Numbers 11 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Numbers 11
Pulpit 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.
Verse 1. - And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord. There is no "when" in the original. It is literally, "And the people were as complainers evil in the ears of the Lord." This may be paraphrased as in the A.V.; or it may be rendered as in the Septuagint, ῆν ὁ λαὸς γογγύζων πονηρὰ ἔυαντι κυρίου (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:10), where πονηρά means the wicked things they uttered in their discontent; or the "evil" may mean the hardships they complained cf. The Targums understand it in the same way as the Septuagint, and this seems to agree best with the context. As to the time and place of this complaining, the narrative seems to limit it within the three days' march from the wilderness of Sinai; but it is not possible to fix it more precisely. It is sufficient that the very first incident in the great journey thought worthy of record was this sin and its punishment, and the natural conclusion is that it came to pass very shortly after the departure. As to the reason of the complaining, although it is not stated, and although there does not seem to have been any special cause of distress, we can hardly be mistaken about it. The fatigue and anxiety of the march, after a year's comparative idleness, the frightful nature of the country into which they were marching, and the unknown terrors of the way which lay before them, these were quite enough to shake their nerves and upset their minds. Such things could only be borne and faced in a spirit of faith and trustful dependence upon God and their appointed leaders, and that spirit they knew nothing cf. Slavery, even when its outward pressure is past and gone like a bad dream, leaves behind it above all things an incurable suspicion of, and a rooted disbelief in, others, which shows itself outwardly by blank ingratitude and persistent complaint of bad treatment. This is the well-known mental attitude of liberated slaves even towards their benefactors and liberators; and in the case of Israel this temper extended to the King of Israel himself, whom they held responsible for all the privations and terrors of an apparently needless journey through a hideous waste. The Targum of Palestine says here, "There were wicked men of the people who, being discontent, devised and imagined evil before the Lord." The complaining, however, seems to have been general throughout the host, as the Psalmist more truly acknowledges (Psalm 78:17-22). And the fire of the Lord burnt among them. The "fire of the Lord" may mean one of three things.

1. Lightning, as apparently in Job 1:16; for lightning to the unscientific is the fiery bolt, even as thunder is the angry voice, of God (cf. 1 Samuel 12:18, 19).

2. A miraculous outburst of flame from the Presence in the tabernacle, such as slew Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:2), and afterwards the 250 men who offered incense (chapter 16:35).

3. A miraculous descent of fire from heaven, as apparently in 2 Kings 1:10-12 (cf. Revelation 13:13). Of these the second seems to be excluded by the fact that the conflagration was in the outskirts of the camp furthest removed from the tabernacle. If we suppose the fire to have been natural, we may further suppose that it set alight to the dry bushes and shrubs which abound in parts of the desert, and which blaze with great fury when the flame is driven by the wind. It is, however, at least as likely that a wholly supernatural visitation of God is here intended. What is most important to notice is this, that the punishment in this case followed hard and sore upon the sin, whereas before they came to Sinai the Lord had passed over similar murmurings without any chastisement (Exodus 15:24; Exodus 16:2). The reason of this difference was twofold. In the first place, they had now had abundant opportunity to become acquainted with the power and goodness of the Lord, and had solemnly entered into covenant with him, and he had taken up his abode among them; wherefore their responsibilities grew with their privileges, their dangers kept pace with their advantages. In the second place, they had while at Sinai committed an act of national apostasy (Exodus 32), the punishment of which, although suspended (verse 14), was only suspended (verse 34), and was always capable of being revived; Israel was plainly warned that he was under sentence, and that any disobedience would awake the terrors of the Lord against him. And consumed... in the uttermost parts of the camp. Probably setting fire to the outer line of tents, or some pitched outside the line, and consuming the people that were in them. The Targum of Palestine affirms that it "destroyed some of the wicked in the outskirts of the house of Dan, with whom was a graven image;" but this attempt to shift the responsibility, and to alter the character of the sin, is clearly worthless, and only suggested by occurrences wholly unconnected with the present (see Judges 18).
And the people cried unto Moses; and when Moses prayed unto the LORD, the fire was quenched.
Verse 2. - And the people cried unto Moses. Fear brought them to their senses, and they knew that their only hope was in their mediator, who had already saved them by his intercession from a worse destruction (Exodus 32:30-34). The fire was quenched. Rather, "went out." As its beginning was supernatural, or at least was so ordered as to appear so, its end also was due to the Divine intervention, not to human efforts.
