Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
After a three days' march the Israelites arrived at a resting-place; but the people began at once to be discontented with their situation.
(Note: The arguments by which Knobel undertakes to prove, that in chs. 11 and 12 of the original work different foreign accounts respecting the first encampments after leaving Sinai have been woven together by the "Jehovist," are founded upon misinterpretations and arbitrary assumptions and conclusions, such as the assertion that the tabernacle stood outside the camp (chs. Num 11:25; Num 12:5); that Miriam entered the tabernacle (Num 12:4-5); that the original work had already reported the arrival of Israel in Paran in Num 10:12; and that no reference is ever made to a camping-place called Tabeerah, and others of the same kind. For the proof, see the explanation of the verses referred to.)
The people were like those who complain in the ears of Jehovah of something bad; i.e., they behaved like persons who groan and murmur because of some misfortune that has happened to them. No special occasion is mentioned for the complaint. The words are expressive, no doubt, of the general dissatisfaction and discontent of the people at the difficulties and privations connected with the journey through the wilderness, to which they gave utterance so loudly, that their complaining reached the ears of Jehovah. At this His wrath burned, inasmuch as the complaint was directed against Him and His guidance, "so that fire of Jehovah burned against them, and ate at the end of the camp." בּ בּער signifies here, not to burn a person (Job 1:16), but to burn against. "Fire of Jehovah:" a fire sent by Jehovah, but not proceeding directly from Him, or bursting forth from the cloud, as in Lev 10:2. Whether it was kindled through a flash of lightning, or in some other such way, cannot be more exactly determined. There is not sufficient ground for the supposition that the fire merely seized upon the bushes about the camp and the tents of the people, but not upon human beings (Ros., Knobel). All that is plainly taught in the words is, that the fire did not extend over the whole camp, but merely broke out at one end of it, and sank down again, i.e., was extinguished very quickly, at the intercession of Moses; so that in this judgment the Lord merely manifested His power to destroy the murmurers, that He might infuse into the whole nation a wholesome dread of His holy majesty.
From this judgment the place where the fire had burned received the name of "Tabeerah," i.e., burning, or place of burning. Now, as this spot is distinctly described as the end or outermost edge of the camp, this "place of burning" must not be regarded, as it is by Knobel and others, as a different station from the "graves of lust." "Tabeerah was simply the local name give to a distant part of the whole camp, which received soon after the name of Kibroth-Hattaavah, on account of the greater judgment which the people brought upon themselves through their rebellion. This explains not only the omission of the name Tabeerah from the list of encampments in Num 33:16, but also the circumstance, that nothing is said about any removal from Tabeerah to Kibroth-Hattaavah, and that the account of the murmuring of the people, because of the want of those supplies of food to which they had been accustomed in Egypt, is attached, without anything further, to the preceding narrative. There is nothing very surprising either, in the fact that the people should have given utterance to their wish for the luxuries of Egypt, which they had been deprived of so long, immediately after this judgment of God, if we only understand the whole affair as taking place in exact accordance with the words of the texts, viz., that the unbelieving and discontented mass did not discern the chastising hand of God at all in the conflagration which broke out at the end of the camp, because it was not declared to be a punishment from God, and was not preceded by a previous announcement; and therefore that they gave utterance in loud murmurings to the discontent of their hearts respecting the want of flesh, without any regard to what had just befallen them.
