into Yahweh’s presence on their behalf (Numbers 12:11-13).

c Miriam is as one whose father spits in their face (Numbers 12:14).

b Miriam is cast out of the camp for seven days (Numbers 12:15).

a They journey from Hazeroth to the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 12:16).


Verses 1-3

A Sharp Warning About Grumbling. The People Complain and Are Smitten. Moses Intervenes (Numbers 11:1-3).

It is interesting that even in so short a passage another chiastic formation is revealed.

a They displease Yahweh and the fire of Yahweh burns among them (Numbers 11:1).

b The people cry to Moses for the quenching of the fire.

b Moses intercedes with Yahweh and the fire is quenched.

a The place is called Taberah because the fire of Yahweh burnt among them.

Numbers 11:1

‘And the people were as murmurers, evil in the ears of Yahweh, (or ‘were as murmurers in the ears of Yahweh about their misfortunes’) and when Yahweh heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of Yahweh burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp.’

The incidents are not specifically fitted into the travel schedule so that we do not know how long this was after leaving Sinai, but it was clearly not long before the people began to murmur. It was probably in the desert of Et-Tih. And what they were muttering among themselves was evil in Yahweh’s ears, as such muttering always is. Indeed the mood was so ugly that God was angry with it. He clearly felt it totally unjustifiable. They would have much worse to go through than this. They had to learn to cope with adversity.

The result was that on the extremities of the camp a fire burst out and ‘burned among them’, and they recognised it for what it was, a warning shot from Yahweh. Whether it was caused by lightning, or a bush bursting into flames in the intense heat which then spread, we do not know. And whether anyone died or whether it just affected possessions we are not told. But it was their first salutary warning.

God uses such trials and judgments in order to teach His people lessons. Whom Yahweh loves, He chastens (Deuteronomy 8:5). Here He was trying to pull the people up short so that their minds might be taken off themselves and set on Him. He knew the condition that they were getting themselves into. Had they taken heed it would have saved them a lot of trouble in the future.

Numbers 11:2

‘And the people cried to Moses, and Moses prayed to Yahweh, and the fire abated.’

The extent of the fire was such that the people came to Moses and pleaded for help. The result was that Moses prayed to Yahweh and the fire died down. That should have given the people grounds for gratitude to Yahweh. They should have recognised that it was fortunate that they had in Moses one who was always ready to intercede for them. He had done so before (Exodus 15:25; Exodus 32:11-14), and now he had done it again. It should have fixed their thoughts on God. But if it did, any gratitude was only temporary.

We also have One Who intercedes for us at all times (Hebrews 7:25). How trying we must so often appear to Him, but He is ever patient with us. Yet we must beware lest we forget and lose touch with Him, otherwise He may have to chasten us too.

Numbers 11:3

‘And the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of Yahweh burnt among them.’

Then they gave the name ‘Taberah’ to the place, which means ‘burning’, because there Yahweh’s fire had burned among them. The name does not appear in their travel itinerary, and indicates more their deep feeling at the time. It was not a recognised name.

We may see this as an act of grace. By acting quickly the people had been made to think so that they would be more careful in future. As we have learned in the past they had a tendency to grumble (Exodus 15:24; Exodus 16:2-3; Exodus 17:2-3), so this was not the first time. But it was the first time since the journey from Sinai began. The sharp lesson was intended to save trouble in the future. As it turned out it was not sufficient because their faith was low, as the next incident brings out.


Verses 4-15

The Grumbling Again Flares Up: Murmuring For Meat Instead Of Manna (Numbers 11:4-15).

What follows brings home to us something of the condition of many of the people. They were not on the whole a people of quiet faith, but a people full of doubts and worries, and in no mental condition to face the rigours of the desert. They had been delivered from slavery and did not have the backbone for what they had to face. That was why Yahweh had sought to counter this at Sinai, both by His firm covenant and His giving of the Dwellingplace as a visible sign among them. But they had on the whole not responded in true faith and were thus vulnerable.

The passage is constructed as follows:

a The rabble sinfully desire delicacies (Numbers 11:4 a).

b The people cry, ‘who will give us flesh to eat?’ (Numbers 11:4 b).

c The description of their complaint (Numbers 11:5-6).

d Description of the manna (Numbers 11:7-8).

d The manna falls (Numbers 11:9).

c The description of Moses complaint (Numbers 11:10-12).

b The people weep saying, ‘Give us flesh that we may eat’ (Numbers 11:13).

a Moses sinfully desires to die (Numbers 11:14-15).

Numbers 11:4-6

‘And the rabble who were among them were filled with strong cravings (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 which cost us nothing; 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 on.’

