One of my daily readings recently came from Numbers 11, and despite this is a part of the Bible that is all too often overlooked I found several things in that passage that gave me pause for thought, so much so that I felt compelled to share my thoughts (nearly 3000 words of them, just so you’re fairly warned).  I would encourage you to read the full chapter, but I’ll also briefly summarise here for the benefit of lazy readers:

Moses has been leading the Israelites through the desert, and God has provided them with manna, but the people crave meat and are complaining.  Moses despairs (again), so God tells him that he will temporarily distribute some of his Spirit on the elders.  He will also provide more meat than the people know what to do with, so much so that they will eat for months and be sick of it, just because they complained.  So Moses gathers the elders and the Spirit is shared out, and they all start prophesying.  Two of the elders stayed in the camp, but were blessed with the Spirit anyway and prophesy too, despite one well-meaning helper (Joshua, as it happens) trying to stop them.  And then God brings quail in huge numbers, and the people gorge themselves, but God isn’t happy so sends a plague that kills lots of people.

That’s a very brief summary, so I do encourage you to read the full passage for more detail (and accuracy), but hopefully that sets the scene.  There are two main themes here I want to explore: firstly, the sharing of the Spirit on the elders; and secondly, the promise of meat and the plague that accompanied it.

The sharing of the Spirit

Firstly, I’d like to remind readers that this is pre-Christ and pre-Pentecost, and therefore the giving of the Holy Spirit was restricted to just a handful of ‘special’ people that God chose to work with.  That’s not because it’s a different God, but rather a different way of working.  Because only certain people were filled with the Spirit, there was perhaps a greater sense of value to it, so that those who were blessed with the Spirit were held up as heroes and celebrities.  Moses was one such person, although of course he was one of the more reluctant of God’s workers.  So that brings me on to the first question I found myself pondering…

Why did God share the Spirit with the Elders?

What was the point?  What was God trying to achieve by it?  And if it was so important, why was it only temporary?

Verse 17 may present one possible answer.  This comes as a direct response to Moses crying out in desperation, saying that he can’t cope with the burden any more (which is a familiar line if you know the story of Moses).  God responds by saying “I will take some of the power of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them. They will share the burden of the people with you so that you will not have to carry it alone”.  That seems to suggest that the whole purpose is to make Moses feel better, to remind him that he’s not alone.

The sentiment there is one we’ll all appreciate, I’m sure.  So often we feel like we’re swimming against the current, and sometimes that can feel lonely.  That can be the case even if we’re heavily involved in a church – there is always work to be done, there are never enough people to do the job, other people get in the way of progress… the list goes on and you can probably add your own examples too.  What God is saying to Moses, and to us today, is that we are not alone.  We are not called to be a Church of individuals, but to be a Church in community with each other.  Jesus ministered for three years with 12 disciples, as much for company as anything else.  People are important, relationships are important, and God is keen for us to understand that we should be working together, not alone.

But I wonder if that is the whole picture here.  Does God go through all this just for Moses’ benefit?  I think not.  The elders are representatives of the whole community, and the expectation is that everything they experienced they would relay on to the people so that everyone would benefit from the words of prophesy.  In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul talks about worship needing to be ordered and intelligible, “so that the church may be edified”.  Yes, there are times when God speaks to us individually, and that message is for us alone, but there are also times when God gives us a message for the whole community.  So yes, this particular experience was meant to build up Moses’ confidence, but it was also to be an encouragement to the people, that God had not abandoned them either, that God was still working with them and for them and through them.

What makes this more difficult, though, is that we don’t hear exactly what those prophesies were.  Not only that, but God’s general temperament seems to be one of irritation at the people’s complaining, and that breakdown of relationship seems to cloud the good intentions.  There’s a lesson there for us too – if we’re too busy complaining, we risk missing the good that God wants to share with us.

Why did God send the Spirit on Eldad and Medad?

With the sacred nature of God’s Holy Spirit being as it was, this bit actually surprised me.  Eldad and Medad were elders, and had been called to the Tent of Meeting so that God could share his Spirit with them.  But they hadn’t come.  We’re not told why, maybe they couldn’t come, or maybe they didn’t want to come, who knows.  Either way, in the light of God’s irritation you would have expected them to have been left out of the blessing, and it would have been entirely their own fault.  But no, God insists that they share the Spirit anyway.

