Numbers 11:1-35

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After several Lord’s Day evenings away from Numbers we return to our study of the book where we left off, reading tonight the whole of chapter 11. Remember, Israel has finally left Mt. Sinai after a year’s sojourn at the foot of the mountain and is finally en route to the Promised Land. One scholar entitles the section covered by chapters 11 and 12 “Three Complaints.” [Wenham, 106] The first is briefly narrated in vv. 1-3 of chapter 11, the second takes up the remainder of the 11th chapter and the third is the subject of chapter 12. But take note of the fact that a point is being made of Israel’s bad attitude on the march to the Promised Land. That attitude will culminate in the disaster at Kadesh Barnea but the narrator is preparing the ground. Israel’s failure of faith in response to the report of the spies was anticipated on a number of occasions.

Text Comment

The Greek word the LXX translators used to render the Hebrew word the NIV translates “complained” is the same word we find in 1 Cor. 10:10 where we read “And do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.” This is, of course, not the only instance in which Israel grumbled against the Lord, but Israel’s grumbling is one of the things we are urged in the NT not to emulate. It is the behavior of those the Lord rejects and punishes, not of those he blesses and saves. In this particular case, in context, it is obvious that the people were complaining about their living conditions on the march through the wilderness (cf. 10:33), perhaps specifically a lack of water. [Milgrom, 82] Was the fire caused by lightning strikes?

Moses, as before and after, interceded for Israel.

Having left the relative fertility of the area around Mt. Sinai, the Israelites came first into a more inhospitable desert and began to complain against God’s plan and provision for them. A modern traveler would be likely to sympathize. Yahweh did not. On the other hand, he does not, in this first instance, treat the people severely. The fire from the Lord burned at the edges of the camp, perhaps only a few tents were damaged.

The next episode of grumbling began with complaints made by the riff-raff, a mixture of various nationalities that came out of Egypt with the Israelites. The same group is called a “mixed multitude” in Exodus 12:38. [Milgrom, 83] The specific complaint here was a lack of meat. There were some animals but no doubt a limited supply and hardly enough for a great company to have meat regularly. The fish mentioned in the next verse would have been plentiful and cheap in the Nile delta.

When Israel grumbled en route to Sinai from Egypt, it was because of a lack of food. Here is because of a lack of variety. The year-long diet of manna had become monotonous, so monotonous that even the food of slaves in Egypt seemed preferable to the manna God provided for them now that they were free. It is worth noting that in Psalm 78:24-25 manna is described as “the grain of heaven” and “the bread of the angels.” It all boils down to one’s perspective, doesn’t it? Some former slaves had so completely lost their perspective that they were saying, in effect, “If I have to have manna one more day I’d rather be a slave back in Egypt!”

In fact, manna could be cooked in different ways (v. 8) and could be made into very tasty dishes. A translation that captures the sense of the last sentence of v. 8 would be “it tasted like a pastry cooked with the finest oil.” [Duguid, 150] The point is that manna was very good food and the complaining was unjustified, having more to do with the spirit of the people than the quality of the food.

In Exodus 16 we read that it was also white and tasted like honey. All sorts of suggestions have been made as to what may have been the natural element in manna but so far there is no consensus. It was miraculous food in any case as the abundance of the supply, the fact that it rotted if gathered on the Sabbath, and the fact that it ceased upon Israel’s arrival in the Promised Land clearly testify.

Grumbling is a very contagious sin. It began with the riff-raff, but soon everyone had taken up the complaint. On the other hand, it is so much easier to have a sweet spirit and a contented one when you are around people who have such a spirit.

It is easy to hear the frustration in Moses’ angry prayer. He didn’t ask for the job and was finding little enough fulfillment in being the leader of a whining and ungrateful people. He was exhausted physically and mentally.

Our complaints, usually self-centered as they are and as Moses’ was here, very quickly become an attack on God himself. Moses resented the way he was being treated and he blamed God for it! In the five verses between 11 and 15 Moses refers to himself 20 times! Grumbling is always an indication that a person has become preoccupied with himself or herself.

