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Philip Yoo

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A Testy YHWH

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Philip Yoo

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A Testy YHWH

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2023

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https://thetorah.com/article/a-testy-yhwh

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A Testy YHWH

YHWH continuously tests Israel in the wilderness with water, manna, and quail. When they fail, YHWH threatens to leave them and then punishes them with fire and plague. J's depiction of YHWH as an emotional deity is already reflected in the stories of Eden and the flood.

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A Testy YHWH

Collecting the Manna (adapted), after print by: Claude Mellan, in or after 1640. Rijksmuseum.nl

The Taste of the Manna

As the Israelites head through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, they grumble about their lack of food, remembering the delectable fare of Egypt, and emphasize that the manna doesn’t satisfy them (Num 11:4–6). The story then describes the manna, how it was prepared, and its oily taste:

במדבר יא:ז וְהַמָּן כִּזְרַע גַּד הוּא וְעֵינוֹ כְּעֵין הַבְּדֹלַח. יא:ח שָׁטוּ הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ וְטָחֲנוּ בָרֵחַיִם אוֹ דָכוּ בַּמְּדֹכָה וּבִשְּׁלוּ בַּפָּרוּר וְעָשׂוּ אֹתוֹ עֻגוֹת וְהָיָה טַעְמוֹ כְּטַעַם לְשַׁד הַשָּׁמֶן. יא:ט וּבְרֶדֶת הַטַּל עַל הַמַּחֲנֶה לָיְלָה יֵרֵד הַמָּן עָלָיו.
Num 11:7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium.[1] 11:8 The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like creamy oil.[2] 11:9 When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall upon it.[3]

The description of manna as tasting like creamy oil contradicts its description in Exodus, when we first encounter the manna, as tasting like honey wafers:

שמות כז:לא וַיִּקְרְאוּ בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת שְׁמוֹ מָן וְהוּא כְּזֶרַע גַּד לָבָן וְטַעְמוֹ כְּצַפִּיחִת בִּדְבָשׁ.
Exod 16:31 The house of Israel named it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey.

Many critical scholars suggest that these two accounts come from different sources. For instance, Martin Noth argued that Numbers 11 was J and Exodus 16 was P.[4] Richard Elliott Friedman argues that the manna story is really a triplet: Exodus 16 is a combination of a P story and a J story, while Numbers 11 is an E story.[5]

I would argue, however, that the manna account in Numbers 11, and the non-Priestly manna account in Exodus 16 both derive from the same source, and build on each other. Both are part of J’s overall narrative arc for the wilderness period, which is the subject of the rest of this piece.

YHWH Tests Moses

Following the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites march for three days and arrive at a place with non-potable water:[6]

שמות טו:כב ...וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא מָצְאוּ מָיִם. טו:כג וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ מָרָה.
Exod 15:22 …They traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. 15:23 They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah (=“Bitter”).

The people complain to Moses, who turns to YHWH for help:

שמות טו:כד וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַה נִּשְׁתֶּה. טו:כה וַיִּצְעַק אֶל יְ־הוָה וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְ־הוָה עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם
Exod 15:24 And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” 15:25 So he cried out to YHWH, and YHWH showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet….

YHWH never tells Moses what to do with the wood, but Moses understands implicitly that he should use the wood to make the water sweet. The Torah continues by explaining that the whole situation was a test to see whether Moses is a wise leader and obedient. Moses passes with flying colors:

שמות טו:כה ...שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ. טו:כו וַיֹּאמֶר אִם שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל חֻקָּיו כָּל הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם לֹא אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הוָה רֹפְאֶךָ.
Exod 15:25 … There [YHWH] made for him a fixed rule; there he was put to the test.[7] [YHWH] said, “If you will heed your God YHWH diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I YHWH am your healer.”

YHWH then turns to test the Israelites.[8]

YHWH Tests Israel: Manna and Shabbat (Exodus 16)

Without having to be asked by the Israelites, YHWH tells Moses that He will provide daily food from the heavens. Here too, in the J story (the rest of the chapter is P), YHWH introduces a test:

שמות טז:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם וְיָצָא הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ הֲיֵלֵךְ בְּתוֹרָתִי אִם לֹא. טז:ה וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי וְהֵכִינוּ אֵת אֲשֶׁר יָבִיאוּ וְהָיָה מִשְׁנֶה עַל אֲשֶׁר יִלְקְטוּ יוֹם יוֹם. // טז:כו שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תִּלְקְטֻהוּ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לֹא יִהְיֶה בּוֹ.
Exod 16:4 And YHWH said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion—that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not. 16:5 But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day. // 16:26 Six days you shall gather it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”[9]

YHWH agrees to provide the Israelites with daily “bread from the sky,” and double the amount on the sixth day, but they must agree not to try collecting on the seventh day, since this is the Shabbat.

