This chapter draws our attention to the behavior of the Israelites in the wilderness. Unfortunately, it is a history of constant infidelity and revolt. At the same time it is also a history of the long-suffering and grace of God. It is an utmost humbling picture that we get to see, but also very instructive.
1 - 3 The People Complain and Are Punished
1 Now the people became like those who complain of adversity in the hearing of the LORD; and when the LORD heard [it], His anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed [some] of the outskirts of the camp. 2 The people therefore cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD and the fire died out. 3 So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned among them.
The first described events of the wilderness journey are not those of a people who are thankfully and joyfully on their way to the promised land. God has given them every reason to do so. In Numbers 1-10 He has given them His directions and means as preparations for the journey through the wilderness. God has provided all things, He guides them. The trip would not last long, only eleven days (Deu 1:2). Already in Numbers 13 they arrive at the border of the land.
But we hear nothing about their joy. Only three days left they are on the road or they are starting to complain. That is the first thing we read. The people are, as the footnote in the Darby translation reads, “like men complaining of evil”. That is, they behave like people who sigh and moan about an accident that has happened to them.
A general feeling of dissatisfaction has arisen. They complain about something they can’t name by name, and that after so much goodness from God. They are simply not satisfied with what God has given them. It is inevitable that they will show their displeasure about the troubles and hardships that they feel result from the wilderness journey.
This is also the case in the Christian dispensation. We see that for example in the first letter to the Corinthians. In that letter we read about the laxity that prevails in the church. There it is not so much the result of dissatisfaction, but rather of their gloating, their pride in all their gifts. But the origin is the same. They don’t think of the Giver, but of themselves. There the fire of the Lord, as it were, ignites, which we see from the many who are “weak and sick” among them, “and a number sleep” (1Cor 11:30).
The fire of God’s judgment begins at the outskirts of the camp. Those who are furthest from the center of God fall first under God’s punishing hand. Fortunately for the people there is an intercessor. By the intercession of Moses, the judgment, of which fire speaks, comes to an end. In the church people complain and whine about the conditions that may prevail, but where is the help to get rid of evil by intercession?
There would never have been a twenty-first century for Christianity if there had not been a true Moses praying to God. By the intercession of the Lord Jesus (Rom 8:34; Heb 7:25) the fire of God’s wrath is averted. Every blessing, every revival is the result of that intercession.
4 - 9 The Food of Egypt and the Manna
4 The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, “Who will give us meat to eat? 5 We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, 6 but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.” 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium. 8 The people would go about and gather [it] and grind [it] between two millstones or beat [it] in the mortar, and boil [it] in the pot and make cakes with it; and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9 When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall with it.
The recently executed wrath of the LORD has not caused any lasting fear for Him in the hearts of the people. If there is a general feeling of unease in verses 1-3, now a concrete evil is mentioned that arises with the “rabble”. This “rabble” is made up of people who went with the people from Egypt, also called “a mixed multitude (Exo 12:38a). They do not belong to those who have a hope for themselves. They do not long for the promised land. They live only for the here and now and not for the future. The history of Christianity has many nominal Christians, people who only bear the name ‘Christian’, meaning that they have no life from God.
With their negative attitude they contaminate the whole people of God. So nominal Christians always get the carnal Christians on their side. People who have joined God’s people just because of the pleasant feelings that this gives, have never been separated from the world. If Christian life does not give them what they expected, they will, in pictures, long back to Egypt. For the sake of convenience, they do not think of the heavy slavery, but of its pleasurable sides. The unpleasant things are pushed away.
In Exodus we only hear the people moaning about the heavy service. After a short stay in the wilderness they have forgotten that and their only thought is of the food of Egypt (verses 5-6). That food consists of six kinds. They are all without nutritional value. Some are spicy in taste, but cause a bad breath. It is a striking picture of what the world has to offer: magazines, films, music, that are attractive to the flesh, but do not satisfy the heart. Also a consequence of consuming this food is that there is a bad smell around us; our behavior is corrupted by it. On the other hand, there is the food of the land. This consists of seven nutritious and tasty kinds (Deu 8:8). The use of that food will give us a behavior and radiance in which the Lord Jesus is seen.
“Every spiritual blessing in the heavenly [places] in Christ” with which God has blessed us (Eph 1:3) fade away if we feel neglected in relation to the wealth in which the people of the world sometimes bathe. But the real reason is that we despise the food that God gives, the manna.
