A view towards Bishopsteignton in mist. As the mist clears, everything becomes clearer

Numbers 11-12

Complaining Israelites: Fire,
Helpers for Moses,
More complaints: quail
Miriam & Aaron complained, Miriam's leprosy.

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Read Numbers 11:1-17

We have re-joined the Israelites as they made preparations for the march into Canaan – the land that would become their homeland, Israel.

In the last study they moved camp for the first time, even if it was only an initial three-day march. Ahead of them was probably only a three month trek – or so they thought.

We also saw last time that the reason for the military style commands was to encourage obedience amongst the people. It seems it was not completely successful – and sadly reminiscent of Exodus chapters 15 and 16.

Read verses 1-3

1 Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the Lord, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. 2 When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. 3 So that place was called Taberah, because fire from the Lord had burned among them.

It seems that the people didn’t complain to Moses but murmured amongst themselves. It also seems to have affected those on the outskirts of the camp i.e. those furthest from the Tabernacle and the ‘presence of God’. The response of God seems unnecessarily harsh. But God had to ‘come down hard’ on those who were impatient for the pleasures of the Promised Land; those who would not have been prepared to fight for their inheritance.

Now verses 4-6

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’

Who were the rabble?

No-one can be sure. It seems that there were others eager to leave Egypt in search of a better life who had attached themselves to the Israelites. They too may have been slaves who had grasped the opportunity to escape, or those of mixed-race with Egyptian fathers and Jewish mothers.

But it seems that slavery in Egypt had suddenly become an attractive option.

Now verses 7-9

7 The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8 The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand-mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into loaves. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. 9 When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.

(Many people have tried to guess what manna was – unsuccessfully.)

Verse 10

10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled.

Look at the two responses: ‘The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled’

Why was the Lord exceedingly angry? What were they questioning?

The rebellion was not aimed at Moses but at God. They were questioning his authority, his wisdom, and his ability to provide; not surprisingly that made him angry. Again the Lord was faced with a wilful and disobedient people for whom countless blessings were never enough.

Why was Moses troubled?

Moses, rather like the Disciples who had been told to feed the five thousand, had no idea how he could satisfy the people. If he slaughtered the flocks and herds they had brought with them it would only have fed the people for a few days at most.

Now verses 11-15

11 He asked the Lord, ‘Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, “Give us meat to eat!” 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me right now – if I have found favour in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.’

It was all too much for Moses. He felt the weight of the enormous responsibility of caring for the people and he couldn’t cope.

The Lord understood, and knew that he must act swiftly to save Moses from going under completely.

Now verses 16-17

16 The Lord said to Moses: ‘Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Make them come to the tent of meeting, that they may stand there with you. 17 I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone.

That solution would not have occurred to Moses, he’d always assumed the responsibility was his alone. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves – from what motives do we resist sharing responsibility? Do we sometimes feel that only we are able to do the job?

The Lord also gently reminded Moses that it was the power of the Holy Spirit that guaranteed that Moses was able to do what he did. And his helpers would share in that same Spirit.

Verse 18

18 ‘Tell the people: “Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The Lord heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!’ Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it.

Before we move on there is the instruction to ‘Consecrate yourselves’. Could someone explain what that meant? Could it be ‘Prepare to meet your God’?

Now verses 19-20

19 You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month – until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it – because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’.

That was all very well. But even with the help of seventy men, Moses still had no idea how the people would be fed.

Now verses 21-23

21 But Moses said, ‘Here I am among six hundred thousand men on foot, and you say, “I will give them meat to eat for a whole month!” 22 Would they have enough if flocks and herds were slaughtered for them? Would they have enough if all the fish in the sea were caught for them?’

23 The Lord answered Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.’

Now it was time for Moses to simply ‘trust and obey, for there’s no other way’

(John H. Sammis 1887)

But before the food, Moses had to install the Elders.

Read Numbers 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. He brought together seventy of their elders and made them stand round the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took some of the power of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. When the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied – but did not do so again.

26 However, two men, whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’

28 Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ assistant since youth, spoke up and said, ‘Moses, my lord, stop them!’

29 But Moses replied, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ 30 Then Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Here it seems that the ‘prophesying’ was in the form of ecstatic utterance – a response to the coming of the Holy Spirit, but not an ongoing gift.

Why were Eldad and Medad mentioned? Why didn’t they join the other seventy?

Perhaps just a reminder that the Lord’s purposes cannot be limited by man’s actions? Or failure to accept the responsibilities he gives?

Read Numbers 11:31-35

Now verses 31-32

31 Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits (3 ft) deep all around the camp, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. 32 All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers (2.23 cubic meters - two pallets full!). Then they spread them out all around the camp.