And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the LORD burnt among them.
Verse 3. - and he called the name of the place Taberah. Or Taberah (תַּבְעֵרָה). This name does not occur in the list of stations in chapter 33, which mentions nothing between Sinai and Kibroth-Hattaavah. It would seem probable, however, that the conflagration occurred while Israel was encamped, or else there could hardly have been a burning "in the end of the camp." We may therefore suppose either that Tabeerah was some spot in the immediate neighbourhood of Sinai whither the people gathered for their first long march; or that it was one of the halting-places on the "three days' journey" not mentioned in the list, because that journey was considered as all one; or that it was the same place afterwards called Kibroth-Hatta-avah. There is nothing in the narrative to decide a question which is in itself unimportant. It is necessary to remember that where the ancient and local names derived from marked natural features were not available, such names as Tabeerah given to the halting-places of so vast a host must have had a very loose significance.

CHAPTER 11:4-35 KIBROTH HATTAAVAH (verses 4-35).
And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?
Verse 4. The mixed multitude. Hebrew, ha-saphsuph, the gathered; the rift-raft, or rabble, which had followed the fortunes of Israel out of Egypt, where they had probably been strangers and slaves themselves. What the nature and the number and the fate of this rabble were is a matter of mere conjecture and of some perplexity. There does not seem any room for them in the regulations laid down for Israel, nor are they mentioned in any other place except at Exodus 12:38. In Leviticus 24:10 we read of the son of an Israelitish woman by an Egyptian father, and this might lead us to conjecture that a great part of the "mixed multitude" was the offspring of such left-handed alliances. These half-breeds, according to the general rule in such cases, would follow their mothers; they would be regarded with contempt by the Jews of pure blood, and would accompany the march as hangers-on of the various tribes with which they were connected. As to their fate, it may be probably concluded, from the reason of things and from the absence of any further notice of them, that they found their way back to the slavery and the indulgences of Egypt; they were bound by no such strong restraints and animated by no such national feelings as the true people of the Lord. And the children of Israel also wept again. This expression, again (Hebrew, שׁוּב, used adverbially), would seem to point to some former weeping, and this is generally found in the "murmuring" of which they had been guilty in the desert of Sin (Exodus 16:2, 3). This, however, is unsatisfactory for several reasons: first, because that occurrence was too remote, having been more than a year ago; second, because there is no mention of any "weeping" at that time; third, because the matter of complaint on the two occasions was really quite different: then they murmured faithlessly at the blank starvation which apparently stared them in the face; now they weep greedily at the absence of remembered luxuries. It is therefore much more likely that the expression has regard to the "complaining" which had just taken place at Tabeerah. It was indeed wonderful that the punishment then inflicted did not check the sin; wonderful that it burst out again in an aggravated form almost immediately. But such was the obstinacy of this people, that Divine vengeance, which only perhaps affected a few, and only lasted for a brief space, was not sufficient to silence their wicked clamour. Who shall give us flesh to eat? בָּשָׂר - Septuagint, κρέα - means flesh-meat generally. They had flocks and herds it is true, but they were no doubt carefully preserved, and the increase of them would little more than suffice for sacrifice; no one would dream of slaughtering them for ordinary eating.
We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick:
Verse 5. - We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, i.e., gratis. No doubt this was an exaggeration on the part of the murmurers, but it is attested by classical writers that fish swarmed in the Nile waters, and cost next to nothing (Died. Sic., 1:36, 52; Herod., 2:93; Strabo, 17. page 829). Cucumbers. קִשֻׁאִים. Cucumbers of peculiar softness and flavour are spoken of by Egyptian travelers as fructus in Egypto omnium vulgatissimus. Melons. אַבַטִּחִים. Water-melons, still called battieh, grow in Egypt, as in all hot, moist lands, like weeds, and are as much the luxury of the poorest as of the richest. Leeks. חָצִיר. This word usually means grass (as in Psalm 104:14), and may do so hare, for the modern Egyptians eat a kind of field-clover freely. The Septuagint, however, translates it by τὰ πράσα, leeks or chives, which agrees better with the context. Pliny (Nat. Hist. 19:33) speaks of it as "laudatissimus porrus in Egypto." Onions. בְּצָלִים. Garlic. שׁוּמְים. These are mentioned in the well-known passage of Herodotus (2:125) as forming the staple food of the workmen at the pyramids; these still form a large part of the diet of the labouring classes in Egypt, as in other Mediterranean countries. If we look at these different articles of food together, so naturally and inartificially mentioned in this verse, we find a strong argument for the genuineness of the narrative. They are exactly the luxuries which an Egyptian labourer of that day would have cried out for, if deprived of them; they are not the luxuries which a Jew of Palestine would covet, or would even think cf. The very words here used for the cucumber, the melon, and the garlic were probably Egyptian, for they may still be recognized in the common names of those vegetables in Egypt.
