From Slaves to Soldiers

Chapter 11

Frank M. Yamada says, “The book of Numbers can be a theological quagmire. The complexity in this passage, however, requires more interpretative subtlety. The wilderness, which becomes a metaphorical place of God’s testing in the Bible, is the locus for both human and divine difficulty. This harsh setting challenges both the Israelites and their God. Positioned in the middle of the conflict is Moses, who intercedes on behalf of the people in the face of God’s judgment. Thus, the wilderness becomes the place in which covenantal loyalty is lived out and tested for all parties involved–the Israelites, Moses, and the LORD.”[1]

Terence E. Fretheim says, “The entire book of Numbers is set in a journey through the wilderness (‘In the wilderness’ is the Hebrew title for Numbers). When you are reading [the book of] Numbers, think journey — journey through the wilderness of life. … This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of Yahweh.”[2]

The narrator said that the people started grumbling over their hard life, so we know they had a hard life. No one is floating through life on “flowery beds of ease.” We are flawed humans living in a world where we never see anything as perfect. It irritates me when the people around me are complaining about the weather. They complain one day because it’s too cold and the next day because it’s too hot. They do it because it just seems like a good idea and everyone else is complaining, so it must be the thing to do. However, the most important reason they complain is because they don’t stop and think that they are objecting to something that the God of the universe, Yahweh – the great I Am – is doing. They don’t stop to think that Yahweh is the Creator and sustainer of everything and thank him for holding everything together.

Human nature takes the good for granted. The flood waters in a small town in Texas that I was living in took a course around parts of the town while destroying others. It was a “hundred year flood” and nothing like the flash floods to which the residents were well acquainted. The residents who the flood had avoided continued to complain about the weather and anything else that inconvenienced their lives. The residents who the flood had hit hard mourned the lives that were lost and thanked their God for the lives that had been spared. The residents who had escaped the flood waters complained because they didn’t have T.V. reception and railed against the government. The people who had escaped the angry waters with only their lives did everything they could to help each other and went to work rebuilding their lives. That was an object lesson for me that taught me that human beings must suffer sometimes to bring out the best in their characters. Ease and decadence makes people self-absorbed and myopic. Consider the story of the rich young ruler[3]. When Yeshua told him to sell all that he had and give it to the poor he probably thought if the poor weren’t so lazy they would be rich – and of course “everyone knows” that no one would be sick or disabled if they would just :get right with God.”

When fire burned around the camp the Israelites must have immediately remembered that their grumbling was against Yahweh. They went to Moses and cried out for help because they had elected him to be the mediator between Yahweh and them[4]. Moses knew that Yahweh is in control of the world and everything that is in it, entreated Yahweh to make the fire die down.

The narrator said that Yahweh had a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility when he heard the people’s grumbling. The Encyclopedia of Psychology says, “Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong. Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems.”[5] Moses attributed human emotion to Yahweh because that is the only way we can relate to him. Yahweh is so far above us that we can’t begin to understand him.[6]

Our conception of Yahweh is distorted or diminished because we embrace the prevailing mindset of our culture and impose that mindset on who he is. When bad things happen in this world we live in we have an inclination to assume that we are responsible. The narrator associated the grumbling of the people with the fire because he knew the people’s peevish petulant behavior was an insult to Yahweh. Yahweh deals with his people from a human perspective. He said, through Zachariah, “I’ll refine them as silver is refined, test them for purity as gold is tested. Then they’ll pray to me by name and I’ll answer them personally. I’ll say, ‘That’s my people.’ They’ll say, ‘Yahweh is my God!’”[7]

John Piper[8]says, “He is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire. … This is not merely a word of warning, but a tremendous word of hope. The furnace of affliction in the family of God is always for refinement, never for destruction.”

They named the place Taberah (Blaze) as a memorial because fire from Yahweh had blazed up against them.

Many Egyptians joined Israel when they left; some were uninvited; many may have been asked by friends and some left as members of Israelite families. The ten plagues in swift succession with increasing severity would have made many Egyptians think life outside of Egypt would be preferable. Unfortunately they would have brought their old gods and habits with them – along with the power of persuasion. People always think they would be happier in a different set of circumstances, so when they had been out of Egypt for a while they begin to think how much better off they were back where they came from.

