How to Teach Your Children
Not to Complain
Why this story matters
(commentary on Numbers 11)
(Page 4 of 4)
Numbers of quail (thanks Joseph Wheless)
In response, Yahweh sends the quail. But it's done with more than a touch of malice. The amount of quail sent is almost unimaginable: “Now there went forth a wind from the Lord 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, all around the camp and about two cubits deep on the surface of the ground” (11:30 NASB). A cubit is about 18 inches, so if they were “two cubits deep” the birds would be 3 feet thick above the ground. And they blanketed the ground a days walk in any direction. According to Holman’s Bible Dictionary, a day’s journey is between 20 – 30 miles. So the birds were piled three feet high for at least 20 miles in every direction. Joseph Wheless worked the numbers and calculated that this would translate to 4,425 square miles of quails, or 450 billion square feet of quails.
To be fair, some commentators say that the text should read that they flew 3 feet in the air, but there are a couple of problems with this position. First, the author is obviously trying to convey that there was a vast number of them. Saying they were three feet deep accomplishes this. It's not clear why he would point out that they were flying three feet above the ground. Second, since there are so many of them that they cover 4,425 square miles, it's pretty doubtful they were all flying three feet above the ground at the same time. So they were more likely three feet deep.
We are also told that no one gathered less that 60 bushels (11:32). A bushel would be about 8 dry gallons, so each person supposedly gathered at least 448 dry gallons of quail in one day. That’s a lot of quail, and some very quick work. Are these numbers believable? That’s up to the individual reader. They’re certainly fantastic.
The plague and Yahweh's false prophecy
In addition to all these problems, just before the quail arrive, Yahweh appears to make a false prophecy. As quoted above, he said the people would eat quail for a month, but the plague strikes before they could could actually consume the meat: "But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague" (11:33-34). What's more, the plague was fatal "Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had craved other food" (11:34). Are we to believe the people got sick and died from eating the meat but kept on eating it for a month? Some apologists have noticed this problem and they contend that the people gradually got sick over 30 days. But is this believable? The plague was severe enough to be fatal. It's hard to imagine the people wouldn't have at least wondered if the meat might be to blame while their families were getting violently sick and dying around them. They hadn't eaten meat in a long time and from the moment it's between their teeth, they start getting sick? Another helping of faith is required here.
How many people died from the fire and the quail-related plague is unknown. Apologists will say that the people deserved what they got because they should have been placing their trust in the Lord instead of complaining about their circumstances. But the problem is that there are too many instances of such tragedies where people doubted or complained and were killed en masse. Again, why would Yahweh pick such stupid, obstinate, and impudent people to his chosen ones knowing he’d have to keep killing so many of them? For those who want to believe, there's always a way of rationalizing these things. For the rest of us, it’s simply the stuff of legend.
END OF COMMENTARY