But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.
Verse 6. - Our soul is dried away. This exaggerated statement expressed their craving for the juicy and savoury food of which they had been thinking, and which was obviously unattainable in the wilderness. There is a physical craving in man for variety of diet, and especially for such condiments and flavours as he has been used to all his life, which makes the lack of them a real hardship. It is not necessary to condemn the Israelites for feeling very keenly the loss of their accustomed food, which is notoriously the one thing which the poorest classes are least able to bear; it is only necessary to condemn them for making this one loss of more account than all their gain. There is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. Rather, "we have nothing (אֵין כֹּל) except that our eye (falls) upon this manna." These graphic words speak of the longing looks which turned in every direction after the accustomed dainties, only to fall with disgust upon the inevitable manna. It was very ungrateful of them to speak disparagingly of the manna, which was good and wholesome food, and sufficient to keep them in health and strength; but it is useless to deny that manna only for people who had been accustomed to a rich and varied diet must have been exceedingly trying both to the palate and the stomach (cf. Numbers 21:5).
And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
Verse 7. - The manna was as coriander seed. On the name and the nature of the manna see Exodus 16:31. It is commonly supposed that the brief description here inserted was intended to show the unreasonableness of the popular complaints. There is no trace whatever of any such purpose. So far as the description conveys fresh information, it was simply suggested by the occurrence of the word "manna," according to the artless style of the narrative. If any moral purpose must be assigned to this digression, it would rather be to suggest that the people had some real temptation to complain. It is often forgotten that, although the manna was supernatural, at least as to the amount and regularity of its supply, yet as an article of food it contained no supernatural elements. If we had to live upon nothing but cakes flavored with honey or with olive oil, it is certain that we should soon find them pall upon our appetite. To the eye of the Psalmist the manna appeared as angels' food (Psalm 78:25); but then the Psalmist had not lived on manna every day for a year. We have to remember, in this as in many other cases, that the Israelites would not be "our ensamples" (τύποι ἡμῶν, 1 Corinthians 10:6) if they had not succumbed to real temptations. As the colour of bdellium. See on Genesis 2:12. As no one knows anything at all about bdellium, this adds nothing to our knowledge of the manna. The Septuagint has here εῖδος κρυστάλλου, "the appearance of ice," or perhaps "of hoar-frost." As it translates bdellium in Genesis 2:12 by ἄνθραξ (carbuncle), it is probable that the comparison to ice here is due to some tradition about the manna. Taking this passage in connection with Exodus 16:31, we may reasonably conjecture that it was of an opalescent white, the same colour probably which is mentioned in connection with manna in Revelation 2:17.
And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.
Verse 8. - And the people... ground it in mills. This information as to the preparation of the manna is new. It may be supposed that at first the people ate it in its natural state, but that afterwards they found out how to prepare it in different ways for the sake of variety. Small handmills and mortars for the preparation of grain they would have brought with them from their Egyptian homes. As the taste of fresh oil. In Exodus 16:31 it is said to have tasted like wafers made with honey. Nothing is more impossible adequately to describe than a fresh taste. It is sufficient to note that the two things suggested by the taste of the manna, honey and oil, present the greatest possible contrast to the heavy or savoury food which they remembered in Egypt.
And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it.
Verse 9. - And when the dew fell,... the manna fell upon it. We know from Exodus 16:14 that when the dew evaporated in the morning it left a deposit of manna upon the ground; we learn here that the manna fell upon the dew during the night. Now the dew is deposited in the cool of the night beneath a clear sky, when radiation of heat goes on uninterruptedly from the earth's surface; it is clear, therefore, that the manna was let fall in some way beyond human experience from the upper air. What possible physical connection there could be between the dew and the manna we cannot tell. To the untaught mind, however, the dew seemed to come more directly than any other gift of nature from the clear sky which underlay the throne of God; and thus the Jew was led to look upon the manna too as coming to him day by day direct front the storehouse of heaven (cf. Psalm 78:23, 24; Psalm 105:40).
Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent: and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.
Verse 10. - Throughout their families. Every family weeping by itself. Such was the contagion of evil, that every family was infected. Compare Zechariah 12:12 for a description of a weeping similar in character, although very different in its cause. Every man in the door of his tent. So that his wailing might be heard by all. So public and obtrusive a demonstration of grief must of course have been pre-arranged. They doubtless acted thus under the impression that if they made themselves sufficiently troublesome and disagreeable they would get all they wanted; in this, as in much else, they behaved exactly like ill-trained children. Moses also was displeased. The word "also" clearly compares and unites his displeasure with that of God. The murmuring indeed of the people was directed against God, and against Moses as his minister. The invisible King and his visible viceroy could not be separated in the regard of the people, and their concerted exhibition of misery was intended primarily for the eye of the latter. It was, therefore, no wonder that such conduct roused the wrath of Moses, who had no right to be angry, as well as the wrath of God, who had every right to be. angry. Moses sinned because he failed to restrain his temper within the exact limits of what befits the creature, and to distinguish carefully between a righteous indignation for Cod and an angry impatience with men. But he sinned under very sore provocation.
And Moses said unto the LORD, Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that thou layest the burden of all this people upon me?
Verse 11. - Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? These passionate complaints were clearly wrong, because exaggerated. God had not thrown upon Moses the responsibility of getting the people safely into Canaan, or of providing flesh for them; and apart from these exaggerations, it was a selfish and cowardly thing thus to dwell upon his own grievance, and to leave out of sight the grave dishonour done to God, and the awful danger incurred by the people. It was the more blameworthy in Moses because upon a former occasion he had taken upon him, with almost perilous boldness, to remonstrate with God, and to protest against the vengeance he threatened to inflict (Exodus 32:11-13). In a word, Moses forgot himself and his duty as mediator, and in his indignation at the sin of the people committed the same sin himself. It is a strong note of genuineness that so grave (and yet so natural) a fault should be recorded with such obvious simplicity. Compare the cases of Elijah (1 Kings 19) and of Jonah (chapter 4).
Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?
Verse 12. - Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father. Probably he meant to say that this was the part and the duty of God himself as the Creator and Father of Israel. Compare the reading, which is perhaps the correct one, in Acts 13:18: Τεσσαρακονταετῆ χρόνον ἐτροφοόρησεν αὐτοὺς ἑν τῇ ἐρήμῳ.
Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me, saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat.
I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.
Verse 14. - 1 am not able to bear all this people alone. This complaint, while reasonable in itself, shows how unreasonable the rest of his words were. However many he might have had to share his responsibilities, be could not have provided flesh for the people, nor enabled them to live one day in the wilderness; this had never been laid upon him.
And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.
Verse 15. - Kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, or "quite." Hebrew, תָרֹג, inf. abs. And let me not see my wretchedness. Let me not live to see the total failure of my hopes and efforts.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee.