What was more there were ‘rabble’ among them who were seeking to stir things up. The rabble are often considered to be ‘the mixed multitude’ of Exodus 12:38 but there are no real grounds for blaming the mixed multitude here. That was the result of the racism of the LXX translators who looked for somewhere to put the blame. Indeed most of the mixed multitude had probably been absorbed into Israel as a result of Sinai. The term used here is totally different from Exodus 12:38. Here it is the ‘rabble’, the low life among the people (asaphsuph - the ‘gathering of reeds’, useless things, promising much but offering little), who were involved, those possessed by pure greed and godlessness, and full of their own importance and jealous of Moses.

There are always a troublesome minority among all peoples. In this case these were the ones who started the complaints and stirred up the people, so that dissatisfaction soon spread and clearly deeply upset a people already traumatised by the conditions they were travelling under. It had caught them unprepared, even though Yahweh had tried to prepare them. The stronger were undermining the weaker. We must all be careful when we begin to murmur that we do not undermine the faith of others. Those who are strong need to bear the burdens of those who are weak (Romans 15:1), not undermine them.

But the malcontents could not have succeeded if Israel had been looking to Yahweh and the things of the Spirit. Note that while the Israelites mentioned ‘flesh’ they were thinking rather of a change of diet, as their list of the pleasures of Egypt brings out. In their list they did not actually mention meat specifically, but fish and vegetables. What they wanted was something different from the manna. It is true that they could have eaten their cattle and sheep (although see Numbers 11:22), but they would be reluctant to do that when they were not actually starving. Those were necessary for the future ahead. Such eating was not essential. They had the manna to keep them alive. But what they wanted were delicacies, and a change of diet. Note their contemptuous dismissal of ‘this manna’. When they had been starving they had delighted in it. Now their stomachs were full they were not satisfied with it. They were lacking in appreciation and gratitude because enjoyment of food had become more important to them than appreciating God.

The point was not that they were hungry, as they had been in the Wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:3), but that they were living on a permanent diet of manna. It was the struggle of the flesh against the spirit. Had their hearts been set on Yahweh they would have rejoiced to receive the manna from His hands. They would have been full of joy continually. But greed for delicious food was so strong that they wept. Their thoughts were purely selfish. They did not want to have to wait for ‘milk and honey’ in the future, they wanted it now. The manna had once been welcomed enthusiastically. Now it was taken for granted. It had become monotonous and prosaic. They just felt that they had had enough. They wanted the good things of life. They had reached a low level.

So their minds went back to the freely available fish in Egypt that they could catch in the Nile and its tributaries, the abundance of watermelons with their rich, cool satisfying taste, so plentiful in their season that even the poorest could afford them, and all the other delicious foods that they had once enjoyed. Forgotten was the penury and servitude. Their eyes were gluttonous and fixed on food. The foods described are all of a type that the poor in Egypt would eat. Onions flourished better in Egypt than elsewhere, and had a mild and pleasant taste. According to Herodotus ii. 125, they were the ordinary food of the workmen at the pyramids. They still form a basic food for the poor there, and are also a favourite dish with all classes, either roasted, or boiled as a vegetable, and eaten with meat. Garlic is mentioned by Herodotus in connection with onions, as forming a leading article of food with the Egyptian workmen

We may look askance at Israel but we are not so different. Even today the Bread of Life (John 6:35) can become monotonous and prosaic to us because of our sinful hearts, so that it results in extremes in religion which are not helpful. Men become bored with true goodness, and meditation on the word of God. They want excitement that panders to the flesh, dressed up as spirituality. Or they seek to the flesh pots of Egypt.

Numbers 11:7

‘And the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance as the appearance of bdellium.’

The manna is described. It was in deliberate contrast to the luxuries of Egypt. All they had was this one small ‘seed’. It was in shape and size somewhat like coriander seeds. Coriander seeds are from the fruit of the Coriandrum sativum (of the natural order Umbelliferae), which was a plant indigenous around the Mediterranean and extensively cultivated. It was used for medicinal and culinary purposes from at least 1500 BC. The fruits are aromatic and were thought to assist flatulence. They are of a greyish-yellow colour, ribbed, globular and oval, and in size about twice that of a hemp-seed being about four millimetres in diameter. Bdellium is a pale yellow transluscent resin. Exodus 16:14; Exodus 16:31 says that the manna was flaky like hoar frost, white and tasting like honey. Thus manna was like small flaky seeds, and probably whitish-yellow and smooth.

More modern examples have been cited of an unidentified white substance which one morning covered a fairly large area of ground in Natal and was eaten by the natives, and also of falls of whitish, odourless, tasteless matter in Southern Algeria which, at a time of unusual weather conditions, covered tents and vegetation each morning. While not being the same as the Manna, or lasting over so long a period, these do indicate the kind of natural phenomena which God may have used to bring about His miracle.

Numbers 11:8

‘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.’