The manna is a picture of the Lord Jesus as “the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:50). He is our food. We feed on Him when we read about Him in the Gospels, when we think about the way He went His way on earth, the mind in which He did everything, the words He spoke, the deeds He did and His feelings accompanying all this. This food is the food of eternity. If He is not satisfactory now, how will it be in eternity? In heaven we have nothing and no one else but Him.
The only difference between now and later is that we won’t have the flesh anymore. The Lord Jesus is and remains the same, but the flesh longs for the things of the world. We want the pleasure of the world, but not the judgment. If the world attracts us again, it is because we despise the Lord Jesus as it were, that we think that He does not offer us enough. The heart then no longer knows the power of the words the Savior has spoken: “He who comes to Me will not hunger” (Jn 6:35).
The description of the manna is done in terms of equation (verse 7; Exo 16:14,31). It is compared with coriander seed and with the bdellium, a precious stone. It gives the characteristics of the Lord Jesus’ life. That is like the coriander seed: white, perfectly pure and perfectly balanced. He who sees Him and has an eye for Him sees in Him “a precious corner[stone]” (1Pet 2:6).
The people deal with the manna in a way that God has not commanded (verse 8). It is like flavoring the Bible. We recognize this in making Bible translations with the aim of making them marketable. The truths of Scripture are popularly translated or even filmed and then offered to the public. But it is all because people can no longer bear the unmixed truth of the Lord Jesus. They are looking for something that suits them well (2Tim 4:3).
There is still the taste of oil, a picture of the Holy Spirit. It is still brought as something that speaks of God. The Holy Spirit sometimes wants to use it to convince people that they are dealing with God. The fact that “its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exo 16:31) is not mentioned here. The sweetness of the relationship with the Lord Jesus that we enjoy when we read the Word of God (Eze 3:3) is not present in it.
The manna is connected with the dew (verse 9; Exo 16:14). Dew is a refreshment. Manna refreshes the soul. God provides the food while the people sleep. His care is there day and night. When they rise, they can take what God has laid out. The manna is the daily testimony of God’s daily care.
10 - 15 Moses Complains
10 Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, each man at the doorway of his tent; and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly, and Moses was displeased. 11 So Moses said to the LORD, “Why have You been so hard on Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me? 12 Was it I who conceived all this people? Was it I who brought them forth, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant, to the land which You swore to their fathers’? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’ 14 I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me. 15 So if You are going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once, if I have found favor in Your sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”
The weeping is general. Moses is displeased at the attitude of the people towards the gift of God in the manna. He complains about the people with the LORD. It’s all going to be too much for him. In his words it sounds that he thinks he should take care of flesh and that he should carry the people. He has forgotten that it is not for him to take care of flesh or carry the people, but for God to do so (Exo 19:4; Deu 1:31). God does not expect these things from him either.
When the Lord entrusts us with the task of leading among the people, we may sometimes feel what we observe with Moses here. We too may think that we should carry the whole testimony of God on our shoulders. Then we become just like Moses. Then we take something on us that God has not imposed on us. We may entrust everything to Him. He Himself will safely bring His people to the end. It is good to feel the need of the people and at the same time to realize that God knows this need, even better than we do. This may make us pray.
16 - 17 Seventy Elders and Officers
16 The LORD therefore said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. 17 Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put [Him] upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you will not bear [it] all alone.
Moses must bring together seventy men. They are called “elders” and “officials”. They are two names for the same people. The use of the word “elders” emphasizes that it is about experienced, wise people; it is more about the person. When using the word “officials” or “overseers”, the task they perform is foremost. In the New Testament, elders and overseers are also two names for the same person (Acts 20:17,28; Tit 1:5,7).
Of the Spirit Who is upon Moses, the LORD shall separate a portion, and lay it upon the elders. Some people here see that part of the spirit of Moses – then there is no question of the Spirit of God, but the own spirit of Moses – is taken away and laid on others. The lesson then is that if we fail, God sometimes takes away from us a special privilege in a particular task, to share that task with others. As a result, we may lose part of our wages. The task which Moses received from the LORD does not exceed his strength, for the LORD imposes no unbearable burden. With the assignment he also gives the power.
When it comes to the Spirit of God Who is on Moses – as NASB suggests by writing “Spirit” with a capital letter – the meaning is different. Moses cannot lose anything “of the Spirit” Who is on him, while God can give of the same Spirit also to others. It’s like with a burning piece of wood. If that burning piece of wood lights another piece of wood, it doesn’t lose anything of its own fire, but on the contrary, it increases the fire. In the same way it works with the Spirit of God. If we kindle His work in others, this will never decrease the full measure of the Spirit we have received (Jn 3:34b).
