A cry of horror and grief went up from the people of Israel. God’s sudden, awful punishment reminded them of the manner in which the Creator had struck during the time of the Passover one year previously. Then the victims had been Egyptians. This time there also were Egyptians, because Egyptians who had come in the mixed multitude with the Israelites were in part to blame. But a large number of the offenders were now Israelites.
Because the shooting, exploding bolts of flame struck offenders in every part of all camps, Moses was quickly aware of what was going on. Immediately, however, there was a rush of officers from all the camps to tell Moses what was taking place, and to inform him that the people were screaming for mercy and asking for Moses to pray to God to stop the fiery explosions (Num. 11:2).
When Moses learned that so many people had already been slain by the fire from God, he immediately went into his tent, fell on his knees and begged the Creator to stop killing the people.
The deadly spurts of flame gradually disappeared after Moses’ diligent prayer. Terrified people who had raced wildly about the camps eventually returned to their tents to count their dead.
Next day was a bitter one for the Israelites. Many blackened bodies were buried in the shifting sands of the high desert country. God’s wrath had such a deep effect on many of the people that they named the area Taberah, which means “a burning.”
But in spite of this terrible warning to complainers, many of the people continued to murmur about their conditions. Most of them were the strangers who were among the Israelites, but their bitterness spread throughout the camps like some awful, contagious disease.
The main food of the people was still manna, a wonderful, energizing food direct from
God. At Sinai, the gathering of manna wasn’t much of a task, inasmuch as the people had plenty of time for doing it. But since leaving the Sinai valley, some felt that it was a burden to have to get up very early to gather the manna, and then start to travel. This, therefore, was one of the things the complainers began to be bitter about. Although those slain by God had been buried only a short time, manna became a subject loudly and sarcastically discussed by increasing thousands. The poisonous thought promoted by these complainers was that manna was a poor substitute for the food they had enjoyed in Egypt.
“Manna doesn’t give us enough strength for this tiring journey,” was the unhappy comment from the grumblers. “What we need is meat” (Num. 11:4)!
Mankind then, as now, was very prone to the power of suggestion. Moses and more Israelites who had the best of intentions fell victim to the influence of the lustful, untruthful remarks circulating about the camps.
“Manna can’t take the place of the food we had in Egypt,” the whiners kept saying. “If we don’t have more of a variety of food, we’ll lose our appetites and become thin and weak! Probably many of us will even die!
Such foolish remarks caused an increasing number of Israelites to doubt that manna was anything more than what was required to barely keep people alive. At the same time, the complainers kept reminding others of the wonderful foods they had enjoyed in the past.
“Remember the crisp, succulent cucumbers and the sweet, mellow, mouth-watering melons we liked so well in Egypt?” they asked of all who would listen. “If God can give us so much of this tiresome manna, why can’t He also produce foods like those? Why are we denied simple, delicious vegetables like garlic and onions? Or even leeks, those plants with the unusually luscious flavor? We need such things to build our morale, and we need meat to build our strength” (Num. 11:5-6)!
When reminded by his officers of the ill feeling that prevailed, Moses was distressed. He knew that some of the people would always complain, regardless of what the conditions were. But so much complaint, right on the heels of the mass slaying by God, pointed to nothing but growing trouble.
The bitter attitude grew by the hour. Officers came to Moses more frequently with reports that there was even wailing and crying by Israelites who felt that God was being unmerciful to them by denying them the foods they craved – especially meat. A wave of self-pity and semi-hysteria seemed to be passing over all the camps.
Moses was sick with discouragement. He told his aides that he didn’t wish to be disturbed for a while, and went into the inner part of his tent to pray.
“What have I done,” he asked God, “to cause this trouble to come on me? How can I be a father to all these thousands of unruly people? Must I try to carry them, like babies, to the land You have promised them? How can I stop their growing demand for other kinds of food?”
“Do you feel,” God asked Moses, “that this task I have given you is too great?”
“I only know,” Moses replied, “that the wild demands of thousands of people are too much for me. I can’t see any way of taking care of what they ask for, or of handling them while they are in such an extreme state of mind. If I fail to give them the foods they are demanding, they are likely to get entirely out of control. If You allow that to happen, then please take my life now. I don’t want to be here to witness such rebellion” (Num. 11:10-15).
“The people are overcome with false pity for themselves,” God told Moses. “You must not be likewise. If you feel that your responsibility is too great, then choose seventy of the strongest leaders and most honorable men among the older men of Israel and have them come to the tabernacle. There I shall meet you, and shall give them the special understanding I have given you. They will then realize how you are being troubled by the people. They will help you by pointing out to the people that you are right in what you require of them, even though those requirements may at times seem harsh” (vs. 16-17).
“Will this cause the people to cease their complaining?” Moses asked God.
“No,” God answered. “But from then on none of them can honestly say that I haven’t given them fair warning for anything that may come because of their disobedience. Warn them to stop their complaining and prepare for a feast of flesh. Tell them that this feast won’t last just one day, two days, five days nor twenty days. Tell them it will last a whole month, and that they shall have so much flesh to eat that it will become sickening to them. Tell them that as they have complained so much because of not having anything but manna, they won’t be able to hold the flesh on their stomachs.”
“But how can you provide meat for over two million people for a whole month?” Moses inquired. “Must all our flocks and herds be slaughtered to take care of the appetites of the people for flesh? Or do You have some way of bringing in a huge amount of fish from the Red Sea?”
“Why do you seem to doubt that I have power to take care of these matters?” God inquired. “Go do as I have commanded, and you shall soon witness what I have planned” (Num. 11:18-23).
Moses at once told his officers to tell the people that God had been greatly moved by their complaints, and would send them so much flesh that they would wish they had never asked for it.
This news brought great excitement to nearly every camp. Many people ran from tent to tent, loudly and joyfully repeating what Moses’ officers had told them. This, they imagined, was something to celebrate. Before long musicians had gathered here and there, and there was singing and dancing in many areas. Most of the celebrants were interested only in God’s promising them meat for a whole month. Very few seemed to be concerned by His remarks that they would regret asking for it.
Meanwhile, Moses chose the seventy elders who were the most capable, and called for them to meet before the tabernacle. After the group of carefully picked men had arrived, Moses went into the tabernacle and fell on his knees to await God’s presence. It wasn’t long before the cloud settled down over the tabernacle.
“From this moment on,” God said to Moses, “the seventy men you have picked will have a special gift of understanding. They will have greater respect for Me. They will realize without and doubt that you are My chosen servant, and they will have greater respect for you. They will have a better attitude and more correct outlook on matters having to do with the people’s reaching Canaan. They will have the ability to show at least some of the Israelites how wrong they are in complaining against you. Thus you won’t feel that you are so alone in your struggle to keep the people obedient.”
It happened just as God had foretold. The elders began to talk among themselves with great harmony and understanding. When Moses came out of the tabernacle to join them in hours of brotherly conversation, there was a most unusual spirit of harmony and wisdom. Later, when the elders went back to their various camps, their special understanding greatly enabled them to help the people in many matters (Num. 11:24-25).
Two of the seventy elders chosen by Moses, Eldad and Medad, weren’t able to get to the tabernacle. But they, as well as the others, were at the same time imbued with the special understanding that was a gift from God. Fired with inspiration, these two men walked out among the people and made moving remarks proving God’s and Moses’ authority.
“Why do you complain and why do you listen to those who complain?” they asked the people. “God is very displeased by what has been going on. Unless there is a great change of attitude soon among the people, many of you will die within a very short time!”
A large crowd gathered around Eldad and Medad. By standers regarded the two with anything from mild interest to amazement as the two elders prophesied of things that had to do with God’s future plan for the Israelites, and in such a manner that very few listeners failed to show the greatest respect for them (v. 26).
Months previously, when Moses had earnestly prayed for the Israelites to win in a long battle with attacking Amalekites, a young man by the name of Joshua had led the Israelites’ army to battle while Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ hands as Moses prayed (Ex. 17:8-13). This same young man happened to be present when another young man ran and told Moses that Eldad and Medad were speaking to the people. Joshua realized at once that the two couldn’t have spoken so well and in such an informed manner without inspiration from some source.
This troubled Joshua. He felt that two men making such an impression on the people might cause the Israelites to seek a new leader.
“You should send men to stop that, sir”? Joshua warned, “Otherwise, they could cause many people to regard them as leaders, and this could cause trouble for you at this time when the people are showing so much disobedience.”
Moses wasn’t worried, however. He realized that this was a case of God having given Eldad and Medad special understanding along with the sixty-eight other elders who had been chosen to help bear a part of Moses’ responsibility.
“Don’t be concerned that they’ll be any trouble to me,” Moses told Joshua. “In fact, I wish every Israelite could be inspired with their God-given understanding of what it means to all of us to obey” (Num. 11:27-30).
After the elders had returned to their camps and Moses had gone to his tent, a strong southwest wind came up. It increased to such velocity that the people began to be concerned about their tents being blown down. Most of them forgot about their tents, however, when they noticed a peculiar dark streak gradually growing larger on this southwest horizon. This strange sight caused great concern among the people. Some thought it was merely a low cloud or a bank of fog, though fog in that desert area would have been quite unusual.
Even Moses was puzzled when his attention was brought to it. But when he noticed an increasing number of birds flying swiftly to the northeast, he abruptly realized how God was about to supply the meat the Israelites had been demanding. He remembered how God had sent flocks of quails (Ex. 16:11-13) when the people had first complained about having to steadily eat manna.
“Have it announced to all the camps at once that God is now providing all the flesh for which the people have been begging,” Moses instructed an aide. “Tell them that God isn’t giving it to them to supply any need, but that He’s giving it to them as a lesson of obedience they’ll soon understand.”
The dark cloud grew more swiftly. It was only a little while later that the sky became blackened with a tremendous flock of quails. Many of them flew only three or four feet above the ground. Many fell to the ground exhausted and ran about the ground, trying to get their tired bodies into the air again.
When the amazed Israelites realized that they were being set upon by such tasty fowl, they seized the nearest useful objects, such as sticks and spears and boards, and started beating low-flying birds to the ground, and striking those exhausted birds which scampered about in all directions.
While some excitedly slaughtered birds, others hastily plucked them. In spite of the strong winds, the camps soon became alive with an unusually large number of quail which were hastily roasted.
After months of existing mostly on manna, the Israelites were so excited because of receiving meat that they tore and bit and chewed at the flesh of the birds as though they had been starved. They took turns catching, roasting and eating, but it required many hours for all of them to get their fill of the roasted quail.
All that day the strong wind persisted and flocks of quails passed over the camps continuously. The excited people flailed away at them, knocking the birds to the ground, snatching them up to swiftly prepare them for roasting or to pluck and salt them for eating later. As sundown approached, it was expected that the wind would die down and that the birds – if they continued to pass over – would manage to fly at higher altitudes. But the strong wind continued all night. And all night, by the light of bright campfires, the Israelites went on batting down all birds within reach.
Next morning the wind still hadn’t abated. Flock after flock of quails skimmed over the camps. There were so many fowl that they were seen fifteen to twenty miles on both sides of the camp areas. The wind continued all that day, and hordes of birds with it. There seemed to be no end to them. But this time many people were still downing them, but not with the eagerness of the preceding day.
Near sundown the wind finally started to subside. The flocks of quails became smaller and smaller, until no more, even single stragglers, were seen to pass over.
Thousands of weary quail-catchers slumped upon their beds. Regardless of their obvious desire to get even more fowl than they could use, they were relieved when there were no more to try to get. After two days and one night of bird-bagging, the camps were full of thousands and thousands of tons of fowl. Besides the millions of quails already eaten, there were piles of them between tents, countless numbers strung up to dry and huge amounts being roasted, boiled, fried or barbecued.
Not everyone had tried his hand at bagging the quails because not all the Israelites had lusted for meat. But there were more than a half million able-bodied men in the camps, and few of them refrained from the sport of quail-catching. One can get some idea of the amount of fowls brought out of the sky by using the figure 500,00 – the number of men who probably gathered the birds – and multiplying it by the smallest amount of birds bagged by anyone during the time the quails passed over the camps. The smallest amount was what ten burros could carry!
The taste of roasted, succulent quail flesh was a welcome treat to the Israelites. But perhaps it wasn’t quite as wonderful as many had expected. When one builds up a lustful, consuming desire for something, it often turns out to be more desirable in one’s imaginations than it does as a reality.
Thus it was with so many of the lustful ones of Israel and their quails. Those who had been so bitter, unreasonable and anxious in demanding meat were the very ones who started gorging themselves even before the birds were ready to eat. They seized the half-raw, smoking fowl in both hand and set about devouring them as starving vultures would attack a newly discovered carcass. There were even a few who were craving meat so strongly – and these were mostly among the strangers with Israel – that they tore the feathers off the birds as soon as they were caught and proceeded to consume them raw.
As for God’s promise to supply the Israelites with meat for a whole month, the Creator more than kept His word. The huge amounts of birds bagged by the Israelites, if properly preserved, would have lasted much more than a month –even if eaten greedily by the more ravenous Israelites.
But something began to happen to cause the Israelites to suddenly lose interest in quails. People began to get sick.
From all points in the camps came the increasing moans and groans of those who had gorged themselves. Their digestive systems, used to the mild manna month after month, were heavily over-taxed by the great amounts of half-chewed flesh that had been swallowed hour after hour.
To the horror of friends and relatives who helplessly watched them, the screaming, agonized victims rolled convulsively in their vomit, then lapsed into unconsciousness that was soon followed by death.
More and more died this horrible death as the hours wore on. By the time the self-inflicted plague had come to a halt, an areas not far from the camps had become a vast graveyard!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.