The rabble influence.
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving.Numbers 11:4, ESV
Have you ever had friends who exerted a bad influence on you—or maybe a friend who just always seems to give you terrible advice?
Well it seems, according to Moses, that Israel had acquired some friends like that when they left Egypt. Moses uses a very unique Hebrew word to describe these bad friends, asapsup which we translate into English as the rabble (11:4). This is probably a derogatory term for the non-Israelite people who had jumped on the Exodus bandwagon when the masses were leaving a devastated and ruined Egypt. However, their identity isn’t the focus of what Moses mentions about them. We are told just one very specific fact about this rabble: they had a strong craving.
And, that craving had apparently rubbed off on the people of Israel. Their rabble heart had infected the people of God. That’s how bad friends work—just like COVID. You can catch COVID from being around a person who is COVID positive, and be totally unaware of it, that is until you start to show the symptoms. The rabble’s presence among the people has infected their heart with a dangerous craving.
The rest of the story in Numbers 11 unpacks how this rabble-influenced craving led the people to make a reckless request that had a deadly consequence.
And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘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 11:4b-6, ESV
Has anyone ever told you to be careful what you ask The Lord for?
If not, then let me be the first to share that wisdom with you. Be careful what you ask God for! Because, He may just give you what you want—and depending on what you want, that could either be glorious or deadly.
A deadly request.
So, let’s see how The Lord responds to this grumbling request for meat ‘like they had in Egypt.’
To begin with, The Lord’s anger was immediately kindled because of this grumbling attitude of the people. However Moses, was displeased with The Lord’s anger and so he threw a little pity party essentially telling The Lord, I’d rather you kill me than cause me to deal with these people anymore.
Despite this little temper tantrum, The Lord reminds Moses, ‘I can handle this. I’ll cure their craving. My hand is not shortened. I’ll give them so much meat to eat that it will come out of their nostrils.’ And, The Lord wasn’t joking. He caused a sovereign wind to blow droves of quail from the Red Sea to the people’s camp, and they went crazy when they saw it. Some of them gathered as little as ten homers—which mathematically would be either 480 or 4,800 pounds in our modern measurements. (Excuse my lack of mathematical ability—but either way that’s a lot of quail for one family!) And, some gathered more than that!
But, was this really a blessing? The rest of the story indicates otherwise.
The very next verse tells us,
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.”Numbers 11:3D, ESV
This is shocking stuff.
They asked for it, God gave it, and then He killed them through it.
What’s going on here?
In my mind there are two questions, which when answered, I think will help to clear up what’s happening in this passage.
The Physical Craving is a Spiritual Rejection.
Look at verses 19 and 20 with me, which is where the Lord initially says that He will give the people just what they asked for.
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 and have wept before Him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”Numbers 11:19-20, ESV
Here’s my first question: Why is craving meat from Egypt, a rejection of The Lord?
So, let me answer by making two brief observations.
The first is that their grumbling is ill-advised, for The Lord had already provided quail once! In Exodus 16, the people offer a similar complaint three days after being saved at the Red Sea, and God provides for them by giving them quail in the evening, and manna in the morning.
The second observation is that Moses never said anything about the people getting amnesia—so you can scratch that theory! But, he did tell us about a rabble influenced craving. So, It’s not that they forgot that The Lord could provide; It’s just that they desired what Egypt offered over what The Lord was providing.
As John Piper has brilliantly said before, ‘Sin is our disapproval of God.’ I think that is the crime we see here in this story—a sinful dissatisfaction with God.
The meat is not a blessing, but a judgement.
So, that explains the Lord’s anger. Here’s my second question: Why does taking the meat, which God gave, lead to a deadly grave?
The answer is found in understanding something about the ways in which God judges people.
Typically, when you think of the judgement of God, you probably think of lightning bolts and hail fire from heaven. Kind of like you saw in the story of God’s great acts of judgement on Egypt when He freed the people from slavery. Certainly there are plenty of passages and stories in the Bible that express that type of judgement: Sodom and Gomorrah, the Babylonian captivity, the prophetic oracles of mass destruction.
However, there is also another way in which God judges people—a way that shows them their foolishness in rejecting Him. It’s a way of judgement that teaches people the error of their ways. And, it’s also a way of judgement that puts the satisfaction that only The Lord can give in bright display. A way of judging sinners that shows His inestimable glory. Listen to how Warren Wiersbe explains this unique form of judgement,
When God really wants to judge people, He lets them have their own way.Warren Wiersbe, Be Counted
This judgement of letting people have their way, is exactly what we see here in this story. It explains how the meat that God gave the grumbling Israelites was not a blessing, but a judgement. That’s why Moses says, ‘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.’
This is actually the same type of judgement that Paul the Apostle says had fallen on the Roman culture, and indeed the same could be said of society today. Because unregenerate sinners suppress the truth of God and have failed to honor Him with their lives, Paul says,
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.Romans 1:24-25, ESV
I’ll say it again for good measure. Be careful what about you ask The Lord for, because He may just give it to you.
That was the case at Kibroth-Hattaavah (graves of craving), where the people’s craving for worldly desires led them to reject the goodness and the true life of God, and so He gave them what their hearts longed for—death.