“And Moses said unto the LORD …
I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me.”
With Israel in the wilderness, there was a mixed multitude of people that had come along from the land of Egypt. They were not of the seed of Abraham. There is not great certainty as to what their nationalities actually were. Some may well have been Egyptians, perhaps mostly of the lower classes. But most of them were of diverse national backgrounds, slaves that had been boughten or captured by the Egyptians in years gone by. And even as their nationalities were diverse, so were their reasons for going along with Israel. A few went along, no doubt, because they had heard and believed in the spiritual heritage of Israel as God’s chosen people. Believing in God, they were attracted to God’s people even though outwardly it seemed they could never belong to them. But these were the exception. Most of them saw the exodus of Israel as an opportunity for themselves also to escape the bondage of the Egyptian taskmasters. In addition, they saw the hope of also entering into the promised land of which the Israelites spoke. For merely earthly, material considerations, they followed after Israel; but because of their lack of feeling for Israel’s true status as Jehovah’s covenant, people, they could never in any real sense feel themselves one with the nation. They merely straggled along, more and more withdrawing together into a group separate from the rest. Especially after a definite order of marching and camping was instituted at Sinai, they were left to straggle far beyond and to pitch their tents far out on the outskirts of the camp. Sadly they discovered that even under the blessings of God the way of God’s people through this world is always hard. Having no inner spiritual strength, they were more miserable than all of the rest.
This mixed multitude of people became a great cause of trouble for Israel as time went on. Their portion of the camp became a breeding place for rebellion. Actually the lot of these people was greatly improved through their attachment to Israel. No longer were they held in slavery and bondage; they ate also of the manna and all of their needs were supplied; their human rights and freedom were respected. But it is deeply set in the nature of man not to be satisfied with life as it is no matter how good it may be. Only the Spirit of God can resist this, and those people did not have that. No matter in which way the Lord led Israel, there was something about it that was hard, and that for them was ample reason to complain. When camped at Sinai, they had no doubt objected to remaining so long in one place. When Israel moved on again, they complained for the hardness of the way until the fire of God burned in the outskirts of the camp where their tents were placed. Often these murmurings spread into Israel proper and instigated major crises in the camp.
Thus as soon as the fire of judgment was quenched in the wilderness of Paran, these people were ready with still another complaint. For over a year they had eaten little besides the manna furnished each morning by God. It was truly an extraordinary food, wholesome, tasty, and nourishing. Its flavor was mild so that even when eaten continuously it did not nauseate the stomach, and it could be prepared in various different ways. But these people remembered the more exotic foods of Egypt, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic, and their hearts longed for them with their lusty tangs. Soon the spirit of discontent had spread from the mixed multitude throughout the camp. The people began to imagine all kinds of evil effects that were coming upon them because of the manna. It was not sufficient for their needs, they claimed, and was robbing them of their strength. With tears streaming from their eyes, they turned to Moses and cried, “Who shall give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: but now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, besides this manna, before our eyes.”
Moses was a man of great spiritual stature and extraordinary patience. Time and again he had borne with Israel in its weakness and pleaded their cause before Jehovah. Even at Sinai when Israel had sinned its great sin, he had become angered but had remained faithful in his dedication and had interceded in Israel’s behalf. From that time he had known that Israel would never be free from the wickedness of its sin, and he could only look forward to repeated evidences of it. But still, though expecting it, he could never be fully prepared. He was only a man, and the time was sure to come when even his patience would reach its end. Now it had happened. This was too much. It was not another instance of gross immorality that did it. It was but another case of the perpetual complaining that came so relentlessly upon him. At last his courage broke, and he fell into the black depths of despair. Turning to God, he cried out in plaintive anguish, “Wherefore hast thou afflicted thy servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in thy sight, that than layest the burden of all this people upon me? Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the suckling child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they weep unto me saying, Give us flesh, that we may eat. I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favor in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.”
There was wickedness in this cry of Moses. He had fallen into the same pit of unfaithfulness which he found so repulsive in the people. And he knew better. How often had he not told the people that the way of the Lord was good and His grace sufficient for all their needs. It was just that he felt so all alone in teaching the people and withstanding their sin. His courage had finally broken for he was only a man. It was not a time for accusation and admonition. Even as he spoke, Moses knew in his heart that what he did was wrong. He did not have to be reminded. God’s answer to him was gentle and kind, filled with divine love. “Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone.”
It was a remarkable thing that was to happen in Israel. It had always been a rare thing for a man to be blessed with the spirit of prophecy in Israel so as to be able to instruct the people concerning the things of God with authority. In recent years, Moses had been the only one that had appeared. He only was able to teach the people. But now God promised to give this same spirit to seventy more. With new hope and courage in his heart, Moses went forth to gather the seventy together. He knew his men well and with little trouble was able to select those who could best help him in his work. As he selected them, he told them to come to the tabernacle, and soon the men were gathered there. There the cloud of God’s presence descended, and even as God spoke to Moses, the spirit of prophecy that before had rested on Moses alone came upon all the rest. It was evident, for as one by one they spoke, the beauty of God graced their words. It was true of all seventy, save two.
For some unexplained reason, two of the appointed men had not appeared at the tabernacle. Perhaps they were timid or duty detained them in the camp. They were Eldad and Medad. Suddenly there appeared before the tabernacle a young man. It was Joshua. He had been with Eldad and Medad and they too had begun to prophesy even where they were. Joshua was deeply concerned lest these men should be usurping a privilege that had, always belonged to Moses alone even when Moses was not present with them. In agitation he cried out, “My lord Moses, forbid them!”
The answer of Moses ranks with one of the great manifestations of spiritual life found in Scripture, “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” It is like the wonderful confession of Paul to the Philippians, “Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). Even more it is like the answer of Jesus to John who forbade a man who did not follow with them from casting out devils in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ answer was, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50). It is a mark of true, Godly love when a person with a great spiritual blessing similar to one’s own is looked upon not as a competitor but as an occasion for great joy because he serves to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Would that all of God’s people could feel that love.
But that was not all that God said to Moses. He spoke also concerning the sin of the people, “And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against the morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat. Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; but even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?”
To Moses it seemed impossible so that he answered, “The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month. Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them?”
But why should Moses doubt? As God answered him, “Is the LORD’S hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.”
Soon there sprang up a strong wind until a dark cloud appeared on the horizon. It was a cloud of quails that settled on the ground for miles around the camp. For one and a half days the people went out to gather great piles of birds to be dried in the sun for the meat that they desired. And then the manna stopped for thirty days. The people had nothing but meat to eat just as they had wanted. But this food was not suited for a steady diet. Before long it began to nauseate their stomachs, and the meat stuck in their teeth because they could not swallow. And they suffered more than just natural results of their own folly. God in His anger struck out at the camp with a great plague. Soon many became violently sick and countless died, especially of those who had been the leaders in the murmuring rebellion. With one swift stroke the Lord had revealed to them the wickedness and folly of their sin. He made them to suffer by giving to them that which they in their own carnal wisdom had desired; and He revealed to them once again that through judgment He would divide them by having mercy upon whom He would have mercy and by visiting the iniquity of countless others.
“And he called the name of that place Kibroth-hattaavah (the graves of lust): because there they buried the people that lusted.”