Because of their age and experience, the seventy elders are suitable to take over from Moses’ task. Now they are being made competent by the Spirit to perform their task as well. It is remarkable that the Spirit of Moses is given to no less than seventy elders. That shows something of the extend of Moses’ task. His task is so extensive that it has to be divided among no less than seventy others.
The reason for this division of the Spirit lies in the preceding verses. There Moses complains to the LORD that he is not able to bear the burden of this whole people only by himself. It may be that this is a culpable complaining, resulting in the loss of a certain spiritual power that then goes to others. However, it is also possible that it shows how much Moses has a confidential relationship with the LORD. The consequence of this is that there is not a decrease of the Spirit, but rather an increase. God could enable Moses to do it all by himself. But He does it differently and in a way that it becomes a manifestation of the Spirit in seventy others.
It will be the desire of all who let the Spirit work in their lives, that the same Spirit will also work in the lives of others. As all seventy elders receive of the Spirit, so too can all believers receive of God’s Spirit. Every believer possesses the Spirit indwelling, but not in every believer God’s Spirit gets the space to work. In a somewhat different context, but with the same thought, Paul encourages Timothy to “kindle afresh the gift of God” which is in him (2Tim 1:6). To kindle has to do with fire. The exhortation to be “fervent in spirit” (Rom 12:11) connects to this.
At the beginning of the church we see that tongues like fire divide and put themselves on each of the assembled believers (Acts 2:3). Here we see how the Spirit fills both the whole house and the individual believer. This division does not decrease the Spirit, but it makes it visible to others that the individual is filled with Him. This we also see with the seventy elders when they start to prophesy (Num 11:25). The lesson for us is that we have to start “flaming” as it were, through which others are kindled.
18 - 23 Quail Promised
18 Say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, “Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat. 19 You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you; because you have rejected the LORD who is among you and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”‘“ 21 But Moses said, “The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot; yet You have said, ‘I will give them meat, so that they may eat for a whole month.’ 22 Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to be sufficient for them? Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to be sufficient for them?” 23 The LORD said to Moses, “Is the LORD’s power limited? Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.”
God is going to give meat. But He does this in a way that will allow the people to experience fully the horror of what they have asked for (Psa 78:29-31). When we insist that God gives us what He did not intend for us, He can finally give us what we demand of Him, but with disastrous consequences. The people must experience the folly of their lust. The quails are a blessing in Exodus 16 (Exo 16:2-13). There they serve as a preparation for the manna. Here the quails will come as a curse.
Moses still thinks he is the center of the people. He still believes that he should give meat to the people (verses 13,21-22). Sometimes we are hard learners, just like the disciples are (Mk 8:4,14-21). We should not hurl Moses too hard. He has to deal with a persistent people. The LORD asks him a question of faith and also promises him that He will live up to what he has promised.
24 - 30 The Seventy Elders Prophesy
24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people, and stationed them around the tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed [Him] upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do [it] again. 26 But two men had remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad. And the Spirit rested upon them (now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent), and they prophesied in the camp. 27 So a young man ran and told Moses and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, said, “Moses, my lord, restrain them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!” 30 Then Moses returned to the camp, [both] he and the elders of Israel.
Before the quails come, Moses first gathers the seventy elders. The LORD takes of the Spirit Who was upon him and places Him upon the elders. We read that the Spirit “rested upon them”. This is a wonderful indication that the Spirit finds peace with them. It is like the Spirit Who descends upon the Lord Jesus like a dove and then abides upon Him (Jn 1:33b). When the Spirit finds rest with us, we can share the things of God with each other. By the Spirit Who rests upon them, the elders prophesy. They do that temporarily. Prophecy is the application of the Word to the heart and conscience (1Cor 14:3).
Two of the seventy have stayed back in the camp. We can see a special guidance of God’s providence that these two are absent, for thus it appears that it is indeed the Spirit of God, by Whom these elders are driven. Not Moses gave them that Spirit, but God Himself. Perhaps these two, it is supposed, have been too modest to respond to Moses’ call. Yet God gives them His Spirit and urges them to prophesy. The fact that they are in God’s favor may be deduced from the fact that God reveals their names to us, and of them alone. He knows perfectly well what is being done for Him, even if it happens in the camp and not at the tent of meeting.
