Fire From the Lord (11:1–3)
1–3 Now the people complained (verse 1). For the preceding ten chapters of Numbers, we have been told that the people obeyed God’s word spoken through Moses. Now they’ve hardly marched three days when they begin to complain about their hardships. Why? They have taken their eyes off God (the cloud) and their destination (the promised land), and have started focusing on their hardships—and complaining about them.
What’s wrong with complaining? Everything is wrong with it. First, it demonstrates a lack of gratitude for God’s blessings and promises. Second, it demonstrates a lack of faith, a lack of trust that God knows what is best for us. Third, it demonstrates a hostile and rebellious spirit, which in time will turn to open rebellion. Fourth, it represents disobedience to Scripture’s repeated commands to praise the Lord and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thes-salonians5:18). No wonder that God’s anger was aroused when He heard the people complaining!
This wasn’t the first time the Israelites had complained. Only three days after their astounding deliverance from Egypt they had begun to complain about the lack of water; they grumbled against Moses (Exodus 15:22–24).
We must understand that complaining, grumbling and criticizing are simply different aspects of the same sin. Usually we think it’s safe to complain about a circumstance or to grumble against a person. Who of us, after all, would dare to criticize God directly! But to complain about a circumstance or a person is the same as complaining about God. The root cause of all complaining is always a lack of faith in God’s goodness, wisdom and power. Indeed, a lack of faith—unbelief—is at the root of all sin.34
In the New Testament the JEWS (Israelites) grumbled about Jesus too; they disbelieved His claim that He was the bread of life that had come down from heaven (John 6:35–36,41). It was their unbelief that eventually led them to betray Him (John 6:64). The New Testament Jews were repeating the sins of their Israelite forefathers. Those sins—the complaining and grumbling, rooted in unbelief—serve as warnings for us today, that we might not, like the ancient Israelites, perish in the wilderness and fail to enter the promised land (1 Corinthians 10:10–11).
Then fire from the LORD—perhaps similar to lightning—struck the outskirts of the camp (verse 1). Surely the people remembered what had happened to Aaron’s two eldest sons (Leviticus 10:1–2). So the people cried out to Moses (verse 2); he prayed, and the fire died down. God could have burned up the entire camp and everyone in it, but He was always ready to show mercy—especially in response to the prayer of His faithful servant Moses. And He continues to show mercy in response to the prayers of His faithful servants today.
The Israelites named that place Taberah, which means “burning.”
Quail From the Lord (11:4–35)
Recall that only a month after the Exodus, the Israelites had complained about the deficiency of their diet (Exodus 16:1–3). This time, however, the complaint began with the non–Israelites, the “rabble.” But it then quickly spread to the Israelites themselves.
This teaches us two lessons. First, there is danger in allowing non–believers “into the camp”—that is, to become members of our church. As long as they remain unbelievers, they will have a predisposition to oppose God and His people. This surely was in the mind of the Apostle Paul when he taught believers not to be yoked together with unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14–18).
The second lesson concerns the special danger of the sin of grumbling and complaining: it spreads. It can infect even the strongest of believers and corrupt their faith. Once it gets inside a church it can split and destroy the church. It has happened many, many times in history. God knows this, and this is why complaining and criticizing are such great sins in His sight (see verses 1–3 and comment).
7–9 Even though the Israelites prepared the manna in different ways, the same diet day after day had no doubt become monotonous. It wasn’t wrong to inquire if other food might be available; it was the complaining about God’s provision that was wrong. God was feeding all those people out in the desert every day with a nutritious food; they should have been thankful and content.
People need to learn to be content. Paul wrote that godliness with contentment is great gain . . . if we have food and clothing we will be content with that (1 Timothy 6:6,8). The person who truly trusts God will be content with what He provides. Discontent is a sign of unbelief.