The Israelites Fail

Some Israelites fail to heed YHWH’s command and learn that there is nothing to gather on the seventh day:

שמות טז:כז וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יָצְאוּ מִן הָעָם לִלְקֹט וְלֹא מָצָאוּ.
Exod 16:27 And it was on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found nothing.

YHWH then complains to Moses that the Israelites are unwilling to heed his commands, and then reiterates the command. This time the people obey:

שמות טז:כח וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עַד אָנָה מֵאַנְתֶּם לִשְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי. כז:כט רְאוּ כִּי יְ־הוָה נָתַן לָכֶם הַשַּׁבָּת עַל כֵּן הוּא נֹתֵן לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי לֶחֶם יוֹמָיִם שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו אַל יֵצֵא אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי. כז:ל וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.
Exod 16:28 And YHWH said to Moses, “How long will you all refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? 16:29 Mark that it is YHWH who, having given you the sabbath, therefore gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain in place: let no one leave the vicinity on the seventh day.” 16:30 So the people remained inactive on the seventh day.[10]

In the next story, the Israelites’ behavior deteriorates.

Complaints Turn to Threats: The Second Water Incident

When they arrive at their next encampment, they again find that there is no water, and they start to quarrel with Moses:

שמות יז:א ...וְאֵין מַיִם לִשְׁתֹּת הָעָם. יז:ב וַיָּרֶב הָעָם עִם מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמְרוּ תְּנוּ לָנוּ מַיִם וְנִשְׁתֶּה וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם מֹשֶׁה מַה תְּרִיבוּן עִמָּדִי מַה תְּנַסּוּן אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Exod 17:1 …and there was no water for the people to drink. 17:2 The people quarreled with Moses. “Give us water to drink,” they said; and Moses replied to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test YHWH?”

Moses’ rebuke has no effect on them, and they respond with sarcasm and aggression:

שמות יז:ג וַיִּצְמָא שָׁם הָעָם לַמַּיִם וַיָּלֶן הָעָם עַל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה הֶעֱלִיתָנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָמִית אֹתִי וְאֶת בָּנַי וְאֶת מִקְנַי בַּצָּמָא.
Exod 17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”[11]

Moses, frightened by the people, turns to YHWH for help:

יז:ד וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לָעָם הַזֶּה עוֹד מְעַט וּסְקָלֻנִי.
17:4 Moses cried out to YHWH, saying, “What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!”

YHWH offers a miraculous intervention to stave off the crisis:

יז:ה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה עֲבֹר לִפְנֵי הָעָם וְקַח אִתְּךָ מִזִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַטְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הִכִּיתָ בּוֹ אֶת הַיְאֹר קַח בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלָכְתָּ. יז:ו הִנְנִי עֹמֵד לְפָנֶיךָ שָּׁם עַל הַצּוּר בְּחֹרֵב וְהִכִּיתָ בַצּוּר וְיָצְאוּ מִמֶּנּוּ מַיִם וְשָׁתָה הָעָם וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
17:5 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. 17:6 I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb.[12] Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

The reference to Moses rather than Aaron striking the Nile suggests that this verse if from the J source.[13] With the crisis averted, Moses declares to the Israelites the lesson of the incident:

יז:ז וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם מַסָּה וּמְרִיבָה עַל רִיב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל נַסֹּתָם אֶת יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ יְ־הוָה בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ אִם אָיִן.
17:7 The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested YHWH, saying, “Is YHWH present among us or not?”

It appears that instead of YHWH testing Israel’s faith, Israel is now testing YHWH’s patience.[14]

YHWH No Longer Wishes to Accompany Them

Later, YHWH informs Moses that, while the Israelites will still inherit the land, YHWH is no longer going to accompany them, since if he follows them closely and thus pays attention to their behavior, he may destroy them because of their complaints:

שמות לג:א וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵךְ עֲלֵה מִזֶּה אַתָּה וְהָעָם אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלִיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה. // לג:ג אֶל אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ.
Exod 33:1 Then YHWH said to Moses, “Set out from here,[15] you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring will I give it’[16] // 33:3 a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way.”

