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Moses certainly had a high degree of certainty regarding God’s call for him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. God had revealed Himself in the burning bush incident and then repeatedly confirmed the calling of Moses. The Providential care of the Lord had been manifested in numerous ways. Yet when faced with adversity in the wilderness and the entire company of people complaining over their lot in life, Moses quickly became frustrated as a leader and suffered a real ministry crisis.

Terence Fretheim: This wilderness setting presents problems and possibilities for shaping a community identity for the newly redeemed people of God. The period of wandering is a necessary buffer between liberation and landedness for the sake of forming this identity. Such a process does not unfold easily for Israel or for God. The people have been taken out of Egypt, but it proves difficult to take Egypt out of the people. The familiar orderliness of Egypt seems preferable to the insecurities of life lived from one oasis to the next. . . These verses interweave concerns about food and Moses’ leadership. . .

In response to God’s anger (11:10) and in language typical of lament psalms, Moses complains that, given what the people have become, God has mistreated him. God has placed too heavy a leadership burden on him (see Exodus 18:18), and provided insufficient resources. Moses uses striking maternal imagery for God: God has conceived and birthed this people (see Deuteronomy 32.18; Isaiah 42:14; 66:13) and hence God should assume the responsibilities of a wet nurse and see to the people’s nourishment. Moses should not have to carry this burden alone, implying that God is negligent. Feeling caught in the middle, Moses asks for either relief or death.

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29


A. (:4) Contagious Spirit of Discontent – Give Us Meat to Eat

1. Grumbling Begins with the Craving of the Foreign Malcontents

“And the rabble who were among them had greedy desires;”

Dennis Cole: The second rebellion was instigated by an assembly (hāʾsapsūp) of those who had departed from Egypt along with the Israelites, and the discontent spread rapidly through the camp of the children of Israel. The initial term used to describe this mutinous group is a hapax legomenon built on the verb ʾāśap, “to gather.” This faction seems to be distinguished in the text from the Israelites. The group’s offense is described as an intense craving (lit. “they were craving a craving”) for meat and other produce that they had eaten in Egypt. In the midst of their austerity in the desert setting, they had become nostalgic over their former food supply while forgetting the bondage and oppression from which the Lord had so dramatically delivered them. The failure to remember God’s grace and faithfulness was the second aspect of their rebellion.

2. Grumbling Extends to the Forgetful Covenant Company of the Redeemed

“and also the sons of Israel wept again and said,

‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”

B. (:5-6) Perverted Attitude of Ingratitude – We Used to be Better Off

1. (:5) Distorted Memory of the Good Old Days

“We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic,”

Guzik: Israel here is engaging in “creative memory,” choosing to remember certain things about Egypt, and exaggerating those things, while at the same time choosing to forget other things.

2. (:6) Disinterested Perspective Towards God’s Gracious Provision

“but now our appetite is gone.

There is nothing at all to look at except this manna.”

Brueggemann: Loathing manna meant turning up their nose at God’s provision, and longing for Egypt meant abandoning God’s deliverance. They were effectively repudiating the very basis of their covenant relation with God. They were showing signs of the same spirit that rejected the true bread from heaven, Jesus Christ, who gives eternal life (John 6:32–58).

David McCasland: Many of our recurring complaints focus not on what we don’t have, but on what we do have and find uninteresting. Whether it’s our work, our church, our house, or our spouse, boredom grumbles that it’s not what we want or need. This frustration with sameness has been true of the human spirit since the beginning.

Notice the protest of God’s people about their menu in the wilderness. Recalling the variety of food they ate as slaves in Egypt, they despised the monotony of God’s current provision: “Our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!” (Numbers 11:6).

God provided exactly what they needed each day, but they wanted something more exciting. Are we tempted to do the same? Oswald Chambers said: “Drudgery is the touchstone of character. There are times when there is no illumination and no thrill, but just the daily round, the common task. Routine is God’s way of saving us between our times of inspiration. Do not expect God always to give you His thrilling minutes, but learn to live in the domain of drudgery by the power of God.”

