Precisely one year, two months and nineteen days had elapsed since the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. Then on the twentieth day of the second month the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle in taken that the will of God was to the effect that His people should now break up camp and journey onward. Simultaneously the priests blew the alarms according as they had been instructed and the tribes bestirred themselves. At the head went the banner of the camp of the sons of Judah, comprehending their tribes, as did also the banners that followed. Then the Gershonites and the Merarites as bearers of the tabernacle set forward. Next in line was the banner of Reuben, followed by the Kohathites with the sanctuary (the vessels and the contents of the sanctuary). Then came the banner of Ephraim followed by that of Dan, making up the rear. And as the ark set forward, Moses said, “Rise up Lord and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.”
It may be imagined that there were difficulties connected with the march. The four divisions must have numbered at least 1,770,000 souls, men women and children. Besides, there was much cattle on hand. There could be no absolute separation of the 600,000 men, able to bear arms, from their families and flocks. The procession would measure from six to ten miles, depending on the width: of the desert passes. A day’s journey can foe put at no more than ten miles. The foremost groups would be several hours on the way, when the last ranks of the second division were just beginning to move; and the rear would still be on the march when night had fallen upon the desert. The journey was a severe discipline. Some interpreters maintain that the journey was too great a marvel if the host was as large as it must have been, if the numerical figures, which the several numberings yielded are correct. They therefore receive the explanation that these figures were accidentally increased in the transcription of the narrative. However, nothing is gained by supposing such an accidental increase. The main difficulties were the wilderness itself—it was a “great and terrible wilderness”—and the distances to be traversed. These difficulties are not removed by a reduction of the figures.
Three days brought the marching host to “the wilderness of Paran.” “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled. . . (Num. 11:1b). “And it came to pass that the people were as persons complaining or murmuring. . . .” So reads the text in the original. The people were vexed by the discipline to which they were being subjected. Now this discipline must not be made light of. It was severe. The plain before Sinai—the region that had been abandoned—is some 5,000 feet above the level of the sea. It had been from this elevation, through rugged gorges, that the tribes had advanced without a trace of road. It had been a hard journey after that prolonged rest in the upland valleys of Sinai with their pastures and flowing water. The great multitude, formed as it was of human beings of all ages and of both sexes; the trains of beasts and wagons, with the tents and baggage, the herds and flocks in long drawn successions, had filled all the ravines, far and near, which pointed at all in the same direction. Advance in a straight line had been impossible, on account of the lay of the hills. Having skirted these hills, they had found themselves on ‘a limestone plateau of irregular surface in a region of open plains of sand and gravel. . . .broken by few valleys,’ and then as at (present ‘nearly waterless, with the exception of a few springs, situated in the larger wadies.’ A region it is (and was) ‘for the most part hard and unyielding, and covered in many places with a carpet of small flints, which as so worn and polished. . . .as to resemble pieces of black glass.’ It was a “great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water,” through which Jehovah had and was still to lead them (Deut. 7:15). How slow and difficult the process must have been. Three days they had been on the march. They were tired now, and depressed in spirit. So were they tested by the hardships of the journey and of the life in the wilderness. But as tested, they were found wanting. They murmured and complained. Just what they said is not recorded. All that is told us is that what they said “displeased the ears of God.” It was thus hard, unreasonable, sinful words to which they, in their vexation of spirit, gave utterance. Their reactions were deeply sinful. How could they expect to be journeying through a wilderness, such as through which they were now passing, without suffering hardships. And what had they not been compelled to endure in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves. How they had toiled in this tyrant’s iron furnace. They were now free men! And their destiny was Canaan. There God would dwell with them, as He dwelt with them now. And what was their present sorrows as compared with the glory that the Lord had in store for them? And as far as they knew, it would not be long now, perhaps a year at the most, before the journey would have been made. And how had the Lord already befriended them! He had stretched out His arm and freed them from their bondage. He had redeemed them by the blood of His very own sacrifice. He had given them His law. And what had He not already done to smooth away their difficulties and to lighten their burdens? All their needs were being met, so that they knew no want. Should they not have patiently endured? But they did not. They burned with resentment. Their speech became hard. They had no faith. They were void of love. So, the cause of their reaction was not the physical weariness that had resulted from their marching, but their hardness of heart. But (were all these complainers, unbelievers, persons devoid of the life of regeneration? This is not at all likely. To quote the apostle, “In me, that is my flesh there dwelleth no good thing. . . .” ‘There dwelleth in that flesh of mine also murmurings and complainings.’ And this flesh, when its works are not being crucified, becomes articulate. Then their proceeds out of the believer’s mouth murmurings. Ana the Lord is displeased.’ Afterwards it came to pass that the people fretted which displeased the Lord; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them in the uttermost parts of the camp.” The word fire is not to be understood metaphorically for vengeance. An actual fire burnt among them, perhaps terrible lightning, on the outskirts of the camp. Lives were lost, though this is not explicitly said. Yet this must be the thought conveyed by the notice, “and consumed in the uttermost parts of the camp.” Through His harming only the fringe of the camp, the Lord plainly let it be known that if the murmurings continued, the whole nation would eventually be overtaken by judgment.
