Expositor's Bible Commentary
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.
THE STRAIN OF THE DESERT JOURNEY
Numbers 11:1-35THE narrative has accompanied the march of Israel but a short way from the mount of God to some spot marked for an encampment by the ark of the covenant, and already complaining has to be told of, and the swift judgment of those who complained. The Israelites have made a reservation in their covenant with God, that though obedience and trust are solemnly promised, yet leave shall be taken to murmur against His providence. They will have God for their Protector, they will worship Him; but let Him make their life smooth. Much has had to be borne which they did not anticipate; and they grumble and speak evil.
Generally men do not realise that their murmuring is against God. They have no intention to accuse His providence. It is of other men they complain, who come in their way; of accidents, so called, for which no one-seems to be responsible; of regulations, well enough meant, which at some point prove vexatious; the obtuseness and carelessness of those who undertake but do not perform. And there does seem to be a great difference between displeasure with human agents whose follies and failures provoke us, and discontent with our own lot and its trials. At the same time, this has to be kept in view, that while we carefully refrain from criticising Providence, there may be, underlying our complaints, a tacit opinion that the world is not well made nor well ordered. To a certain extent the persons who irritate us are responsible for their mistakes; but just among those who are prone to err our discipline has been appointed. To gird at them is as much a revolt against the Creator as to complain of the heat of summer or the winter cold. With our knowledge of what the world is, of what our fellow-creatures are, should go the perception that God rules everywhere and stands against us when we resent what, in His world, we have to do or to suffer. He is against those who fail in duty also. Yet it is not for us to be angry. Our due will not be withheld. Even when we suffer most it is still offered, still given. While we endeavour to remedy the evils we feel, it must be without a thought that the order appointed by the Great King fails us at any point.
The punishment of those who complained is spoken of as swift and terrible. "The fire of the Lord burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp." This judgment falls under a principle assumed throughout the whole book, that disaster must overtake transgressors, and conversely that death by pestilence, earthquake, or lightning is invariably a result of sin. For the Israelites this was one of the convictions that maintained a sense of moral duty and of the danger of offending God. Again and again in the wilderness, where thunderstorms were common and plagues spread rapidly, the impression was strongly confirmed that the Most High observed everything that was done against His will. The journey to Canaan brought in this way a new experience of God to those who had been accustomed to the equable conditions of climate and the comparative health enjoyed in Egypt. The moral education of the people advanced by the quickening of conscience in regard to all that befell Israel.
From the disaster at Taberah the narrative passes to another phase of complaint in which the whole camp was involved. The dissatisfaction began amongst the "mixed multitude"-that somewhat lawless crowd of low-caste Egyptians and people of the Delta and the wilderness who attached themselves to the host. Among them first, because they had absolutely no interest in Israel’s hope, a disposition to quarrel with their circumstances would naturally arise. But the spirit of dissatisfaction grew apace, and the burden of the new complaint was: "We have nought but this manna to look to." The part of the desert into which the travellers had now penetrated was even more sterile than Midian. Hitherto the food had been varied somewhat by occasional fruits and the abundant milk of kine and goats. But pasturage for the cattle was scanty in the wilderness of Paran, and there were no trees of any kind. Appetite found nothing that was refreshing. Their soul was dried away.
It was a common belief in our Lord’s time that the manna, falling from heaven, very food of the angels, had been so satisfying, so delicious, that no people could have been more favoured than those who ate of it. When Christ spoke of the meat which endureth unto eternal life, the thought of His hearers immediately turned to the manna as the special gift of God to their fathers, and they conceived an expectation that Jesus would give them that bread of heaven, and so prove Himself worthy of their faith. But He replied, "Moses gave you not that bread out of heaven, but My Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. I am the Bread of Life."
In the course of time the manna had been, so to speak, glorified. It appeared to the later generations one of the most wonderful and impressive things recorded in the whole history of their nation, this provision made for the wandering host. There was the water from the rock, and there was the manna. What a benignant Providence had watched over the tribes! How bountiful God had been to the people in the old days! They longed for a sign of the same kind. To enjoy it would restore their faith and put them again in the high position which had been denied for ages.
