It is time to leave Mount Sinai. The Lord has prepared his people for departure to march their way to the promised land. Numbers 10:11 tells us that it has been one year and one month since leaving Egypt. Suddenly the cloud lifted from over the tabernacle, meaning it was time for the people to pack up their tents and the tabernacle of the Lord and follow the cloud on the journey. “They set out for the first time at the command of the Lord by Moses” (10:13). I want you to see a beautiful picture in Numbers 10:33. The people set out a three day journey with the Lord going before them “to seek out a resting place for them.” God is leading the people to bring them to a place of rest. This is the story of the scriptures. God is leading to bring people to rest with him. If we only understood this truth about our God who goes ahead of us to bring us rest. We see this further pictured in verses 35-36. God goes before the people to scatter the enemies and then returns to rest with Israel. God scatters the enemies and rests with his people. This is the picture we need to have firmly in our minds as we look at the next scene which is recorded in chapter 11.
Life Is Hard! (11:1-3)
The people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes. Some translations say they complained about their hardships or their adversity. Three days after leaving Mount Sinai and the people are complaining. What are they complaining about? Life is hard. This is difficult to be in the wilderness. What had happened? Nothing. What had changed? Nothing. What was the difficulty? Nothing in particular. Life is hard. The people are in the wilderness and it is not an easy journey. This is certainly not a temptation for us, right? We never complain about how hard life can get. Unfortunately, it is an easy temptation to fall into. So let us notice God’s response in verse 1.
“When the Lord heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” Consider the contrast. In Exodus the people when the people lacked food and water, the people complained and God responded to teach the people to trust in the Lord to provide for them. Notice that there is nothing that is lacking for the people. The people are complaining simply because they do not like life. Life is not easy. Life is difficult. Life has hardships and adversities. Life is full of difficulties. The anger of the Lord is kindled when we complain about the life God is giving us to live. But notice what happens next. Moses prays to the Lord and the fire goes out. Moses intercedes on behalf of the people. Moses intervenes. Wrath should fall on the people and the people deserve for the fire of the Lord to burn against them. But the intercessor intervenes on behalf of the people and the fire is extinguished.
Life Was Better Before! (11:4-10)
So the lesson should be learned. We do not want to complain because complaining brings the wrath of the Lord. Complaining brings judgment against us. So let us see what happens next in Numbers 11:4. The rabble has a craving for meat rather than manna to eat. Remember in the Exodus account we saw that it was not only the people of Israel who came of Egypt but Egyptians and other people from other nations also came with the people of Israel. It is this group called the rabble that cry for meat. But it is not just the rabble. Look carefully at verse 4 and you will see that the people of Israel join in crying out about the menu of food. Read verses 4-6 and notice what they are saying. “Oh, that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4–6 ESV)
We remember eating the variety of food that cost us nothing in Egypt. Did it cost them nothing? That food cost them their very lives as they were slaves in Egypt. But all they can think about is the variety of food. All that we have to look at is this manna and our strength is dried up. The Hebrew word for “strength” and some translations read “appetite” speaks to the spirit of the person. We have absolutely no strength or desire to continue because we have to eat this same food, this manna. Now verses 7-8 go on to point out how good this manna was. It was made into cakes and pastries. But the people cannot stand to eat this any longer.
The problem is in what the people are essentially communicating. They are saying that life was better before we knew God. Life was better when we were not on the way to the promised land. Life was better when we were enslaved. They are complaining about what they do not have. They are complaining about what God is not giving them. In the first three verses they were complaining about what God was giving them in life (hardships). Now they are complaining about what God is not giving them (a better menu of food). They remember the provisions of Egypt and complain against the provisions from God. Verse 10 reveals that Moses was displeased at this and the Lord was angry.
Moses’ Response (11:11-15)
Now Moses is frustrated and exasperated by these people. Look at what he says to the Lord beginning in verse 11.
Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (Numbers 11:11–15 ESV)
Moses finally throws his hands in the air regarding these people. Moses is getting complained at about these things. Moses rescues the people after the first complaint. But now the people did not learn and are complaining again. So Moses tells the Lord that he cannot keep doing this.
The Lord’s Response (11:16-23)
The Lord begins by first addressing the problem Moses is having. Seventy men among the elders are to be selected and they will bear the burden of the people with Moses so that Moses will not have to carry this load alone (11:17).
But with that issue solved, the Lord turns his attention to the complaint of the people in verse 18. The Lord says that he will give the people meat to eat but they will not just eat it for one or two days but for a month until it comes out their noses and they hate it “because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, ‘Why did we come out of Egypt?’” (11:20). God says that he is going to give the people so much meat that they will hate it.