It was collected in pots and ground in their hand-mills or beaten in mortars, it was then boiled or turned into cakes and tasted like the taste of fresh olive oil, reminding the people of honey. So they clearly tried different ways of making it enjoyable. But nothing could fully relieve its monotony. However, as long as they were not greedy it never made them ill (Exodus 16:20). Had their faith been strong they would have accepted it gladly from the hand of God because their satisfaction was elsewhere and was spiritual. But they were carnal and their food meant a lot to them, while God did not. So they broke down at the thought of what they were missing, they ‘wept’. They felt sorry for themselves.

“The taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.” It was good and wholesome. But the people did not want what was good and wholesome, they wanted what tickled the palate. They wanted the lusts of the flesh and not the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16 onwards).

Numbers 11:9

‘And when the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna fell on it.’

It fell during the early morning after the dew. It was probably the result of the unusual weather conditions at the time, coming from we know not where. But in the end it was ‘from heaven’. The reason for giving this information about the manna was in order to remind the readers of how good God was being to His people.

Numbers 11:10

‘And Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, every man at the door of his tent, and the anger of Yahweh was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased.’

The influence of the rabble, no doubt deliberately spread among the remainder so as to undermine Moses, had reached deep into the hearts of the ordinary people. This comes out in that Moses heard them weeping ‘throughout their families’ in their tents. That is quite a disturbing statement and illustrates the state that some of them were in. We must not underestimate it. Their faith had collapsed, and they were totally disillusioned.

We must not see these as people in a fairly good state of mind just muttering because they were dissatisfied. Rather, because their thoughts were not on God, they were very vulnerable and were being deeply affected by the rabble. They had begun to feel very sorry for themselves and did not have sufficient faith to sustain them. They were collapsing inwardly. They were not used to standing up for themselves.

The picture is quite vivid. The whole of Israel were weeping. This was hardly natural, but after all their sufferings this round of discontent had proved one step too much. The traumatic effect of making their way through the desert and the wilderness, together with the boring nature of the manna, had clearly been brought home to them in a forceful way through the complaining of the rabble so that they were genuinely on the point of despair, and in a desperate state of mind. All their fears and worries were coming out as a result. They were on the verge of break down. They had passed the point of being able to cope. But had their hearts been fixed on Yahweh it would not have happened. The problem was that all their thoughts were fixed on themselves.

Yahweh saw it and was ‘angry’. That is, in His righteousness He felt an aversion to their behaviour, for He knew what lay at the root of it, unbelief. He had delivered them from Egypt, He had provided them with the manna, and they were so ungrateful and so worldly minded that they were actually despising both and wishing He had never bothered. They were forgetting, as He had not, how desperate they had been then (Exodus 2:23). All that He had planned for them now mattered to them not a jot. All they wanted was to enjoy filling their bellies with delicious food. How strange man is that he can allow temporary longings to so replace his confidence in eternal realities for such an unimportant reason.

Moses too was ‘displeased’. That is, he was upset within himself. The whole situation was getting on top of him, as what follows demonstrates.

Numbers 11:11

‘And Moses said to Yahweh, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay on me the burden of all this people?’

Moses was aware of how the people were feeling, and how deeply it had gone. As he walked around the camp and heard their distress he found it hard to bear. He felt the pressures piling up on him too as he witnessed their condition. And he went to Yahweh with his problems. He did have sufficient faith, but it needed bolstering.

He asked Yahweh why He had brought on him the burden of this people, a burden he was finding too difficult. Why had Yahweh dealt so ill with him? Why had Yahweh’s graciousness to him been so lacking? He was finding it hard to cope with their misery. Why had he been given the responsibility of a father for children not his own?

This prayer of Moses itself follows a chiastic pattern:

a ‘Why have you evil entreated your servant?’ (Numbers 11:11 a)

b Why have I not found favour in your sight? (Numbers 11:11 b)

c That you lay the burden of all this people on me. (Numbers 11:11 c)

d Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth (Numbers 11:12 a)

e That you should say to me carry them in your bosom -- (Numbers 11:12 b)

d From where should I have flesh to give to all this people? (Numbers 11:13)

c I am not able to bear all this people alone -- (Numbers 11:14)

b Kill me out of hand if I have found favour in your sight (Numbers 11:15 a)

a Let me not see my wretchedness (Numbers 11:15 b)

Numbers 11:12

‘Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing-father carries the sucking child, to the land which you swear to their fathers?”

He used the illustration of a father and mother who recognised their responsibility for their own children. But, he pointed out, he was not their father, he had not conceived them. Nor was he their mother who had brought them forth into the world. They were not relations of his. Why then should he have to act towards them as a nursing-father, carrying them in his bosom like a father carries his babes in a sling? Why had he to be the one to bring them to the land of their fathers which Yahweh had sworn to their fathers to give them? Why should he have to carry their burdens?

