Complaint and Judgment – Numbers 11

Read the Passage: Numbers 11

Complaint of the People (11:1–15)

The Israelites’ time of wilderness wanderings is filled with complaining. At Num. 14:22, God refers to ten separate times on which Israel tested Him by complaining. Yet, almost unbelievably, the generations of Israelites would complain at least four additional times, bring the total instances of complaining to fourteen or more occasions (cf. Num. 16:3, 41; 20:2–3; 21:5). Note this complaining began before Israel even left Egypt (cf. Exod. 5:20–21) and continued throughout their entire time in the wilderness (cf. Exod. 14:10–12; 15:22–24; 16:1–4, 19–20, 27–30; 17:1–4; 32:28). Num. 11:1–3 records the first instance of complaining in the book of Numbers, as here Israel complained in general about being in the wilderness. God’s response was to consume some of the people with fire, which prompted Moses to intercede for the people for a second time in the narrative of the exodus event (cf. Exod. 32:10–12).

In Num. 11:4–5 we read of yet another occasion on which the Israelites complained. The people’s specific complaint here related to their craving for meat and other savory food. When they had first entered the wilderness, the people had complained about their lack of food, which God addressed by supplying manna (cf. Exod. 16:1–4). After freely eating manna for over a year, and not being content with this divine provision, in the present passage the people began to complain about the lack of variety in their diet. The constant complaining of the people so discouraged Moses that he murmured before God about his own inability to provide food for Israel. In fact, Moses was so disheartened that he even begged God to kill him, saying, “Please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in your sight” (Num. 11:15). Later Elijah (cf. 1 Ki. 19:4) and Jonah (cf. Jonah 4:1–11) would pray similar prayers.

Response of Moses (11:16–30)

As we saw in Num. 11:10–15, Moses’ response to the complaining of the Israelites was to bring the people’s complaints before God, albeit with a spirit of grumbling himself. God’s response was two-fold. First, in Num. 11:16–17, God directed Moses to assemble seventy men who would be able to practically assist him in ministry (cf. Exod. 18:17–26; 24:9). Second, by way of divine judgment, God told Moses He would provide a months’ worth of meat for Israel (cf. Num. 11:18–20). Curiously, even though he had previously witnessed God’s provision of food and water for all Israel (cf. Exod. 16:13–17:7), Moses expressed unbelief in God’s ability to provide meat for the entire nation (cf. Num. 11:21–22). Moses’ skepticism provoked God to respond, “Has the Lord’s arm been shortened? Now you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not” (Num. 11:23).

In Num. 11:24–25 it is reported that Moses did as he was commanded, telling Israel of God’s coming judgment via the provision of meat, as well as assembling the seventy elders around the tabernacle. As God said He would do (cf. Num. 11:17), so God took of the Spirit that was upon Moses and placed it upon the seventy men, resulting in them prophesying. Interestingly, Num. 11:26–27 records that two of the seventy chosen men failed to join the other elders at the tabernacle. Nevertheless, these two men, Eldad and Medad, likewise began to prophesy, albeit in the camp. While this seems like a harmless event, this may have later contributed to the complaining of the people that is recorded at Num. 16:1–3. At Num. 11:28 Joshua, who is mentioned here for the first time in the book of Numbers, objected to the prophesying of Eldad and Medad, but was rebuked by Moses.

Judgment of God (11:31–35)

From reading Num. 11:20, it would be logical to conclude that the judgment component of God’s provision of meat would consist of the people growing tired of the divinely-provided meat, as they earlier had of the divinely-supplied manna. Perhaps this is what the people thought when Moses delivered God’s message of judgment at Num. 11:24. Yet, whatever was in the minds of the people, it is clear that when God sent massive flocks of quail into the wilderness, the people hunted the birds and ate the meat. This passage records these birds flew about 3 feet off the ground, which enabled the people to gather an astounding 10 homers (or 62 bushels) each. When the people began to eat the meat, however, God sent a plague upon them, which resulted in many being killed. Although the text does not record the number killed, it likely consisted of the most vocal of those who had craved the meat.

Application Questions:

  1. Do you find it difficult to be content (cf. Phil. 2:14)? What causes discontentment? Why is it easier to complain than to be content? Is complaining ever okay (cf. Ps. 142:2)?
  2. Have you ever been so discouraged that you’ve preferred death over life? How can we encourage those who minister to us (cf. 3 John 4)?
  3. For what types of things do you find it most difficult to trust God? Has God ever failed to meet your material and spiritual needs (cf. Ps. 37:25)?
  4. Why did the seventy elders begin to prophesy when God’s Spirit was placed upon them? Why did Joshua object to Eldad and Medad prophesying in the camp?
  5. When can a blessing turn into a curse? Why did the people hunt and eat the quail even though they presumably had been warned about God’s coming judgment?