It was all looking so good in the last chapter, wasn’t it? The Lord’s glory-cloud lifted from above the Tabernacle as the signal to the people that they were to leave Sinai and begin the journey to the Promised Land. And the ark of the covenant — which symbolised God’s throne — went before them to signify that God — who was their Great Conquering King — was going before them to lead them to victory over their enemies. They set off, as God’s holy people; and he was leading them. It was all looking so good; but then we have this chapter, chapter 11, where we read how the people began to complain.
And we’ll see something similar in chapter 12. And after exploring the Promised Land in chapter 13, the people rebelled in chapter 14. And so, we’re reminded that the Israelites were a sinful people; and we’re reminded too of the judgment of God on all who harden their hearts and who do not believe in him or obey him. Nevertheless, in the midst of this depressing chapter, the Lord nevertheless points us to the glory of Christ and the new covenant. So, let’s look at this chapter now.
Verses 1 to 3
The chapter opens with a report that the people complained about their hardships. Later they’ll complain about food; here it’s a complaint about the general conditions and everyday hardships they faced as they made their way through the wilderness. And no doubt it was hard and difficult to be living in tents like that; and to be travelling so much; and having to endure the heat of the sun during the day and perhaps the nights were cold. No doubt it was hard, but instead of enduring these things and encouraging themselves with the thought that soon they would be in the Promised Land, the people complained. And the Lord heard their complaints and his anger was aroused. Fire came from the Lord and burned the outskirts of the camp.
Perhaps some of their tents were burned, or perhaps it was only some of the shrubs growing near the tents which burned. Nevertheless the fire signified God’s displeasure with them. And the people cried to Moses, their Mediator with the Lord; and Moses interceded on their behalf so that the fire died down and did not destroy them. The place was named Taberah which means ‘it burns’; and this place and what happened there was a warning to the people to teach the people not to complain, but to trust in the Lord who would help them on their way and who was leading them to the Promised Land.
Verses 4 to 9
But instead of taking heed of the Lord’s warning, the people continued to complain and to grumble. Verse 4 refers to ‘the rabble’. Some of the commentators believe this refers to those non-Israelites who joined the Israelites whenever they left Egypt. You can read about them in Exodus 12:38. Whether it’s that group of people or not, we’re told they had a craving for other food. But their craving seems to have spread to the others, because we’re told in the same verse that the Israelites started to wail and they cried out about wanting meat to eat. And they began to remember the things they ate in Egypt: the fish they ate; the cucumbers; the melons; the leeks and onions and garlic. They are sick and tired of manna and they long to taste the food they used to have in Egypt.
Had they forgotten that they were slaves in Egypt and that their lives were miserable? Had they forgotten how they wanted to be freed from Egypt and that the Lord had come down from heaven to save them? Had they forgotten the Lord was leading them to a land which would flow with milk and honey, a land like the Garden of Eden? How quick they were to complain and to become ungrateful. And, of course, notice how they mentioned that the food in Egypt was free. They said they ate fish at no cost.
The food might have been free in Egypt, but they were not: they were slaves. Furthermore — as Moses makes clear in verses 7 to 9 — the manna the Lord gave them was also free, because it came down on the ground every night like the dew. They did not need to pay for it or work for it, but it was ready for them every morning. But the people despised the food the Lord gave them; and they therefore despised the Lord who had given it to them.
Verses 10 to 15
And in verse 10 we see how the Lord and how Moses responded. The Lord became exceedingly angry. That is, his anger became blazingly hot.
And Moses was deeply troubled. Now, no doubt he was deeply troubled by the ingratitude of the people who were wailing and whinging. But he’s also deeply troubled because of the Lord. Do you see that in the following verses? First, he asked the Lord why the Lord has brought this trouble on him.
What have I done to displease you that you’ve put this burden on me?
Then he makes the point that he didn’t conceive them or give birth to them. In other words, he’s not their parent and they’re not his children. So why does he have to carry them and feed them? Why is it his responsibility? And thirdly, he asks the Lord to tell him where he can get food for all these people.
They’re asking me for food, but where can I get food to feed them?
And then we see in verses 14 and 15 just how desperate and distraught he was, because he says the burden is too much for him; he’s at the end of his tether and it’s got so bad, he wishes he were dead. ‘If this is how you’re going to treat me,’ he says to the Lord,
then put me to death right now.
I’d rather be dead than put up with this.