Moses probably intended here an indirect reminder to God of Who it was Who was their father, Who it was Who had begotten them and brought them forth (Exodus 4:25; Deuteronomy 1:31; Deuteronomy 14:1; Deuteronomy 32:18; Isaiah 1:2; Isaiah 63:16). They were really God’s problem not his. He was pointing out that while God could cope with them, he could not.

We note here an interesting commencement to the building up of the picture of the undeserving of Israel. Here Moses was exasperated with them. In Numbers 14:11-12 it would be Yahweh Who became exasperated with them, and in Numbers 14:26-35 it would be Yahweh Who was so exasperated that it would be fatal for that generation of Israel.

It is clear that the people’s distress had really bitten deeply into Moses. Up to this point he had been mainly sustained by seeing their gratitude to be free of Egypt, and their willingness in spite of some failures to respond, and by his desire to bring glory to Yahweh. But now it appeared to him that all that had gone and he was being made responsible for it all. The people were not behaving as he had expected. And he felt unable to cope. He felt at a total loss. He felt it was no longer worth while.

How often we begin something enthusiastically when all seems to be going well. But then the problems set in and people become lethargic and even grumble and murmur. It is at that point that we often feel like giving up. But if it is of God we have no right to consider giving up. What we must do is what Moses did. Cast ourselves on God, grit out teeth, and go on.

Numbers 11:13

“From where should I have flesh to give to all this people? For they weep to me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat.”

The heart of Moses comes out here. He had a real concern for the people, and his inability to meet their needs was really hurting. He too had begun to cease looking to Yahweh. Instead his eyes were on the people and their need, and he could not cope with it. It was breaking his heart. That is why he wanted to be done with it.

It is a reminder that when we face the great need of others we must beware of being so taken up with the need that we forget God, otherwise it will be too much for us. It will get us down too. Sometimes we can only survive by fixing our minds on doing God’s will rather than letting people’s conditions affect us. Otherwise it will destroy us like it was destroying Moses. Sometimes, when conditions are really bad, love has to be harsh, and keep itself held in, in order to survive. There are limits to what a man can take. God alone can keep us under such conditions.

So in his love for the people Moses felt totally inadequate. He felt that he was just unable to help them. The situation was impossible. They were deeply upset, and clearly on the edge of breaking down. But where on earth was he going to get meat for all these people in the wilderness? The whole situation was getting on top of him, and he felt very much alone.

Numbers 11:14

“I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.”

He frankly told God that he could no longer carry all this burden on his own. It was too much for him. The burden was too heavy. When we find ourselves in what seems an impossible position it pays to be frank with God. It will not make Him any different, but it will help us considerably.

Numbers 11:15

“And if you deal with me in this way, kill me, I pray you, out of hand, if I have found favour in your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.”

Indeed he was so upset that he asked God that he might die. He was staring failure in the face. If God had any pity on him let Him kill him as He had once sought to do (Exodus 4:24). He could not bear any longer seeing his own inadequacy in the face of the crying needs of these people. He could not bear the wretchedness and helplessness that he felt. He could not bear the thought of letting God down. He wanted out.


Verses 16-23

Yahweh’s Response To Moses: The Appointment of the Seventy Elders and The People Will Have Food (Numbers 11:16-23).

At Moses’ plea Yahweh graciously responded to both his problems, not by killing him, but by providing helpers for him and subsequently meat for the people. God does not desert those who trust Him simply because they sometimes have doubts. If we trust Him and come to Him God is never without an answer to our problems. First He calmly tells us, as He did Moses, to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and rather do something about it, then He explains that He too will do something about it.

We should note the contrast between the seventy elders and the people. This is a deliberate contrast. The giving of the Spirit is described like a breath of fresh air in the midst of the people’s craving for flesh and its provision to their cost. Here on the one hand are these men receiving the Spirit. And there on the other are the people craving flesh. Both are blessed by Yahweh’s ruach (‘spirit, wind’ - the one by the spirit, the other by the wind), but in the one case it is permanent and results in a permanent transformation, in the other it results in greed and plague. This was due, not to God’s perversity, but to the perversity of the people. God longs to bless all, but only those who will receive it are truly blessed.

The structure of the first section is as follows:

a Moses to gather the seventy men (Numbers 11:16).

b Yahweh will endue them with the Spirit to help Moses

c The people are called because they said, ‘who will give us flesh to eat, it was well with us in Egypt?’

c The people will be surfeited with flesh because they said, ‘why came we forth from Egypt?’

b Can Yahweh provide food for all the people? (Numbers 11:21-22).

a Yahweh’s promise for both will come about (Numbers 11:23).

Numbers 11:16-17

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people, and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take of the Spirit which is on you, and will put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

He told him to choose out seventy elders of Israel, men whom he knew to be true and reliable elders, with officers over them (thus he must include the most senior elders), and bring them to the Tent of meeting. The purpose was that they might stand there with Moses before Yahweh, as those who would be his assistants. They were to be endued in order to perform the supervisory task that up to this time he had borne alone.