But these notions are not borne out by the history as we have it in the passage under notice. Nothing is said about angels’ food-that is a poetical expression which a psalmist used in his fervour. Here we read, as to the coming of the manna, that when the dew fell upon the camp at night the manna fell upon it, or with it. And so far from the people being satisfied, they complained that instead of the fish and onions, cucumbers and melons of Egypt, they had nothing but manna to eat. The taste of it is described as like that of fresh oil. In Exodus it is said to have resembled wafers mixed with honey. It was not the privilege of the Israelites in the wilderness but their necessity to live on this somewhat cloying food. In no sense can it be called ideal. Nevertheless, complaining about it, they were in serious fault, betraying the foolish expectation that on the way to liberty they should have no privations. And their discontent with the manna soon became alarming to Moses. A sort of hysteria spread through the camp. Not the women only, but the men at the doors of their tents bewailed their hard lot. There was a tempest of tears and cries.
God, through His providence, determining for men, carrying out His own designs for their good, does not allow them to keep in the region of the usual and of mere comfort. Something is brought into their life which stirs the soul. In new hope they begin an enterprise the course and end of which they cannot foresee. The conventional, the pleasant, the peace and abundance of Egypt, can be no longer enjoyed if the soul is to have its own. By Moses Jehovah summoned the Israelites from the land of plenty to fulfil a high mission and when they responded, it was so far a proof that there was in them spirit enough for an uncommon destiny. But for the accomplishment of it they had to be nerved and braced by trial. Their ordeal was that mortifying of the flesh and of sensuous desire which must be undergone if the hopes through which the mind becomes conscious of the will of God are to be fulfilled.
In our personal history God, reaching us by His word, enlightening us with regard to the true ends of our being, calls us to begin a journey which has no earthly terminus and promises no earthly reward. We may be quite sure that we have not yet responded to His call if there is nothing of the wilderness in our life, no hardship, no adventure, no giving up of what is good in a temporal sense for what is good in a spiritual sense. The very essence of the design of God concerning a man is that he leave the lower and seek the higher, that he deny himself that which according to the popular view is his life, in order to seek a remote and lofty goal. There will be duty that calls for faith, that needs hope and courage. In doing it he will have recurring trials of his spirit, necessities of self-discipline, stern difficulties of choice and action. Every one of these he must face.
What is wrong with many lives is that they have no strain in them as of a desert journey towards a heavenly Canaan, the realisation of spiritual life. Adventure, when it is undertaken, is often for the sake of getting fish and melons and cucumbers by-and-by in greater abundance and of better kinds. Many live hardly just now, not because they are on the way to spiritual freedom and the high destiny of life in God, but because they believe themselves to be on the way to better social position, to wealth or honour. But take the life that has begun its high enterprise at the urgency of a Divine vocation, and that life will find hardness, deprivations, perils, of its own. It is not given to us to be absolutely certain in decision and endeavour. Out in the wilderness, even when manna is provided, and the pillar of cloud seems to show the way, the people of God are in danger of doubting whether they have done wisely, whether they have not taken too much upon themselves or laid too much upon the Lord. The Israelites might have said, We have obeyed God: why, then, should the sun smite us with burning heat, and the dust-storms sweep down upon our march, and the night fall with so bitter a chill? Interminable toil, in travelling, in attending to cattle and domestic duties, in pitching tents and striking them, gathering fuel, searching far and wide through the camp for food, helping the children, carrying the sick and aged, toil that did not cease till far into the night and had to be resumed with early morning-such, no doubt, were the things that made life in the wilderness irksome. And although many now have a lighter burden, yet our social life, adding new difficulties with every improvement, our domestic affairs, the continual struggle necessary in labour and business, furnish not a few causes of irritation and of bitterness. God does not remove annoyances out of the way even of His devoted servants. We remember how Paul was vexed and burdened while carrying the world’s thought on into a new day. We remember what a weight the infirmities and treacheries of men laid upon the heart of Christ.
Let us thank God if we feel sometimes across the wilderness a breeze from the hills of the heavenly Canaan, and now and then catch glimpses of them far away. But the manna may seem flat and tasteless, nevertheless; the road may seem long; the sun may scorch. Tempted to despond, we need afresh to assure ourselves that God is faithful who has given us His promise. And although we seem to be led not towards the heavenly frontier, but often aside through close defiles into some region more barren and dismal than we have yet crossed, doubt is not for us. He knoweth the way that we take; when He has tried us, we shall come forth where He appoints.