Although they are not present where they should be, they still prophesy. A young man reports this to Moses. Joshua hears the message about this and thinks that the two men should stop prophesying. In his opinion they are not competent to do so because they are not in the right place, near the tent where the LORD is present in the cloud. But Moses has learned the lesson. He does not prevent it. The Lord Jesus also taught His disciples that lesson (Mk 9:38-41). Paul learned from the Lord Jesus and shows a mind similar to that of Moses (Phil 1:15-18).
Moses acknowledges that God uses them in that place and that they are a blessing to others. It is always good to recognize that God remains sovereign in the distribution of His Spirit. The names of the two are highlighted. Eldad means ‘God has loved’ and Medad means ‘loved one’. In these names we find a development of love in a place where they should not actually be. It is a revelation of love that is often lacking among those who, possibly rightly, say that they are in the right place, namely the place where the Lord Jesus is in the midst (Mt 18:20). Such a revelation of love serves to embarrass all those who can say a lot about love, but in practice do not act upon it.
If we fail to hold the truth of God’s Word about the meeting of the believers in love (Eph 4:15), God will use others who may lack understanding. The Lord says: “He who is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40). That should teach us about our judgment of what others do for the Lord. It forbids us to draw a line through activities just because they do not ‘emanate from us’.
Moses’ reaction to Joshua’s proposal shows that he does not seek his own honor, but that of the LORD, and that he has the welfare of the people in mind. In the church there may also be the desire that “all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted” (1Cor 14:31). This excludes a one-man service. It is important to have this desire and to encourage others to allow themselves to be used for this service. Jealousy must be judged here. No one may present himself as being solely competent or qualified to perform this service. No one should also think that everything that comes to mind in him should necessarily be put forward, for “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1Cor 14:32).
Prophecy, as has been said, is speaking “to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1Cor 14:3). The question is to what extent the desire is present in us and to what extent the freedom is present in it. Is our relationship with the Lord Jesus to become jealous of, as with Moses? Prophesy is speaking what is necessary in view of the state of God’s people or of a single soul at that time. If we are dependent on the Lord and we have the desire to serve His own, He will give the words that are needed.
The lamentation of Moses “would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!”, will become a reality in the future. The prophet Joel speaks about this in his prophecy: “It will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; And your sons and daughters will prophesy, Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions. Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
The wish of Moses has become with Joel a promise of the LORD: sons and daughters shall prophesy. This requires a life animated by the Spirit. Only then is one receptive to Divine revelations. This will be the case for all who enter the kingdom of peace. Prophecy is speaking out of the presence of God with knowledge of His will. God will make His will known to the old men through dreams and to young people through visions.
In the Old Testament we see that the Spirit does not generally use every member of the people. He does His work mainly through kings, priests and prophets. It will be different in the future. Then all layers of the people, even the male and female servants, receive this gift. There will be no distinction between gender, age – for God there is no generation gap – or social status. The old men, with whom the power is diminishing or even gone, and the young men, who have little or no experience in the things of God, will receive revelations from God in dreams and visions.
31 - 35 Quail and Judgement
31 Now there went forth a wind from the LORD and it brought quail from the sea, and let [them] fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp and about two cubits [deep] on the surface of the ground. 32 The people spent all day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail (he who gathered least gathered ten homers) and they spread [them] out for themselves all around the camp. 33 While the meat was still between their teeth, before it was chewed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague. 34 So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had been greedy. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people set out for Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth.
There is an overwhelming mass of meat (Psa 78:26-31). That should make them feel ashamed. They have doubted whether God can do it. Now they get it. But instead of it casting them upon God, they cast themselves upon the meat. It brings them not to God in humility, but to a revelation of their lusts, the proof that their god is the stomach (Phil 3:19).
Then God’s patience with them is over. Also in a general sense there will be an end to God’s tolerance. His wrath kindles. Many are being killed. The inscription on their tombstone reads: ‘The greedy people’. How will be the inscription on our tombstone? How will people remember us?
In Exodus 16 the lesson is that believers must learn to feed on the manna, a picture of the Lord Jesus in His life on earth, from day to day. But the eating of the manna can only happen after one has fed oneself with the flesh of the Lord Jesus, or indeed His death. The consequence of this food is getting part of the blessing of eternal life (Jn 6:53-54). The quail in Exodus 16 are a picture of this.
Here in Numbers 11, the quail are also a picture of the same death of the Lord Jesus. But the consequence here is judgment. The death of Christ is a blessing as we feed with Him to be freed from our sins. The death of Christ is a curse for those who are disgusted by Him. It is He by Whom God shall judge the earth (Acts 17:31; Jn 5:27; Rev 20:11).
After the event with the quail the people set out for Hazeroth.