GOD DEALS EFFECTIVELY WITH FRUSTRATION IN LEADERSHIP AND WITH THE SINFUL COMPLAINTS OF THOSE WHO DESPISE HIS GRACIOUS PROVISION
This passage completes the first half of the chapter where various issues and complaints had been raised. Here God addresses these issues and complaints – but not always in the way in which people might have desired. Because Moses became frustrated with the burdens of leadership, God distributed those responsibilities to 70 leading elders who could function as his assistants. The empowering and authenticating of those leaders was all controlled by the Spirit of God and not subject to any human motivations of jealousy or preference.
Regarding the discontent over God’s gracious provision of manna for the steady diet in the wilderness, God responded in two ways. He first graciously gave the people the meat they had requested in the form of quail – but in excess to the point where it became loathsome. He then converted that provision into a destructive plague to discipline the people for their failure to trust in God’s provision and lust after their own selfish cravings.
Ronald Allen: This chapter interplays several themes: the arrogant lust of the people, the impassioned distress of Moses, the plan of god to bring an answer of judgment to the people, and the purpose of the Lord to bring an answer of grace to his servant.
I. (:24-25) DISTRIBUTING THE BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP
A. (:24) Preparing the Chosen Leaders
1. Importance of the Word of the Lord
“So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD.”
2. Selection of the Chosen Leaders
“Also, he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people,”
3. Positioning of the Chosen Leaders
“and stationed them around the tent.”
B. (:25a) Empowering the Chosen Leaders
1. Importance of the Word of the Lord
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him;”
2. Gifting of the Holy Spirit
“and He took of the Spirit who was upon him
and placed Him upon the seventy elders.”
Dennis Cole: The promise of the sharing of the Spirit of God with the seventy elders, as delineated in v. 17, is now fulfilled. With Moses in his traditional position at the entrance to the tent, the place of revelatory activity, and with the elders of the people stationed around the Tent of Meeting in close proximity, the symbolic presence of the Lord in the form of the cloud descends and speaks with Moses. As the Lord conversed with his special servant, he apportioned some of his Spirit with which he had endowed Moses among the surrounding elders. The language of the Hebrew text evidences that this distribution of the Spirit was carried out by God and as such did not diminish that portion of the Spirit that had rested upon Moses previously. The elders’ authority was derived through Moses, and as such they functioned as an extension of the ultimate authority endowed upon Moses by the Lord. It was God’s Spirit who was disseminated among the seventy elders, not that of Moses, and thus not lessened. This impartation was a unique gift of God upon the leaders and scribes that would enable them to assist Moses in giving spiritual oversight and supervision to this large rebellious congregation.
C. (:25b) Authenticating the Chosen Leaders
1. Importance of the Word of the Lord
“And it came about that when the Spirit rested upon them,
Charlie Garrett: Here is the first use of the verb nava, or prophesy, in the Bible. It comes from the noun navi, or prophet. We are not told what they prophesied, and so for us it doesn’t matter what they said or sang. It simply indicates an uttering forth of praise of, or of the will of God. What matters is that the same Spirit rested on all, demonstrating that the Spirit that was upon Moses was sufficient to meet the challenges he faced, even if he was not. Now, that same Spirit would be with the seventy who would work with Moses to meet the challenges as a united whole.
That they never prophesied again simply means that they were not called to be prophets. Instead, they were called to be assistants to the prophet. The Spirit is One, and He apportions the gifts according to His wisdom.
2. Isolated Instance of the Authenticating Experience
“But they did not do it again.”
Dennis Cole: After that one occasion in which spiritual endowment resulted in a prophetic manifestation, the text says they did not continue to exhibit that activity.56 That is not to say that their newly appointed role of spiritual leadership was discontinued, but only that this identifiable evidence of their spiritual anointing was not repeated.
Charlie Garrett: This is the last time that the role of these elders is mentioned. We have no idea how they assisted Moses, or under what circumstances. The account itself stands as a witness to the fact that it happened because Moses felt unable to bear the weight of the people of the camp alone. And yet, it testifies to the fact that the Spirit, whether alone on Moses, or spread out among many, was sufficient to the task. With the matter settled, the men returned to the camp to consecrate themselves for the next day, as instructed.