From the people we turn to Moses and the strain he had to bear as leader. Partly it was due to his sense of the wrath of God against Israel. To a certain extent he was responsible for those he led, for nothing he had done was apart from his own will. The enterprise was laid on him as a duty certainly; yet he undertook it freely. Such as the Israelites were, with that mixed multitude among them, a dangerous element enough, Moses had personally accepted the leadership of them. And now the murmuring, the lusting, the childish weeping, fall upon him. He feels that he must stand between the people and Jehovah. The behaviour of the multitude vexes him to the soul; yet he must take their part, and avert, if possible, their condemnation.
The position is one in which a leader of men often finds himself. Things are done which affront him personally, yet he cannot turn against the wayward and unbelieving, for, if he did, the cause would be lost. The Divine judgment of the transgressors falls on him all the more because they themselves are unaware of it. The burden such a one has to sustain points directly to the sin-bearing of Christ. Wounded to the soul by the wrongdoing of men, He had to interpose between them and the stroke of the law, the judgment of God. And may not Moses be said to be a type of Christ? The parallel may well be drawn; yet the imperfect mediation of Moses fell far short of the perfect mediation of our Lord. The narrative here reflects that partial knowledge of the Divine character which made the mediation of Moses human and erring for all its greatness.
For one thing Moses exaggerated his own responsibility. He asked of God: "Why hast Thou evil entreated Thy servant? Why dost Thou lay the burden of all this people upon me? Am I their father? Am I to carry the whole multitude as a father carries his young child in his bosom?" These are ignorant words, foolish words. Moses is responsible, but not to that extent. It is fit that he should be grieved when the Israelites do wrong, but not proper that he should charge God with laying on him the duty of keeping and carrying them like children. He speaks unadvisedly with his lips.
Responsibility of those who endeavour to lead others has its limits; and the range of duty is bounded in two ways-on the one hand by the responsibility of men for themselves, on the other hand by God’s responsibility for them, God’s care of them. Moses should see that no law or ordinance makes him chargeable with the childish lamentations of those who know they should not complain, who ought to be manly and endure with stout hearts. If persons who can go on their own feet want to be carried, no one is responsible for carrying them. It is their own fault when they are left behind. If those who can think and discover duty for themselves, desire constantly to have it pointed out to them, crave daily encouragement in doing their duty, and complain because they are not sufficiently considered, the leader, like Moses, is not responsible. Every man must bear his own burden-that is, must bear the burden of duty, of thought, of effort, so far as his ability goes.
Then, on the other side, the power of God is beneath all, His care extends over all. Moses ought not for a moment to doubt Jehovah’s mindfulness of His people. Men who hold office in society or the Church are never to think that their effort is commensurate with God’s. Proud indeed he would be who said: "The care of all these souls lies on me: if they are to be saved, I must save them; if they perish, I shall be chargeable with their blood." Speaking ignorantly and in haste, Moses went almost that length; but his error is not to be repeated. The charge of the Church and of the world is God’s; and He never fails to do for all and for each what is right. The teacher of men, the leader of affairs, with full sympathy and indefatigable love, is to do all he can, yet never trench on the responsibility of men for their own life, or assume to himself the part of Providence.
Moses made one mistake and went on to another. He was on the whole a man of rare patience and meekness; yet on this occasion he spoke to Jehovah in terms of daring resentment. His cry was to get rid of the whole enterprise: "If Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand, and let me not see my wretchedness." He seemed to himself to have this work to do and no other, apparently imagining that if he was not competent for this, he could be of no use in the world. But even if he had failed as a leader, highest in office, he might have been fit enough for a secondary place, under Joshua or some other whom God might inspire: this he failed to see. And although he was bound up in Israel’s well-being, so that if the expedition did not prosper he had no wish to live, and was so far sincerely patriotic, yet what good end could his death serve? The desire to die shows wounded pride. Better live on and turn shepherd again. No man is to despise his life, whatever it is, however it may seem to come short of the high ambition he has cherished as a servant of God and men. Discovering that in one line of endeavour he cannot do all he would, let him make trial of others, not pray for death.