Now we see how sensitive Moses has become from dealing with these people day after day. Moses can’t understand how it will be possible to feed over 600,000 people meat. We can’t even kill all our flocks for us to have meat to eat (11:22). God, what you said is not possible. Now before we go on I want us to catch something. You have heard this story before. You have seen this happen before in the New Testament. When Jesus is going to feed the 5000, Jesus tells the disciples to not send the people away but to give them food to eat (Matthew 14:16). Remember that the response of the disciples is the same. I have wanted to you see Jesus modeling the events of the exodus and the wilderness so that the people will see Jesus as the greater Moses.
So back to Numbers 11 we see God’s answer to be very simple. Is the Lord’s hand shortened? Is there something that God cannot do? The hand of the Lord speaks to his power. Is it possible for God’s hand to not accomplish what he says? Now you will see whether my word will come true for you or not. God can and will always do what he says.
It Is Not About Moses (11:24-30)
Before we can read about the outcome we are told about another situation. The Spirit rests on the 70 elders just as God said would happen. They prophesied but did not continue doing it (11:24-25). This is simply a sign to show that these seventy were empowered by God to the task at hand of carrying the burdens of the people. But there are two men of the seventy who are prophesying in the camp because they were not at the tabernacle. A young man tells Moses that these two are prophesying in the camp and Joshua tells Moses to stop them. But listen to what Moses says.
“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29 ESV)
Moses understands something that the people do not understand: it is not about Moses. The people think it is about them. Our life is hard. We do not have the food we want to eat. We want what we want. We deserve certain things from God. We think God should do things for us. But Moses understands that it is not about himself but about God. The people think it is about themselves so that is why they complain. This leads us to what God is going to do to teach the people.
A wind from the Lord comes up and it brought quail for about a day’s journey on each side, all around the camp about 2 cubits high. Now we need to visualize what God just did. A day’s journey is about 12-15 miles and 2 cubits is about 3 feet high. This is quail as far as the eye can see. I had to measure this to grasp the vastness of this. This is quail three feet high from the church building to just south of Jupiter to the north, to nearly 20 mile bend in the west, to Boynton Beach in the south, and to the ocean 8 miles past the beach. That is a staggering amount of quail stacked up. Imagine seeing all of that meat. But look at what happens in verse 32. The people spend all day and all night gathering the quail. They act like this will be the only food they will ever have. They are hoarding and greedy. Verse 32 says that the least gathered 10 homers. This calculates to about 475 pounds. It is about 18 large trash cans of quail. It adds up to about 1900 birds. This is the least that was gathered. The people do not believe the word of the Lord they will be eating meat for a month until they are sick of it. They are hoarding it. What are you going to do with 1900 birds? What are you going to do with 475 pounds of meat? Yet they spend all day and all night collecting these quail. So notice verse 33.
While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck down the people with a very great plague. (Numbers 11:33 ESV)
Again the people fail to see that life is about trusting God. They are trusting in themselves. They are only thinking about themselves. They have no regard for the word of God or the promises of God. They can only think about their own selfish desires which is what brought their complaining out in the first place.
There are so many problems with the sin of complaining. First, our complaints are received by God as acts of faithlessness. We are not happy with what God is doing for us. We are telling God that we know better than he. We are telling God that this life that he has ordered is not good enough. When we complain we are undervaluing the provisions of God. Is this not what the people say throughout this chapter? They are complaining about their hardships. They are complaining about the food they are eating. God is doing a terrible job. Ultimately, complaining is the rejecting of the Lord who is with us on this journey. Friends, we are in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. How many times have we complained against the Lord about our circumstances, about our provisions, and about our possessions? How about the words of these Israelites? Our strength is dried up and we cannot go with the Lord any longer because of what is happening in my life and what God is doing for us.
Do we see why the interlude about the two who are prophesying is included in this account? What Moses says is the answer to complaining and the answer to walking by faith: it is not about me. I am not important in God’s story. My life is a part of God’s story. God is not a part of my life story. I am part of God’s story. May God use me as an instrument in his service. This is what Moses understands. This must be our outlook on life if we will walk by faith and avoid complaining.
This leaves us with the final piece of the account. What did these people need? They needed an intercessor to go before God. The wrath of God is deserved against us for all our complaining. How often we have been faithless toward God because we have complained about his provisions or about the hardships of life. But God has given us an intercessor who goes before God on our behalf so that we do not have to experience the wrath of God. Jesus is our faithful intercessor whose sacrifice makes atonement possible, covering over our sins.
My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one. He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1–2 CSB)
Put away the heart of complaining and grab hold of Jesus as our faithful advocate and intercessor who saves us from the wrath of God which we most certainly deserve. It is not about me. It is about God. It is about his story, not mine. My life is in his hands and he will use us for his purposes.