During the boring times of life, God is working to instill His character in us. Drudgery is our opportunity to experience the presence of the Lord.

C. (:7-9) Reminder of God’s Gracious Provision of Manna

1. (:7) Distinctive Nature

“Now the manna was like coriander seed,

and its appearance like that of bdellium.”

MacArthur: This refers more to appearance than color, i.e. it had the appearance of a pale resin.

2. (:8a) Disciplined Routine of Gathering and Preparation

“The people would go about and gather it and grind it between two millstones or beat it in the mortar, and boil it in the pot and make cakes with it;”

3. (:8b) Delightful Taste

“and its taste was as the taste of cakes baked with oil.”

4. (:9) Daily Distribution

“And when the dew fell on the camp at night,

the manna would fall with it.”


A. (:10) Burnout of Moses – Exasperated by the Response of Both the People and the Lord

1. Exasperated by the Response of the People

“Now Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families,

each man at the doorway of his tent;”

Harrison: Moses was already feeling the pressures of leadership over a people whose faith was melting away at the first sign of difficulty. The complaining and wailing of the people brought him into the Lord’s presence in the Tent of Meeting.

2. Exasperated by the Response of the Lord

“and the anger of the LORD was kindled greatly,

and Moses was displeased.”

Roy Gane: As expected, the divine King does not take kindly to insulting rejection of the heavenly bounty that he has daily provided. Ominously, he becomes “exceedingly angry” (11:10). Exacerbating the gravity of the situation is Moses’ burnout. Whereas he interceded at Taberah with a prayer to God (11:2), he now offers a complaint of his own (11:11–15). Just as the people are sick and tired of manna, Moses is sick and tired of them!

B. (:11) Gripe of Moses – I Deserve Better Treatment

1. You are Being Too Hard on Me

“So Moses said to the LORD,

‘Why hast Thou been so hard on Thy servant?’”

Brueggemann: He didn’t reproach God for treating the people shabbily; rather, the one whom we come to know as the intercessor par excellence complained on his own behalf. He probably brooded some on his reluctance to take the job in the first place (Exod 3:1–4:17), then descended to sarcastic questions. . .

Guzik: Why have You afflicted Your servant? Moses responded to God the way many of us do in a time of trial. He essentially said, “God, here I am serving You. Why did You bring this upon me?” It’s easy to say God did not bring this upon Moses—a carnal and ungrateful people did. Yet, though God did not directly afflict Moses with this, He ultimately allowed it.. God allowed this for the same reason God allows any affliction in our lives—to compel us to trust in Him all the more, to partner with Him in overcoming obstacles, and to love and praise Him all the more through our increased dependence on Him and the greater deliverance He brings.. That no one should be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this (1 Thessalonians 3:3). Of course, it is very hard to see this in the midst of the affliction; we feel like Moses did: Why have I not found favor in Your sight? “If You really loved me LORD, why would You bring all this upon me?” God’s response is ever the same: “It’s because I do love you that I am training you, building you up in faith.”

2. You are Not Giving Me Enough Credit

“And why have I not found favor in Thy sight,

that Thou hast laid the burden of all this people on me?”

C. (:12) Blame Shifting of Moses

1. I Didn’t Create This Situation

“Was it I who conceived all this people?”

2. I Didn’t Lead Us to This Point

“Was it I who brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say to me,

‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries a nursing infant,

to the land which Thou didst swear to their fathers ‘?”

Dennis Cole: The widespread nature of the discontent is highlighted by the phrase “every family wailing,” as the initial grumbling of the rabble spread like wildfire through the camp. Moses is incensed at the people for making his role as a leader an unbearable one and toward Yahweh for assigning him this overwhelming burden of leadership. His reaction is pointed primarily toward God, challenging the divine decision to place him in the parental role of providing for this nation. It was not he who gave birth to the nation, and hence it was not he who bore the responsibility for their welfare.

D. (:13-14) Inadequacy of Moses

1. (:13) Inadequate to Meet the Needs of the People = Provide the Requested Meat

“Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?

