How to Teach Your Children
Not to Complain
Why this story matters
(commentary on Numbers 11)
(Page 1 of 4)
The most striking feature of this story is not that Yahweh kills so many of his chosen people. He does that every once in a while. What's striking is that the people complain a second time, just after Yahweh had spectacularly killed lots of them the first time. One would assume that, after the first set of complainers got burned to death, the others would be more careful. But, strangely, they didn’t seem to make the connection. The problem is, they never seem to make the connection. There is a cycle that repeats itself over and over during the exodus from Egypt and during the years in the wilderness. The cycle goes like this: The people complain about their conditions or forget who brought them out of Egypt, and Yahweh kills lots of them in nasty ways. It happens so frequently, in fact, that we're left with one of two conclusions: Either these Israelites are the most astoundingly stupid, obstinate, and impudent people ever to roam the earth, or parts of these stories are just folklore.
Yahweh burns his people alive
To demonstrate this dilemma, we need to look at these kinds of Bible incidents in a little more detail, starting with this story. When the people complain the first time, Yahweh burns them alive: “And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp” (Numbers 11:1 KJV). We don’t know specifically what they were complaining about, but it was likely their living conditions. The conditions would have been austere and harsh while traveling in the wilderness. Yahweh's reaction is swift, but it's also disturbing. Or, at least, it should be.
Although someone reading the illustrated story here may take issue with the detailed descriptions of suffering, that's just what it would have been like. We don’t know how many people died in the fire, but it would have been a substantial number. In the same chapter, Moses claims that he has 600,000 foot soldiers (11:21). Extrapolating from that, the population in the camp would probably have been over 2 million. Even if just those in the "outskirts of the camp” were killed, that would still involve many people. One percent of 2 million would be 20,000 people burned alive. The suffering would be horrendous. However, despite just witnessing this catastrophe, we’re supposed to believe the people turned right around and complained once again. Stupid people.
This time they complain about the food: “…and again the Israelites started wailing and said, "If only we had meat to eat!” (11:4). Did they really forget the fantastic sight of fire coming from the Lord setting their compatriots ablaze just before this? That’s highly improbable. Apologists will say that they did remember but it’s just that these people were very stubborn and rebellious. It really makes you scratch your head over why Yahweh would choose such stubborn and rebellious people to be his beacon to the world. And it gets worse. There’s a parallel story to this one that appears in Exodus. It requires an even greater suspension of disbelief. It's another story involving quail, funnily enough.