In the first ten chapters of Numbers, everything seems to be going well. The people are commended for obeying God, and the idea that they did what God commanded them occurs again and again. Yet when we come to the eleventh chapter, the tone is different and the people are complaining. This is a beginning of a series of complaints that’s going to go throughout the whole book.
Isn’t that remarkable that we could move so quickly from a time of joy and obedience in the Lord to a time of disobedience and complaining. This shouldn’t be. Our God is faithful. Even the hard times are given to us by Him for His own purposes, and He sees us through them. But as soon as the hard times come we think that something has gone wrong, and that God shouldn’t be allowing this to happen to us. And so we begin to murmur and complain against Him the way the people of Israel did.
This complaining begins about three days after they had set out from Sinai. It began with the rabble mentioned in verse 4, but quickly spread. Pretty soon everybody is complaining, and eventually, even Aaron and Moses will sin, such that Moses doesn’t even get to enter the promised land. Now that’s pretty grim, but it’s an illustration of what our lives are like. We’re looking forward to the land that Jesus has gone to prepare for us. But are we often defeated because we are often complaining? Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of defeat and an awful lot of complaining. But that is not the whole story.
What you see as you look at these chapters is the character of Moses. He emerges strongly here as a great and humble leader, one who is strong under opposition, responding in the right way most of the time. And in addition to that, what we see in these chapters is the mercy and grace of God. God is a God of judgment; He judges sin and we see that, too. But even in the midst of His judgment He remembers mercy, and that emerges again and again.
The problems begin with two complaints at the very beginning of Numbers 11. The first is a general murmuring. The people had just started out from where they had been camped at Sinai. I wouldn’t regard it as particularly desirable or nice to camp in the desert, but it was better than traveling through the desert. And after they’d done that for about three days, they decided this wasn’t very good at all and began to murmur.
The second complaint has to do with food, seen in verse 4. They’d been given food they don’t like. This complaint about food had occurred before. If you go back to Exodus 16, you find something that is almost directly parallel to what you find here. The people don’t like what they’re eating, and wish they had meat to eat. God sends quail. Because a similar story occurs at two points, the higher critics of the Old Testament say those are two parallel, independent accounts of only one incident. Actually, there are some differences, and the differences point out some lessons.
For one thing, they both occurred in the springtime, about a year apart. People who study the region tell us that quail actually migrate from the south in Ethiopia, north across the desert to the Mediterranean Sea, and then to southern Europe. As far as we know, the facts of the story here fit exactly what is known even today of these migrations.
When the people complained earlier, God heard them and He provided the quail. This time when they complain, God does send a judgment. The general complaint that you have in the first three verses is judged by what is called fire from the Lord. It breaks out on the edge of the camp. Only by the intercession of Moses is its destruction halted. Later, when they begin to complain about food, God sends the quail again, but this time they get sick from eating it. God says He is going to give them more than they want, and some begin to die because of what they’ve eaten.