II. (:26-30) DISCERNING THE LEGITIMACY OF LEADERSHIP
A. (:26) Unique Ministry of Eldad and Medad
1. Uniquely Separated from the Other Leaders
“But two men had remained in the camp;”
2. Uniquely Identified by Name
“the name of one was Eldad and the name of the other Medad.”
3. Uniquely Prophesying in the Camp
“And the Spirit rested upon them
(now they were among those who had been registered, but had not gone out to the tent),
and they prophesied in the camp.”
B. (:27) Unsettling Report
“So a young man ran and told Moses and said,
‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’”
Here is evidence of ministry that is outside of our comfort zone
Brown: The story is a persuasive reminder that the Holy Spirit is totally sovereign and acts in any way he determines. He will not be stereotyped and his actions cannot be precisely predicted to conform to purely human conventions. . . It is arrogant to suppose that the Lord can be manipulated or maneuvered by actions we may plan.
C. (:28-29) Contrasting Perspectives of Joshua and Moses – How to React?
1. (:28) Jealous Perspective of Joshua
“Then Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, answered and said, ‘Moses, my lord, restrain them.’”
Brown; Without discovering why Eldad and Medad had not been present, Joshua thought there was something improper about their manifestation of the Spirit’s enduement. Because God had acted in a particular (and appropriate) way for ‘the seventy’, he could not tolerate any deviation from that norm. How easy it is to institutionalize the Spirit’s work or to endeavour to anticipate, organize or monopolize his ministry! Treasured events quickly become rigid patterns and inflexible traditions.
The Holy Spirit will not be shackled by ecclesiastical customs, however good they may be. He will act with total freedom to accomplish whatever purposes he knows are best for his people at that particular time.
This story of Joshua’s misplaced criticism of Eldad and Medad has a remarkable parallel in the Gospels, when the disciples tried to stop ‘a man driving out demons’ in Christ’s name. Christ had a larger canvas by far: ‘whoever is not against you is for you’.
2. (:29) Joyous Perspective of Moses
“But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake?
Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them!’”
Roy Gane: Moses recognizes that the Spirit transcends his control and the people cannot have too much of this divine power. Abraham Heschel observes, “The spiritual is not something we own, but something we may share in. We do not possess it; we may be possessed by it.” Rather than being jealous of the spiritual gifts granted to others, Moses rejoices and desires the best for all of God’s people.
Brueggemann: Moses’s yearning was surely a godly wish. Joel echoed it in his promise of a democratized outpouring of the Spirit (Joel 2:28–32), and Peter’s Pentecost sermon spoke of its implementation (Acts 2:17–21). The same sentiment drove Paul’s wish that all would speak in tongues (1 Cor 14:5) and that all should eagerly desire the greater gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor 12:27–31; 14:1–5). Just as Moses chided Joshua, so, too, Paul cautioned the early church: “Do not stifle the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19).
F. B. Meyer: This one saying proves the incomparable greatness of Moses’ character. Little souls are monopolists. They like to be good and gifted, because it gives them a kind of superiority to others; but they dislike to see a leveling-up process at work by which the Eldads and Medads are lifted to stand by their side.
This was the mistake of Joshua. — When he heard that Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp, he said, “My lord Moses, forbid them!” But he was immature, a saint in the process of manufacture, and smitten with jealousy, for the sake of his master and friend.
This was the complaint of John’s disciples, when they saw the crowds ebbing away from their great teacher.
This was the quarrel of the Pharisees, that Jesus made religion so cheap and accessible to all, that even the publicans and sinners received his priceless wares.
But when a man is really great and good, he longs that all should be as he is, and better; he takes a deep delight in the spread of vital godliness; he is glad when others are endowed with greater gifts than himself, that they may make the Gospel better known than he could ever do; he is content to decrease, if Christ may only increase; he is willing that affliction should be added to his bonds, if only Christ way be magnified; he prays that the Lord would put his Spirit on all his people. This is very unnatural to any of us; but God, the Holy Spirit, waits to baptize us even into this, and to make the glory of God the object of our life. Make haste, O blessed Paraclete, and do this for me!
D. (:30) Resolution with Minimum of Drama
“Then Moses returned to the camp, both he and the elders of Israel.”