The first impulse to this came from the mob that had come out of Egypt along with the Israelites. "The mixed multitude:" see at Exo 12:38. They felt and expressed a longing for the better food which they had enjoyed in Egypt, and which was not to be had in the desert, and urged on the Israelites to cry out for flesh again, especially for the flesh and the savoury vegetables in which Egypt abounded. The words "they wept again" (שׁוּב used adverbially, as in Gen 26:18, etc.) point back to the former complaints of the people respecting the absence of flesh in the desert of Sin (Exo 16:2.), although there is nothing said about their weeping there. By the flesh which they missed, we are not to understand either the fish which they expressly mention in the following verse (as in Lev 11:11), or merely oxen, sheep, and goats; but the word בּשׂר signifies flesh generally, as being a better kind of food than the bread-like manna. It is true they possessed herds of cattle, but these would not have been sufficient to supply their wants, as cattle could not be bought for slaughtering, and it was necessary to spare what they had. The greedy people also longed for other flesh, and said, "We remember the fish which we ate in Egypt for nothing." Even if fish could not be had for nothing in Egypt, according to the extravagant assertions of the murmurers, it is certain that it could be procured for such nominal prices that even the poorest of the people could eat it. The abundance of the fish in the Nile and the neighbouring waters is attested unanimously by both classical writers (e.g., Diod. Sic. i. 36, 52; Herod. ii. 93; Strabo, xvii. p. 829) and modern travellers (cf. Hengstenberg, Egypt, etc., p. 211 Eng. tr.). This also applies to the vegetables for which the Israelites longed in the desert. The קשּׁאים, or cucumbers, which are still called katteh or chate in the present day, are a species differing from the ordinary cucumbers in size and colour, and distinguished for softness and sweet flavour, and are described by Forskal (Flor. Aeg. p. 168), as fructus in Aegypto omnium vulgatissimus, totis plantatus agris. אבטּחים: water-melons, which are still called battieh in modern Egypt, and are both cultivated in immense quantities and sold so cheaply in the market, that the poor as well as the rich can enjoy their refreshing flesh and cooling juice (see Sonnini in Hengstenberg, ut sup. p. 212). חציר does not signify grass here, but, according to the ancient versions, chives, from their grass-like appearance; laudatissimus porrus in Aegypto (Plin. h. n. 19, 33). בּצלים: onions, which flourish better in Egypt than elsewhere, and have a mild and pleasant taste. According to Herod. ii. 125, they were the ordinary food of the workmen at the pyramids; and, according to Hasselquist, Sonnini, and others, they still form almost the only food of the poor, and are also a favourite dish with all classes, either roasted, or boiled as a vegetable, and eaten with animal food. שׁוּמים: garlic, which is still called tum, tom in the East (Seetzen, iii. p. 234), and is mentioned by Herodotus in connection with onions, as forming a leading article of food with the Egyptian workmen. Of all these things, which had been cheap as well as refreshing, not one was to be had in the desert. Hence the people complained still further, "and now our soul is dried away," i.e., faint for want of strong and refreshing food, and wanting in fresh vital power (cf. Psa 22:16; Psa 102:5): "we have nothing (כּל אין, there is nothing in existence, equivalent to nothing to be had) except that our eye (falls) upon this manna," i.e., we see nothing else before us but the manna, sc., which has no juice, and supplies no vital force. Greediness longs for juicy and savoury food, and in fact, as a rule, for change of food and stimulating flavour. "This is the perverted nature of man, which cannot continue in the quiet enjoyment of what is clean and unmixed, but, from its own inward discord, desires a stimulating admixture of what is sharp and sour" (Baumgarten). To point out this inward perversion on the part of the murmuring people, Moses once more described the nature, form, and taste of the manna, and its mode of preparation, as a pleasant food which God sent down to His people with the dew of heaven (see at Exo 16:14-15, and Exo 16:31). But this sweet bread of heaven wanted "the sharp and sour, which are required to give a stimulating flavour to the food of man, on account of his sinful, restless desires, and the incessant changes of his earthly life." In this respect the manna resembled the spiritual food supplied by the word of God, of which the sinful heart of man may also speedily become weary, and turn to the more piquant productions of the spirit of the world.
When Moses heard the people weep, "according to their families, every one before the door of his tent," i.e., heard complaining in all the families in front of every tent, so that the weeping had become universal throughout the whole nation (cf. Zac 12:12.), and the wrath of the Lord burned on account of it, and the thing displeased Moses also, he brought his complaint to the Lord. The words "Moses also was displeased," are introduced as a circumstantial clause, to explain the matter more clearly, and show the reason for the complaint which Moses poured out before the Lord, and do not refer exclusively either to the murmuring of the people or to the wrath of Jehovah, but to both together. This follows evidently from the position in which the clause stands between the two antecedent clauses in Num 11:10 and the apodosis in Num 11:11, and still more evidently from the complaint of Moses which follows. For "the whole attitude of Moses shows that his displeasure was excited not merely by the unrestrained rebellion of the people against Jehovah, but also by the unrestrained wrath of Jehovah against the nation" (Kurtz). But in what was the wrath of Jehovah manifested? It broke out against the people first of all when they had been satiated with flesh (Num 11:33). There is no mention of any earlier manifestation. Hence Moses can only have discovered a sign of the burning wrath of Jehovah in the fact that, although the discontent of the people burst forth in loud cries, God did not help, but withdrew with His help, and let the whole storm of the infuriated people burst upon him.
