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Imagine standing alone in a huge desert. Suddenly the sky is filled with a thunderous noise as millions upon millions of birds come flying into view. There are so many birds that their massive swarm blocks out your view of the sky. Then, suddenly, the birds start falling down from the sky as if they are caught in some powerful wind. They fall so fast and in such great numbers that they start piling up on top of each other until the pile of their flapping bodies is three feet high. Now you’re standing in the middle of a circular sea of birds, and you’re getting a sense of what the Israelites felt like in Numbers 11.
Yahweh sent a strong wind from the sea, and it blew quail into the area all around the camp. The quail were about three feet deep on the ground, and there were quail a day’s walk in any direction. (Num. 11:31)
In Psalm 78, we find a brief recap of Israel’s forty year wilderness experience. Here is the portion that describes this event:
God let loose the east wind from the heavens and by His power made the south wind blow. He rained meat down on them like dust, birds like sand on the seashore. He made them come down inside their camp, all around their tents. They ate till they were gorged—He had given them what they craved. (Ps. 78:26-29)
This is like craving a chicken dinner and then having a live bird land on your doorstep. What inspired Yahweh to get in such a generous mood? After all, in the first part of this chapter, He was burning some of these people alive in some supernatural fire as a response to their snarky attitudes. Have the Israelites improved? Not hardly. This apparent blessing of birds is actually a form of punishment. Here’s how the trouble started:
The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Num. 11:4-6)
Once again the Israelites are making up stories about how great life was back in Egypt. Instead of praising Yahweh for saving them from cruel bondage, they keep talking like He drove them out of paradise. It was this kind of grumbling that caused God to roast some of them in spontaneous fires earlier in this chapter. Clearly they’ve forgotten all about the smoking corpses they buried back then because now they’re whining again. This time they even have the gall to complain about the manna—the miracle food that God rains down on them every day. They’re sick of the sight and the taste of it. They want something new on the menu—meat, to be precise—and if God won’t give them any, then He’s a big meanie.
This is the second time the Israelites have gone into a meltdown about meat. Let’s remember that they were traveling with huge herds of animals that were also a gift from God. It’s not like they couldn’t roast up an occasional lamb for variety. With so many mouths to feed and limited supplies, they might not have been able to eat meat all of the time, but they certainly could have put some variety in their diets. They are acting like a spoiled child who throws a tantrum because he doesn’t have the latest video game even though he has hundreds of other games lining the shelves in his room. God is very angry.
Whining is contagious. Once one person starts, others are quick to join in. We’re told that the Israelites work themselves up into such a lather that:
“Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents.” (Num. 11:10).
There are probably a couple of million people in Israel at this point. Notice the term “wailing.” Wailing is a lot louder than grumbling or muttering. The Israelites are having a group tantrum and the noise level must have been obnoxiously loud. All this because the little brats want some meat.
Yahweh became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. (Num. 11:10)
How would you feel if you were surrounded by two million people who were all acting like two-year-olds and making so much noise that you couldn’t get their attention? Moses is overwhelmed and fed up with his role of leader over these impossible people so he takes it out on God (as if God doesn’t already have enough whining to deal with).
Moses complained to Yahweh, “Why have You brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do You tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land You promised on oath to their ancestors? Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You are going to treat me, then please kill me. If I have found favor in Your eyes, then do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11:11-15)
How often do we give God similar flak when we’re facing discouraging circumstances? When God gives us an assignment and it starts going south, we are quick to accuse Him of being unreasonable in His demands of us. Moses is making a mistake that is very common among human leaders: he’s taking on too much responsibility. Instead of viewing Israel as God’s problem, he is taking personal responsibility for keeping the people happy—a goal that he cannot possibly accomplish. Israel’s perpetual discontent is coming from her rotten spiritual attitude, not monotonous meals.