The number seventy is not happenstance. Remember there were seventy nations in the table of nations in Genesis 10; there were 70 descendants of Abraham who went down to Egypt to live there in the days of Jacob and Joseph and the same number appears in a number of other instances in the OT [cf. Milgrom, 86]. Seventy is a number, like seven, that is symbolic of completeness. A royal council of seventy members can be found in other ANE inscriptions. It is no accident that the ruling council of Judaism in Jesus’ day, the Sanhedrin, had seventy members.

The Lord first dealt with Moses’ complaint that the burden of leading Israel was too great for him. He will be given assistance in his work. Legitimate needs the Lord will meet. Complaints, however, will be treated in a different fashion. The answer the Lord is preparing for the complaining Israelites will be more a curse than a blessing. It is worth noting that the Spirit fell upon the elders in the camp at the tabernacle, in sacred space in other words; the quail will fall outside the camp in a zone associated with uncleanness. [Wenham, 109]

The reference to “men on foot” is to infantry. Israel is, after all, an army on the march.

Such prophesying was a mark of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, as it would later be at Pentecost. It was likely some form of ecstatic utterance, not the inspired preaching and foretelling of the OT prophets. The fact that this gift was given once and not again indicates that it was given to authenticate the calling of these men to rule with Moses. Prophetic utterance was not necessary for their work as elders. That required wisdom as we read elsewhere, what any godly man can acquire who wishes to acquire it. The gift given to these men was thus not the same gift given to Moses whose prophetic authority was permanent.

Joshua was jealous for Moses’ stature and authority. In the case of the 70 it had been clear that the authority God was giving them came through Moses – the Lord took the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the others. This was not clear in the case of Eldad and Medad. Joshua felt that people prophesying without direct connection to Moses would undermine the great man’s position. Moses’ humble and perceptive reply was that the more with the gifts of the Spirit the better.

It is not explained why Eldad and Medad had not been with the other 70 at the sanctuary, but the fact that they weren’t gave Moses an opportunity to make more public what the Lord had done in supplying the elders for the leadership of the people. The Spirit falling on these two men is further indication that the Lord would give his gifts to whomever he chooses.

You remember that a similar thing happened on Israel’s journey from Egypt to Sinai a year before. The Lord provided quail to eat at the same time he began the provision of manna. Quail and manna appear together in this chapter as they did in Exodus chapter 16. In both Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 the quail arrive in the second month of the year, a time that coincides with their annual northern migration across the Sinai. So the Lord was, as before with the ten plagues, making a supernatural use of a natural phenomenon.

You remember that both in Hebrew and Greek the word for Spirit and the word for wind is the same. The Spirit rested on the 70 and the wind brought the quail. It is the same working of the Lord in both cases, but one will bring blessing and the other will bring a curse. The worldly are often judged by being given precisely what they want and what they ask for, but what they wanted and asked for proves to be deadly to them. How many people have been ruined forever by the ease, the comfort, and the pleasures with which they have filled up their lives!

Quail are members of the partridge family and in that part of the world migrate northward from Africa and Arabia from the middle of March and return again in the Autumn. Their route takes them over Egypt, the Sinai, and Palestine. Early in the 20th century Arabs living in the northern Sinai (El Arish) used to gather between one and two million quail per annum in nets set up to catch the low-flying birds.

Only some of the people were killed, of course. It is impossible to identify the location of Kibroth Hattaavah, graves of craving, but it was someplace in the lower Sinai, near the Gulf of Elath as the reference to the wind from the sea in v. 31 suggests.

There is a lot of grumbling in the world. We are coming to the end of an election cycle and the whole nation has been grumbling for months and half of it will continue to grumble for months more. Grumbling is one of those sins that is so universal that no one thinks that much about it. It is not one of the deadly sins. No one goes to see a counselor to deal with his or her grumbling problem. There are no twelve step programs to cure people with an addiction to grumbling. “Hi, I’m Rob and I’m a grumbler.” [Duguid, 147] Everyone grumbles! It can’t be that serious a sin, so we think. But if alcohol has ruined its thousands, grumbling, as we will see, has ruined its ten thousands.

