An uncommon commentary on all-too-common complaining

In my Bible the unofficial heading for Numbers 11 is “The People Complain.”  “An uncommon commentary” is how I describe Ronald B. Allen’s comments on this passage in Numbers, in volume 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  To this date I cannot recall having read another commentary on any other passage that is as descriptive or creative. 

Here is what he wrote:

The sickening feast of the plague of quail ends this chapter of Numbers.  The people had begged for meat.  In a tragicomic act of miraculous provision, the Lord supplied more quail than the people possibly could eat…In any event, the supply of the birds was stupendous.  One who did not do very well at the gathering of birds still captured “ten homers” worth (nearly sixty bushels, v. 32).  The figures here are staggering!  In some ways it reminds us of the great provision of the Lord Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21) and the four thousand (Matt. 15:29-39).  In those cases the feeding of many from God’s plenty was a demonstration of God’s grace; in the instance in Numbers it was a manifestation of God’s wrath.

The scene must have been similar to a riot: people screaming, birds flapping their wings, everywhere the pell-mell movement of a meat-hungry people in a sea of birds.  Dare we picture people ripping at the birds, eating flesh before cooking it, bestial in behavior?  They must have been like a sugar-crazed boy in a child’s daydream, afloat on a chocolate sandwich cookie raft in a sea of chocolate syrup, nibbling at the cookie before drowning in the dark, sweet sea.

The drama of the text is exquisite: “while the meat was still between their teeth” (v.33), the plague of the Lord struck them down.  Before they could swallow, God made them choke.  And so this place also took on an odious name: Kibroth Hattaavah (v.34), “Graves of Craving.”  These graves marked the death camp of those who had turned against the food of the Lord’s mercy.  What a contrast with the ending of chapter 10!  We are in a different world — and certainly not a better one.

Ahh, the lure of complaining. 

Oh, the danger of complaining.


The text of Numbers 11, verses 1-6 and 31-34 reads as follows:

And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, and 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.  Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down.  So the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burned among them.

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “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.

31 Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, 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, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground.  And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers.  And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp.  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.  Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving.

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