For they weep before me, saying, ‘Give us meat that we may eat!’”

2. (:14) Inadequate to Bear the Burden of Leadership

“I alone am not able to carry all this people,

because it is too burdensome for me.”

Timothy Ashley: As the following verses indicate, however, Moses does not react against the people’s rejection of God’s provision but against the people for making his job as leader more difficult, and against Yahweh for giving him the task as leader.

E. (:15) Depression and Despair of Moses

“So if Thou art going to deal thus with me, please kill me at once,

if I have found favor in Thy sight, and do not let me see my wretchedness.”

Wenham: In a long and angry prayer he vents his frustrations before God. Israel is like a little child. It is really hard work being nursemaid to him all day. It would be better to die than have to look after them alone (11–15; cf. Exod. 33:15; Rom. 9:3).

Dennis Cole: Moses’ despair concerning his life’s lot parallels those of other notables in Israel’s history. Job cursed the very day of his birth in the midst of his season of suffering, and Jeremiah likewise bemoaned his conception and birth in the midst of the shame he experienced in being beaten and imprisoned by Pashhur in Jerusalem.42 At this point in his leadership ministry, Moses faced a crisis of faith and dependency, preferring death as a favor from God rather than continue to have the responsibility of directing such a rebellious rabble. The Lord responds with grace and yet also with judgment. Moses would get some relief, but in the long run this was just the beginning of troublesome years to come.


A. (:16-17) Response to the Burdensome Nature of Leadership = Mercy of Shared Leadership

1. (:16) Delegating Additional Leaders

“The LORD therefore said to Moses, ‘Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and their officers and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you.’”

2. (:17) Empowering Additional Leaders

“Then I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit who is upon you, and will put Him upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you shall not bear it all alone.”

B. (:18-20) Response to the Demand for Meat = Grace of Provision Ending in Curse of Excess

1. (:18a) Serious Confrontation – Be Careful How You Approach the Lord

“And say to the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow,

and you shall eat meat;’”

Brueggemann: Then God turned to the people’s complaint about food. He commanded the people to “purify” themselves in preparation for the meat they sought (11:18), indicating that “tomorrow” was going to be about something more than the merely mundane matter of diet. The people might have thought they were about to experience straightforward blessing, but ominous talk of griping and gagging undercut that. The people didn’t like manna every day; therefore, God was going to force meat on them day after day, until they gagged on it.

2. (:18b) Ungrateful and Perverted Complaint

“for you have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, ‘Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt.’”

3. (:18c-20a) Excessive Provision = Essentially Turning a Blessing Into Discipline

a. (:18c) Promise of Provision of Meat

“Therefore the LORD will give you meat and you shall eat.”

b. (:19-20a) Extended Duration of the Provision

“You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, 20 but a whole month,”

c. (:20b) Unpleasant Result of the Provision

“until it comes out of your nostrils

and becomes loathsome to you;”

Dennis Cole: The contrast between the true source of blessing is heightened further when the people ascribe “goodness” to their situation in Egypt. When the people were preparing to leave Sinai, Moses told Hobab that God had promised good things to Israel. God was Israel’s true source of goodness, but now they claimed things were better for them in Egypt (lit., “For goodness is for us in Egypt”). To attribute goodness to the land of bondage, oppression, and despair was blasphemous, evidence of their brazen rebellion against God; they had rejected his goodness. Now he would turn that which was formerly a means of great blessing, the abundant provision of quail for their meat supply, into a means of cursing and plague. The supply from God would be far more than abundant, lasting for a whole month. The pattern in the dialogue comes to a dramatic climax in the intensifying sixfold enumeration of the supply period for the quail—not one, two, five, ten, or even twenty days, but for an entire month (over twenty-nine days) they would experience the oxymoronic fullness of God’s wrathful blessing. The savory meat they so lusted after would become loathsome to them. The nature of the punishment would echo their rejection of God.