In Moses' complaint there is an unmistakeable discontent arising from the excessive burden of his office. "Why hast Thou done evil to Thy servant? and why have I not found favour in Thy sight, to lay upon me the burden of all this people?" The "burden of all this people" is the expression which he uses to denote "the care of governing the people, and providing everything for it" (C. a. Lap.). This burden, which God imposed upon him in connection with his office, appeared to him a bad and ungracious treatment on the part of God. This is the language of the discontent of despair, which differs from the murmuring of unbelief, in the fact that it is addressed to God, for the purpose of entreating help and deliverance from Him; whereas unbelief complains of the ways of God, but while complaining of its troubles, does not pray to the Lord its God. "Have I conceived all this people," Moses continues, "or have I brought it forth, that Thou requirest me to carry it in my bosom, as a nursing father carries the suckling, into the promised land?" He does not intend by these words to throw off entirely all care for the people, but simply to plead with God that the duty of carrying and providing for Israel rests with Him, the Creator and Father of Israel (Exo 4:22; Isa 63:16). Moses, a weak man, was wanting in the omnipotent power which alone could satisfy the crying of the people for flesh. עלי יבכּוּ, "they weep unto me," i.e., they come weeping to ask me to relieve their distress. "I am not able to carry this burden alone; it is too heavy for me."
"If Thou deal thus with me, then kill me quite (הרג inf. abs., expressive of the uninterrupted process of killing; see Ewald, 280, b.), if I have found favour in Thine eyes (i.e., if Thou wilt show me favour), and let me not see my misfortune." "My misfortune:" i.e., the calamity to which I must eventually succumb.
There was good ground for his complaint. The burden of the office laid upon the shoulders of Moses was really too heavy for one man; and even the discontent which broke out in the complaint was nothing more than an outpouring of zeal for the office assigned him by God, under the burden of which his strength would eventually break down, unless he received some support. He was not tired of the office, but would stake his life for it if God did not relieve him in some way, as office and life were really one in him. Jehovah therefore relieved him in the distress of which he complained, without blaming the words of His servant, which bordered on despair. "Gather unto Me," He said to Moses (Num 11:16, Num 11:17), "seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest as elders and officers (shoterim, see Exo 5:6) of the people, and bring them unto the tabernacle, that they may place themselves there with thee. I will come down (see at Num 11:25) and speak with thee there, and will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them, that they may bear the burden of the people with thee."
Jehovah would also relieve the complaining of the people, and that in such a way that the murmurers should experience at the same time the holiness of His judgments. The people were to sanctify themselves for the next day, and were then to eat flesh (receive flesh to eat). התקדּשׁ (as in Exo 19:10), to prepare themselves by purifications for the revelation of the glory of God in the miraculous gift of flesh. Jehovah would give them flesh, so that they should eat it not one day, or two, or five, or ten, or twenty, but a whole month long (of "days," as in Gen 29:14; Gen 41:1), "till it come out of your nostrils, and become loathsome unto you," as a punishment for having despised Jehovah in the midst of them, in their contempt of the manna given by God, and for having shown their regret at leaving the land of Egypt in their longing for the provisions of that land.
When Moses thereupon expressed his amazement at the promise of God to provide flesh for 600,000 men for a whole month long even to satiety, and said, "Shall flocks and herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?" he was answered by the words, "Is the arm of Jehovah too short (i.e., does it not reach far enough; is it too weak and powerless)? Thou shalt see now whether My word shall come to pass unto thee or not."