In hot sunny places, the easiest way to preserve meat is to sun-dry it.

Now verses 33-34

33 But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. 34 Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had craved other food.

Not a sickness caused by the meat, or even eating too much of it: ‘before it could be consumed’.

Collecting and preparing this much meat must have been gruelling work. But it was eagerly undertaken as it guaranteed a meat supply for the coming month.

Is it possible to eagerly work hard at what we believe the Lord wants, while shying away from what he actually wants? Providing for our future well-being rather than trusting him with our lives as we work (or give) for his glory?

These people did not want the Lord, only what he would give them.

But why did the Lord react so strongly (a severe plague) against these people? When he didn’t object in Exodus 16?

In Exodus 16, the people had nothing to eat, and God had not revealed his requirements to his people through the laws he would give to Moses. Nor had he revealed his holiness or his expectation that they would be a holy people.

Here, manna had been provided regularly every day, the people were just bored with it, and God’s miraculous provision for them was no longer good enough.

Verse 35

35 From Kibroth Hattaavah the people travelled to Hazeroth and stayed there.

Many names given for areas of the desert are no longer traceable today. Therefore many different maps have been produced showing possible routes.

It is probably safe to say that these two places are north of Mt Sinai. (There is a map in the next study)

I’m afraid these next passages will make depressing reading – but they are truthful and as human nature doesn’t change we also need to be warned from them.

Grumbling was not only confined to the ordinary people; now Moses' own family complained.

Read Numbers 12:1-16

1 Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. 2 ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?’ they asked. ‘Hasn’t he also spoken through us?’ And the Lord heard this.

3 (Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)

Miriam was a prophet (Exodus 15:20) and Aaron and his sons had been appointed priests. Aaron was Moses’ mouthpiece (Exodus 4:14-16) and the holder of the Urim and Thummim used for decision making (Exodus 28:30) – they had both already experienced the Lord speaking through them, (see also Micah 6:4) so what was their problem now?

It seems to relate to Moses’ wife. He had married Zipporah, a Midianite. He had had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer. They had set out together for Egypt (Exodus 4:20) but at some point he had sent her and their sons back to her father Jethro (Reuel) (Exodus 18:2). Once the Israelites had left Egypt and successfully beaten off Amalek, they re-joined him (Exodus 18:5-12). Jethro then returned home leaving Zipporah, the two children, and (it seems), Zipporah’s brother Hobab (Exodus 18:27, Numbers 10:29).

It seems that Miriam especially resented her presence now (v1) but rather than complaining directly about her, complained about Moses himself (v2).

The term ‘Cushite’ may simply have been similar to the use of the word ‘coloured’ today – she was of a different race and possibly a darker skin colour.

I wonder what had started this family row. Perhaps Moses was simply paying more attention to his wife (it was probably about a year since she had returned), and Miriam in particular was feeling left out – note that it is she who is mentioned first (verse 1) and she is the one who is punished.

4 At once the Lord said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, ‘Come out to the tent of meeting, all three of you.’ So the three of them went out. 5 Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, 6 he said, ‘Listen to my words:

‘When there is a prophet among you,

I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,

I speak to them in dreams.

7 But this is not true of my servant Moses;

he is faithful in all my house.

8 With him I speak face to face,

clearly and not in riddles;

he sees the form of the Lord.

Why then were you not afraid

to speak against my servant Moses?’

True servants of God do not appoint themselves to the role – they are chosen by God. Sometimes someone will set themselves up as a prophet, but either their lifestyle or their prophesies will often reveal that their ministry is counterfeit.

In verse 2 are Miriam and Aaron questioning Moses’ relative position compared to theirs, or are they questioning the right of God to use Moses in the way he does?

9 The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he left them.

10 When the cloud lifted from above the tent, Miriam’s skin was leprous – it became as white as snow. Aaron turned towards her and saw that she had a defiling skin disease, 11 and he said to Moses, ‘Please, my lord, I ask you not to hold against us the sin we have so foolishly committed. 12 Do not let her be like a stillborn infant coming from its mother’s womb with its flesh half eaten away.’

Note in verse 10 ‘a defiling skin disease’. Leprosy had a double effect: the disease itself was dreadful, but on top of that people with it had to be treated as ‘unclean’ and banished from society (Leviticus 13:45-46).

13 So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘Please, God, heal her!’

14 The Lord replied to Moses, ‘If her father had spat in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back.’ 15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.

16 After that, the people left Hazeroth and camped in the Desert of Paran.

Now, hopefully they are ready to move into the Promised Land! (Sadly, we know that wouldn’t happen)

Numbers 9 Numbers 13 NIV Copyright