At this point in Israel’s journey, we know she has to have at least a couple million people. They’ve never counted everyone—to date, they’ve just taken a couple of censuses of men within certain age ranges. From Moses’ perspective, there are “countless thousands” (Num. 10:36).
It’s important to have a ballpark figure in mind so that we can grasp how massive and busy Israel’s camp would be. By the time all 13 tribes spread out around the center Tabernacle with their tents, herds and living spaces, we’re talking about a fair amount of space. In a camp this size, it would be impossible to keep a close eye on everyone. As the leader of the people Moses has his tent set up near the door of the Tabernacle and the Tabernacle was located in the center of the whole Israelite camp. From this position, he wouldn’t be aware of things happening on the outskirts of the camp until someone let him know.
Back in Leviticus 17, God complained to Moses about the Israelites making sacrifices to goat demons in the fields beyond the camp. Moses seemed to be unaware that this particular practice was happening at that time. Here in Numbers 11, Moses again appears to be oblivious when strange fires appear on the outskirts of the camp and start consuming people and things.
“Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of Yahweh, and when He heard them His anger was aroused. Then fire from Yahweh burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp.” (Num. 11:1)
God is really enjoying the show until the people run to Moses in a panic.
“When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to Yahweh and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:2)
It’s easy to draw false conclusions from a passage like this. First, humans are incessant whiners. Christians who sincerely care about pleasing God can read this account and come away feeling anxious and guilty for all the times that they’ve complained. We must be constantly on guard against Satan who is always looking for ways to warp our image of God into something cruel and sadistic. God is not rubbing His hands together in Heaven just waiting for one of us to snivel so He can throw down a lightning bolt. There’s a big difference between wanting to please God but being pushed past your limit by a lack of grace and being eager to call God a big meanie.
The Bible is filled with examples of people complaining to God. The mystery is why God reacts to them so differently. One minute He becomes enraged and starts striking them dead, and the next minute He is gentle and sympathetic. Whenever we are trying to understand God’s reaction to something, we must remember that heart attitude is what carries the most weight with Him. God is always reacting to our internal behavior and core attitudes.
When Elijah was complaining about his hard lot as a prophet and begging God to kill him, God responded kindly by bringing him food and having him take a nap. This is because He saw that Elijah sincerely cared about pleasing Him. When the Israelites complained about desert life, God started frying them because He saw that their hearts were idolatrous and irreverent. Elijah was merely out of physical and emotional resources whereas the Israelites were taking delight in insulting God. We must remember that these are the same little brats who keep swearing allegiance to God while they refuse to throw out the idol gods that they brought with them from Egypt. These people are not only refusing to submit to God, they think they can rip on Him without consequences because He’s just another magic charm like their stupid idols. The fact that they’ve lived long enough to start another whining session in Numbers 11 proves how patient God is being with them, but now and then we see God encouraging Himself to press on by lightening His load a bit.
We’re not told how many people were roasted in God’s camp fires but we know it made enough of an impression for them to name the place Taberah, which means “burning.” Despite what a headache His chosen people are, God is determined to preserve Israel as a nation which is why He doesn’t let His fires get out of control at this time. We must be careful not to exaggerate the influence humans have on God’s decisions. Just because God stopped His fires after Moses prayed does not indicate that God was interested in pleasing Moses or that He felt subordinate to him in any way.
In the Church today many Christians like to call themselves “prayer warriors” and go about implying that they can really spur God into motion with their requests because they have some superior spiritual qualities. Such talk is pure arrogance. The moment we start viewing ourselves as having any sway over God, we’ve gotten out of alignment with the Spirit. God cares deeply about us, but despite what many popular teachers will tell you in their blasphemous books, we cannot use God’s desire for us as a means of manipulating Him. No human has ever controlled God, nor has He ever altered His will in order to please us. When we are aligned with His will, then we have our requests granted as Moses did because we will be praying for what God already intends to do. It was God’s will to have mercy on the Israelites after a brief scorching. He would have stopped His fires whether or not Moses had prayed, but by having the people witness Moses’ request for mercy being granted, God increased their respect for him as a leader which would help keep the community in check down the line. As always, God was accomplishing multiple goals at once through this carefully planned sequence of events.