After receiving from the Lord this reply to his complaint. Moses went out (sc., "of the tabernacle," where he had laid his complaint before the Lord) into the camp; and having made known to the people the will of God, gathered together seventy men of the elders of the people, and directed them to station themselves around the tabernacle. "Around the tabernacle," does not signify in this passage on all four sides, but in a semicircle around the front of the tabernacle; the verb is used in this sense in Num 21:4, when it is applied to the march round Edom.
Jehovah then came down in the cloud, which soared on high above the tabernacle, and now came down to the door of it (Num 12:5; Exo 33:9; Deu 31:15). The statement in ch. Num 9:18., and Exo 40:37-38, that the cloud dwelt (שׁכן) above the dwelling of the tabernacle during the time of encampment, can be reconciled with this without any difficulty; since the only idea that we can form of this "dwelling upon it" is, that the cloud stood still, soaring in quietness above the tabernacle, without moving to and fro like a cloud driven by the wind. There is no such discrepancy, therefore, as Knobel finds in these statements. When Jehovah had come down, He spoke to Moses, sc., to explain to him and to the elders what was about to be done, and then laid upon the seventy elders of the Spirit which was upon him. We are not to understand this as implying, that the fulness of the Spirit possessed by Moses was diminished in consequence; still less to regard it, with Calvin, as signum indignationis, or nota ignominiae, which God intended to stamp upon him. For the Spirit of God is not something material, which is diminished by being divided, but resembles a flame of fire, which does not decrease in intensity, but increases rather by extension. As Theodoret observed, "Just as a person who kindles a thousand flames from one, does not lessen the first, whilst he communicates 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." God did this to show to Moses, as well as to the whole nation, that the Spirit which Moses had received was perfectly sufficient for the performance of the duties of his office, and that no supernatural increase of that Spirit was needed, but simply a strengthening of the natural powers of Moses by the support of men who, when endowed with the power of the Spirit that was taken from him, would help him to bear the burden of his office. We have no description of the way in which this transference took place; it is therefore impossible to determine whether it was effected by a sign which would strike the outward senses, or passed altogether within the sphere of the Spirit's life, in a manner which corresponded to the nature of the Spirit itself. In any case, however, it must have been effected in such a way, that Moses and the elders received a convincing proof of the reality of the affair. When the Spirit descended upon the elders, "they prophesied, and did not add;" i.e., they did not repeat the prophesyings any further. יספוּ ולא is rendered correctly by the lxx, καὶ οὐκ ἔτι προσέθεντο; the rendering supported by the Vulgate and Onkelos, nec ultro cessaverunt ("and ceased not"), is incorrect. התנבּא, "to prophesy," is to be understood generally, and especially here, not as the foretelling of future things, but as speaking in an ecstatic and elevated state of mind, under the impulse and inspiration of the Spirit of God, just like the "speaking with tongues," which frequently followed the gift of the Holy Ghost in the days of the apostles. But we are not to infer from the fact, that the prophesying was not repeated, that the Spirit therefore departed from them after this one extraordinary manifestation. This miraculous manifestation of the Spirit was intended simply to give to the whole nation the visible proof that God had endowed them with His Spirit, as helpers of Moses, and had given them the authority required for the exercise of their calling.
But in order to prove to the whole congregation that the Spirit of the Lord was working there, the Spirit came not only upon the elders assembled round Moses, and in front of the tabernacle, but also upon two of the persons who had been chosen, viz., Eldad and Medad, who had remained behind in the camp, for some reason that is not reported, so that they also prophesied. "Them that were written," conscripti, for "called," because the calling of the elders generally took place in writing, from which we may see how thoroughly the Israelites had acquired the art of writing in Egypt.
This phenomenon in the camp itself produced such excitement, that a boy (הנּער, with the article like הפּליט in Gen 14:13) reported the thing to Moses, whereupon Joshua requested Moses to prohibit the two from prophesying. Joshua felt himself warranted in doing this, because he had been Moses' servant from his youth up (see at Exo 17:9), and in this capacity he regarded the prophesying of these men in the camp as detracting from the authority of his lord, since they had not received this gift from Moses, at least not through his mediation. Joshua was jealous for the honour of Moses, just as the disciples of Jesus, in Mar 9:38-39, were for the honour of their Lord; and he was reproved by Moses, as the latter afterwards were by Christ.