Verses 16 to 23
And so, Moses complained to the Lord that the burden of leading these people on his own was too much for him. And he complained to the Lord that they wanted other food to eat. And in the following verses, the Lord answered both of Moses’s complaints. First of all, in verses 16 and 17, the Lord told Moses to bring to him 70 of the elders and make them stand with Moses before the Tabernacle. And the Lord explained that he would take of the Spirit that was on Moses and put the Spirit on them. The Spirit on Moses was the Holy Spirit who had anointed him and equipped him for his work. And the Lord was going to give the same Spirit and the same ability to lead the people to these elders.
They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone.
And then, in verses 18 to 20 the Lord announced that he would give the meat to eat and they would eat it for a month. But the meat would not be a blessing, but a curse; it would become something they loathed.
Moses wonders how this is possible. There are six hundred thousand men plus women and children. How can God feed them with meat for a month? And the Lord’s answer in verse 23 is really:
Wait and see. Wait and see whether what I’ve said is true or not.
Verses 24 to 35
In verses 24 to 29 Moses summoned the elders and the Spirit of God rested on them and they began to prophesy as a sign to make clear that these men had received the Spirit. Two of the elders did not come to the Tabernacle. We don’t know why. Nevertheless, the Spirit rested on them as well; and even though they were in the camp and not in the Tabernacle, they too began to prophesy. Joshua — who was Moses’s assistant — was worried that this would somehow undermine Moses’s position in the camp. But Moses was not concerned; and indeed he expressed the wish that the Lord would put his Spirit on all of his people.
And so, just as the Lord had promised, Moses now had these men to share the burden with him. But the Lord had also promised to send them meat. And so, in verses 31 to 35 we read how the Lord sent a wind which drove quail in from the sea. And the quail were brought down all around the camp. There were so many of them that they were piled up three feet high and they covered the ground all around. Wherever you looked, all you could see was quail. The people gathered them up and laid them on the ground, perhaps to dry them in the sun.
But as the Lord warned, the meat was not a blessing, but a curse, and while they were still eating it, the anger of the Lord burned against them because they had rejected him, and he struck them with a plague. Perhaps the plague was some kind of food poisoning. But remember: these are the men and women who were protected from the plagues in Egypt, because at that time, they trusted the Lord. But now that they had rejected him, they too suffered one of the Lord’s plagues and many of them died. And so, that placed was named ‘Graves of Craving’, because there they buried the people who had craved other food.
The Israelites were a sinful people. Despite the Lord’s kindness to them — delivering them from Egypt, providing them with manna every day — they complained and grumbled before the Lord. And as we read in verse 20, they rejected the Lord, who dwelt among them, and they questioned their decision to leave Egypt. Because of their hardness of heart and unbelief, they wished they were still in Egypt, instead of on the way to the Promised Land.
And we too are sinners. Even though the Lord has been good to us — delivering us from our sin and misery by his Son, and providing for us, not only with material blessing, but with spiritual blessings — we still sin against him everyday. We disobey his laws and instead of walking in his ways, we go astray; and we behave like those who do not believe. Instead of trusting in God’s fatherly goodness, we worry and are anxious about many things; and we doubt his love and faithfulness. We too are sinners, just like them. And so, we should humble ourselves before the Lord and confess our sins and ask for his mercy.
The Israelites suffered the judgment of God, because the meat he sent them became a curse and not a blessing; and many of them died in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land. And since we too are sinners, we know that we too deserve to be punished by God for our unbelief and rebellion. And yet we also know that Christ died for sinners; and so, we should give thanks to God for Christ our Saviour who gave up his life as the ransom to set us free from the condemnation we deserve. And we should give thanks to God continually for the forgiveness of sins and the free gift of everlasting life.
And when we do sin, we should confess it immediately and turn from it, lest we suffer the Lord’s displeasure. Though those who believe will never suffer eternal condemnation, nevertheless the Lord may chastise us in this life in order to awaken us to our sin and our need to confess it and turn from it.
Finally, Moses’s wish in verse 29 that the Lord should put his Spirit on all his people points us to Christ and to the glory of the new covenant, because under the terms of the new covenant, God not only promises to remember our sins no more, but he promises to fill all of his people with his Spirit to enable us to walk in his ways and to do his will. After the Lord Jesus was raised from the dead, he ascended to heaven.
And from his throne in heaven, he pours out his Spirit upon his people to enable us to repent and to believe so that we’re pardoned; and to sanctify us so that we become more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth as it’s done in heaven. Whereas Moses could only wish for the Spirit to come on God’s people, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Mediator of God’s new covenant, is able to give us his Spirit. And by his Spirit, he’s able to help us to remain faithful and obedient to him, while he leads us along the narrow path that leads eventually to everlasting life in his presence.