Jennifer Kunst Ph.D. says, “Troubles in life come when we believe the myth that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. We are taken over by envy, believing that other people have the good stuff and then feeling depressed, anxious, and persecuted by the belief that we have so little. The reason why this attitude undermines mental health is that it leads us to turn away from the main task of life which is to make the most of what we have. By denying the goodness of our very own lives, we believe that we have nothing good to work with nor the capacity to work with it. We lose focus, [Israel’s focus should have been on Yahweh and his goodness and care] … Psychoanalysts spend a lot of time trying to help their patients re-orient themselves to dealing with the life that they have.”[9]

The Egyptians who went along with Israel knew how to keep the attention of others, explain the benefits of their argument, develop a line of reasoned argument, and put their points across clearly and concisely[10].Before long Israel was whining, “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”

The narrator told his reader that manna was something like a shiny seed that the people gathered from among the dew and ground into fine flour, boiled it, and shaped it into cakes. He said that it was a tasty treat cooked in olive oil. Yahweh blessed his people with manna so they would never go hungry and what they had to eat was a delicate luxury that would never overburden their digestive systems. Life was good but human nature gets bored when life is too good.

Everyone was unhappy with the status quo. The people wanted meat to eat and so were cantankerous and peevish. Moses was unhappy with their whining so he got cranky himself. The difference was that the people were leaving Yahweh out of their venting and Moses went right to the only one who could do anything about the problem. He demonstrated his trust in his God, Yahweh by going to him and complaining. The people complained behind Yahweh’s back and Moses faced him head on. Venting to Yahweh was productive. Complaining behind his back was destructive.

Moses’ complaints included a feeling of isolation and single-handedly trying to care for Yahweh’s people. Aaron and his sons had their priestly duties and the tribe of Levi had their work to do but they all worked under Moses. He had the seventy elders of Israel that he took on the mountain with him[11] but they had always kept their distance from Yahweh and Moses, leaving close association with their God, Yahweh, to their leader, Moses.

Yahweh provided a solution to Moses’ problem by telling him to gather the seventy elders from among the leaders of Israel. They were men whom Moses knew to be respected and responsible. Yahweh told Moses to take them to the Tent of Meeting and he would meet them there and take some of the Spirit that was on Moses and place it on them so they would be able to take some of the load of the people and Moses wouldn’t have to carry the whole thing alone.

Yahweh told Moses to instruct the people to consecrate themselves. They were to set themselves apart as Yahweh’s alone and that would get them ready for what Yahweh was going to do the following day. He was going to give them that for which they had been kvetching. He told them that they would be getting so much meat that they would throw it up. They would get meet for a whole month. They not only rejected Yahweh’s provision, they also yearned to go back into slavery in Egypt.

When you and I were rescued from the slavery of sin we sank into the pleasure of our Savior’s love and mercy for a while, but when the newness wore off we looked back on the chains of sin and they sparkled like gold in our eyes. Some of us turned our back on the glitter and held tight to Yeshua’s hand while the enemy of our souls tried to pull us back into the bondage of sin. However, some of us turned our back on our Savior and followed the temptation back into slavery again until the very mention of those glistening chains made us want to throw up.

Moses was tempted not to believe that Yahweh could feed all those people meat – even after the miracle of water and manna. The memories of the goodness of Yahweh were dim in his memory because the tension of the day took precedence. Yahweh demonstrated his patience and mercy by assuring Moses that he would prove he could take care of his chosen people yet again. Moses went out and told the people what Yahweh said and he called the seventy leaders and had them stand around the Tent of Meeting. Yahweh descended in a cloud and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the leaders. When the Spirit of Yahweh rested on them they prophesied – just that one time. Even the members of the seventy who hadn’t gone to the Tent of Meeting as directed begin to prophesy. They were giving the people messages from Yahweh. The men who stayed in the camp, Eldad and Medad, gave the people in the camp messages from Yahweh so a young man ran and told Moses what was going on. Joshua, who was always close to Moses, objected but Moses told him not to be jealous for him because it would be better if all Yahweh’s people had his Spirit and were able to speak his word. All Yahweh’s people should be able to represent their God, Yahweh, on earth and be good witnesses of his character. These seventy men had demonstrated that the people could go to them for spiritual guidance as well as Moses. The seventy also knew that they had the power from Yahweh to be spiritual leaders.

Moses and the leaders went back to camp and Yahweh set a wind in motion that swept quails in from the sea. This was the second time the Yahweh had sent Israel quails[12] but this time they kept coming and the Israelites greed had them out gathering huge amounts of quail from piles about 3 feet deep. Even the slowest among them gathered at least 60 bushels of quail and spread them out for drying – preparing for the future, just as the Egyptians had always done.

The natural historian doesn’t have any problem with this account because it is in keeping with the location and the laws of Nature. First the meaning of the Hebrew word, selaw, is “to be fat.” After a winter of feeding in the South the quails, which were birds of earth, and heavy feeders, would have plump, full bodies. The time was early spring, our April, and the quail were flocking from Africa and spreading in clouds. Migration was such an effort that when forced to cross a large body of water they always waited until the wind blew in the direction of their course, so they wouldn’t tire and fall. Israelites were encamped on the Sinai Peninsula. The birds were in migration. The quail followed the Red Sea until they reached the point of the peninsula where they selected the narrowest place, and when the wind was with them they crossed the water. Not far from the shore arose the smoke from the campfires of the Israelites. This bewildered them, and, weary from their journey, they began to settle in confused thousands over and around the camp.[13].