Verse 16. - And the Lord said unto Moses. The Divine dignity and goodness of this answer, if not an absolutely conclusive testimony, are at least a very strong one, to the genuineness of this record. Of what god, except the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was it ever witnessed, or could it have been ever imagined, that he should answer the passionate injustice of his servant with such forbearance and kindness? The one thing in Moses' prayer which was reasonable he allowed at once; the rest he passed over without answer or reproof, as though it had never been uttered. Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel. That the number seventy has a symbolic significance in Scripture will hardly be denied (cf. Exodus 1:5; Daniel 9:2, 24; Luke 10:1), although it is probably futile to affix any precise meaning to it. Perhaps the leading idea of seventy is fullness, as that of twelve is symmetry (see on Exodus 15:27). The later Jews believed that there were seventy nations in the world. There is no reason, except a reckless desire to confound the sacred narrative, to identify this appointment with that narrated in Exodus 18:21, sq. and Deuteronomy 1:9, sq. The circumstances and the purposes appear quite distinct: those were appointed to assist Moses in purely secular matters, to share his burden as a judge; these to assist him in religious matters, to support him as a mediator; those used the ordinary gifts of wisdom, discretion, and personal authority; these the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. It is more reasonable to suppose that these seventy were the same men that went up into Mount Sinai with Moses, and saw the God of Israel, and ate of the consecrated meal of the covenant, about a year before. Unless there was some decisive reason against it, an elder who had been chosen for that high religious privilege could hardly fail to be chosen on this occasion also; an interview with God himself, so mysteriously and awfully significant, must surely have left an ineffaceable stamp of sanctity on any soul at all worthy of it. It would be natural to suppose that while the present selection was made de novo, the individuals selected were personally the same. Compare note on chapter Numbers 1:5, and for "the elders of Israel" see on Exodus 3:16. Whom thou knowest to be elders of the people, and officers over them. On the officers (Hebrew, shoterim), an ancient order in the national organization of Israel, continued from the days of bondage, see Exodus 5:6. The Targ. Pal. paraphrases the word shoterim by "who were set over them in Mizraim." The Septuagint has here πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ γρυμματεῖς αὐτῶν, words so familiar to the reader of the Greek Gospels. The later Jews traced back their Sanhedrim, or grand council of seventy, to this appointment, and found their eiders and scribes in this verse. There was, however, no further historical connection between the two bodies than this - that when the monarchy failed and prophecy died out, the ecclesiastical leaders of the Jews modeled their institutions upon, and adapted their titles to, this Divinely-ordered original.
And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.
Verse 17 - I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them. The Holy Spirit is one and indivisible. But in the language of Scripture "the Spirit" often stands for the charismata, or gifts of the Spirit, and in this sense is freely spoken of as belonging to this or that man. So the "spirit of Elijah" (2 Kings 2:9, 15), which was transferred to Elisha, as it were, by bequest. It was not, therefore, the personal indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost in Moses which God caused him to share with the seventy elders, for that can in no ease be a matter of transfer or of arrangement, but simply those charismata or extraordinary gifts of the Spirit which Moses had hitherto enjoyed alone as the prophet of Israel. It is strange that in the face of the clear teaching of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and in view of such cases as those of Saul (1 Samuel 10:10; 19:93) and David (1 Samuel 16:13), any difficulty should have been felt about this passage. They shall bear the burden of the people with thee. It does not appear how they were to do this, nor is there any record of their work. Their gifts, however, were spiritual, and we may probably assume that their usefulness lay in producing and maintaining a proper religious tone among the people. The real difficulty which stood in the way of Moses was not one of outward organization or of government, for that had been amply provided for; it lay in the bad tone which prevailed among the people, and threatened to destroy at any moment the very foundations of their national hope and safety. We may see in these seventy not indeed a Sanhedrim to exercise authority and discipline, but the first commencement of that prophetic order which afterwards played so large a part in the religious history of Israel and of the early Christian Church - an order designed kern the first to supplement by the freedom and originality of their ministry the more formal and unvarying offices of the priesthood. If this was the nature of their usefulness, it is not surprising that they are never mentioned again; and it is observable that a similar obscurity hangs over the activity of the prophets of the New Testament, who yet formed a most important part of the gospel regime (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29-32; Ephesians 2:20).
And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat.
Verse 18. - Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow. By certain ablutions, and by avoidance of legal pollution (see Exodus 19:10, 14, 15). The people were to prepare themselves as for some revelation of God's holiness and majesty. In truth it was for a revelation of his wrath, and of the bitter consequences of sin. There is about the words, as interpreted by the result, a depth of very terrible meaning; it was as though a traitor, unknowing of his doom, were bidden to a grand ceremonial on the morrow, which ceremonial should be his own execution. For it was well with us in Egypt. These false and wicked words, in which the base ingratitude of the people reached its highest pitch, are repeated to them in the message of God with a quiet sternness which gave no sign to their callous ears of the wrath they had aroused.
Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days;
But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?
Verse 20. - But even a whole month. There is some little difficulty about these words, because the Israelites do not seem to have made a long stay at Kibroth-Hattaavah, and the miraculous supply does not seem to have followed them. The words are words of stern irony and displeasure, and need not be literally pressed: it was enough that animal food was given them in quantity sufficient to have gorged the whole nation for a month, if they had eared to go on eating it (see below on verse 33).
And Moses said, The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month.
Verse 21. - And Moses said. Moses had not recovered from the impatient and despairing temper into which the ill-behaviour of the people had betrayed him. He could not really have doubted the Divine power to do this, after what he had seen in the desert of Sin (Exodus 16:13), but he spoke petulantly, and indeed insolently, out of the misery which was yet in his heart.
Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?
Verse 22. - Shall the flocks and herds be slain? Which they had brought out of Egypt with them (see on Exodus 12:32), and which no doubt were carefully husbanded, partly in order to supply them with milk and other produce, partly in order to maintain the sacrifices of the law. All the fish of the sea. A wild expression from which nothing can be fairly argued as to the present position of the camp.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Is the LORD'S hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.
Verse 23. - Is the Lord's hand waxed short? So that it cannot reach far enough to fulfill his purposes. This simple and expressive figure of speech is adopted by Isaiah (Isaiah 1:2; Isaiah 59:1).
And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the LORD, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.
Verse 24. - Moses went out, i.e., out of the tabernacle. It is not stated that he went into the tabernacle to bring his complaint before the Lord, but the narrative obviously implies that he did (see on Numbers 7:89).
And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.
Verse 25. - The Lord came down in a cloud, i.e., in the cloud which was the symbol of his perpetual presence with. them. At other times this cloud dwelt (שָׁכַן) above the tabernacle, soaring steadily above it in the clear air; but on certain occasions, for greater impressiveness, the cloud came down and filled the tabernacle, or at any rate the entrance of it, while Moses stood without (cf. Numbers 12:5 and Exodus 33:9; Exodus 40:35). Took of the spirit which was upon him. Not certainly in anger, or by way of diminishing the fullness of the spirit which was in Moses, but in order that the seventy might participate, and be known to participate, in a gift originally and specially given to Moses. The whole intention of the ceremonial was to declare in the most unmistakable way that the gifts of the seventy were to be exercised only in union with and in subordination to the mediator of Israel. The Targums are substantially correct in their paraphrase: "The Lord made enlargement of the spirit that was upon him, and imparted to the seventy men, the eiders." Theodoret very happily observes on this passage, "Just as a man who kindles a thousand flames from one does not lessen the first in communicating light to the others, so God did not diminish the grace imparted to Moses by the fact that he communicated of it to the seventy." They prophesied. The phenomenon here mentioned for the first time was no doubt an ecstatic utterance, not exactly beyond the control, but certainly beyond the origination, of those who prophesied. It must not be confounded with that state of calm, spiritual exaltation in which such men as Isaac and Jacob spake concerning things to come (Hebrews 11:20; cf. Genesis 27:29; Genesis 49:28). The Hebrew יִתְנַבְּאוּ means literally "were caused to pour forth," and the fundamental idea is that those affected became for the time being vents for the audible utterance of thoughts and expressions which were not theirs, but the Holy Ghost's. Compare the thought in Job 32:18-20, and the case of Saul and his messengers, as above. As to the matter of these prophesyings, we may probably conclude that they were of the same nature as the ecstatic utterances of the tongues on the day of Pentecost and afterwards; not "prophecy" in the ordinary sense, but inspired glorification of God, and declaration of his wonderful works (Acts 2:4, 11). And did not cease. Rather, "did not add," or "repeat." וְלֹא יָסְפוּ. Septuagint, καὶ οὐκ ἔτι προσέθεντο. The ecstatic utterance did not continue or reappear. The New Testament history no doubt supplies us with the explanation of this. The supernatural sign thus accorded was of little use in itself, and was of much danger, because it attracted to its exhibition an attention which was rather due to more inward and spiritual things. As a sign it was sufficient that it should be once unmistakably manifested before all the people. (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:22; 1 Corinthians 13:8). The permanent charisma of the Holy Spirit which the seventy received and retained from this time forth was no doubt the ἀντιλήψις or κυβερνήσις of 1 Corinthians 12:28; the gift of "help" or "governance," not in temporal matters, but in the religious education and direction of the people.
But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.
Verse 26. - There remained two of the men in the camp. No reason is here given why they did not accompany the rest to the tabernacle; but as they did not thereby forfeit the gift designed for them, it is certain that some necessity or duty detained them. They were of them that were written. This incidental notice shows how usual the practice of writing was, at any rate with Moses, who was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22). And they prophesied in the camp. As a sign that they too had received the charisma from the Lord. Seeing that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, there was of course nothing really more wonderful in their case than in the ease of the others, but no doubt it seemed so. That men in the camp, and away from the visible center and scene of Divine manifestations, should be accessible to the heavenly afflatus was a vast astonishment to an ignorant people. We may compare the surprise felt by the Jewish Christians when the sign of tongues was shown among the Gentiles (Acts 10:45, 46).
