It seems like a long time has passed since Yahweh told them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). Their spiritual formation in the last nine months has been impressive. The new tabernacle shines in their midst, and the priests guide them in a close relationship with Yahweh that they never had experienced in all those centuries in Egypt. They no longer look like a group of unstable, newly-redeemed slaves from Egypt like we read about in the first half of the book of Exodus.
On the other hand… maybe they do still seem like a group of unstable, newly-redeemed slaves from Egypt like we read about in the first half of the book of Exodus. They have not spent much time on the march when we read about their first complaint in Numbers 11: “And the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes” (Numbers 11:1). We don’t know what misfortunes they were complaining about, only that an attitude of displeasure and non-conformity awoke in them… directed at Yahweh. “When the LORD heard it, his anger was kindled, and the fire of the LORD burned among them and consumed some outlying parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1).
Moses is experienced in intercession and puts it into practice again: “Then the people cried out to Moses, and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down” (Numbers 11:2). The memory of this rebellion will be engraved on the minds of the Israelites; they call the place Taberah, which means “Burning”, “because the fire of the LORD burned among them” (Numbers 11:3). Forty years later, Moses will remember this place when he lists the times that Israel provoked Yahweh to wrath (Deuteronomy 9:22).
But this is only one of three rebellions against Yahweh in today’s reading. Next the people complain because of a lack of variety in their diet. It began with “the rabble that was among them” (Numbers 11:4) and ran throughout the camp family by family. It seems like the general sense of discontent even caught up with Moses: “Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them on your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12)
Yahweh responds with relief for Moses and judgment for the people. A key word in this section is the Hebrew word “ruah”, translated “Spirit” in Numbers 11:25, 26 and 29 and “wind” in Numbers 11:31. Yahweh puts His “ruah” or Spirit on the 70 elders so that they prophecy and help Moses govern the people, and at the same time His “ruah” brings quail from the sea and drops them beside the camp in judgment (Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, Baker Academic, 2005, pg. 324).
From there we can see the difference between the exasperation of Moses and the attitude of the people: “The people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail. Those who gathered least gathered ten homers. And they spread them out for themselves all around the camp” (Numbers 11:32). Remember that in Exodus 16:16, the Israelites can gather an omer of manna per person each day, approximately 2.2 liters (an omer is the tenth part of an ephah (Exodus 16:36), which the historian Josephus identifies as about 22 liters). The word “homer” in Numbers 11:32 refers to another unit of dry measure which is equivalent to 220 liters. That is to say, the one who gathered least in Numbers 11:32 gathered 2200 liters of meat for his personal use! No wonder then, after Yahweh’s judgment, that they called the place “Kibroth-hattaavah”, which means “Graves of Covetousness”: “for there they buried the people who had the craving” (Numbers 11:34).
Moses, on the other hand, was not covetous; he did not tell Yahweh, “I want to govern more people. Give me more responsibilities and a more numerous people; I want to be emperor. Oh, how I wish I had stayed in Pharaoh’s house!” He did not crave more authority and power; instead, he was glad to share the responsibility of spiritual leadership of the people with others: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29) What humility! It is a very different attitude from the one of a spiritual leader who throws himself into ministry with a passion for having more and more souls under his personal influence and care, thinking that he will be more recognized, respected and secure for directing a large congregation. Perhaps it is better that Yahweh’s flock is shepherded by many leaders filled with His Spirit.
The third rebellion touches Moses personally: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1). The interpretation of this verse seems to run in one of two directions:
1) sometime recently, without giving us the details, Zipporah died or abandoned Moses, and he married another woman, an Ethiopian or Cushite (the land of Cush is Ethiopia), or
2) it is a reference to Zipporah herself, that she is from Cushan, a region closely tied to Midian in Habakkuk 3:7, where Moses sought refuge in the decades before Yahweh’s calling to rescue Israel from slavery.
If it is the second option, the vast majority of the people probably never met her until she arrived in Sinai with Jethro in Exodus 18. The key to either possibility is that Moses married a foreigner, someone who was not an Israelite by birth. “How could the prophet of Israel dare to marry someone like that?” Miriam seems to ask.
But the biblical narrator reveals to us the Miriam’s complaint runs deeper than annoyance with her sister-in-law: “And they said, ‘Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?’” (Numbers 12:2) Is it possible that Miriam and Aaron feel jealous because they weren’t included among the 70 who received the Spirit in Numbers 11? Whatever the motive, they feel that they deserve more authority and recognition for their spiritual capabilities, and they think that one way of gaining that recognition is by taking advantage of a “defect” in Moses so that the Israelites will view them in a more positive light.
Yahweh puts down this rebellion quickly. He is sovereign in giving authority and recognition, prophecy and a living relationship with Himself; He is also sovereign in giving out punishment. And the woman who thought she could promote herself to have more direction over the Israelites now holds up everyone because of her leprosy: “So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again” (Numbers 12:15).
“Burning”, “Graves of Covetousness” and Hazeroth, where Miriam suffered leprosy because of her rebellion: three infamous places of rebellion in only two chapters. We have not gotten off to a good start on our trip to the Promised Land.