Anytime we try to take God’s burdens onto our own wimpy shoulders, we will find ourselves overwhelmed and despaired. Other people are God’s problem, not ours. When we know that we’re where God has called us to be and we find ourselves surrounded by complainers, we need to look to God and say “I’m sure glad You’re in control and not me, because You’re the only One big enough to handle this.” God loves it when we acknowledge how superior He is to us, and He also loves it when we express our dependency on Him. Moses is falling down in both of these areas at this moment. He is blaming God for offloading a problem onto his little human shoulders that is too big for him and he’s accusing God of abandoning him in his hour of need. “I cannot carry all these people by myself”—but who asked him to? Not Yahweh. He has been declaring Himself to be Israel’s Leader, Savior, Strength and Defender all along, yet now these are roles Moses has assigned to himself.
Being asked to kill us and put us out of our misery is a request God is used to receiving. Elijah, Job, Paul and Jeremiah all used suicidal language when they hit emotional burnout. Happily for us, our gracious and caring God understands our frailty and empathizes with our suffering. After Moses finishes his despairing “just shoot me” speech, God sets His aggravation with the Israelites aside for a moment and addresses the issue of Moses’ burnout. Up until now, Moses is the only one Yahweh has given special spiritual empowerment to, which has given Moses the status of prophet and makes him stand out as anointed in the eyes of the people. God now tells Moses to gather the seventy leaders of Israel together—a group of men who are considered officials among the people. He says He’ll give them a special share of His Presence as well. When He does, the men begin to prophesy, providing public evidence to the people that something supernatural is going on. Speaking of these seventy men, God says:
“They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.” (Num. 11:17)
God then goes on to address the meat issue. He gives Moses this angry message for the people:
“Tell the people: Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. Yahweh heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!’ Now Yahweh will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month. You will eat it until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it! This is because you have rejected Yahweh, who is among you, and have wailed before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?'” (Num. 11:18-20)
Notice how personally Yahweh is taking the Israelites’ complaints:
“You have rejected Yahweh, who is among you.”
There’s a lot we can learn from studying how God interprets human behavior in the Bible. We’ll notice that He always reacts to the soul attitudes which are driving the behaviors–this is why we find Him sometimes flipping out over behaviors that don’t seem like that big of a deal. After all, we can certainly appreciate being sick of eating the same thing everyday. When we think Yahweh is furious at the Israelites for being bored of their diet, we end up viewing God as far less compassionate than He is. God isn’t mad because the people are sick of manna. He’s mad because they’re harboring such hatred of Him in their souls.
Now when Yahweh is angry, His language often becomes graphic. Since the people want quail so badly, He’s going to give them some—in fact He’s going to ram it down their throats until they’re gagging on it and throwing it back up. The image of meat coming out someone’s nostrils is very disturbing. Naturally we wonder how God is going to trick the Israelites into eating such quantities that they’d have this sort of reaction. After hearing this threat, we’d expect the people to take small, cautious bites of any quail that turns up. But this isn’t what happens. When a strong wind blows in a sky full of migrating quails and hurls them down onto the ground, the Israelites do not hesitate to start stuffing their faces. As our psalmist says:
“They ate till they were gorged.” (Ps. 78:29)
Let’s back up a moment to just after Yahweh finishes announcing His plan to Moses. Moses had complained about being alone and now Yahweh has provided Him with a large support staff. Moses complained about the people needing meat, and now Yahweh has promised to give them meat for a whole month. Now that Yahweh has been so generous in providing practical solutions to Moses’ problems, it’s time for our haggard leader to express some gratitude. But this isn’t God’s day for being appreciated. Even after all He’s said, Moses is full of complaints, doubt and mockery.