The number seventy indicated divine perfection intensified (7x10) and would demonstrate that they were chosen by God and that they represented the patriarchate (the seventy) that had ‘entered Egypt’ when they too fled because of shortage of food (Exodus 1). Here again ‘the seventy’ would be in authority over Yahweh’s people.

Then, Yahweh promised, He would Himself ‘come down’ and talk with Moses there. And He would take some of the Spirit that He had put on Moses and put it on them. Thus fortified by the Spirit they would be able to help to bear the burden of the people so that Moses need not bear it alone. This did not mean that somehow Moses would lose some of the Spirit that was within him. It was a declaration to all that these men would succeed because they had received something of the Spirit that possessed Moses. Moses was like a burning flame. Fire could be taken from him without him being diminished. It was still to Moses that all should look. Joshua understood this rightly (Numbers 11:28). Where Joshua’s understanding failed was in that he did not recognise that it was still open to Yahweh to work as He would, and Moses’ yearning that all the people might have the Spirit.

There can be no real doubt that we are to see here the ‘Spirit of God’. It was He Who possessed Moses. Now He would come on the selected elders too. God Himself would possess them and guide them.

Numbers 11:18

And you say to the people, “Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and you shall eat flesh; for you have wept in the ears of Yahweh, saying, ‘Who shall give us flesh to eat, for it was well with us in Egypt?’ Therefore Yahweh will give you flesh, and you shall eat.”

Then he was to call the people together and call on them to ‘sanctify themselves’ ready for the next day when He would act and provide them with meat. That is, they had to wash their clothing and ensure that they were ritually clean. By doing this they were made to recognise that what followed did come from Yahweh. They could only receive it by preparing themselves. God wanted this to be a spiritual experience for them which would then turn them to the things of the Spirit.

So Moses must not allow them to get away scot free. They were to be made aware that God knew of their behaviour. When they had wept they had wept in the ears of Yahweh. He had been fully aware of their weeping, and the true reason that lay behind it. They had said, “who will give us flesh to eat for it was well with us in Egypt” ’. They had turned away from God’s purposes for them, back to Egypt. Hopefully when they heard this they would feel ashamed, For the truth was that it had not been well with them in Egypt. The Egyptians had not come to them saying, ‘Here you are, have as much meat as you want’. But now Yahweh would. Yahweh would give them flesh to eat.

Numbers 11:19-20

“You shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole moon period, until it comes out at your nostrils, and it is loathsome to you, because you have rejected Yahweh who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come forth out of Egypt?’ ”

Numbers 11:21

‘And Moses said, “The people, among whom I am, are six hundred ’eleph footmen, and you have said, ‘I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month.’ Shall 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?” ’

Moses could not believe his ears. Where was Yahweh going to get so much meat from? Were there not six hundred units of foot men to be fed, to say nothing of their families? And yet Yahweh had promised that they would have food for a whole month. Would it mean killing their flocks and herds? That was something that they did not wish to do. They would need those when they entered the land. Or were there enough fish available in the nearest sea to meet their needs? He was clutching at straws. He did not believe that God could do it. How quickly even Moses had forgotten what God had done in Egypt.

Numbers 11:23

‘And Yahweh said to Moses, “Is Yahweh’s hand made short? Now shall you see whether my word shall come about to you or not.’

Yahweh challenged him in return. Did he really think that Yahweh’s arm had been foreshortened? Did he really think that anything was too hard for Him? Let him wait and see. He would soon see whether Yahweh’s promise came about or not.


Verses 24-30

The Enduing of the Seventy Elders (Numbers 11:24-35).

The purpose of God in providing the seventy elders would seem to be in order to act as an advisory and supporting council to Moses, and to supervise various sections of the people on his behalf, for different levels of authority were already in place for mundane purposes (Exodus 18:25). This was also why they were to have officers over them, so that a small group could act when necessary. He was no longer to have sole responsibility for the leadership of the people.

The inner structure is as follows:

a The seventy go from the camp to the Dwellingplace with Moses (Numbers 11:24).

b The Spirit comes on them and they prophesy (Numbers 11:25).

c Two men in the camp Eldad and Medad prophesy (Numbers 11:26).

c The young man tells Moses that Eldad and Medad prophesy (Numbers 11:27)

b Joshua is jealous for Moses and Moses says, ‘Would that all Yahweh’s people prophesy’ (Numbers 11:28-29).

a Moses and the seventy return to the camp from the Dwellingplace (Numbers 11:30).

Numbers 11:24

‘And Moses went out, and told the people the words of Yahweh, and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the Tent.’

As ever Moses obeyed Yahweh. Firstly he informed the whole people of what Yahweh had said, and then he elected out and appointed the seventy elders. Having done so he brought them round the Tent of meeting, Yahweh’s Dwellingplace.