The Israelites are dismayed at this message. They mourn and remove their jewelry in hopes of bringing YHWH around, though YHWH’s response is non-committal:

שמות לג:ד וַיִּשְׁמַע הָעָם אֶת הַדָּבָר הָרָע הַזֶּה וַיִּתְאַבָּלוּ וְלֹא שָׁתוּ אִישׁ עֶדְיוֹ עָלָיו. לג:ה וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף רֶגַע אֶחָד אֶעֱלֶה בְקִרְבְּךָ וְכִלִּיתִיךָ וְעַתָּה הוֹרֵד עֶדְיְךָ מֵעָלֶיךָ וְאֵדְעָה מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה לָּךְ. לג:ו וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֶדְיָם //
Exod 33:4 When the people heard this harsh word, they went into mourning, and none put on finery. 33:5 YHWH said to Moses, “Say to the Israelite people, ‘You are a stiffnecked people. If I were to go in your midst for one moment, I would destroy you. Now, then, leave off your finery, and I will consider what to do with you.’” 33:6 So the Israelites remained stripped of their finery //

The story continues with Moses encountering YHWH (Exod 33:12–23; 34:5–7), after which he repeats the request for YHWH to accompany them:

שמות לד:ח וַיְמַהֵר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּקֹּד אַרְצָה וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ. לד:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנָי יֵלֶךְ נָא אֲדֹנָי בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲו‍ֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ.
Exod 34:8 Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage, 34:9 and said, “If I have gained Your favor, O my lord, pray, let my lord go in our midst, even though this is a stiffnecked people. Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Your own!”

YHWH finally relents, and explains to Moses that he will do amazing things for this people that will shock the world:

שמות לד:י וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת בְּרִית נֶגֶד כָּל עַמְּךָ אֶעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא נִבְרְאוּ בְכָל הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל הַגּוֹיִם וְרָאָה כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה יְ־הוָה כִּי נוֹרָא הוּא אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה עִמָּךְ.
Exod 34:10 [YHWH] said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation; and all the people who are with you shall see how awesome YHWH’s deeds which I will perform for you.

Thus, YHWH has provisionally agreed to accompany them again, but they have been warned.[17]

Complaints and Fire

As Exodus 35 to the end, plus all of Leviticus, and Numbers 1:1–10:28 are Priestly and Holiness texts, the J storyline picks up again with Moses asking Hobab to accompany them to the land (Numbers 10:29–33, 35) and continues into their journey from Mount Sinai to the land. Despite YHWH’s warning that he is out of patience, Israel immediately complains, and YHWH gets angry and devours them with fire, exactly as he said he would (Exod 33:3, 34:5):

במדבר יא:א וַיְהִי הָעָם כְּמִתְאֹנְנִים רַע בְּאָזְנֵי יְ־הוָה וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ־הוָה וַיִּחַר אַפּוֹ וַתִּבְעַר בָּם אֵשׁ יְ־הוָה וַתֹּאכַל בִּקְצֵה הַמַּחֲנֶה. יא:ב וַיִּצְעַק הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה וַתִּשְׁקַע הָאֵשׁ. יא:ג וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא תַּבְעֵרָה כִּי בָעֲרָה בָם אֵשׁ יְ־הוָה.
Num 11:1 The people took to complaining bitterly before YHWH. YHWH heard and was incensed: a fire of YHWH broke out against them, devouring the outskirts of the camp. 11:2 The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to YHWH, and the fire died down. 1:3 That place was named Taberah, because a fire of YHWH had broken out against them.[18]

Oily Manna and the Food Complaint

The Israelites’ complaints about their lack of food, their fondness for the cuisine in Egypt, and their dissatisfaction with manna in Num 11:4–6 is a part of J’s storyline. As is occasionally the case throughout J, despite the miraculous gift of food from the sky, the Israelites are unthankful:

במדבר יא:ד וְהָאסַפְסֻף אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבּוֹ הִתְאַוּוּ תַּאֲוָה וַיָּשֻׁבוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ גַּם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר. יא:ה זָכַרְנוּ אֶת הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם אֵת הַקִּשֻּׁאִים וְאֵת הָאֲבַטִּחִים וְאֶת הֶחָצִיר וְאֶת הַבְּצָלִים וְאֶת הַשּׁוּמִים. יא:ו וְעַתָּה נַפְשֵׁנוּ יְבֵשָׁה אֵין כֹּל בִּלְתִּי אֶל הַמָּן עֵינֵינוּ. [19]
Num 11:4 The riffraff[20] in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 11:5 We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 11:6 Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”[21]