Moses replied, "Art thou jealous for me? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that Jehovah would put His Spirit upon them!" As a true servant of God, who sought not his own glory, but the glory of his God, and the spread of His kingdom, Moses rejoiced in this manifestation of the Spirit of God in the midst of the nation, and desired that all might become partakers of this grace.
Moses returned with the elders into the camp, sc., from the tabernacle, which stood upon an open space in the midst of the camp, at some distance from the tents of the Levites and the rest of the tribes of Israel, which were pitched around it, so that whoever wished to go to it, had first of all to go out of his tent.
(Note: For the purpose of overthrowing the historical character of this marvellous event, the critics, from Vater to Knobel, have identified the appointment of the seventy elders to support Moses with the judicial institute established at Sinai by the advice of Jethro (Ex 18), and adduce the obvious differences between these two entirely different institutions as arguments for the supposed diversity of documents and legends. But what ground is there for identifying things so totally different from one another? The assertion of Knobel, that in Deu 1:9-18, Moses "evidently" refers to both events (Ex 18 and Num 11), is unfounded and untrue. Or are the same official duties and rank assigned to the elders who were chosen as judges in Ex 18, as to the seventy elders who were called by God, and endowed with His Spirit, that they might help Moses to govern the people who had rebelled against him and against Jehovah on account of the want of flesh, and to restore and uphold the authority of Moses as the divinely chosen leader of Israel, which had been shaken thereby? Can the judges of a land be identified without reserve with the executive of the land? The mere fact, that this executive court was chosen, like the judges, from the whole body of elders, does not warrant us in identifying the two institutions. Nor does it follow from the fact, that at Sinai seventy of the elders of Israel ascended the mountain with Moses, Aaron, and his sons, and there saw God (Exo 24:9.), that the seventy persons chosen here were the same as the seventy mentioned there. The sameness of the numbers does not prove that the persons were the same, but simply that the number seventy was the most suitable, on account of its historical and symbolical significance, to form a representation of the whole body of the people. For a further refutation of this futile objection, see Ranke, Unterss. b. d. Pent. II. pp. 183ff.)
No account has been handed down of the further action of this committee of elders. It is impossible to determine, therefore, in what way they assisted Moses in bearing the burden of governing the people. All that can be regarded as following unquestionably from the purpose given here is, that they did not form a permanent body, which continued from the time of Moses to the Captivity, and after the Captivity was revived again in the Sanhedrim, as Talmudists, Rabbins, and many of the earlier theologians suppose (see Selden de Synedriis, l. i. c. 14, ii. c. 4; Jo. Marckii sylloge dissertatt. phil. theol. ad V. T. exercit. 12, pp. 343ff.). On the opposite side vid., Relandi Antiquitates, ss. ii. 7, 3; Carpz. apparat. pp. 573f., etc.
As soon as Moses had returned with the elders into the camp, God fulfilled His second promise. "A wind arose from Jehovah, and brought quails (salvim, see Exo 16:13) over from the sea, and threw them over the camp about a day's journey wide from here and there (i.e., on both sides), in the neighbourhood of the camp, and about two cubits above the surface." The wind was a south-east wind (Psa 78:26), which blew from the Arabian Gulf and brought the quails - which fly northwards in the spring from the interior of Africa in very great numbers - from the sea to the Israelites. גּוּז, which only occurs here and in the Psalm of Moses (Psa 90:10), signifies to drive over, in Arabic and Syriac to pass over, not "to cut off," as the Rabbins suppose: the wind cut off the quails from the sea. נטשׁ, to throw them scattered about (Exo 29:5; Exo 31:12; Exo 32:4). The idea is not that the wind caused the flock of quails to spread itself out as much as two days' journey over the camp, and to fly about two cubits above the surface of the ground; so that, being exhausted with their flight across the sea, they fell partly into the hands of the Israelites and partly upon the ground, as Knobel follows the Vulgate (volabant in are duobus cubitis altitudine super terram) and many of the Rabbins in supposing: for המּחנה על נטשׁ does not mean to cause to fly or spread out over the camp, but to throw over or upon the camp. The words cannot therefore be understood in any other way than they are in Psa 78:27-28, viz., that the wind threw them about over the camp, so that they fell upon the ground a day's journey on either side of it, and that in such numbers that they lay, of course not for the whole distance mentioned, but in places about the camp, as much as two cubits deep. It is only in this sense of the words, that the people could possibly gather quails the whole of that day, the whole night, and the whole of the next day, in such quantities that he who had gathered but little had collected ten homers. A homer, the largest measure of capacity among the Hebrews, which contained ten ephahs, held, according to the lower reckoning of Thenius, 10,143 Parisian inches, or about two bushels Dresden measure. By this enormous quantity, which so immensely surpassed the natural size of the flocks of quails, God purposed to show the people His power, to give them flesh not for one day or several days, but for a whole month, both to put to shame their unbelief, and also to punish their greediness. As they could not eat this quantity all at once, they spread them round the camp to dry in the sun, in the same manner in which the Egyptians are in the habit of drying fish (Herod. ii. 77).