There is an interesting spiritual contrast here. The people were told that they would receive flesh but the elders would receive the Spirit, and the people were not jealous. As far as they were concerned the elders could have the Spirit if they could have the flesh! It illustrated their state of heart.

Numbers 11:25

‘And Yahweh came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was on him, and put it on the seventy elders. And it came about that, when the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did so no more.’

Then Yahweh Himself came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses. Moses was still pre-eminent. And He took from him something of the Spirit that was on him, and put it on the seventy elders. The evidence of what had happened was revealed in that they ‘prophesied’. It is in vain for us to attempt to fully explain either the one or the other. Had it been in ‘tongues’ it would surely have been stated. But it is doubtful. It was not to people of strange tongues that these men would speak, but with Israel. Rather they spoke in a way which made it clear to all that the Spirit was speaking through them, although what they said was not recorded. We may probably assume that it was in praise of Yahweh. However, they did not become prophets. It was a once for all occurrence. ‘They did so no more’. But it was now clear to all that these were Yahweh’s men, empowered and illuminated by Him. Compare for a similar situation and experience 1 Samuel 10:6-13; 1 Samuel 19:20-24; Joel 2:28.

Nor can we apply this experience specifically to all believers as though all must have the same manifestations. The Spirit of Yahweh coming down in the Old Testament in visibly manifested form was always on specific men appointed to serve in specific functions, it was never an overall blessing. These men had been empowered for the task in hand. What it does promise us is that when we are appointed by Him to a task, He will always provide whatever power of the Spirit is needed.

Numbers 11:26

‘But there remained two men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad, and the Spirit rested on them, and they were of those who were written, but had not gone out to the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp.’

But two of the men whose names Moses had caused to be written down as of the seventy (an evidence of his practise to write things down) were named Eldad and Medad. For some reason they had not gone out to the Tent. Possibly on the particular day Moses’ messengers had been unable to find them because they were busy fulfilling their responsibilities somewhere in the camp. But Yahweh knew where they were (we need not fear, He always knows where we are), and the Spirit also came on them and they prophesied in the camp. God ensured that the number was complete, and that not one was lacking. This also emphasises that the experience was not one aroused by the atmosphere in which they had gathered.

Numbers 11:27

‘And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

The phenomenon was so striking that a youth ran from the camp to tell Moses. Moses had many who were loyal to him and jealous for his reputation and standing. And the youth told him that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. Possibly he feared treachery and a rival ministry to that of Moses.

Numbers 11:28

‘And Joshua, the son of Nun, the minister of Moses, one of his chosen men, answered and said, “My lord Moses, forbid them.”

Joshua who was with him, as he ever was because he was his loyal ‘servant’, and who was also one of the seventy (one of his chosen men), immediately stood up for his master. He turned loyally to Moses and called on him to forbid them. Moses must ensure that he maintained his authority.

Numbers 11:29

‘And Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!”

But Moses knew that it was of Yahweh. He was not concerned for his own position, only for what was to the glory of Yahweh. And he turned to Joshua and assured him that he did not need to seek to defend Moses’ position when God was at work. Indeed his longing was that all Yahweh’s people might be prophets and that Yahweh would put His Spirit on them all. Burdened with their constant yearning for flesh to eat he would have loved it if only their yearning had been for the Spirit. If only all of them had wanted to supplant him as prophets in the will of Yahweh, his problems would be no more.

Numbers 11:30

‘And Moses took himself him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.’

Then Moses and all the elders left the Tent and returned to the camp. There was clearly a sense in which the Dwellingplace was seen as separate from the camp even though it was in its midst. It was holy ground. To enter it was for a while to leave the camp. But while they left the Dwellingplace the Spirit of Yahweh still remained on them. They returned to the camp with the Spirit, to a camp whose only thought was the flesh.

In the same way we can enter ‘the heavenly places’ when we pray. Our bodies may remain on earth, but we in our spirits move into God’s domain. Indeed Paul could tells us that those who walk with Him walk constantly in heavenly places where we are seated in Christ (Ephesians 2:6), for we are to ‘pray without ceasing’. And so, as with the seventy, the Spirit will continue with us and never leave us. We walk in Heaven while we walk on earth.


Verses 31-34

Yahweh Provides Meat From Heaven (Numbers 11:31-35).

In accordance with His second promise to Moses Yahweh now sent meat from the skies. A ruach (spirit, wind) from Yahweh brought quails to the camp in huge quantities. So in a play on words the ‘ruach’ blessed both the elders and the people. But the people immediately demonstrated their unbelief. They stored the quails instead of trusting Yahweh for His daily provision (compare what some did with the manna - Exodus 16:19-20) and the quails went bad and brought a great plague.