The shift in the manna’s flavor from tasty wafers in honey to oily cream seems to be another of YHWH’s tests.[22] If so, the Israelites failed miserably; they prefer the variety of the Egyptian diet and say so explicitly, without a word of thanks either for the food or for being freed from slavery.[23]

Enough Meat to Stuff Themselves With

This complaint makes both Moses and YHWH upset, and Moses turns to YHWH unsure how to proceed:

במדבר יא:י וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם בֹּכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו אִישׁ לְפֶתַח אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּחַר אַף יְ־הוָה מְאֹד וּבְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה רָע. יא:יא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל יְ־הוָה[24] // יא:יג מֵאַיִן לִי בָּשָׂר לָתֵת לְכָל הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי יִבְכּוּ עָלַי לֵאמֹר תְּנָה לָּנוּ בָשָׂר וְנֹאכֵלָה.
Num 11:10 Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, at the entrance of each tent. YHWH was very angry, and Moses was distressed. 11:11 And Moses said to YHWH // 11:13 “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’”

Given YHWH’s response to the previous complaint, the reader may have expected punishment to follow immediately, but instead, YHWH agrees to provide the people with meat, though YHWH’s response is filled with anger and frustration:

במדבר יא:טז וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה // יא:יח *אֶל[25] הָעָם תֹּאמַר הִתְקַדְּשׁוּ לְמָחָר וַאֲכַלְתֶּם בָּשָׂר כִּי בְּכִיתֶם בְּאָזְנֵי יְ־הוָה לֵאמֹר מִי יַאֲכִלֵנוּ בָּשָׂר כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ בְּמִצְרָיִם וְנָתַן יְ־הוָה לָכֶם בָּשָׂר וַאֲכַלְתֶּם. יא:יט לֹא יוֹם אֶחָד תֹּאכְלוּן וְלֹא יוֹמָיִם וְלֹא חֲמִשָּׁה יָמִים וְלֹא עֲשָׂרָה יָמִים וְלֹא עֶשְׂרִים יוֹם. יא:כ עַד חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים עַד אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מֵאַפְּכֶם וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְזָרָא יַעַן כִּי מְאַסְתֶּם אֶת יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַתִּבְכּוּ לְפָנָיו לֵאמֹר לָמָּה זֶּה יָצָאנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.
Num 11:16 YHWH said to Moses: // 11:18 “Say to the people: Purify yourselves[26] for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before YHWH and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ YHWH will give you meat and you shall eat. 11:19 You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, 11:20 but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected YHWH who is among you, by whining before [YHWH] and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’”

At first, YHWH repeats the Israelites’ words verbatim: “If only we had meat to eat!” (see v. 4). But as the speech progress, YHWH exaggerates, misrepresenting the people’s claim. While the Israelites mentioned fondly that they remember the variety of foods in Egypt, nowhere did they say they were better off in Egypt, nor did they complain about having left.[27]

YHWH also ignores their claims that they are hungry and sick of eating the same food every day.[28] Finally, YHWH’s agreement to provide so much meat that the Israelites get sick of it—like they did with manna—has a peevish quality to it. Certainly, it surprises Moses, who responds with disbelief:

במדבר יא:כא וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת אֶלֶף רַגְלִי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ בָּשָׂר אֶתֵּן לָהֶם וְאָכְלוּ חֹדֶשׁ יָמִים. יא:כב הֲצֹאן וּבָקָר יִשָּׁחֵט לָהֶם וּמָצָא לָהֶם אִם אֶת כָּל דְּגֵי הַיָּם יֵאָסֵף לָהֶם וּמָצָא לָהֶם.
Num 11:21 But Moses said, “The people who are with me number six hundred thousand foot soldiers; yet You say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’ 11:22 Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?”

In the earlier Marah story, Moses had expressed simple trust in YHWH’s directives, moving YHWH to provide the Israelites with food unasked; here, however, Moses expresses doubt about YHWH’s ability to provide meat for 600,000 persons.[29] YHWH takes offense at Moses’s doubts:

במדבר יא:כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה הֲיַד יְ־הוָה תִּקְצָר עַתָּה תִרְאֶה הֲיִקְרְךָ דְבָרִי אִם לֹא.
Num 11:23 And YHWH answered Moses, “Is there a limit to YHWH’s power? You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not!”