The impression we get here is that God’s Spirit overflows from that Tent of Meeting, perhaps a precursor of what God had in mind for when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost, spilling over from then on to touch people of all backgrounds and nationalities.  This is an important and deliberate message that God is trying to get across – God is not confined to the Tent of Meeting.  Traditionally a lot of importance generally rests on the Tent of Meeting, and later the various temples and synagogues that spring up, built on the idea that humanity can only experience God properly in the Holy of Holies, and not elsewhere.  As Jesus helpfully reminds us, that’s not what the temple is for.  The temple is not somewhere to hide God, to contain him, to limit him.  When Jesus died on the cross the curtain in the temple was torn in two, illustrating that God longs to be with his people, among them, alongside them.  As much as we may think that Eldad and Medad should have been excluded from the sharing of the Spirit, God insists otherwise.

Why was Joshua wrong?

In all fairness, Joshua wasn’t the first to misunderstand what God was doing, and he certainly wasn’t the last either.  Peter is another great example of someone who saw God at work and got completely the wrong end of the stick.  In Joshua’s case, he sees that Eldad and Medad are prophesying outside of the Tent of Meeting, and presumes that something has gone horribly wrong.  His assumption, which as the previous point explains isn’t all too uncommon, is that the Tent of Meeting is the only place we’re allowed to meet with God.  These two elders were clearly not in the Tent of Meeting, and by that definition should not have been meeting with God.  So in his mind, they had to be stopped.

How often do we fall victim of the same mistake?  How often do we see God moving, or people experiencing something, and we want to stop them?  Maybe it’s not quite as blatant as that, maybe we just try to push them in a different direction that is more in line with “the way we do it here”.  I’ve been in church services where someone has had a word of prophesy and tried to share it, and have been effectively shouted down by the preacher and escorted outside by the ushers.  In one sense I can understand that, on the basis of not wanting to confuse people or mix messages or interrupt what someone else is saying or make the service late so that people burn their dinners.  As Paul reminds us, worship must be ordered and intelligible and helpful.  That said, if God breaks in with something important, who are we to deny that?  Who are we to interrupt the Holy Spirit when he is working through someone?  What sort of relationship are we building if we tell someone in front of the whole church that the spiritual experience they are having is inappropriate and therefore not from God?

There are other, more secular, examples of this too.  Time and again in the Bible we see God working through people who are not Jews, who are not believers, who are not members of the church, being used to do God’s work.  These are not people who have deliberately opened themselves up to God through prayer and Bible study and who act on a clear message that has been tried and proved to be of God.  These are more frequently people who just do something, and only afterwards does it become apparent that God was behind it.  Again, if this is how God chooses to work, we shouldn’t get in the way of that.  They may not be Christians, but they can still be part of God’s plan.

The giving of the quail

Now we’re on to the second theme, where God gives the Israelites a feast of quail because they’re not satisfied with manna.

Why did God give in to the demands of the Israelites?

It sounds like God is a pushover.  The Israelites persistently disobeyed God, so they were sent into exile in Egypt, but they complained so God brought them back out again.  God called Moses to lead his people, but Moses complained that he wasn’t good at talking, so God got Aaron to speak for him instead.  The people complain that there isn’t enough water, so God provides some from a rock.  The people complain that there isn’t any food, so God sends manna from heaven.  The people complain that manna tastes rubbish, so God sends them a flock of birds to eat.  It’s a nation of complainers, with a God who keeps giving in.

But isn’t that what relationship is all about?  The impression we all too easily accept is that the God of the Old Testament is all about rules and regulations and terrible smitings if you step out of line.  But that’s not always what we see.  Time and again God gives his people instructions, and time after time we get them wrong.  If God were an absolute and un-loving God then you would expect him to punish the lot of them and wipe out the Israelites completely.  In contrast, what we see is a God who forgives, who loves his people so much that he’s prepared to bend his rules, just this once (and the next time too if necessary), so that they can continue moving forwards.  Yes, fair point, God does kill off a good deal of them in a plague shortly afterwards, but I’ll come on to that later as I think that’s perhaps a separate issue.  The point is, God bends over backwards to ensure he can continue to have a relationship with us.

How prepared are we to do the same for people we know?  Do we sometimes hold back forgiveness if we think someone’s had enough chances to make good?  Or do we bend over backwards to accept people, like God does, despite what society expects?  It can be tough sometimes, that’s for sure, especially when someone tries your patience by repeatedly doing the same thing over and over, but God’s example and God’s call for us is that we do just that.  We don’t have to be happy about it (after all, God wasn’t exactly ecstatic about the Israelites’ continual complaining and disobedience), but at the end of the day our relationship with other people – and with God – is ultimately more important than a tick list of failures and accomplishments.