And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.
Verse 27. - And there ran a young man. Literally, "the young man," - הַנַּעַר; νεανἱσκος, Septuagint, - by which some understand the young men of the camp collectively, but this is doubtful in grammar and unsatisfactory in sense. If this book was compiled from previous records, of which there are many apparent traces, we may suppose that the name of this young man was there given, but here for some reason omitted.
And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them.
Verse 28. - Joshua the son of Nun. See on Exodus 17:9. As before, he is called Joshua by anticipation. One of his young men. This implies that there were others who to some extent shared his duties towards Moses; but that Joshua stood in a peculiar relation to his master is evident from Exodus 24:13 and Exodus 32:17, as well as from this passage itself. My lord Moses, forbid them. Probably he did not know that they had been enrolled, and he was naturally jealous for the honour of Moses - a jealousy which was not at all unnecessary, as the events of the next chapter proved. The prophesying of Eldad and Medad in the camp might well seem like the setting up of an independent authority, not in harmony with that of Moses.
And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD'S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!
Verse 29. - Enviest thou for my sake? In this answer speaks for once "the meekest of men." It was his sad fate that his position as representative of God obliged him to see repressed with terrible visitations any rebellion against his sole and absolute authority. But he was devoid of personal ambition at all times, and at this time weary and disgusted with the responsibility of ruling such a people. How much more for the glory of God, and for his own peace, would it be if not only these, but all the people, shared the gifts of the Spirit! Mark 9:38, 39 presents a partial, but still a striking, parallel.
And Moses gat him into the camp, he and the elders of Israel.
Verse 30. - Moses gat him into the camp. Although the tabernacle stood in the midst of the camp, yet it was practically separated from the tents of the other tribes by an open space and by the encampments of the Levites. There is, therefore, no ground for inferring from this and similar expressions that the record really belongs to a time when the tabernacle was pitched outside the camp.
And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day's journey on this side, and as it were a day's journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth.
Verse 31. - A wind from the Lord. A wind Divinely sent for this purpose. In Psalm 78:26 it is said to have been a wind from the east and south, i.e., a wind blowing up the Red Sea and across the Gulf of Akabah. And brought quails from the sea. On the "quails" (Hebrew, salvim - probably the common quail) see Exodus 16:13. The Septuagint has in both places ἡ ὀρτυγομήτρα, "the quail-mother," the sense of which is uncertain. These birds, which migrate in spring in vast numbers, came from the sea, but it does not follow that the camp was near the sea. They may have been following up the Gulf of Akabah, and been swept far inland by the violence of the gale. Let them fall by the camp. Rather, "threw them down on the camp." יִּטַשׁ עַל הַמַּחֲגֶה. Septuagint, ἐπέβαλεν ἐπὶ τὴν παρεμβολήν. Either the sudden cessation of the gale, or a violent eddying of the wind, threw the exhausted birds in myriads upon the camp (cf. Psalm 78:21, 28). Two cubits high upon the face of the earth. The word "high" is not in the original, but it probably gives the true meaning. The Septuagint, ὡσεὶ δίπηχυ ἀπο τῆς γῆς, is somewhat uncertain. The Targums assert that the quails "flew upon the face of the ground, at a height of two cubits;" and this is followed by the Vulgate ("volabant in acre duobus cubitis altiludine super terram") and by many commentators. This idea, however, although suggested by the actual habits of the bird, and adopted in order to avoid the obvious difficulty of the statement, is inconsistent with the expressions used here and in Psalm 78. If the birds were "thrown" upon the camp, or "rained" upon it like sand, they could not have been flying steadily forward a few feet above the ground. It is certainly impossible to take the statement literally, for such a mass of birds would have been perfectly unmanageable; but if we suppose that they were drifted by the wind into heaps, which in places reached the height of two cubits, that will satisfy the exigencies of the text: anything like a uniform depth would be the last thing to be expected under the circumstances.
And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp.