But Moses said, “Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and You say, ‘I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!’ Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?” (Num. 11:21)
Telling Yahweh that He’s not capable enough to make His own prophecy come true is hardly reverent. Instead of appreciating the fact that God is offering to solve the meat problem for an entire month instead of just one day, Moses is mocking the whole idea and reminding Yahweh of how many mouths there are to feed. It’s good for us to read passages like this when we are in a rational state of mind so that we can hear how insulting our words can sound to God when we get moody. We’ve all been guilty of mocking God’s promises and accusing Him of overestimating His own abilities. Such attitudes come with the territory when we are spiritual infants, but we want to grow out of them as soon as possible. While it’s fine to express astonishment over the things God says, we must not cross the line into acting like an authority on His abilities. It was this superior attitude that got Job into trouble at the end of his trials. God didn’t have a problem with Job expressing his misery or for acknowledging how inconsistent things appeared from the human perspective—such as righteous men languishing while evil men prosper. But when Job crossed the line of arrogance and began acting like he had walked the boundaries of God and therefore could act as judge over Him, God showed up in a storm and set him straight.
Now considering how vexed He is by Israel’s foul attitude, we have to admire God’s self-restraint when Moses now turns on Him with similar tones of doubt. Instead of reacting in violence, God merely gives this crisp reply:
“Is Yahweh’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” (Num. 11:23)
Arms were used as metaphors for power in Bible times. So when Yahweh says, “Is My arm too short?” it’s the same as saying, “Am I too weak?”
Now the wind kicks up. Let’s remember that all weather comes from God, not the fictitious “mother nature” character that we hear about so often in the news.
Now a wind went out from Yahweh and drove quail in from the sea. (Num. 11:31)
Remember that this mob is at least 2 million strong, and quails aren’t that big. So if this is going to be a one month supply, we’re talking about a massive downfall of birds–so much so that people would have to run for cover inside their tents until the storm was over. The psalmist puts it like this:
He rained meat on them like dust. The birds were as many as the sand of the sea. He made the birds fall inside the camp, all around the tents. (Ps. 78:27-28)
All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered the quails. No one gathered less than 60 bushels. Then they spread the quails out all around the camp. (Num. 11:32)
How much is 60 bushels? Well, one bushel equals a little more than 9 gallons. Sixty bushels is about 558 gallons. So imagine stacking up 558 gallons of milk, then turn the whole thing into a pile of bird bodies. And this is the minimal amount that one individual gathered. So…really? A man needs this much quail meat for dinner? These people are being greedy piglets. By hoarding way more birds than they could possibly use, they are once again displaying their lack of trust in Yahweh. No doubt they consider this arrival of quail to be some sort of freak accident. We don’t hear any words of praise, we just see greedy hoarding and then we’re told the people start stuffing their faces—“till they were gorged” our psalmist says.
But while they were gorging themselves on the meat—while it was still in their mouths—the anger of Yahweh blazed against the people, and He struck them with a severe plague. So that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah [kib-rawth-HAT-ah-vah] (which means “graves of gluttony”) because there they buried the people who had craved meat from Egypt. (Num. 11:33-34)
We’re not told any details about the plague here in Numbers but the author of Psalm 78 describes it as something that killed some of the sturdiest and healthiest among Israel. Today some propose that the quail were infected with some kind of disease which got passed on to the humans, and yet if that was the case, the weak and sick would have been the main victims. To kill the strong, this was a pretty nasty illness. In Psalm 106, we find this description:
But they soon forgot what He had done and did not wait for His plan to unfold. In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the wilderness they put God to the test. So He gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease among them. (Ps. 106:13-15)
A wasting disease would be one that eats away at the body until it is no longer able to stay alive. Elsewhere in the prophets, we find reference to God causing people’s fat to waste away. This sounds like a very ugly way to die. After naming their location “graves of gluttony” or “graves of craving”, the Israelites pack up and travel on, following Yahweh’s cloud pillar that is ever before them. As we imagine them folding up their tents and gathering their herds, we can’t help but wonder if anyone is taking along some of that quail meat, or if a lot of feathered bodies get left behind for scavenging animals to find.
The Fate of the Bronze Snake
Fleeing From Phantoms: How God Used Noise to Scatter an Army