The narrative represents God as dealing graciously with his erring servant. Help was provided for him by the appointment of seventy elders, who were to share the task of guiding and controlling the tribes. These seventy were to have a portion of the leader’s spirit-zeal and enthusiasm like his own. Their influence in the camp would prevent the faithlessness and dejection which threatened to wreck the Hebrew enterprise. Further, the murmuring of the people was to be effectually silenced. Flesh was to be given them till they loathed it. They should learn that the satisfaction of ignorant desire meant punishment rather than pleasure.
The promise of flesh was speedily fulfilled by an extraordinary flight of quails, brought up, according to the seventy-eighth Psalm, by a wind which blew from the south and east-that is, from the Elanitic Gulf. These quails cannot sustain themselves long on the wing, and after crossing the desert some thirty or forty miles they would scarcely be able to fly. The enormous numbers of them which fluttered around the camp are not beyond ordinary possibility. Fowls of this kind migrate at certain seasons in such enormous multitudes that in the small island of Capri, near Naples, one hundred and sixty thousand have been netted in one season. When exhausted, they would easily be taken as they flew at a height of about two cubits above the ground. The whole camp was engaged in capturing quails from one morning to the evening of the following day; and the quantity was so great that he who gathered least had ten homers, probably a heap estimated to be of that measure. To keep them for further use the birds were prepared and spread on the ground to dry in the sun.
When the epidemic of weeping broke out through the camp, the doubt occurred to Moses whether there was any spiritual quality in the people, any fitness for duty or destiny of a religious kind. They seemed to be all unbelievers on whom the goodness of God and the sacred instruction had been wasted. They were earthly and sensual. How could they ever trust God enough to reach Canaan?-or if they reached it, how would their occupation of it be justified? They would but form another heathen nation, all the worse that they had once known the true God and had abandoned Him. But a different view of things was presented to Moses when the chosen elders, men of worth, were gathered at the tent of meeting, and on a sudden impulse of the Spirit began to prophesy. As these men in loud and ecstatic language proclaimed their faith, Moses found his confidence in Jehovah’s power and in the destiny of Israel re-established. His mind was relieved at once of the burden of responsibility and the dread of an extinction of the heavenly light he had been the means of kindling among the tribes. If there were seventy men capable of receiving the Spirit of God, there might be hundreds, even thousands. A spring of new enthusiasm is opened, and Israel’s future is again possible.
Now there were two men, Eldad and Medad, who were of the seventy, but had not come to the tent of meeting, where the prophetic spirit fell upon the rest. They had not heard the summons, we may suppose. Unaware of what was taking place at the tabernacle, yet realising the honour conferred upon them, they were perhaps engaged in ordinary duties, or, having found some need for their interference, they may have been rebuking murmurers and endeavouring to restore order among the unruly. And suddenly they also, under the same influence as the other sixty-eight, began to prophesy. The spirit of earnestness caught them. With the same ecstasy they declared their faith and praised the God of Israel.
There was in one sense a limitation of the spirit of prophecy, whatever it was. Of all the host only the seventy received it. Other good men and true in Israel that day might have seemed as capable of the heavenly endowment as those who prophesied. It was, however, in harmony with a known principle that the men designated to special office alone received the gift. The sense of a choice felt to be that of God does unquestionably exalt the mind and spirit of those chosen. They realise that they stand higher and must do more for God and men than others, that they are inspired to say what otherwise they could not dare to say. The limitation of the Spirit in this sense is not invariable, is not strict. At no time in the world’s history has the call to office been indispensable to prophetic fervour and courage. Yet the sequence is sufficiently common to be called a law.
But while in a sense there is restriction of the spiritual influence, in another sense there is no restraint. The Divine afflatus is not confined to those who have gathered at the tabernacle. It is not place or occasion that makes the prophets; it is the Spirit, the power from on high entering into life; and out in the camp the two have their portion of the new energy and zeal. Spiritual influence, then, is not confined to any particular place. Neither was the neighbourhood of the tabernacle so holy that there alone the elders could receive their gift; nor is any place of meeting, any church, capable of such consecration and singular identification with the service of God that there alone the power of the Divine Spirit can be manifested or received. Let there be a man chosen of God, ready, for the duties of a holy calling, and on that man the Spirit will come, wherever he is, in whatever he is engaged. He may be employed in common work, but in doing it he will be moved to earnest service and testimony. He may be labouring, under great difficulties, to restore the justice that has been impaired by social errors and political chicanery-and his words will be prophetic; he will be a witness for God to those who are without faith, without holy fear.
While Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp, a young man who heard them ran officiously to inform Moses. To this young man as to others-for no doubt there were many who loved and revered the usual-the two elders were presumptuous fools. The camp was, as we say, secular: was it not? People in the camp looked after ordinary affairs, tended their cattle, chaffered and bargained, quarrelled about trifles, murmured against Moses and against God. Was it right to prophesy there, carrying religious words and ideas into the midst of common life? If Eldad and Medad could prophesy, let them go to the tabernacle. And besides, what right had they to speak for Jehovah, in Jehovah’s name? Was not Moses the prophet, the only prophet? Israel was accustomed to think him so, would keep to that opinion. It would be confusing if at any one’s tent door a prophet might begin to speak without warning. So the young man thought it his duty to run and tell Moses what was taking place. And Joshua, when he heard, was alarmed, and desired Moses to put an end to the irregular ministry. "My lord Moses, forbid them," he said. He was jealous not for himself and the other elders, but for Moses’ sake. So far the leader alone held communication with Jehovah and spoke in His name; and there was perhaps some reason for the alarm of Joshua, more than was apparent at the time. To have one central authority was better and safer than to have many persons using the right to speak in any sense for God. Who could be sure that these new voices would agree with Moses in every respect? Even if they did, might there not be divisions in the camp, new priesthoods as well as new oracles? Prophets might not be always wise, always truly inspired. And there might be false prophets by-and-by, even if Eldad and Medad were not false.
In like manner it might be argued now that there is danger when one here and another there assume authority as revealers of the truth of things. Some, full of their own wisdom, take high ground as critics and teachers of religion. Others imagine that with the right to wear a certain dress there has come to them the full equipment of the prophet. And others still, remembering how Elijah and John the Baptist arrayed themselves in coarse cloth and leathern girdle, assume that garb, or what corresponds to it, and claim to have the prophetic gift because they express the voice of the people. So in our days there is a question whether Eldad or Medad, prophesying in the camp, ought to be trusted or even allowed to speak. But who is to decide? Who is to take upon him to silence the voices? The old way was rough and ready. All who were in office in a certain Church were commissioned to interpret Divine mysteries; the rest were ordered to be silent on pain of imprisonment. Those who did not teach as the Church taught, under her direction, were made offenders against the public wellbeing. That way, however, has been found wanting, and "liberty of prophesying" is fully allowed. With the freedom there have come difficulties and dangers enough. Yet to "try the spirits whether they are of God" is our discipline on the way to life.
The reply of Moses to Joshua’s request anticipates, in no small degree, the doctrine of liberty. "Art thou jealous for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them." His answer is that of a broad and magnanimous toleration. Moses cannot indeed have believed that great religious truths were in the reach of every man, and that any earnest soul might receive and communicate those truths. But his conception of a people of God is like that in the prophecy of Joel, where he speaks of all flesh being endued with the Spirit, the old men and young men, the sons and daughters, alike made able to testify of what they have seen and heard. The truly great man entertains no jealousy of others. He delights to see in other eyes the flash of heavenly intelligence, to find other souls made channels of Divine revelation. He would have no monopoly in knowledge and sacred prophecy. Moses had instituted an exclusive priesthood; but here he sets the gate of the prophetical office wide open. All whom God endows are declared free in Israel to use that office.
We can only wonder that still any order of men should try in the name of the Church to shut the mouths of those who approve themselves reverent students of the Divine Word. At the same time let it not be forgotten that the power of prophesying is no chance gift, no easy faculty. He who is to speak on God’s behalf must indeed know the mind of God. How can one claim the right to instruct others who has never opened his mind to the Divine voice, who has not reverently compared Scripture with Providence and all the phases of revelation that are unfolded in conscience and human life? Men who draw a narrow circle and keep their thoughts within it can never become prophets.
The closing verses of the chapter tell of the plague that fell on the lustful, and the burial of those who died of it, in a place thence called Kibrothhattaavah. The people had their desire, and it brought judgment upon them. Here in Israel’s history a needful warning is written; but how many read without understanding! And so, every day the same plague is claiming its victims, and "graves of lust" are dug. The preacher still finds in this portion of Scripture a subject that never ceases to claim treatment, let social conditions be what they may.