God Meted Out Meat and Judgment

31 Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground. 32 And 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. 33 While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague. 34 Therefore the name of that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. 35 From Kibroth-hattaavah the people journeyed to Hazeroth, and they remained at Hazeroth. Numbers 11:31-35 ESV

The Israelites got what they wanted and, unexpectedly, exactly what they deserved. They had grown sick of the manna that God miraculously provided for them and began to express their craving for the more varied diet they had enjoyed back in Egypt.

“Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” – Numbers 11:4-6 ESV

This craving or deep longing (אָוָה ‘āvâ) for Egyptian cuisine had begun among “the rabble that was among them” (Numbers 11:4 ESV). This appears to be a reference to the non-Jews who had joined the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Exodus, Moses recorded that a “rabble of non-Israelites went with them” (Exodus 12:38 ESV). This mixed multitude likely consisted of Egyptians as well as individuals who haled from other ethnic backgrounds. After having endured the ten plagues that the God of the Israelites had brought against Egypt and then witnessed the devastating deaths of all the firstborn, these people had chosen to align themselves with Moses and his powerful deity.

Many of these people were probably slaves just like the Israelites or were from the lower classes of the Egyptians. They had seen the exodus as an opportunity to escape their impoverished conditions and improve their prospects for the future. But after a year of traveling through the wilderness alongside the Israelites, they had begun to question their decision and long for their former lives back in Egypt. It seems unlikely that their prior circumstances had been quite so enjoyable as they recalled. While the Nile would have provided them easy access to fish and the fertile soil of the Nile Valley produced an abundant supply of fruits and vegetables, the lower-class status of this “rabble” would have made most of delicacies unaffordable and inaccessible.

Yet, they couldn’t stop thinking about the “good life” of Egypt. Their cravings and desires got the best of them and their growing dissatisfaction with God’s provision slowly infected the rest of the community. Before long, the people of Israel were all expressing their desire to return to Egypt.

“Who will give us meat to eat? For it was better for us in Egypt.” – Numbers 11:18 ESV

At the core of their complaint was a distrust of God. They were declaring their doubt in His ability to provide for their needs. In their minds, God was incapable of providing the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic they had enjoyed in Egypt. In a sense, they were suggesting that Egypt and by extension, Pharaoh, had done a better job of meeting their needs. They were demanding that God accomodate Himself to their wants and desires. He needed to get with the program and give them what they wanted: Meat with all the fixin’s.

And God agreed to give them exactly what they asked for. He informed Moses to tell the people, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you” (Numbers 11:18-20 ESV).

They had allowed their physical desires to get the best of them and, driven by their cravings for temporal delights, they had rejected the providential plan of God. The apostle Paul provides an apt description for this kind of materialistic-minded outlook.

Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. – Philippians 3:19 NLT

They had lost sight of the prize. Rather than patiently waiting on God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, they fixated on the apparent deprivations of the moment and refused to place their hope in the future blessings to come.

And the last five verses of chapter 11 describe how God gave them what they desired as well as what they deserved. A wind (רוּחַ rûaḥ) blew from the southeast that carried with it an abundance of quail. These migratory birds were miraculously blown off course and divinely directed to this very spot. And when they came to rest, the text states that they were as far as the eye could see, stretching as far as one day’s journey on either side of the camp.

So the people went out and caught quail all that day and throughout the night and all the next day, too. No one gathered less than fifty bushels! They spread the quail all around the camp to dry. – Numbers 11:32 NLT

It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Everyone was able to gather as much quail as they could possible crave or desire. There were no limits imposed by God. So, driven by their greed, the people spent all day and night hoarding as much quail as they could possibly catch. And Moses records that they let their appetites get the best of them.

But while they were gorging themselves on the meat—while it was still in their mouths—the anger of the Lord blazed against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. – Numbers 11:33 NLT

The people showed no sign of awe or respect for God. They displayed no gratitude for His gracious provision. Instead, they gorged themselves on the quail. Perhaps, in their greed, they even ate the meat raw, and in doing so, violated God’s prohibition against consuming blood (Leviticus 7:26). But whatever the case, their blatant display of ingratitude and unbridled, animal-like cravings brought down the judgment of God.

It was like a feeding frenzy. The rapacious actions of the people revealed the lustful hearts of the people. They ate as if they were starving. But God had been providing for their physical needs all along the way. There had always been enough manna to meet their dietary requirements. But their gorging down of the quail had less to do with hunger than gluttony. And that fact is revealed by the name given to the place where God poured out His anger on His rebellious and rapacious people.

So that place was called Kibroth-hattaavah (which means “graves of gluttony”) because there they buried the people who had craved meat from Egypt. – Numbers 11:34 NLT

While not everyone died that day, the entire nation of Israel was guilty of forsaking God and worshiping their appetites. It’s likely that some gathered the quail and set it aside for future consumption. Rather than greedily gorging themselves, they gratefully collected what they needed, recognizing it as just another gift from God.

God knew the needs of His people. He was fully aware that food was a non-negotiable necessity for their survival. And He had provided more than enough to sustain them all along the way. But their demand for something better proved to be an affront to God’s sovereignty and providence. They were questioning His integrity and goodness. They were expressing doubt in His providential care. And they were displaying their inordinate desire for the things of this earth. Unwilling to wait for the inheritance God had in store for them, they demanded immediate gratification of their physical appetites. And God obliged them. But He also repaid them for their blatant display of ingratitude and disturbing demonstration of uncontrolled gluttony. He meted out meat and justice at the same time. He gave them what they desired and exactly what they deserved. They had enjoyed the momentary pleasure of gorging themselves on quail but, as a result, they also encountered the more permanent experience of God’s holy and righteous judgment.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.