Why did God send the plague?

It does seem odd, doesn’t it, that God should promise to give the people such an abundance of meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it”, and then at the end of the chapter God does something completely different and sends a plague instead.  It seems like a contradiction, or possibly even an example of God going back on his word.  For those who died from the plague, they certainly didn’t have a chance to eat so much that they  were sick of it.  So what is God playing at here?

I believe the mistake we shouldn’t make is to assume that the plague is part of the original promise.  The clue starts in verse 18, where God says “Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat”.  Consecration is something the Israelites would have been familiar with – an act of physically and spiritually preparing themselves for something important, so that nothing sinful might influence or mar what is coming next.  However, we see no evidence that people did anything of the sort.  When the quail arrive, the scene that is described is one of greed and lust, grabbing as much food as they can manage – “no one gathered less than fifty bushels”.  That doesn’t sound much like a consecrated people humbly receiving a gift from God.

Perhaps that is why God’s anger burned against them, and why he changed his mind and turned the gift into a plague.  Again, we see the message of relationship here.  They are like a naughty child who sneaks downstairs on Christmas morning and unwraps everyone’s presents, and doesn’t think to say thank you to anyone.  If the Israelites had taken the same approach with the quail as they had been instructed with the manna (collecting only what they needed and no more), I’m sure they would have been fine; God may well have provided more than enough (he often does), and they may well have been sick of it within a few months, but they would have been humbly accepting God’s gift and everything would have been fine.  But because they acted selfishly and ungratefully, God had to show them the error of their ways.  Again.  Note, however, that not everyone dies in this plague – even here God shows forgiveness in bending his own rules!

What’s the connection between the quail and the Spirit?

So, we’ve looked at the sharing of the Spirit, which encouraged Moses, built up the community, redefined people’s expectations and worked in ways that we might not have expected.  And we’ve looked at the giving of the quail, showing God’s love and forgiveness in an unexpected way.  Now, these two messages come together in the same passage, but are they actually connected by anything other than circumstance?

I think this is where the book of Numbers is so unique.  Yes, these could quite easily be two distinct stories, one about the sharing of the Spirit and one about the giving of the quail, and we would have found them both interesting and useful.  But the book of Numbers isn’t a commentary, or a poetic masterpiece, or a prophecy in picture-language.  It’s a book of numbers and statistics, a ledger, an archive of what happened written by someone akin to an accountant.  There is no political slant, no editorial twist, no personal opinion.  This is what happened.  Fact.

My point is that life is not lived in distinct, separated stories.  Our chapters do not have beginnings, middles and ends.  Everything overlaps, interleaves, connects with other things going on at the same time, happens at the same time as something unrelated.  That’s the beauty of life.  And that’s how God works – in all things at all times.  God doesn’t want to meet with us on one day of the week, starting at 10am and finishing no later than 11:30 so we can go home for lunch.  God wants to meet with us throughout the day, throughout the week, not to be confined to our expectations and traditions, to develop that relationship in new and exciting ways, to challenge our perceptions and lead us to walk more closely with him in an ongoing and persistent relationship rather than at fixed points on our calendar.  There might well be a connection between the sharing of the Spirit and the giving of the quail, or there might not, and in some ways perhaps it doesn’t matter.  What’s important is that we don’t try to limit God by our own limited viewpoint, but to embrace whatever God chooses to do next.


There’s a lot there, and doubtless there’s more to explore, and I’m not claiming to have it all right.  I’ll leave it to you to pick out what’s relevant to you, and feel free to leave your own thoughts and comments below!

1 Comment

Phill · 4 July 2012 at 8:04 am

Thanks for this Matthew. It’s good to see engagement with a book like Numbers – as you say, it’s an oft-overlooked part of the Bible but there is much to discover there! We’ve just heard a sermon series on it at our placement church, strangely enough, and also we studied it at college in our Old Testament class (albeit briefly).

What really strikes me about Numbers is how much it is a parable for our own age: God’s faithfulness to his promises despite the Israelites’ continuing unfaithfulness. Their unfaithfulness did not go unpunished, but God remained true the whole time.

The thing which particularly hit me recently – not on this passage! – was 14:1-4. This is such a lesson for me: the people of Israel had seen God’s mighty works, culminating in bringing them out of Egypt and him dwelling with them in the tabernacle. And yet, they still wanted to go back to Egypt. Reminds me of my own life: how many great things have I seen God do, and how many times do I want to go back to doing my own thing, turning my back on God!

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