Verse 32. - And the people stood up... next day. A statement which shows us how greedy the people were, and how inordinately eager to supply themselves with an abundance of animal food. They were so afraid of losing any of the birds that they stayed up all night in order to collect them; probably they only ceased gathering and began to cat when the available supply was spent. Ten homers. It is difficult to calculate the capacity of the homer, especially as it may have varied from age to age. If it contained ten ephahs, as seems to be implied in Ezekiel 45:11, and if the estimate of the Rabbinists (which is less than that of Josephus) be correct that the ephah held nearly four and a half gallons of liquid measure, then half a million of men must have collected more quails apiece than would have filled a 450 gallon tub. No doubt the total number was something enormous, and far above anything that could have been supplied by natural agencies. The gift of quails, like that of manna, was one of the gifts of nature proper to that region Divinely multiplied and extended, so as to show forth in the most striking way the boundless power and beneficence of God. They spread them all abroad. In order to dry them in the sun, as the Egyptians used to do with fish (Herod., 2:77), and as the South Americans do with beef. Flesh thus cured does not need salt, which the Israelites would not have in sufficient quantities.
And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.
Verse 33. - And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed. If this were taken in the most literal sense, it would mean that no one of the people had time to swallow a single morsel of the coveted food ere he was stricken down by the Divine visitation. We can scarcely imagine, however, that such was the case in every single instance. It would indeed appear as if they had with one consent postponed the enjoyment of eating the quails until they had gathered as huge a quantity for future use as possible; as if in defiance and contempt of the Divine warning that their greed would turn to satiety and loathing (see verses 19 and 32). If this were so, then the feast to which they so eagerly looked forward would begin throughout the camps on the second night, and the visitation of God might well have had the sudden and simultaneous character attributed to it here and in Psalm 78:30, 31. At any rate the statement of the text positively excludes the idea that they went on eating quails for a whole month, according to the promise (or threat) of verse 20. There was flesh enough to have secured the literal fulfillment of that promise by gorging them for a whole month; but it is evident that the Divine wrath anticipated any such tardy revenges, and smote its victims in the very moment of their keenest gratification. The Lord smote the people with a very great plague. Both ancients and moderns state that the flesh of quails is unwholesome (cf. Pliny, 10:23), but this appears to have no very valid foundation. Unquestionably quails eaten for a month by people unused to a flesh diet would produce many and fatal sicknesses; but there is no room for any such natural results here. Whatever form the plague may have taken, it was as clearly supernatural in its suddenness and intensity as the supply of quails itself. We do not know anything as to who were smitten, or how many; the Psalmist tells us that they were "the fattest" and "the chosen in Israel, and we may naturally suppose that those who had been foremost in the lusting and the murmuring were foremost in the ruin which followed.
And he called the name of that place Kibrothhattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted.
Verse 34. - Kibroth-Hattaavah. The graves of greediness. Septuagint, Μνήματα τῆς ἐπιθυμίας. This name, like Tabeerah, was given to the place by the Israelites themselves in connection with their own history; the name, therefore, like the sad memory it enshrined, lived only in the sacred record. It is utterly uncertain where it lay, except that it was apparently the terminus of a three days' journey from Sinai, and in the desert of Paran. How long they stayed at Kibroth-Hattaavah is also quite uncertain. If the plague followed hard upon the coming of the quails, a few days would suffice for all the events recorded in this chapter, and we may well believe that the people would be only too glad to receive the signal of departure as soon as they had buried their unhappy brethren.
And the people journeyed from Kibrothhattaavah unto Hazeroth; and abode at Hazeroth.
Verse 35. - And abode at Hazeroth. Or, "were in Hazeroth." Septuagint, ἐγένετο ὁ λαὸς Ἀσηρώθ. Hazeroth, from חָצַר, to shut in, means "enclosures;" so named perhaps from some ancient stone enclosures erected by wandering tribes for their herds and flocks. It has been identified with Ain el Hadhera, a fountain eighteen hours northeast of Sinai, but on no satisfactory grounds beyond a partial resemblance of name. Assuming that the march lay in a northerly direction through the desert of Paran, the Israelites would naturally follow the road which leads across the southern mountain barrier of et-Tih, and on by the Wady es-Zulakeh into the desert plateau. On this road there is a large fountain, with pasturage, at a place called el Ain, and another somewhat further at Bit ed-Themmed. One or other of these was probably the site of Hazeroth (cf. Stanley, 'Sinai,' page 84). It is, however, entirely a matter of conjecture, and of little real interest. The progress of Israel which is of unfading importance to us is a moral and religious, and not a geographical, progress.

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