4. (:20c) Key Point of Failure = Not Trusting the Providential Care of the Lord

“because you have rejected the LORD who is among you

and have wept before Him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’”

Ronald Allen: The issue was not just failure to demonstrate proper gratitude to the Lord who was in their midst and who was their constant source of good; it was turning from him entirely and grudgingly rejecting his many acts of mercy on their behalf. I suspect the only comparable thing for the modern reader would be for one who has made a Christian commitment to say to the Savior, “I wish you had not died for me! Leave me alone!” Only when we put things in these terms may we sense the enormity of the language of this verse.


A. (:21-22) Questioning the Lord’s Capability to Meet the Need

1. (:21) God’s Claim of Sufficiency is Difficult to Believe When the Needs are Enormous

a. Enormous Needs

“But Moses said, ‘The people, among whom I am, are 600,000 on foot;”

b. Unbelievable Claim of Sufficiency

“yet Thou hast said, I will give them meat

in order that they may eat for a whole month.’”

2. (:22) Apart from Faith, Sufficient Resources Are Not Visible

a. Not Enough Animals to Feed the People

“Should flocks and herds be slaughtered for them,

to be sufficient for them?”

b. Not Enough Fish to Feed the People

“Or should all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them,

to be sufficient for them?”

B. (:23) Confidence in the Lord’s Power to Meet the Need

1. The Lord is Up to the Challenge

“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Is the LORD’s power limited?”

Dennis Cole: In his dolor and disbelief Moses had challenged God’s ability to meet the needs of the people in the wilderness. He had questioned God’s essential beneficent nature. But the Lord responds quickly and succinctly to the disputation with a rhetorical question, “Is the hand of the Lord shortened?” Has somehow the right hand and arm of Yahweh, which delivered the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt and brought them through the sea on dry ground, been reduced in power and capacity? Absolutely not! So now the reluctant Moses and the recalcitrant people were about to experience once more the magnitude of God’s power of blessing and the veracity of his promise to supply the needs of his people. In spite of the numerous life illustrations the Israelites and the assembly had experienced, they had not yet come to the realization of the promise the apostle Paul later echoed in Phil 4:19, “My God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

2. The Lord Always Keeps His Promises

“Now you shall see whether My word will come true for you or not.’”

Timothy Ashley: The word hand (yāḏ) is used many times in the OT as an anthropomorphism for God’s strength. The use of the verb “to cut off” (qāṣar) with “hand” (yāḏ) indicates impotence in God (e.g., Isa. 50:2; 59:1) or in humankind (2 K. 19:26; Isa. 37:27). The proof of the true God is whether his word comes to pass (cf., e.g., Isa. 41:21–29; 46:8–11). Here God simply says, Now you will see whether my word happens to you or not. In the present context this word of Yahweh applies not only to feeding the multitude, but also to appointing elders to share the leadership.

Robert Hawker: God had made a positive promise to Moses that for the space of a whole month he would feed the vast host in the wilderness with flesh. Moses, being overtaken by a fit of unbelief, looks to the outward means, and is at a loss to know how the promise can be fulfilled. He looked to the creature instead of the Creator. But doth the Creator expect the creature to fulfil his promise for him? No; he who makes the promise ever fulfils it by his own unaided omnipotence. If he speaks, it is done—done by himself. His promises do not depend for their fulfilment upon the co-operation of the puny strength of man. We can at once perceive the mistake which Moses made. And yet how commonly we do the same! God has promised to supply our needs, and we look to the creature to do what God has promised to do; and then, because we perceive the creature to be weak and feeble, we indulge in unbelief. Why look we to that quarter at all? Will you look to the north pole to gather fruits ripened in the sun? Verily, you would act no more foolishly if ye did this than when you look to the weak for strength, and to the creature to do the Creator’s work. Let us, then, put the question on the right footing. The ground of faith is not the sufficiency of the visible means for the performance of the promise, but the all-sufficiency of the invisible God, who will most surely do as he hath said. If after clearly seeing that the onus lies with the Lord and not with the creature, we dare to indulge in mistrust, the question of God comes home mightily to us: “Has the Lord’s hand waxed short?” May it happen, too, in his mercy, that with the question there may flash upon our souls that blessed declaration, “Thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.”