Francis Schaeffer: Joshua had another lesson to learn, and a very serious one: God’s glory is to come first. There is a great difference between leadership and self-aggrandizement. There is to be leadership among the people of God, according to the gifts He bestows, but there is not to be glorification of oneself or other men. Joshua asked that Eldad and Medad be forbidden to prophesy because they had not come before Moses in the tabernacle; but Moses answered magnificently, “Don’t envy for my sake.” Maybe Moses’ response is one of the reasons the Bible says that Moses was a meek man. Though Moses was such a tremendous leader, he would not tolerate Joshua’s glorifying him.
The young man Joshua was learning a lesson that anybody who is ever going to be worth anything in leadership must learn. None of us learns it completely, of course, and yet we must master it if we are going to be of any use in the Church of God. A leader must never confuse himself with God. When a person begins to exercise certain gifts and God brings him to a place of leadership in the Church of Christ, how easy it is to do this. Yet this is the destruction of all true spiritual leadership.
Joshua also had to learn that a person cannot bind God with man-made rules. Joshua had a man-made rule: God really should not have placed His Spirit on the two men in the camp. This did not fit into Joshua’s concept of what was good and proper. God has bound Himself with rules based on his own character, which He will never break; but men (including God’s leaders) must never try to bind Him with their own rules. He will not keep these rules.
III. (:31-34) DEALING WITH THE DISCONTENT OVER GOD’S PROVISION
A. (:31-32) Provision of Meat as Demanded by the People – But in Excess
1. (:31) Miraculous Quantity of Quail
a. Divine Intervention
“Now there went forth a wind from the LORD,
and it brought quail from the sea,
and let them fall beside the camp,”
Gordon Wenham: Quails are small birds of the partridge family. They migrate northwards from Arabia and Africa in the spring (from the middle of March) and return again in the autumn (August to October). Their route takes them over Egypt, Sinai and Palestine.
Dennis Cole: The passage builds upon the parallel usage of the Hebrew rûaḥ as spirit or wind. The Spirit of God had blessed the seventy elders with prophetic gifts, and now the wind of God would bless the people with food provisions. The magnitude of the two forms of blessing was copious. God had previously supplied his people with quail in the early days of their journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Exod 16:13). Now in the early days after their departure from the mountain of God, he supplied them with an even greater outpouring of his power than they imagined or wanted.
Robert Rayburn: You remember that both in Hebrew and Greek the word for Spirit and the word for wind is the same. The Spirit rested on the 70 and the wind brought the quail. It is the same working of the Lord in both cases, but one will bring blessing and the other will bring a curse. The worldly are often judged by being given precisely what they want and what they ask for, but what they wanted and asked for proves to be deadly to them. How many people have been ruined forever by the ease, the comfort, and the pleasures with which they have filled up their lives!
Irving Jensen: The next events were a sequence of miracle upon miracle, explained in no other way:
(1) A miraculous wind (11:31).
(2) Quails from the sea area, probably from the Arabian Gulf to the southeast (11:31).
(3) The quails dropped at the camp (11:31).
(4) The miraculous number of quails (11:31, 32), blown off normal course in their migration, so that the birds flew waist high (three feet) above the surface of the earth. The flight lasted so long that the Israelites stood for two days and a night knocking down the quails. To keep them from spoiling the quails were spread about the camp to dry in the sun (11:32b).
(5) The climactic miracle of judgment, in which God smote a number of the people with a very great plague (11:33). This is the first major decimation of the journeying host.
b. Distributed Around the Camp at a Manageable Distance
“about a day’s journey on this side
and a day’s journey on the other side,
all around the camp,”
c. Dumped on the Ground to an Excessive Depth
“and about two cubits deep on the surface of the ground.”
Eugene Merrill: the Lord caused them to fly about three feet above the ground so the people could easily capture them or club them to the ground. This seems much better than the commonly held impression that the quail were piled up in a layer three feet thick a day’s walk in every direction from the camp.
J. A. Thompson: It may be, of course, that we ought to understand let them fall in a more literal sense and that the quails came in such abundance that they covered the ground to a depth of 3 feet. Either way it is a miracle of divine timing and of divine abundance.
