Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-30
Numbers 1 – 10:10 dealt with Israel’s preparations to proceed from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land. Those preparations involved taking a census (1:1-54; 3:14-39; 4:1-49) and receiving various laws (chapters 5-6).
Moses completed the tabernacle, which would symbolize the presence of Yahweh during their journey, and leaders brought their offerings (chapter 7). Yahweh gave instructions regarding the seven lamps of the tabernacle (8:1-4), the consecration and service of the Levites (8:5-26), and the observance of the Passover (9:1-14). The cloud (by day) and fire (by night) settled over the tabernacle (9:15-23), and Yahweh instructed Moses regarding the making and the use of two silver trumpets “for the calling of the congregation, and for the journeying of the camps” (10:2).
Numbers 10:11-36 tells of Israel’s departure from Sinai. “They set forward from the Mount of Yahweh three days’ journey. The ark of the covenant of Yahweh went before them three days’ journey, to seek out a resting place for them. The cloud of Yahweh was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp” (10:33-34).
Numbers 11:1-3 told of people complaining. Yahweh’s anger was kindled so that “Yahweh’s fire burnt among them, and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp” (11:1). The people appealed to Moses, who interceded with Yahweh, so that the fire subsided. “The name of that place was called Taberah (burning), because Yahweh’s fire burnt among them” (11:3).
NUMBERS 11:4-6: THEY LUSTED EXCEEDINGLY
4The mixed multitude (Hebrew: asapsup—a gathering or mixed multitude) that was among them lusted exceedingly: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, “Who will give us flesh to eat? 5We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; 6but now we have lost our appetite (Hebrew: nepes). There is nothing at all except this manna to look at.”
“The mixed multitude (asapsup) that was among them lusted exceedingly: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, ‘Who will give us flesh to eat?'” (v. 4). Scholars tend to agree that the rabble or mixed multitudes (asapsup) and the Israelites are two different groups of people. Who, then, would the mixed multitudes (asapsup) be? Both Deuteronomy 29:11 and Joshua 8:35 attest to the fact that there were foreigners (aliens or strangers) in the midst of the Israelites, some of whom served as woodcutters or water bearers (Deuteronomy 29:11). It is quite possible that these foreigners were the first to experience dissatisfaction with the manna that Yahweh provided, and their unhappiness quickly spread to the Israelites.
“We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (v. 5). The Israelites remember the Egyptians providing them with excellent food—fish, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic—but Yahweh has provided them only with manna and occasional quail (Exodus 16:1-4, 13-15). However, the Israelites had livestock with them in the desert (Exodus 12:32, 38; 17:3; 34:3), so those should have provided some relief from “manna monotony”.
I must confess that I can sympathize with the Israelites. While Yahweh has provided for them time after time in ways that should have cemented their faith, eating manna morning noon, and night, would get monotonous. Manna tasted like “wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). I have on occasion eaten too many sweets. When that happens, I start wanting something not sweet—and wanting it desperately. At that point, nothing gets my attention like the smell of sauteed onions or roasting meat. Pie and cake hold absolutely no interest for me then, but the thought of pot roast with potatoes, onions, and carrots becomes compelling.
But the Israelites’ memory of Egyptian generosity is flawed. While they were in Egypt, a new Pharaoh became alarmed at Israel’s growing population, so he prescribed increasingly oppressive tasks to wear down the Israelites. The Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve” (Exodus 1:14). When that failed to keep the Israelites in check, the Egyptians tried to have all male Israelite infants killed (Exodus 1-2). Egyptians also beat Israelites (Exodus 2:11). Life in Egypt was hardly the cornucopia of blessings that the Israelites now remember.
“but now we have lost our appetite” (nepes) (v. 6a). The Israelites used the word nepes to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life—and, by extension, the living creature itself. Therefore, when God breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, “the man became a living being” (nepes) (Genesis 2:7). Now these Israelites are complaining that the process has been reversed. They feel that the Godly breath of life that made them into living beings is now being sucked out of them.
“There is nothing at all except this manna to look at“ (v. 6b). This exaggerates their plight, but it does a good job of expressing their displeasure. Complaints of this sort are nothing new for the Israelites:
• During the Exodus, they complained when they found the Red Sea at their front and the Egyptian army at their rear (Exodus 14:11-12).
