Commentary on Numbers 11:4-35

Notes (NET Translation)

4 Now the mixed multitude who were among them craved more desirable foods, and so the Israelites wept again and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we used to eat freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6 But now we are dried up, and there is nothing at all before us except this manna!”

This passage is similar to, yet different from, Exodus 16, where God sends manna and quail after the crossing of the Red Sea. In Exodus 16 the Israelites complained because of a lack of food whereas here they complain because of a lack of variety. In Exodus 16 food is provided by God as a blessing whereas here it is provided as a punishment.

The complaint begins with the mixed multitude who departed from Egypt along with the Israelites (Ex 12:38; Lev 24:10; Deut 29:11; Josh 8:35) and spreads to the Israelites themselves. Literally, it says “they craved a craving.” Since the Israelites possessed livestock (Ex 10:24, 26; 12:38; 17:3; Num 32:1) we should understand the “meat” in verse 4 to refer to the “fish” mentioned in verse 5.

Based on what we know of the diet of the ancient Egyptians, the recollection by the people of the fish and fresh produce that had been available in Egypt is strikingly realistic. Fish was plentiful in the rivers and canals of Egypt, a fact alluded to by the author of Isa 19:8–10. Herodotus also refers to the abundance of fish in Egypt (Herodotus 1971: 11.92–93, at 1.377–379). We are told that when the rivers of Egypt turned to blood, all of the fish in the Nile died (Exod 7:21).

The detailed list of foods is entirely appropriate. (1) Cucumbers, Hebrew qiššuʾîm (Cucumis melo var. chate Nard.), are native to Egypt (EB 7.279–280). (2) Watermelons, Hebrew ʾabaṭiḥîm (Cucumis melo), are represented on ancient Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs and are still plentiful in Egypt today (EB 1.20–21). (3) Leeks, Hebrew ḥāṣîr, a collective noun (Allium porrum L), were widely grown in ancient Egypt as a garden vegetable (EB 3.270–271). (4) Garlic, Hebrew šûmîm (Allium sativum), is called in Akkadian šūmu (Loew 1881: 1.336–337). (5) Onions, Hebrew beṣalîm (Allium cepa) are mentioned only here in the Hebrew Bible, but the term is common in Late Hebrew (EB 2.306–307).1

Manna is a gracious gift from God so the complaint is a sign of faithlessness from those who forgot the bondage and oppression of Egypt.

7 (Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color like the color of bdellium. 8 And the people went about and gathered it, and ground it with mills or pounded it in mortars; they baked it in pans and made cakes of it. It tasted like fresh olive oil. 9 And when the dew came down on the camp in the night, the manna fell with it.)

This botanical and culinary description of the manna was deliberately inserted here to refute each point in the people’s complaint. The manna was (1) a seed, hence easy to pick; (2) white (Exod. 16:31), hence easy to spot; (3) clean, since it fell on a layer of dew; (4) eaten raw or cooked, hence not monotonous fare, and (5) like cream in taste and hence would not shrivel the gullet.2

Precise identification of the substance called manna with known agricultural products of ancient or modern times is somewhat tentative. The association with coriander seed is likely, since the seed is used for flavoring similar to sesame or poppy seeds. Physical description seems to be intended in the comparison to bdellium, a loan word in English from the Semitic root budulchu (Akk.) via the Greek bedellion, generally associated with a pale yellow or white aromatic resin. Generally manna has been associated with a by-product of the tamarisk tree found in northern Arabia. B. Childs notes: “There forms from the sap of the tamarisk tree a species of yellowish-white flake or ball, which results from the activity of a type of plant lice (Trabutina mannipara and Najococcus serpentinus). The insect punctures the fruit of the tree and excretes a substance from this juice. During the warmth of the day it (the substance) melts, but it congeals when cold. It has a sweet taste. These pellets or cakes are gathered by the natives in the early morning and, when cooked, provide a sort of bread. The food decays quickly and attracts ants. The annual crop in the Sinai Peninsula is exceedingly small and some years fails completely.” The present passage also assumes prior knowledge of the substance based upon their initial and continuing experience, first described in Exod 16:4-35. Whether this known modern food source is or is not equivalent to the manna of the Israelite desert sojourn experience, the provision for the host of Israel was a miraculous gift of God, an outpouring of his gracious, loyal love for his people.

The hardened resinous manna could be ground on millstones or in a mortar, typically made from basalt or very hard limestone, and then boiled and formed into cakes. The taste is compared to the rich creamy olive oil that comes from the upper layer of the first pressing of the olives. In Exod 16:31 the taste of manna cakes is compared to honey. As in Exodus 16 the manna appeared in the early morning, blown in from the heavens (sky) during the night so that enough could be gathered for the daily consumption after the morning dew had evaporated.3

10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and when the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, Moses was also displeased.

The grumbling is widespread and public (“at the door of his tent”). The last phrase of the verse literally means, “in the eyes of Moses it was evil.” Does “it” refer to the people’s complaint or the Lord’s actions? The following verses suggest Moses is displeased with God.

11 And Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you afflicted your servant? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of this entire people on me?

Moses dares to speak forcefully to God but remains respectful (“your servant”). Earlier, Moses took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice and appointed judges to help him (Ex 18). Nonetheless, he feels as if the entire burden of the people is on him.

12 Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your arms, as a foster father bears a nursing child,’ to the land which you swore to their fathers?

The Hebrew word ‘omen (“foster father”) can also be translated as “nurse”.