2. (:32) Method for Gathering and Processing
a. Gathering Procedure
“And the people spent all day and all night and all the next day,
and gathered the quail”
Ronald Allen: 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.
b. Gathering Minimum
“(he who gathered least gathered ten homers)”
c. Processing Procedure
“and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp.”
B. (:33-34) Plague of Destruction Tied to the Consumption of the Quail
1. (:33) Plague Executed
“While the meat was still between their teeth,
before it was chewed,”
Elmer Smick: The idea is that before they had finished eating all the quail, the plague broke out.
b. Motivation = the Anger of the Lord
“the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people,”
J. Ligon Duncan: Matthew Henry has this fascinating comment. He says that the Lord sends the quail first so that no one would have been able to say, well, the Lord just judged Israel because He couldn’t provide them the meat. He provides them meat, and then He judges them to show that this is not a matter of a lack of His power to do things. This is a matter about their hearts and whether they will trust Him for what they really need. That is so huge, because what happens when our desires are left unsatisfied is we so often do what? We question the power of God to be able to give us what we need, and that is never ever the question. The question is, are we ready to submit our will to the One who is able to do anything? So there is a huge spiritual battle for the hearts of the people of God going on here, and they’re failing miserably. So there you see the sin of the people.
“and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague.”
Roy Gane: The people’s indulgence for a month until quail comes out their noses (cf. 11:20) is interrupted. Before the meat is “cut off” (krt, i.e., runs out; cf. Joel 1:5, 16), God’s anger (lit., “nose”) burns against them and he strikes them (Hiphil of nkh) a great blow (makkah; Num. 11:33). This can be called a divine “plague,” which may involve sickness, such as a form of bacterial food poisoning that induces vomiting (possibly including out the nose). However, similar language in 1 Samuel 6:19 seems to describe a more sudden fate for the people of Beth Shemesh who presume to look into the ark of the covenant.
Whatever the precise nature of the “plague” resulting from quail, its acute onset is deadly, as implied by the name given to the place: Kibroth Hattaavah (“the graves of craving,” Num. 11:34). Like a number of other stages along the Israelites’ itinerary (cf. ch. 33), the location of this site has been lost.
Eugene Merrill: Their sin was, in effect, a rejection of the Lord and His bountiful provision in favor of an unbridled appetite. As Paul later said of the enemies of Christ, “Their god is their stomach” (Phil. 3:9).
2. (:34) Plague Commemorated
“So the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah,
because there they buried the people who had been greedy.”
Brueggemann: Once again, a negative memorial was established (cf. 11:3); that place got called Glutton’s Cemetery (11:34). “He gave them their desire: but he sent leanness into their soul” (Ps 106:15, Geneva Bible).
C.H.M.: The closing paragraph of our chapter shows us the people in the miserable and fatal enjoyment of that for which their hearts had lusted. “He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” They got what they longed for, and found it death. They would have flesh, and with the flesh came the judgment of God. This is most solemn. May we heed the warning. The poor heart if full of vain desires and hateful lusts. The heavenly Manna fails to satisfy. There must be something else. God allows us to have it. But what then? Leanness – barrenness – judgment! O Lord, keep our hearts fixed on Thyself alone and at all times! Be Thou the ever-satisfying portion of our souls, while w tread this desert, and till we see Thy face in glory!
(:35) EPILOGUE / TRANSITION
“From Kibroth-hattaavah the people set out for Hazeroth,
and they remained at Hazeroth.”
Timothy Ashley: This verse is simply a transition that takes the Israelites from the scene of their last conflict to the scene of their next one—Miriam and Aaron’s challenge to Moses’ leadership at Hazeroth.
Dennis Cole: The reverberating succession of rebellion narratives in this first cycle of insurrections against God continues with a challenge to the leadership authority and the special character and calling of the prophet Moses. Milgrom even suggests that “the uniqueness of Moses is the sole theme of this chapter.” The first rebellion was a general complaint against God in the setting of the wilderness, and the second was a protest over the quality of the food supply God had so faithfully provided in that austere desert location. Now the protest becomes more narrowly focused. Now it is a struggle within the family of Moses concerning his position within the community and his unique relationship with God. If the event recounted in this chapter follows in chronological order that of the previous chapter, the physical setting is at Hazeroth, on the way from Mount Sinai to the Wilderness of Paran, in the northeast quadrant of the Sinai peninsula.