• At Marah, they complained about the bitterness of the water (Exodus 15:24).
• Then they complained about their lack of food—a complaint that gave rise to Yahweh’s gift of manna (Exodus 16:13-15).
• At Rephidim, they complained about the lack of water (Exodus 17:2-3),
Furthermore, this will not be the end of their complaining:
• When the spies bring back an unfavorable report from the Promised Land, they will say, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” (Numbers 14:2).
• Dathan and Abiram will complain to Moses about the quality of his leadership (Numbers 16:13-14).
• At Meribah, they will complain about the lack of water (Numbers 20:3-5).
• Then they will complain once more about their monotonous diet and their lack of water (Numbers 21:5).
NUMBERS 11:7-9. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses constitute an aside in which the narrator explains what manna is, how the people use it, and how it tastes. See also Exodus 16:14-21, 31 for a parallel passage.
NUMBERS 11:10-16. MOSES WAS DISPLEASED
10 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 (literally, it was evil in his eye). 11Moses said to Yahweh, “Why have you treated with your servant so badly? Why haven’t I found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that you should tell me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which you swore to their fathers?’ 13 Where could I get meat to give to all this people? For they weep to me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15 If you treat me this way, please kill me right now, if I have found favor in your sight; and don’t let me see my wretchedness.”
16 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.
“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” (literally, it was evil in Moses’ eye) (v. 10). As noted above in the comments on verse 6b, these people have complained over and over and over again. Now Moses sees them once again feeling sorry for themselves—bemoaning the monotony of their diet—losing cohesion as a people. While the text doesn’t specifically say that they have questioned Moses’ leadership, as they sometimes did on other occasions, leaders in this sort of situation usually become the focus of people’s dissatisfaction.
Yahweh responded with anger, and Moses responded by seeing the Israelites’ disgruntlement as an evil presence in their midst.
“Moses said to Yahweh, ‘Why have you treated with your servant so badly? Why haven’t I found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?‘” (v. 11). The Israelites aren’t the only ones capable of complaining. Moses now takes his own complaint to Yahweh. He doesn’t complain about the quality of the food but rather about the burden of leadership that Yahweh has imposed on him.
Of course, Moses has not had to assume the burden of leadership alone. Much earlier, Moses chose officers to share the leadership (Exodus 18:24-26). However, the person at the top of the leadership pyramid cannot escape criticism when the people are unhappy—a fact with which Moses is all too familiar. As the plaque on President Harry Truman’s desk proclaimed, “The buck stops here!”
“Have I conceived all this people? Have I brought them forth, that you should tell me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which you swore to their fathers?'” (v. 12). Who is responsible for these people anyway? Moses didn’t conceive them. He didn’t give birth to them. Why, then did Yahweh require Moses to nursemaid them? Why should Moses be responsible for leading these complainers to the Promised Land?
Moses won’t be the last to complain of those called by Yahweh into leadership roles. Job will complain (Job 7:11; 10:1). The Psalmist will complain (Psalm 55:17; 142:2, 6-7). Jeremiah will complain (Jeremiah 12:1-4). Being called into Yahweh’s service is no bed of roses. Yahweh’s servants often have to bear opposition and suffering, and some are even martyred. It is no wonder that Yahweh hears an occasional complaint.
“Where could I get meat to give to all this people? For they weep to me, saying, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat’“ (v. 13). Moses’ immediate problem is people who are unhappy at having no meat to eat. Because Moses is their leader, they expect him to do something—to solve their problem—but how can he do that? He has no meat to give them.
“I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me“ (v. 14). Moses’ larger problem is the constant burden of leadership—the loneliness of leadership. This is a common problem for Godly leaders.
“If you treat me this way, please kill me right now, if I have found favor in your sight; and don’t let me see my wretchedness“ (v. 15). Earlier, Moses reminded Yahweh that Yahweh had said, “I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight” (Exodus 33:12). Moses then prayed, “Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight” (Exodus 33:13).
But Moses doesn’t feel like he is experiencing Yahweh’s favor. In fact, he would prefer to die than to continue in his current misery. Jonah will make a similar request (Jonah 4:8), as will Elijah (1 Kings 19:4). Job will say, “Why, then, have you brought me forth out of the womb? I wish I had given up the spirit, and no eye had seen me” (Job 10:18).