13 From where shall I get meat to give to this entire people, for they cry to me, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat!’

14 I am not able to bear this entire people alone, because it is too heavy for me!

15 But if you are going to deal with me like this, then kill me immediately. If I have found favor in your sight then do not let me see my trouble.”

Moses’ despair concerning his life’s lot parallels those of other notables in Israel’s history. Job cursed the very day of his birth in the midst of his season of suffering, and Jeremiah likewise bemoaned his conception and birth in the midst of the shame he experienced in being beaten and imprisoned by Pashhur in Jerusalem. At this point in his leadership ministry, Moses faced a crisis of faith and dependency, preferring death as a favor from God rather than continue to have the responsibility of directing such a rebellious rabble. The Lord responds with grace and yet also with judgment. Moses would get some relief, but in the long run this was just the beginning of troublesome years to come.4

16 The LORD said to Moses, “Gather to me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know are elders of the people and officials over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting; let them take their position there with you. 17 Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take part of the spirit that is on you, and will put it on them, and they will bear some of the burden of the people with you, so that you do not bear it all by yourself.

The spiritual dimension in this passage differentiates it from the judicial tasks mentioned in Ex 18:25-26. It is not clear whether giving part of the spirit to the elders diminishes Moses’s spirit.

18 “And say to the people, ‘Sanctify yourselves for tomorrow, and you will eat meat, for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat, for life was good for us in Egypt?” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat. 19 You will eat, not just one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out your nostrils and makes you sick, because you have despised the LORD who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we ever come out of Egypt?”‘”

Sanctification involved purification through bathing. The same preparation was done by the people to ready themselves for God’s descending upon Mount Sinai (Ex 19:10-11). The people’s ascription of “goodness” to life in Egypt is an act of rebellion against the God who freed them from Egypt. A wish to go back to Egypt is a wish to go back to a time before God was in their midst. The Hebrew verb ma’as (“despise”, v 20) connotes rejection.

21 Moses said, “The people around me are 600,000 on foot; but you say, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month.’ 22 Would they have enough if the flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? If all the fish of the sea were caught for them, would they have enough?”

In verse 21 Moses questions God’s power. In verse 22 Moses is saying that nothing could quench the appetites of the grumblers. The Israelites possessed flocks and herds but they were looking for a pretext to complain.

23 And the LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s hand shortened? Now you will see whether my word to you will come true or not!”

The Lord had already delivered the Israelites from bondage and brought them through the Red Sea. The Lord’s rhetorical question is asking whether He has now lost the power He had previously displayed.

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. He then gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and had them stand around the tabernacle.

25 And the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to them, and he took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but did not do so again.

The meaning of “prophesied” in this verse is debated but it is recognized by the people as prophetic. It may have been some kind of ecstatic state (1 Sam 10:1-13; 19:8-24). Whatever it was, it was not exhibited again because it was only intended to authenticate the election of the elders. The seventy elders were the prototype for the seventy members of the Sanhedrin (Sif. Num. 92, Sanh. 2b, 17a).

26 But two men remained in the camp; one’s name was Eldad, and the other’s name was Medad. And the spirit rested on them. (Now they were among those in the registration, but had not gone to the tabernacle.) So they prophesied in the camp.

The phrase “they were among those in the registration” probably means Eldad and Medad were among the seventy elders. Unlike the others, however, they had not gone to stand around the tabernacle; they had stayed in the camp. “Why they remained in the camp is not revealed in the text, but the inclusion of this account evidences the power of God in accomplishing his purposes among his people. Eldad and Medad became witnesses to the larger community of the manifestation of the Spirit among the elders.”5

27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

28 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his choice young men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

Joshua may think Eldad and Medad are a threat to Moses’s leadership. Since he wants them restrained they may have prophesied longer than the other elders.

29 Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for me? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

The prophetic office is not under human control. Moses would gladly have further relief from the heavy responsibility of leadership.

30 Then Moses returned to the camp along with the elders of Israel.

31 Now a wind went out from the LORD and brought quail from the sea, and let them fall near the camp, about a day’s journey on this side, and about a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, and about three feet high on the surface of the ground.

The Hebrew word ruah means both “spirit” and “wind”. In verse 29 Moses says he wishes the Lord would put his ruah (spirit) on the people and in this verse the Lord brings his ruah (wind), carrying food for the people.

Quails are small birds of the partridge family. They migrate northwards from Arabia and Africa in the spring (from the middle of March) and return again in the autumn (August to October). Their route takes them over Egypt, Sinai and Palestine. Earlier this century [20th century] Arabs living around El-Arish in northern Sinai used to catch between one and two million quails during the autumn migration in nets spread out to catch the low-flying birds.6

Cf. Ps 78:26-31.

32 And the people stayed up all that day, all that night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail. The one who gathered the least gathered ten homers, and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp.

Ten homers is estimated to be between 38 and 64 bushels.

33 But while the meat was still between their teeth, before they chewed it, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague.

Hebrew ba-‘am literally means “among the people”, implying only some of the people were smitten.

34 So the name of that place was called Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people that craved different food.

Kibroth Hattaavah means “graves of craving/longing”.

35 The people traveled from Kibroth Hattaavah to Hazeroth, and they stayed at Hazeroth.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Levine 2008, 321 
  2. Milgrom 1990, 84 
  3. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6005-6022 
  4. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6063-6068 
  5. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6177-6179 
  6. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1912-1916 
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