10–15 The rejecting of God’s manna was, in effect, the same as rejecting God Himself (see verse 20); and so God became exceedingly angry.37 Moses himself was troubled (verse 10). He saw an angry God on one side and a rebelling people on the other, and he was in the middle. He felt he could no longer bear the responsibility for leading such people, and he asked that he might die. Moses was coming close to rejecting God himself.
Though we may sympathize with Moses, he too was showing a lack of faith in God. God had been helping him up to that point; was He going to stop helping now? Even great leaders like Moses have moments of weakness when they succumb to doubt and disbelief.
16–17 God did not remove the responsibility He had given to Moses, but He did provide Moses with some relief in the form of seventy elders. Moses already had appointed judges over the people to help in settling disputes (Exodus 18:24–26); now he would have additional assistance from these “elders,” who were leading men among the people. In particular, God would equip these elders for leadership by putting the Spirit on them (verse 17), the same Holy Spirit who had been enabling Moses to lead the people. This did not mean that Moses would now have less of the Spirit; the Holy Spirit, being God, is infinite.
18–20 The Lord responded not only to Moses’ need for help but also to the people’s craving for meat. The Lord instructed Moses to tell the people that they would get meat—all the meat they could eat and then some! The meat would indeed become a curse to them, because they had rejected the LORD (verse 20).
21–23 The Lord had told Moses that the people would eat meat for a month. Like Jesus’ disciples (Mark8:4), Moses was probably thinking: “Where am I going to get a month’s worth of meat for two million people out here in this desert?” He didn’t have the advantage we have in knowing that Jesus fed thousands of people with a few loaves and a few fish (Mark 6:32–44; 8:1–10); for God anything is possible (Mark 10:27).
“Is the LORD’s arm too short?” God asked Moses (verse 23). “Is my power not sufficient to carry out what I say?” God’s power is most clearly demonstrated when things are humanly impossible.
24–25 The Lord then came down in the cloud and put the Spirit on the seventy elders whom Moses had selected. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. This could mean that they spoke intelligible words of godly wisdom or that they spoke in tongues—or perhaps both (1 Samuel 10:6; Joel 2:28; 1 Corinthians 12:10). This event reminds Christians of the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus’ disciples and they spoke in other tongues (Acts 2:1–4).
In verse 25, we read that the seventy elders did not prophesy again; this was a one–time event. It was most likely given so that the people would know that these men had truly been anointed by the Spirit and equipped for leadership. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came on people for a limited time to enable them to accomplish some specific task. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit resides within believers on a permanent basis (see John 14:16–17; Ephesians 5:18).
26–30 Two of the seventy elders were still in the camp among the people when the Spirit came on them and they began to prophesy. Moses’ aide Joshua38 wanted the two men to stop prophesying (verse 28).
Joshua evidently was afraid that the people might start following the two men and stop following Moses.
But Moses responded the way a true and humble leader should. He was not interested in keeping power and privilege for himself. He was happy to share the gifts of the Spirit with everyone.“I wish that all the LORD’s people were PROPHETS,” he said (verse 29). A true leader always tries to build up the people under him; his greatest success comes when he has prepared someone to take his place.
31–35 Then the Lord fulfilled His word: He provided meat for the people. He had done this once before (Exodus 16:13); this time He used the wind to blow a huge number of quail down around the Israelites’ encampment. There were so many quail that ten homers (over two kiloliters) was the least anyone gathered! (verse 32).
But the Lord’s JUIGMENT was yet to come; the people had shown no repentance, no acknowledgement of the Lord who had been providing for all their needs. While the people were still eating the quail, the Lord struck them with a severe plague, and many died (verse 33). They named that place Kibroth Hattaavah, which means “graves of craving.” Thus the first two places on the Israelites’ journey were marked by God’s judgment; what should have been a march of victory was turning instead into a march of death.
The Israelites’ unbelief led them to sin, and sin leads to death (Romans 6:23). Instead of looking to God, the Israelites were looking back to Egypt (verses 5,18) Their minds were set on satisfying the desires of their sinful nature. When they could have had life, they instead chose death. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace (Romans 8:6).