The structure here is as follows:

a The wind of Yahweh goes forth in response to the people’s craving and the quails fall in great depth (Numbers 11:31).

b The people gather the quails in great abundance (Numbers 11:32 a).

c In unbelief they store the quail meat around the camp (Numbers 11:32 b).

c While they were eating the wrath of Yahweh came on them, the result of storing the quails in unbelief (Numbers 11:33 a).

b Yahweh smites them and they receive an abundance of plague (Numbers 11:33 b).

a The place is called ‘Graves of craving’ (Kibroth Hattaavah) (Numbers 11:34).

Numbers 11:31

‘And there went forth a wind from Yahweh, 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.’ As promised Yahweh sent meat for the people in abundance. Quails were driven towards the camp by ‘a ruach from Yahweh’. As already mentioned there is a parallel here with the ruach which came on the seventy elders. Yahweh’s desire was to bless both with His provision. The quails came in abundance and fell to the ground beside the camp in huge quantities.

This was the second month of the year. Quails are small birds of the partridge family. Around that time of the year (March) they annually migrate northwards from Arabia and Africa and regularly come down in large quantities in the area of the Red Sea to recuperate, exhausted after their long flight. Modern examples are known of huge quantities being caught in the Sinai area during this period as they fly low over the ground. It would appear in this case that their struggle against the wind which drove them to the camp had so exhausted them that they simply collapsed in heaps. There were so many that they covered ‘a days journey’ around the camp in piles a metre (three feet) high. (Some, however, see the text as signifying that they flew a metre above the ground).

Numbers 11:32

‘And the people rose up all that day, and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quails. He who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.’

When the people saw this they raced to gather them, and spent about 36 hours gathering as many as they could. They gathered huge quantities and stored them around the camp. But they were so many that they could not properly dry them out. Ten homers was about 2,200 litres. What a sad state of heart is revealed here. We do not read that they became excited because the Spirit came on the elders. But we do read that when meat came they were clearly so excited that they had no time to think about what had happened to the elders. They overlooked that God had come among them in spiritual power, that the Spirit’s power was being revealed. All they could think of was that there was meat to be had!

In doing so they forgot, or ignored, Yahweh’s demand that they did not touch dead bodies lest they be rendered ‘unclean’. To take the exhausted quails and kill and eat them was one thing. To store them as dead meat by laying them out to dry and then partaking of them was another. It was in direct disobedience to Yahweh, and, as we now know, in a hot country was asking for trouble.

Numbers 11:33

‘While the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the anger of Yahweh was kindled against the people, and Yahweh smote the people with a very great plague.’

The result was that even while they were eating them they were smitten with a great plague. This was the result of the ‘anger of Yahweh’. They were acting in gross disobedience. Had they only eaten quails which they slew and ate immediately as fresh meat they would not have suffered. But they did not trust Yahweh to continue His provision and stored the birds and then ate of their dead carcasses. Thus they rendered themselves deliberately ‘unclean’, and therefore liable to ‘wrath’. And birds in such a condition, insufficiently dried out, could only spread disease.

We are intended to see the contrast between these people and the godly elders. The elders had gone into a holy place, the place of life, to receive their blessing. Their thoughts were centred on Yahweh. They enjoyed ‘life’. The people had gone ‘outside the camp’ to receive flesh, and had sinned. Their thoughts were on the satisfaction of their own selfish desires. And the result was that they became entangled with ‘death’, and therefore their blessing became a curse. And yet both were living together in the camp. The same is so true today. There are those who would enjoy true blessing, and while they must live in the world, they seek their blessing in His holy place, in Heaven itself. Others are filled with the desires of life, the desires of the flesh, the desires of the mind and the pride of life. And they are so taken up with these that the Spirit passes them by. We must never secularise holy things. We must choose between life and death, not compromise them.

Numbers 11:34

‘And the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people that were so greedy (‘lusted’).’

Here was their epitaph. The name of the place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, ‘the graves of craving’ because there the people’s craving led in many cases to their deaths. It was there that they buried the people who were so greedy. The mind of the flesh leads to death, the mind of the Spirit leads to life and peace (Romans 8:6). If only they had craved the Spirit it would have led them to mountains of blessing not graves of craving.

It is clear from the chiastic pattern that Numbers 11:35 belongs to the next chapter and we have interpreted accordingly.


Verse 35

Chapter 12 The Jealousy of Aaron and Miriam.

In this chapter the position of Moses is firmly established. It can be compared with Numbers 16-17 where the position of Aaron was firmly established. In both cases they had been directly appointed by God, not by man.

Possibly Aaron and Miriam had become jealous because of the Spirit coming on the seventy elders as they stood with Moses. Aaron was ‘the Priest’ and Miriam a prophetess (Exodus 15:20). Perhaps they felt, unreasonably, that Moses was supplanting them and raising up others with spiritual insight. Whatever the cause they began to mutter against Moses.