Israel had drifted back into the habits of Egypt. The slave had been released from his and her bonds and was trying to pick up the chains of the familiar chains rather than stepping out in faith after Yahweh into the unknown. They were afraid to walk on water with Yahweh so he sent the flood to them so they would learn to trust his directions along the paths of righteousness rather than dragging chains of sin through the quagmire of sin.

The people of Israel gorged on quail and died. Yahweh could have kept them from dying, but we aren’t puppets. We are human beings with the ability to make decisions and live with the consequences. The Israelites chose greed and reaped the result of greed. They named the place where they buried to people who had such a craving for meat that they died of gluttony. They named it Kibroth Hattaavah (Graves-of-the-Craving) as a memorial to their covetousness.

From Kibroth Hattaavah they marched on to Hazeroth where they stayed.

 

Summary of chapter 11

James Burton Coffman sums up this chapter by saying that it deals with some of the many dissatisfactions and revolts of the nation of Israel. These events were recorded as warning markers for the future generations not to repeat their mistakes.[14] Here, in chapter 11, the narrator gives the reader the accounts of Israel’s grumbling and Yahweh’s rescue from the fire after Moses prayed for help. It records Israel’s lust for meat and Yahweh’s provision; along with Moses’ irritation and prayer that resulted in Yahweh’s solution. The narrator recorded the case of Eldad and Medad and Moses’ wish that all Yahweh’s people could be empowered by his spirit. Lastly the narrator recorded the people’s lack of trust that resulted in gluttony, excess, and gourmandizing. The narrator recorded that the result of their decadence was death and Israel’s memorial to the incident.

The people of Israel, overall, showed themselves to be unwilling to accept any kind of difficulty that it would take to realize liberty and independence. They didn’t realize that freedom, prosperity, and power simply don’t exist spontaneously as an inherited privilege, but must be won by suffering, diligent work and faithfulness.[15]

 

Prayer: Lord, I’m a way worn traveler, in tattered garments clad. As I struggle up the mountain, sometimes I get sad. My back is laden heavy, my strength is almost gone, yet I can shout as I journey that, “Deliverance will come!” Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear. The summer sun is shining, the sweat is on my brow, my clothes are worn and dusty, my step is very slow; but I keep pressing onward, for I am wending home, still shouting as I journey that, “Deliverance will come!” Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear. The songsters in the arbor that stood beside the way attracted my attention, inviting my delay: but my watchword is “Onward!” so I stopped my ears and ran, still shouting as I journeyed, “Deliverance will come!” Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear. It is evening and the sun is bending low. I’ve overtopped the mountain, and reached the vale below: I see the Golden City, “my everlasting home” and I shout a loud, “Hosanna! Deliverance will come!” Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear. While gazing on that city, just o’er the narrow flood, A band of holy angels will come from your throne and bare me on their pinions safe o’er the dashing foam, and they’ll join me in my triumph because deliverance has come! Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear. I will hear the song of triumph they sing upon that shore, saying, “Yeshua has redeemed us to suffer nevermore!” Then I’ll cast my eyes backward on the race which I have run, and I’ll shout a loud, “Hosanna! Deliverance has come!” Then palms of victory, crowns of glory, and palms of victory I shall wear.[16]

Things to think about

  1. Why did the Israelites, including Moses assume the fire that broke out around the camp was because of the people’s attitude?
  2. Do you think the incidents recorded in this chapter all took place at the same time?
  3. Why did the narrator record them together?
  4. Why is it so easy to grumble and complain?
  5. What can we learn about Yahweh from the incident of the fire?
  6. What can we learn about human nature and the character of Yahweh from the incident with the quail?
  7. What can we learn from the incident with the seventy elders?

 

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=451

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1355

[3] Matthew 10:17-27

[4] Exodus 20

[5] http://www.apa.org/topics/anger/

[6] Isaiah 55:8, 9

[7] Zachariah 13:9

[8] http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/he-is-like-a-refiners-fire

[9] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/headshrinkers-guide-the-galaxy/201107/mythbusterthe-grass-is-not-always-greener-the-other-side

[10] https://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/sk/persuading.htm

[11] Exodus 24:9

[12] Exodus 16:13

[13] Gene Stratton-Porter, http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/quail/

[14] I Corinthians 10:11

[15] https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bcc/numbers-11.html

[16] From a song that was evidently written in 1836 by the Rev. John B. Matthias, a Methodist Episcopal minister in New York State. The song is clearly based on the story of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palms_of_Victory

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