Here fire comes down from heaven as a judgment upon grumblers and, when they grumbled again, the Lord executed some of the people and they were buried there in the desert, never to see the Promised Land. For grumblers like ourselves, this is history we cannot simply brush aside. We might have expected the Lord to say something like, “Oh, grow up. You are being childish, complaining about some minor inconveniences on your way to a land of milk and honey: farms and vineyards and towns that I’m going to give you as a free gift.” But the Lord took the grumbling much more seriously than that. He saw it not as a peccadillo but as a high crime. The fact that both place-names – Taberah and Kibroth Hattaavah – served to memorialize Israel’s grumbling and the Lord’s judgment of it underscores the seriousness of the sin.

Why? Why is grumbling so serious a sin, so deadly a sin? Because it is the evidence of unbelief. We are going to discover that the largest part of the nation of Israel was in fact an unbelieving people. That will become dismally clear in the next few chapters of Numbers. But already the handwriting is on the wall. Already the evidence is mounting that Israel does not have a living confidence in the Lord, does not love him, does not trust him to fulfill the promises he made to her, and is not willing to keep his commandments in the confidence that his commandments are good and right and in the confidence that their happiness lies in submission to the Lord. And the evidence of that, the proof of that is her readiness to grumble and to complain. Grumbling is a form of unbelief and the act of an unbeliever. It is nothing less, as we read in v. 20 than rejecting God! That is what makes it so serious and why God judges it so severely.

Perhaps you remember those strangely written verses in the small book of Jude, near the end of the New Testament. Jude, the Lord Jesus’ brother, is piling on the invective as he describes the false teachers who were troubling the church of his day.

“Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: ‘See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words the ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’”

Four times he refers to the ungodliness of these men. We expect these men to have done very bad things. And what is the first thing Jude mentions that these ungodly men are guilty of?

“These men are grumblers…” That seems a strange thing to accuse a very ungodly, evil man of being, does it not? A grumbler? And yet Jude seems to think that their grumbling gives them away.

Or take Philippians chapter 2 and its great statement on the believer’s working out of his or her own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you… The next sentence, the sentence that is going to tell us precisely how to work out our salvation begins, “Do everything without complaining…” The word the NIV translates “complaining” is our word “grumbling,” the same word Jude uses, the same word the Greek translators of Numbers used in chapter 11.

And, as I already mentioned, in 1 Corinthians 10 Paul warns the Corinthian church against a false confidence by reminding them of the fate of Israel in the wilderness, who were delivered from slavery in Egypt only to die in the wilderness because they did not have a living faith in the Lord. Do not be like them, Paul says, and, in particular, he warns them “And do not grumble as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel.”

Obviously grumbling is a bigger deal than most of us take it to be. I doubt very many of us are nearly as concerned about our grumbling as we are about other sins that we know ourselves guilty of. We don’t fear our grumbling as much as some other of our besetting sins. And that is because we don’t see grumbling as the expression of unbelief. We do not view it as rejecting God or as the equivalent of an unbelieving state-of-mind.

But stop and think about grumbling and what it really amounts to.

  1. It amounts to a forgetfulness of God, his love, and his power.

Why would an Israelite in the wilderness grumble? They had been slaves for generations in Egypt and the Lord had delivered them on eagles’ wings from that grinding bondage. They had seen God’s power displayed in the most remarkable and breathtaking ways. They had seen something of his glory at Mount Sinai. They were on their way to the Promised Land. They could hardly doubt that they would get there, given what God had already done for them! And yet they are acting now as if the fact that having to drink generic cola or having to grill hot dogs instead of steaks for a few months while making their way to Canaan was an intolerable burden. Imagine them back in Egypt and being offered this exchange: You will have to eat a tasty miraculous food for a while, but instead of slaves you will become landowners in Canaan. Would any of them have said, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly exist on manna for more than a few days or a few weeks at the most; I think I would rather stay a slave here and be guaranteed my leek soup”? Of course not. They would have jumped at the chance and counted a few days of the same food a very small price to pay.