Because they dared not attack him openly they attacked his wife. She was a Cushite woman and not a true-born Israelite. This then enabled them to get at Moses himself. ‘Why should he think he was different from them?’ they asked. Did Yahweh only speak with Moses? Did He not also speak with Aaron and Miriam? How dangerous it is when we become proud of what God has given us, or the position in which He has placed us. But Yahweh immediately stepped in to make clear Moses’ unique position and in the end the two had to plead with Moses to intercede for them.

The construction of the passage is clear.

a They journey from Kibroth-hattaavah to Hazeroth (Numbers 11:35).

b Miriam, with Aaron, turns against Moses (Miriam named first) (Numbers 12:1-2).

c Moses is the meekest man on earth (Numbers 12:3).

d Yahweh speaks to Moses, Aaron and Miriam and calls them into His presence (Numbers 12:4).

e The cloud comes down to the door of the Dwellingplace (Numbers 12:5).

f Yahweh’s definition of a prophet (Numbers 12:6).

f Yahweh’s declaration about Moses (Numbers 12:7-8).

e The cloud departs from the Dwellingplace leaving Miriam leprous (Numbers 12:9-10).

d Aaron pleads with Moses to go into Yahweh’s presence on their behalf (Numbers 12:11-13).

c Miriam is as one whose father spits in their face (Numbers 12:14).

b Miriam is cast out of the camp for seven days (Numbers 12:15).

a They journey from Hazeroth to the wilderness of Paran (Numbers 12:16).

It is clear from the chiastic pattern (of Numbers 11:31-34) that Numbers 11:35 belongs to the Chapter 12 and we have interpreted accordingly.

Numbers 11:35

‘From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth; and they abode at Hazeroth.’

The people moved from ‘the graves of craving’ to Hazeroth, the stage prior to Kadesh. Now they were not far from the land. If only they had left their cravings behind. But they had not. And sadly there were two others who had cravings which they should not have had, cravings for position and glory. Those two were Aaron and Miriam. They had forgotten the commandment, “You shall not covet”.

Numbers 12:1

‘And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.’

Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ sister and brother, had probably become jealous at the power that had been given to the seventy elders. Both probably felt that their influence had been lessened, Aaron because up to this point it had always been him who was next to Moses. He had been ‘the man’. There had been no rivals. And now suddenly there were seventy rivals. And Miriam because she was a prophetess and did not like the idea of seventy men who had prophesied possibly diminishing her position and respect. They were more concerned for their own position than for the expansion of God’s work. Thus, while not liking to attack Moses’ authority directly, they were looking for other grounds of criticism. They felt supplanted. They felt that Moses was not giving them the consideration that they deserved. Jealousy in spiritual spheres is a dreadful thing. And it can only result in a diminishing of the Spirit.

We note that Miriam is mentioned first and that the feminine verb is used in verse 1 (‘they spoke against’). She was clearly the most prominent in the attack on Moses. It may also be that she saw Moses’ new wife as a threat to her own position. Perhaps his new wife was more forceful than Zipporah had been. So the mention of Miriam first and the use of the feminine verb was in order to indicate that it was she who was the main culprit. But that is not to excuse Aaron. It would, however, help to explain why it was she who was punished most severely.

Ostensibly the main ground that they found was that he had married a Cushite woman. The argument would be that she was not a pure bred Israelite. In view of the restrictions on himself Aaron probably felt that that was not right. The priest had to take a virgin of his own people to wife (Leviticus 21:14). Why should Moses not have to do so as well? Why should he be any different? The woman was probably Sudanese (ancient ‘Ethiopia’). Their complaint was not because she was black but because they presumably felt that he was being inconsistent. After all Moses was a Levite and related to a priestly family. He ought to have remembered his position and to have married within the family! (It must be considered quite possible that Moses marriage had been diplomatic, a means of uniting together the true-born Israelites and the mixed multitude, but we are not told so. However it certainly confirmed that in Yahweh’s eyes both were on the same level once they were in the covenant).

Numbers 12:2

‘And they said, “Has Yahweh indeed spoken only with Moses? Has he not spoken also with us?” And Yahweh heard it.’

But then the criticism advanced. It became a direct attack on Moses himself. Was Moses not getting above himself? Did not Yahweh speak to them as well? Did they not therefore have a right to be consulted on such things as the elders, and Moses’ marriage? Should he not defer a little more to them? He was not giving them the respect due to them as spiritual equals with him. The pride of life was consuming them.

“And Yahweh heard it.” We need to beware of what we say, for God always hears us. And Yahweh was not pleased at what He heard. He had shown His graciousness to them both, and now they were taking it out on Moses because of their own pride And what Moses had done had not been on his own initiative. He had simply been obeying Yahweh. So in effect they were grumbling because God had not sufficiently considered their importance.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 11:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/numbers-11.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, September 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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