At the sight of the conflagration in the camp, the people became frantic. They saw themselves surrounded by a blaze that, in all likelihood, was slowly but certainly dosing in on them from all sides. In their consternation they cry unto Moses. Conscious of their sin, they dared not cry unto the Lord. They had no confidence. They had a feeling that, should they pray, He would shut His eyes. They had need now of the mediation of Moses. He was the righteous man in their midst. His prayer, they knew, availeth much. He had power with God. So it was to Moses that they turned. Upon His mercy did they cast themselves. “And when Moses prayed unto the Lord, the fire was quenched (the fire sank).” So they were saved. But their murmurings at this place were not permitted to pass into oblivion. We read, “And he called the name of the place Taberah: because the fire of the Lord burnt among them.”
Soon after this, perhaps almost immediately, a new murmuring arose among the people. “And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting (original, lusted a lust): and the children of Israel wept again (returned and wept), and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat.” Though they had just been so severely chastised, and when God was hardly appeased, they again gave way to complaining. The murmuring first arose from the mixed multitude (the collection), who had joined themselves to the Israelites on the eve of the departure from Egypt. It was a crowd of persons whose nationality is not revealed. Many of them must have been Egyptians. Their having wanted to quit the homeland has an explanation. There was no “people” in Egypt at that time: only slaves. The common Egyptians were forced to toil, at the royal will, in building temples, pyramids and cities, under the eye of remorseless drivers. Such was the lot of the multitude. So, as inspired by the prospect of a better life, many of them had gone forth with the Israelites. Their number must have included several persons of other nationalities, who forcibly had been brought under Pharaoh’s oppressive yoke. Moses did not repel them or order them out of the camp later on. He had no command. It need not be assumed that in this motley crowd there were no persons of true faith.
It was this element that first fell to lusting. They wanted flesh to eat. It must be, they were the first to weep and say, “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.” Their disease of impatience was contagious. It did not take long before the whole camp gave way to weeping and to echoing this speech.
The Lord, hearing their complaint, sent them quails. “And there went forth a wind from the Lord, and brought quails from the sea.” And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.”
The Lord smote the people. It tells us that they committed a great sin at this time. It cannot be that the Lord found fault with them merely ‘because flesh and the other foods mentioned would have tasted good to them, if these foods had been available. To take this view of their murmuring is to be driven to the conclusion that all hungering after meat and onions is sin. What then was their sin? To know this, regard must toe had firstly to the mood that they were in. That mood was evil. The language which they used tells us this. They said, “Now our soul is dried away. . . .” The expression had a definite meaning. It denoted a diminishing of natural force, a wasting away of the body. Their grievance was then that they were actually starving because there was nothing for them to eat but manna. “There is nothing at all besides this manna before our eyes.” It is plain that what they meant to say of this manna is that as a food it was woefully deficient not only but also that they toad eaten of it for so long a time that they could no longer stomach it, that it thus had become to them food unfit for human consumption. This being true, they were starving and soon all of them would be dead men. That this was actually their reasoning is plain from what they in their carnal wrath said some years later while they were encamped in the plains of Moab, “And the people spake against God and Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread” (Num. 21:5).
What terrible language it was to which they gave utterance? How astonishingly untrue!
They said that they were starving, while the fact was that the Lord was daily fully appeasing their hunger. They said that they were ill-fed, while the fact was that never before had they been fed so well. Of the manna they said that as a food it was woefully deficient, while the truth of the matter was, that as a food it was perfect in that it contained all the nourishing properties needful for man. Eating of it therefore these Israelites were strong and vigorous and in the best of health. They said that they could no longer endure the manna. Had it then been disturbing their digestion? Had they been nauseated every time they had eaten of it? Was even the thought of this food actually making them physically sick? Had it, to their great sorrow, become so unpalatable to them on account of their having eaten of it so exclusively and for so long a time, that they had to force themselves to eat of it? If so, they were to be pitied rather than censured. This manna was not making them sick. Would God give them food inherently nauseating—food indigestible? But they said that their soul loathed it. But this loathing was without a physical basis, if by physical basis is meant a ruined digestion. It was not a physical but a spiritual nausea that was troubling them. Its seat was not their body but their perverse will and mind. It rose not from sick stomachs but from sick hearts. It means that the fault laid with them and not with the manna. The sacred narrator wanted this understood. For he affixed to their murmurings a description of the virtues of the manna, “And the manna,” says he, “was as coriander seed, and the color thereof as the color of bdellium. And the people went about and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortar, and baked it in pans, and make cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. And when the dew fell upon the camp at night, the manna fell upon it.”