“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‘” (v. 16).
As noted above, Moses appointed officers to “judge the people at all times” (Exodus 18:22). They judged minor cases, but brought hard cases to Moses for judgment (Exodus 18:26). Now, in this Numbers account, Yahweh takes some of the Spirit that is on Moses and puts it on the seventy elders (Numbers 11:17). When they received the Spirit, they prophesied, but only once (11:25). It seems then that the officers in the Exodus account were oriented toward civil administration while the elders in the Numbers account are oriented toward spiritual leadership.
The tent of meeting was located outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11), while the tabernacle was located at the center of the camp (Koester; Westerholm).
NUMBERS 11:17-23. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
In these verses, Yahweh promises to “take of the Spirit which is on (Moses), and will put it on (the seventy elders); and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you not bear it yourself alone” (11:17). There is no sense here that Yahweh is taking away any of Moses’ spiritual gifts. Yahweh has sufficient spirit available to enrich all of these chosen men.
Yahweh also tells Moses to tell the people, “Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and you will eat flesh; for you have wept in the ears of Yahweh, saying, ‘Who will give us flesh to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.’ Therefore Yahweh will give you flesh, and you will eat. You will not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it is loathsome to you; because that you have rejected Yahweh who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?'” (11:18-20).
Moses questioned where he was to get such a huge quantity of meat (11:21-22), but Yahweh replied, “Has Yahweh’s hand grown short? Now you will see whether my word will happen to you or not” (11:23).
NUMBERS 11:24-25. MOSES GATHERED SEVENTY ELDERS
24Moses went out, and told the people the words of Yahweh; and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them around the Tent. 25Yahweh 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 happened that when the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did so no more.
“Moses went out, and told the people the words of Yahweh“ (v. 24a). Moses first tells the people what Yahweh told him. This would include telling them about Yahweh instructing Moses to gather seventy elders to assist with the spiritual leadership of this congregation (11:16-17). It would include the instruction for them to consecrate themselves (11:18). It would include the information that Yahweh will provide them with meat—and that they will eat it “until it come out at your nostrils, and it is loathsome to you; because that you have rejected Yahweh who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?'” (11:20).
“and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them around the Tent“ (v. 24b). After telling the people what to expect, Moses obeys Yahweh’s command to gather seventy elders to share the leadership responsibility. There is no suggestion here that Yahweh pointed out particular people for Moses to choose, so presumably Moses chose men based on his knowledge of them and their reputation in the community.
“Yahweh came down in the cloud, and spoke to him” (v. 25a). Clouds are associated with the presence of the Lord in both testaments (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:9; Mark 9:7). When Israel left Egypt, Yahweh guided them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (13:21). Later, a cloud will cover the tabernacle, symbolizing the presence of God (40:33; Numbers 9:15; Deuteronomy 31:14). In Hebrew Scripture, clouds are often associated with Yahweh’s glory (14:17-20; 16:10; 24:15; 40:34; Numbers 16:42; 1 Kings 8:10; 2 Chronicles 5:13, etc.)
“and took of the Spirit that was on him, and put it on the seventy elders“ (v. 25b). Now Yahweh does what he promised in verse 16. He takes some of the spirit that was on Moses and puts it on the seventy elders, empowering them to share in the spiritual leadership of Israel. There is no suggestion that Moses loses any of his spiritual power by virtue of this transaction. Yahweh has more than enough spirit to go around.
“and it happened that when the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but they did so no more“ (v. 25c). We can’t be sure what this means. While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God to humans. In many cases, that involved giving people a glimpse of the future, but the foretelling was only in support of the larger prophetic message.
However, in this instance, it is quite possible that the prophesying of the seventy was simply ecstatic behavior—possibly similar to speaking in tongues—that served to validate their reception of the spirit.
NUMBERS 11:26-30. THE SPIRIT RESTED ON ELDAD AND MEDAD
26But two men remained in the camp. The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the Spirit rested on them; and they were of those who were written, (Hebrew: ohel—listed, written down) but had not gone out to the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp. 27A young man ran, and told Moses, and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”
28Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his chosen men, answered, “My lord Moses, forbid them!”