But unbelief never remembers. In the Bible forgetting and remembering are usually spiritual acts. We tend to think of memory only in terms of an intellectual power and we marvel at people who have remarkable powers of memory. Often great writers and great speakers are great in large part because of their steel-trap memories, their ability to recall virtually every book they have read, every person they have met, every experience they have had, and all the words they intended to deliver in a speech or sermon. Abraham Lincoln had such a memory, so did Charles Spurgeon, so did C.S. Lewis.

One of Lewis’ students, Alastair Fowler, and later a professor himself, writes that

“The flow of Lewis’s writing and speaking had much to do with this remarkable memory. Memory feats were common enough in Oxford then, especially among classicists. Edgar Lobe…to mention one, modestly denied having Homer by heart – but added, “Mind you, if you said a verse I dare say I could give you the next one.” Lewis could have claimed much the same of Paradise Lost. Kenneth Tynan, whom Lewis tutored, tells of a memory game. Tynan had to choose a number from one to forty, for the shelf in Lewis’s library; a number from one to twenty, for the place [that is, the particular book on] in this shelf; from one to a hundred, for the page [of that book]; and from one to twenty-five for the line [on the page of that particular book], which he read aloud. Lewis had then to identify the book and say what the page was about. I can believe this, having seen how rapidly he found passages in his complete Rudyard Kipling or his William Morris.”

That is one kind of memory and the sort of memory we ordinarily think of. The power to recollect things. Some people have great power; others lesser power, though we all can recollect at least most thing we need to remember. But, of course, no one in Israel at Taberah or Kibroth Hattaavah had forgotten that they had been slaves in Egypt or that they had passed through the parted waters of the Reed Sea or that they had seen the glory of God at Mt. Sinai. They knew that; they remembered that. They could repeat the story in great detail. Their failure of memory was of another kind, a spiritual kind. They forgot what these things meant; they forgot the power of the impression of these things. They remembered that they were slaves, but now that they were no longer slaves the bitterness of their slavery was ebbing from their minds. They remembered the glory of their passage through the Reed Sea but they had strangely forgotten what the implications of such power and such grace were for their own lives. Unbelief always does this. It cannot hold a serious thought about God and about the soul and about sin and about salvation in its head. Little things have an astonishing power to crowd out big things. So much so that a people who passed through the waters of a parted sea and who saw the back of Egyptian power broken in a single night and who were on their way to take possession of a fertile prosperous land found themselves weeping and wailing over the menu for the journey! No one could do that who had not forgotten almost everything that mattered!

You can forget something by failing to recollect it; but you can also forget something by failing to reckon with what it means. That was Israel’s failure to remember.

  1. Grumbling also amounts to a denial of God’s providence.

One thing that is perfectly obvious in Numbers 11 is that Israel had no living, no meaningful conviction that they were in Yahweh’s hands at that moment. No matter the fiery cloud that led them from Mt. Sinai through the first three day journey and then stopped them at Taberah. No matter the manna that miraculously settled upon the ground every morning. They grumbled about the food because they did not believe that the Lord God had put them there in those very circumstances for reasons sufficient to himself. Perhaps if they had been asked, they would have agreed that that was what the Lord had done, but they had no active conviction of the Lord’s having put them there in those circumstances for their own good and for his glory. They grumbled about the food because they had no thought that the food they had to eat was what the Lord had himself decided that they should eat. Had they had such a conviction, such a belief, their question would have been “Why this food and not some other?” But they simply grumbled and wanted other food. They grumbled about the food because a year into a diet of manna they no longer saw the Lord’s hand providing them their daily bread. They may well have known that it was a miracle every day, but they had got used to that fact. Their menu to them was simply a fact of life – not the personal provision of God – and they were tired of it. They had depersonalized their circumstances and de-theologized them as well.