But while the flesh was still between their teeth, and before it was ground, i.e., masticated, the wrath of the Lord burned against them, and produced among the people a very great destruction. This catastrophe is not to be regarded as "the effect of the excessive quantity of quails that they had eaten, on account of the quails feeding upon things which are injurious to man, so that eating the flesh of quails produces convulsions and giddiness (for proofs, see Bochart, Hieroz. ii. pp. 657ff.)," as Knobel supposes, but as an extraordinary judgment inflicted by God upon the greedy people, by which a great multitude of people were suddenly swept away.
From this judgment the place of encampment received the name Kibroth-hattaavah, i.e., graves of greediness, because there the people found their graves while giving vent to their greedy desires.
From the graves of greediness the people removed to Hazeroth, and there they remained (היה as in Exo 24:12). The situation of these two places of encampment is altogether unknown. Hazeroth, it is true, has been regarded by many since Burckhardt (Syr. p. 808) as identical with the modern Hadhra (in Robinson's Pal. Ain el Hudhera), eighteen hours to the north-east of Sinai, partly because of the resemblance in the name, and partly because there are not only low palm-trees and bushes there, but also a spring, of which Robinson says (Pal. i. p. 223) that it is the only spring in the neighbourhood, and yields tolerably good water, though somewhat brackish, the whole year round. But Hadhra does not answer to the Hebrew חצר, to shut in, from which Hazeroth (enclosures) is derived; and there are springs in many other places in the desert of et Tih with both drinkable and brackish water. Moreover, the situation of this well does not point to Hadhra, which is only two days' journey from Sinai, so that the Israelites might at any rate have pitched their tents by this well after their first journey of three days (Num 10:33), whereas they took three days to reach the graves of lust, and then marched from thence to Hazeroth. Consequently they would only have come to Hadhra on the supposition that they had been about to take the road to the sea, and intended to march along the coast to the Arabah, and so on through the Arabah to the Dead Sea (Robinson, p. 223); in which case, however, they would not have arrived at Kadesh. The conjecture that Kibroth-hattaavah is the same as Di-Sahab (Deu 1:1), the modern Dahab (Mersa Dahab, Minna el Dahab), to the east of Sinai, on the Elanitic Gulf, is still more untenable. For what end could be answered by such a circuitous route, which, instead of bringing the Israelites nearer to the end of their journey, would have taken them to Mecca rather than to Canaan? As the Israelites proceeded from Hazeroth to Kadesh in the desert of Paran (Num 13:3 and Num 13:26), they must have marched from Sinai to Canaan by the most direct route, through the midst of the great desert of et Tih, most probably by the desert road which leads from the Wady es Sheikh into the Wady ez-Zuranuk, which breaks through the southern border mountains of et Tih, and passes on through the Wady ez-Zalakah over el Ain to Bir-et-Themmed, and then due north past Jebel Araif to the Hebron road. By this route they could go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea in eleven days (Deu 1:2), and it is here that we are to seek for the two stations in question. Hazeroth is probably to be found, as Fries and Kurtz suppose, in Bir-et-Themmed, and Kibroth-hattaavah in the neighbourhood of the southern border mountains of et Tih.