29Moses said to him, “Are you jealous (Hebrew: qana) for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” 30Moses went into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
“But two men remained in the camp. The name of one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the Spirit rested on them; and they were of those who were written, (ohel—listed, written) but had not gone out to the Tent; and they prophesied in the camp” (v. 26). Moses took the seventy to the tent of meeting, which was located outside the camp (Exodus 33:7-11).
We are not told why these two men remained in the camp rather than going with the group of seventy. However, we are told that they prophesied in the camp, demonstrating the fact that they have received the spirit.
What does “written” (ohel) mean here? There is no mention of the seventy having their names written down—but neither is there any mention of others being written down. Most scholars believe that Eldad and Medad were two of the seventy chosen to receive the spirit. The text clearly states that the spirit did rest on them.
“A young man ran, and told Moses, and said, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!‘” (v. 27). We don’t know the identity of this young man. He sees Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp while the seventy (or, more probably, the rest of the group of seventy) are prophesying at the tent of meeting outside the camp. Knowing that Moses is Yahweh’s chief prophet, he reports this unusual incident to Moses.
“Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his chosen men, answered, ‘My lord Moses, forbid them!‘” (v. 28). Joshua was mentioned several times in the book of Exodus, where he led the Israelites to victory against the Amalekites (Exodus 17:9-14)—accompanied Moses into the mountain of God (Exodus 24:13)—alerted Moses to the sound of the revelers at the base of the mountain (Exodus 32:17)—and served as Moses’ loyal assistant (Exodus 33:11). He was not mentioned in Leviticus. This is his first mention in Numbers. Later in this book, he will be one of the twelve spies who goes to investigate the Promised Land—and one of the two faithful spies who will insist that Israel can (with Yahweh’s help) take ownership of the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). After Moses’ death, Joshua will become Moses’ successor, and will lead Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1).
When he hears that Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, Joshua interprets this as a threat to Moses’ leadership. He entreats Moses to stop them.
“Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous (qana) for my sake?'” (v. 29a). The word qana can mean jealous, envious, or zealous. Joshua is both jealous for Moses’ sake and zealous to protect Moses’ prerogatives.
“I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!“ (v. 29b). We are surprised that Moses is so receptive to Eldad and Medad prophesying. However, Moses has complained to Yahweh that he cannot “bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (11:14)—and has expressed anguish over the responsibility of providing meat for such a large group of people (11:21-22)—so he is receptive to help from Eldad and Medad.
“Moses went into the camp, he and the elders of Israel“ (v. 30). They go from the tent of meeting outside the camp to the main body of people inside the camp.
NUMBERS 11:31-35. NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
As noted above (in a passage that is not in the lectionary reading) Yahweh tells Moses to tell the people, “Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, and you will eat flesh; for you have wept in the ears of Yahweh, saying, ‘Who will give us flesh to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.’ Therefore Yahweh will give you flesh, and you will eat. You will not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days, but a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it is loathsome to you; because that you have rejected Yahweh who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?'” (11:18-20).
Now, in verses 31-35, we have the fulfillment of that promise. A wind blows quails from the sea in such numbers that they are stacked up two cubits (approximately three feet or one meter) deep. The people gather quail in great quantities, but when they begin to eat it Yahweh sends a great plague that kills many people. This could be food poisoning, but Yahweh is not limited to natural means to accomplish his purposes.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Ashley, Timothy R., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Numbers(Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993)
Baker, David, Brueggemann, Dale A., and Merrill, Eugene H., Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Nashville: Tyndale House, 2008)
Bailey, Lloyd R., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Leviticus-Numbers (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2005)
Bellinger, W.H., Jr., New International Biblical Commentary: Leviticus, Numbers (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Boyce, Richard N., Westminister Bible Companion: Leviticus and Numbers (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2008)
Cole, Dennis, New American Commentary: Numbers (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000)
Gane, Roy, The NIV Application Commentary: Leviticus & Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004)
Keck, Leander, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Nashville: Abingdon Press: 1998)
Koester, Craig R., “Tabernacle,” Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Meyrick, F., The Pulpit Commentary: Leviticus-Numbers, “Leviticus,” Vol. II (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date)
Olson, Dennis, Intepretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Numbers (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1996)
Stubbs, David L., Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Numbers (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Wenham, Gordon J., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Numbers, Vol. 4 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981)
Westerholm, S., “Tabernacle,” Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan