Numbers 11
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

Taberah. The Manna and Quails. The resting of the spirit upon the elders

During the journey between Sinai and Paran (the arrival at which is stated in anticipation by P in Numbers 10:12) five incidents are placed by the compiler, viz. the three in the present chapter, the fragmentary narrative in Numbers 12:1, and the vindication of Moses against Aaron and Miriam in Numbers 12:2-15. The first and the last two create no special difficulties. But the two which intervene have been fused by a compiler, who has also combined with them a fragment from a third narrative, and these must be separated with care. When this is done, however, a very difficult chapter becomes comparatively clear.

And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.
1. as murmurers, speaking evil] as those who murmur at misfortune. The murmurings and rebellions of the people, whom Moses controlled with his wonderful power of leadership and personal influence, are related in Exodus 14:11 f., Numbers 15:24, Numbers 16:2 f., Numbers 17:3, Numbers 32:1-4, Numbers 11:1-6; Numbers 12:1-2; Numbers 14:2 f., 16, Numbers 20:2-5, Numbers 21:4 f. They are referred to in Deuteronomy 1:27, Psalm 78:17-20; Psalm 78:40-42; Psalm 95:8-11; Psalm 106:25, 1 Corinthians 10:10, Hebrews 3:7 to Hebrews 4:3.

the fire of Jehovah] It is possible that the tradition of divine fire arose, in the first instance, from a catastrophe caused by destructive lightning. But by the time of the writer, who lived some three centuries or more after the event, a miraculous visitation of a much more terrible nature was thought of. Cf. Exodus 19:18, 1 Kings 18:38, 2 Kings 1:10; 2 Kings 1:12.

1–3. Taberah. This narrative should perhaps be ascribed to E . No mention is made of the reason for the murmuring of the people. But it is possible that they murmured because they were tired of the manna and wanted flesh. If so, this may have been E’s account, parallel to that of J in the verses which follow. In P’s itinerary (Numbers 33:16) Taberah is not included; Kibroth-hattaavah is given as the first stopping place after Sinai. D, who had both the narratives J and E before him, mentions both Taberah and Kibroth-hattaavah (in conjunction with Massah) in Deuteronomy 9:22.

And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched.
2. Moses prayed] The word hithpallçl (‘pray,’ ‘intercede’) is used in the Pentateuch only by E (Numbers 21:7, Genesis 20:7; Genesis 20:17) and D (Deuteronomy 9:20; Deuteronomy 9:26). In his self-forgetfulness Moses was always ready to intercede for those who had sinned; cf. Numbers 12:13, Numbers 14:13-19, Numbers 16:22, Exodus 32:31 f., Numbers 34:9. This gives point to Ben Sira’s description of him (Sir 45:1) as ‘beloved of God and men.’

Taberah] i.e. a ‘burning’ or ‘conflagration.’

And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the LORD burnt among them.
And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
4. The place where the incident occurred is not stated. But in Numbers 11:34 a name is given to the spot in consequence of the event.

the mixed multitude] The Heb. word ’asaphsûph is a reduplicated form from ’âsaph ‘to collect.’ The alliteration may be represented by riff-raff. It is a contemptuous term for non-Israelites who had attached themselves to the camp. They would include Egyptians with whom Israelites may to a small extent have intermarried (Leviticus 24:10), and people of various nationalities who, having been united with the Israelites in the forced building labour in Egypt, would be glad to escape with them. They are mentioned (by a different term) in Exodus 12:38.

fell a lusting] The words can denote any bodily appetite or desire, legitimate or otherwise. In 1 Corinthians 10:6 Christians are warned by the example of the Israelites.

wept again] No murmuring by the mixed multitude has been previously recorded, and in previous murmurings of the people in general weeping has not been mentioned. But the word need not be pressed. J relates a murmuring in Exodus 15:23-25. It is not certain, however, that the words are an their original form. The Heb. idiom is ‘and they returned and they wept’; this makes it possible to suppose that ‘and they returned’ was inserted by a compiler in reference to the murmuring in Numbers 11:1-3. LXX. and Vulg. escape the difficulty by reading ‘they sat down and wept’ (וַיֵּשְׁבוּ for וַיָּשֻׁבוּ).

Oh that we could have flesh to eat!] The necessity for miraculous provision of flesh is evidence that, according to one form of the tradition of the journeys, the Israelites had no flocks and herds. This has been preserved in J together with the contrary tradition that they were richly supplied with them, both at the beginning of the wanderings (Exodus 12:32; Exodus 12:38), throughout the course of them (Numbers 14:33 see note, Exodus 17:3; Exodus 19:13; Exodus 34:3), and at the end (Numbers 32:1). The traditions in P assume an immense wealth in cattle, which made possible the elaborate sacrificial system in force from Sinai and onwards.

4–34. (I) The Manna and Quails. J . (II) The burden of the people too heavy for Moses. J . (III) The Spirit of ecstasy upon the elders. E .

These verses should be studied in the following order:

(I) Numbers 11:4-10; Numbers 11:13; Numbers 11:18-24 a (to ‘the words of the Lord’), 31–34.

(II) Numbers 11:11-12; Numbers 11:14-15.

(III) Numbers 11:16-17 a, 24b–30.

It will be seen that the narratives (II) and (III) have no real connexion with (I). In the process of compilation two sentences were lost. The words ‘And Moses said unto Jehovah’ in Numbers 11:11 a are required for both narratives, and must be added for (I) at the beginning of Numbers 11:13. Similarly Numbers 11:18 (as Numbers 11:16) must begin ‘And Jehovah said unto Moses, say thou &c.’ If this is done, two distinct narratives emerge, and a fragment of a third:

(I) The people being weary of manna murmured for flesh. Jehovah was angry and warned them that they would loathe the flesh when it came. Moses was incredulous that such a miracle could be performed. But a wind brought a mass of quails, and a plague was the result.

(II) Moses found the care and guidance of the people a burden too heavy to bear, and prayed that he might die.

(III) Jehovah took some of Moses’ spirit and put it upon seventy elders, so that they were filled with prophetic frenzy, including two who were not with the others in front of the Tent. Joshua wished Moses to forbid them, but he refused.

(I) Numbers 11:4-10; Numbers 11:13; Numbers 11:18-24 a, 31–34. Manna and Quails. In Exodus 16 there is a more complete narrative of the manna, from P , where Numbers 11:35 (‘they did eat the manna … until they came into the borders of the land of Canaan’) shews that manna was not sent on two distinct occasions, but that the two narratives are parallel accounts. In the present chapter the sending of the manna is not related (see on Numbers 11:6). But it must not be concluded from this that our narrative is the sequel to that in Exodus 16; for (I) a description of the manna is given, as though it were a new phenomenon, in Numbers 11:7-9 as well as in Exodus 16:14; Exodus 16:31, and there are considerable differences in the two accounts; and (2) the laying of the pot of manna ‘before the Testimony’ (Exodus 16:34) shews that that narrative belongs to a time after the Testimony (i.e. the Decalogue) was given at Sinai. Thus both in P and J it is related that manna was sent after the departure from the mountain. Moreover, while P has this very full parallel account of the manna, it also has fragmentary references to the quails embedded in it. See Exodus 16:8 a (‘in the evening flesh to eat’), 12 (‘at even ye shall eat flesh’), 13a (‘at even the quails came up and covered the camp’).

(II) Numbers 11:11-12; Numbers 11:14-15. It is not at first sight so clear that (II) is unconnected with (III). The gift of Moses’ spirit to the elders might seem to be the answer to Moses’ prayer for more help in managing the people. And the compiler has given this impression by the insertion of Numbers 11:17 b. But (1) the spirit is not represented as being a spirit of wisdom and understanding, but merely of ecstasy or frenzy which enabled them to ‘prophesy’ as in the case of Saul and his messengers at a later time (1 Samuel 19:20 f., 23 f.). Moses’ answer to Joshua (Numbers 11:29) as well as the express statement that the inspiration was purely temporary (Numbers 11:25), quite preclude the idea that the elders were to help him in bearing the burden of the people. And (2) Moses’ complaint of the burden is closely similar in thought and language to Exodus 33:12 to Exodus 34:9. The discussion of the whole problem belongs rather to a commentary on Exodus. But it is far from improbable that (II) has been displaced from Exodus 33. Because the people had sinned, Jehovah said that He would not go to Canaan with them; Moses, therefore, would have to bear the burden alone; and he was overwhelmed with the thought. In consequence of Moses’ repeated intercession Jehovah relented and condescended to go with them.

(III) Numbers 11:16-17 a, 24b–30. There are indications that the narrative of the elders is from E . Now the last passage from E previously to this is Exodus 33:7-11, a fragment relating Moses’ usual practice with regard to the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ in which the young man Joshua acted as his minister, and where Jehovah used to ‘come down’ in the cloud and converse with Moses. If that passage and (III) are read side by side, it will be seen that they are connected in the closest possible manner, both in style and subject-matter.

(I) 4–10. The Manna.

We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:
5. the fish] These were very plentiful in Egypt. See Exodus 7:21, Isaiah 19:8.

the leeks, and the onions] ‘Herod. (ii. 125), speaking of the pyramid, says that on it was declared “how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen” ’ (Gray). The verse accurately summarises the principal articles of diet of the lower classes in Egypt. See Lane, Modern Egyptians (ch. vii).

But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
6. this manna] No account has been given in this chapter of the sending of the manna; and it is possible that the writer means to describe not a miraculous food from heaven but a natural phenomenon of the district. Different substances which have been suggested, such as a gum from the tamarisk or târfâ tree, oak honey, or an edible lichen, are described in art. ‘Manna’ in DB. and EBib. If the numbers of the people were really 600,000 (Numbers 11:21), the only miraculous feature in the present case would be the enormous supply required for them. But their numbers were, in all probability, much smaller (see on Numbers 1:46). When the time of D was reached, the manna had come to be considered a mysterious unknown food (Deuteronomy 8:3; Deuteronomy 8:16), and the same idea is seen in P (Exodus 16), who relates (Numbers 11:33 f.) that a pot containing one omer of it was laid up in front of the ark in the Holy of Holies (cf. Hebrews 9:4, Revelation 2:17). The manna as a type of the spiritual ‘Bread that came down from heaven’ forms the subject of our Lord’s discourse to the Jews in John 6:30-35; John 6:41-58.

And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
7. coriander seed] It is rather the fruit of the coriander, which is about the size of a pepper-corn. Cf. Exodus 16:14; Exodus 16:31. In the former of these verses it is described as ‘a small scale-like thing, small as the hoar frost.’

bdellium] A resinous substance of a pale yellowish colour. In Exod. the manna is ‘white.’

7–9. A parenthetical description of the manna.

And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.
8. fresh oil] a dainty prepared with oil. The word rendered ‘dainty’ denotes something juicy. LXX. has ἐνκρίς, which was a cake made with oil and honey; cf. ‘like wafers made with honey’ (Exod.).

And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.
9. the manna fell upon it] The manna probably exuded from the trees on to the ground, where the dew was already lying.

(II) 11, 12, 14, 15. Moses’ despair at the prospect of bearing the burden of the people without Jehovah’s help. See prelim. note to the chapter.

Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.
And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?
11. evil entreated] An archaism, for ‘treated evil,’ ‘caused trouble to.’

found favour in thy sight] Cf. Exodus 33:12-13; Exodus 33:16-17; Exodus 34:9.

Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?
12. Was it I that conceived … was it I that gave them birth] Israel was brought into being by God and not by Moses.

a nursing-father] i.e. a foster-father who brings up a child instead of its own parent. Cf. 2 Kings 10:1; 2 Kings 10:5, and figuratively Isaiah 49:23.

(I) 13. The continuation of Numbers 11:10. The words ‘And Moses said unto Jehovah’ must be supplied. See prelim. note.

(II) 15. kill me … out of hand] A good equivalent for the Heb. idiom. Kill me at once and have done with it. His cry in Exodus 32:32 has the same meaning.

Cf. Elijah’s despair, 1 Kings 19:4. Both Moses and Elijah received the encouragement that they needed; and both were destined for a peculiar privilege (Mark 9:4).

let me not experience my trouble] Let me no longer have to face my trouble.

(III) 16, 17a. The beginning of the account of the seventy elders.

Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat.
I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.
And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.
16. the elders of the people and their officers] The institution of these officials, with an authority inferior to that of Moses, is related in Exodus 18, which originally stood after the account of the giving of the law at Sinai (see Driver, Exodus, p. 162), and therefore in close juxtaposition to the present narrative.

17a. come down and talk with thee there] Cf. Exodus 33:9; Exodus 33:11.

take of the spirit which is upon thee] This expresses the primitive notion that ‘spirit’ (in the sense of an inspiration which imparts wisdom or intellectual ability) came upon a person from without, and could be thought of quantitatively. Moses was endued with such a large share of it that some could be taken from him and put upon others. Cf. 2 Kings 2:9.

17b. and they shall bear &c.] This half-verse was probably not part of the original narrative. It seems to have been added by a later writer who thought that the inspiration of the elders was the answer to Moses’ complaint of the burden of the people. See above.

(I) 18–24a. The Quails. The continuation of Numbers 11:13.

And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.
18. And say thou &c.] The combination of the quail narrative with Numbers 11:16 f. has caused some such expression as And Jehovah said unto Moses to drop out from the beginning of this verse.

Sanctify yourselves] Free yourselves from ceremonial uncleanness. Cf. Exodus 19:10; Exodus 19:14 f.

Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?
And Moses said, The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month.
21. footmen] on foot. Exodus 12:37.

(III) 24b30. The Elders.

24b. and he gathered &c.] With the second half of this verse the narrative begun in Numbers 11:16-17 a is continued.

Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?
And the LORD said unto Moses, Is the LORD'S hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.
And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.
And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.
25. in the cloud] See on Numbers 9:15-23.

they prophesied] They were flung into an ecstatic condition of frenzy. Other instances are recorded in the case of Saul (1 Samuel 10:10-12; 1 Samuel 18:10; 1 Samuel 19:23 f.) and his messengers with the prophets at Naioth (id. Numbers 19:20 f.). Probably also in the case of Elisha (2 Kings 3:15). At an early stage of thought in Israel such sudden and mysterious attacks were reverently ascribed to divine action; but in process of time they were considered rather as madness, Hosea 9:7, 2 Kings 9:11, Jeremiah 29:26. The true prophet was realised to be one who, by a deep spiritual insight and conversance with God, was able to declare the divine will with regard to matters both present and future.

but they did so no more] The effect was purely temporary. It was not an imparting of wisdom and influence for the purpose of permanently helping Moses.

But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.
26. them that were written] i.e. registered as being of the number of the elders and officers. They were not of the number of the seventy, for Numbers 11:24 says that seventy were present at the Tent.

And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.
And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them.
28. Joshua was not one of the seventy, but was attached to the sacred Tent as its aedituus or caretaker. Cf. Exodus 33:11.

one of his chosen men] R.V. marg. is probably right—from his youth. But Joshua was still in his youth (Exodus 33:11). The narrator, writing long after the event, adds parenthetically a general description of Joshua, not merely a description of what he had been at the moment.

And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD'S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!
29. Moses’ reply indicates the special object with which the writer recorded the incident. His object was religious, and the narrative possesses an abiding religious value. The conceptions of the divine Spirit and His activity have differed in different ages; but Moses expresses the conviction which is true for all time, that the possession of the Spirit is not confined to particular persons or classes. With a deeper realisation of the truth Jeremiah (Numbers 31:33 f.) and Joel (Numbers 2:28 f.[Hebrews 3:1 f.]) teach that the gift of the Spirit is universal. Joel’s words were claimed by S. Peter to have been fulfilled (Acts 2:16 ff.); and S. Paul rejoices in the unity of the Body of Christ because it is animated by ‘one Spirit’ (Ephesians 4:3-4), ‘dividing to each one severally even as He will’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-11).

And Moses gat him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
31. a wind from Jehovah] He employed a wind to reduce the deluge (Genesis 8:1 P ), to bring and remove the locusts (Exodus 10:13; Exodus 10:19 J ), and to drive back the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21 J ).

brought quails across from the sea] Probably from the Gulf of Akaba. It is so understood by the writer of Psalm 78:26 who speaks of the east and the south wind.

let them fall] left them. The wind suddenly lessened, and the quails came down tired with their long flight. Some of them may have fallen to the ground exhausted, as was frequently the case in quail swarms; but the main body of them were hovering above the ground at a height of about two cubits (c. one yard), and were easily netted. Quails fly northwards to Europe in large numbers in March, returning towards the end of September (see art. ‘Quails’ in Hastings’ DB. iv.).

And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
32. ten homers] Rather more than 100 bushels. The ḥomer which was = 10 ephahs or baths must be distinguished from omer (Exodus 16:16 &c. only) which was = 1/10 ephah.

spread them all abroad] They spread out the quails to cure them by drying them in the sun. Vulg. siccaverunt. This is mentioned by Herodotus (ii. 77) as a habit of the ancient Egyptians.

And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.
33. ere it was chewed] ere it came to an end, i.e. before the supply of flesh ran short.

And he called the name of that place Kibrothhattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.
And the people journeyed from Kibrothhattaavah unto Hazeroth; and abode at Hazeroth.
35. Hazeroth] It is impossible to identify the site. The name denotes ‘enclosures,’ and might be applied to any spot where nomads were accustomed to stay with their flocks. Hazor is a similar name, and several places in the south of Palestine had names compounded with Hazor or Hazar.

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