The manna, as a food, was as pure and wholesome as the dew upon which it, during the night, would fall. But its taste was that of fresh oil. It was thus a food with a soft, mild, inoffensive taste. Onions and garlic and leeks on the other hand are foods with a tang. Their taste is sharp. They are foods capable of powerfully stimulating the taste organs and thus of increasing and wetting the appetite. What strong drink is among the beverages, these foods are among the things that man eats. As to melons and meats, the former are known for their lusciousness and the latter for their hardiness.
This explains the behavior of those weeping Israelites. They had to do without this natural appetizing food and be content with manna. But they were not content. They despised the manna, God’s bread of wonder, because, however nourishing it might be, it was not a food with, a tang. It was that appetizing food—the food with a tang—that they wanted. And because they had it not, they wept. They thus wept, mark you, not for nourishment—they had that—but solely for food to stimulate their taste organs, thus for carnal, sensuous, enjoyment. But are they honest enough to admit it? Do they confess before God that the foul fountain of their tears is their carnality and that thus they are at fault? They do not. Instead they blame God. They accuse Him of wanting to let them starve. This they do through their indirectly declaring that they cry not for gratification of the vile lust of their lower nature, but actually for some real nourishment, for the fulfillment of their needs, thus for the preservation of their very lives. What astonishing wickedness! What amazing ingratitude! How furious they were with God and with Moses! And just because they lacked the means wherewith to gratify their animal natures. How powerful that lust of theirs must have been, if they could so carry on just because they had to do without flesh and onions,—powerful because instead of crucifying they fed it after first having awakened it. Consider what they had done and were doing. They had voluntarily, deliberately, diverted their thoughts from the manna and focused them on flesh and onions and leeks. Through this action they had awakened their lust. So, in their minds, in their imagination, they had turned their backs upon God and Canaan and had set themselves down before Egypt’s fleshpots. And there they sat, feeding on what they in their minds were bringing up out of those pots. And there they continued to sit, feeding the fire of their lust until by it they were consumed. What did it show? That they preferred flesh and leeks, the fleshpots of Egypt, the earthy, the pleasures of sin, above life with God in the wilderness and ultimately in Canaan. This was their great sin. The eating of meats and of the other articles of diet with, which men nourish their mortal frames, is not as such sinful. It is the only food we have. The point to the case of the murmuring Israelites is that, having taken away from them their meats and leeks—things representative of this earthy—and having put in the place thereof the manna—a thing that typified the heavenly—the Lord demanded of them that now, for the time being, they set their heart upon this manna and look away from their meats and leeks.
This they were unwilling to do. Despising the manna, they cried for their meats and onions and so brought themselves, forward as a people whose God was their belly and whose only pleasure was to serve at the shrine of this god. The Lord gave them manna. But so attached were they to those other meats, so powerful their lusting, that they worked themselves up into a frenzy because they could no longer feed on those meats. How can heaven have any appeal for such people? It cannot. The promise, “And he that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna,” leaves them cold. They despise the manna. It is onions and leek that their souls crave. Is it to be marveled at that those weeping Jews were for returning to Egypt?
The manna—that food, the taste of which was as the taste of fresh oil—typified, as was said, the heavenly. In a more particular sense, it typified Christ, the revelation of Christ, thus sound, pure doctrine. In contrast to the manna, those other foods—the foods with a tang—it is to be taken as the emblem of the wisdom of the world, of the philosophy of man. The former only is the true nourishment of the soul. The latter does not nourish. It is only for stimulating the mental sense organs of the flesh. God demands of us that we desire the manna, that we may grow thereby. But so many are not satisfied with the manna. Yet they say they are. But set the manna before them in its pure state, as unmixed with the leeks and onions of Egypt, and they raise a cry and a hue and say that there souls are withering away. Yet they will insist that they cry for true nourishment. But they speak not the truth.
God heard and answered the prayer of those weeping Israelites. For that is what their crying for flesh was—a prayer, “And the Lord said unto Moses, . . . . say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against tomorrow, 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.”