  1. And, finally, grumbling amounts to the triumph of the present over the future.

Faith in its very nature looks to the future. One does not believe for what one already has. One does not need to have faith in the face of fulfillment. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” So we read in Hebrews 11:1. Israel’s grumbling about the food was evidence that she really had no grasp of the Promised Land. Anyone can do without for a time if the result is to obtain something he or she very much wants. In Israel’s case, the future – though perhaps at this point only weeks away – was forgotten. Their concern was for today’s lunch, not tomorrow’s feast.

We might well have thought that when any Israelite father heard his children complaining about manna he would have said to them:

“Are you kidding, kids! You are eating a miracle every day. You are going to be telling your grandchildren about this and they are going to have a hard time believing you. What is more, we are going to a land of milk and honey, a land famous for its wine and food, and we’ll be there in just a few weeks. It would be sheer ingratitude for us to complain about manna when the Lord has so wonderfully provided it for us for this short time we will need to be in the wilderness. We are in the wilderness and obviously you can’t have the same food in the wilderness as you have when you are at home. But, hey, it’s exciting to be in the wilderness for a time; it’s an adventure. So the food isn’t quite as good; the adventure makes up for that. Besides, manna is good. You kids have said so yourselves many times. Your mother has made all kinds of dinners from it and you’ve like them all. We may be camping, but its doughnuts every morning and burgers every night! The day is soon coming when you will never be able to eat manna again. Never. You won’t be able to fix it on “Remember the Wilderness” night at the town hall, you won’t be able to fix it Passover Eve. This is a once in a lifetime meal. Enjoy it while you can because the world will never see it again.”

All of this should have been said, but, of course, it requires a father to think that way and these fathers weren’t. They were tired of the manna too and wanted something else now. They weren’t thinking about the Promised Land or the end of the manna. They just wanted something else today.

But now let us sum up and apply all this to ourselves. If grumbling amounts to the forgetting of God’s love and power, to the denial of God’s providence, and to the triumph of the present over the future in our minds and hearts, then no wonder the Lord treats it as simply unbelief and no wonder he takes it as seriously as he does.

But, of course, while I have been talking about Israel’s grumbling and the sin that it was and the unbelief that it represented, you have been thinking to yourself, “Well, I grumble myself; what does that say about me? In fact, I grumble a lot. I complain a lot. Does that make me an unbeliever?

And the answer to that question is obviously “Yes.” To the extent that you grumble and complain you are an unbeliever, you are rejecting God. Every sin we Christians commit is first a sin of unbelief. If we were always genuinely remembering the love and power and goodness of God, if we never forgot that every one of our steps has been ordered for us by our heavenly Father, if we were always thinking of the future that the Lord Christ is preparing for us, we wouldn’t commit any of our sins. The great contest in your heart and in mine every day is the contest between faith and unbelief. And the entire project of your sanctification and mine is best understood as a great work, God’s work and our work, to make ourselves less and less unbelievers and more and more believers. Faith is the key to everything. More faith means more godliness in the nature of the case. Less faith means less godliness. To train ourselves to be godly means to train ourselves to believe, really believe; believe all, believe always!

“Lord I believe; help my unbelief,” is what every Christian says and must say and here we learn to say that every time we find ourselves grumbling, as if God were not on his throne, as if he had not proved his mighty love to us, as if he were not ordering our steps according to his perfect goodness and wisdom, as if Jesus Christ had not opened the way for us to unimaginable plenty in the Promised Land, as if we can’t be made to see that the diet in the wilderness must be different than the feast we will sit down to enjoy in the heavenly country, as if so great sacrifices having been made for us, we cannot find it within ourselves to make a few small sacrifices for the Lord.

See yourselves in the riff-raff and in the Israelite folk who so easily began to complain themselves as soon as they heard others complaining. See how foolish, how disreputable, how unworthy, how petty and small, how ungrateful, how preposterous that grumbling really was. See the unbelief that lies beneath it and is its strength. And catch yourself the next time you find yourself grumbling and complaining and stop it. Put your faith in God. Remember his mighty love; his providence; and the future that lies before you because of his salvation. And ask yourself: why in the world would I of all people grumble about anything? Anything at all?