In response to Moses’ skepticism, YHWH blusters that he will show him what YHWH can do.[30]

The Quail: Another Test

Moses explains to the people that YHWH will provide enough meat for 30 days:

במדבר יא:כד וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל הָעָם אֵת דִּבְרֵי יְ־הוָה // יא:לא וְרוּחַ נָסַע מֵאֵת יְ־הוָה וַיָּגָז שַׂלְוִים מִן הַיָּם וַיִּטֹּשׁ עַל הַמַּחֲנֶה כְּדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה וּכְדֶרֶךְ יוֹם כֹּה סְבִיבוֹת הַמַּחֲנֶה וּכְאַמָּתַיִם עַל פְּנֵי הָאָרֶץ.
Num 11:24 Moses went out and reported the words of YHWH to the people // 11:31 A wind from YHWH started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, all around the camp, and some two cubits deep on the ground.

Read against the backdrop of the manna story, this is yet another test. The Israelites had been instructed to go out in the morning to collect manna, gathering only what they needed for the day, and rely on YHWH raining down more manna the next day. Instead of trusting that YHWH would do the same for the quail, the Israelites spend all day and night collecting as much as possible, showing no trust in the promise that the quail will last a full 30 days:

במדבר יא:לב וַיָּקָם הָעָם כָּל הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל הַלַּיְלָה וְכֹל יוֹם הַמָּחֳרָת וַיַּאַסְפוּ אֶת הַשְּׂלָו הַמַּמְעִיט אָסַף עֲשָׂרָה חֳמָרִים וַיִּשְׁטְחוּ לָהֶם שָׁטוֹחַ סְבִיבוֹת הַמַּחֲנֶה.
Num 11:32 The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day—even the one who gathered least had ten chomorim[31]—and they spread them out all around the camp.

Moreover, the Israelites do not pause to acknowledge or thank YHWH; as noted in Targum Yerushalmi (Neofiti), וּלְמַאן דְיַהֲבִית לְהוֹן לָא הֲווֹן מְבָרְכִין “and to the one that gave them this, they offered no blessing/thanks.” Instead, they hoard, and eat in gluttony, bringing YHWH to strike them then and there:[32]

במדבר יא:לג הַבָּשָׂר עוֹדֶנּוּ בֵּין שִׁנֵּיהֶם טֶרֶם יִכָּרֵת וְאַף יְ־הוָה חָרָה בָעָם וַיַּךְ יְ־הוָה בָּעָם מַכָּה רַבָּה מְאֹד. יא:לד וַיִּקְרָא אֶת שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא קִבְרוֹת הַתַּאֲוָה כִּי שָׁם קָבְרוּ אֶת הָעָם הַמִּתְאַוִּים.
Num 11:33 The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of YHWH blazed forth against the people and YHWH struck the people with a very severe plague. 11:34 That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah [“Graves of Desire”], because the people who had the craving were buried there.[33]

As modern readers, YHWH’s words and actions do not align with a compassionate and patient deity.[34] When read as part of J’s narrative arc, however, with the buildup of complaints and the warning that YHWH is on the verge of destroying them, YHWH’s reaction makes sense.

J’s Emotional YHWH and His Impatient People

In J, YHWH is an emotional deity:[35] he has a body,[36] an appetite (Gen 18:5–8),[37] a sense of curiosity (Gen 11:5–7), and expresses regrets (Gen 6:6–7).[38] YHWH’s reaction is even foreshadowed by his warning that given the Israelites’ stiffneckedness, they were in danger of being consumed by YHWH’s wrath if he accompanies them into the wilderness (Exod 33:3–5).[39] When a mercurial deity and an impatient people are back in the wilderness with each other, tensions quickly erupt and the deity addresses the complaints with fire and plague.

From the very beginning, YHWH is looking for Israel to show obedience and especially trust. They fail the first test when they try to collect manna on Shabbat. They complain about lack of water, and then again about the trip. When the taste of manna changes from sweet to oily, another divine test, they complain about the lack of variety in their diet, without expressing any gratitude at what YHWH has provided thus far.

For a deity who already expressed insecurity with regard to their trust in him in episodes preserved in Exodus, the hoarding of the quail, with the implication that they did not believe it would last, and did not trust YHWH to provide, is the last straw. YHWH lashes out with punishment and the Israelites’ desire for a hearty meat supper ends up with their literally digging their own graves.

Published

June 13, 2023

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Last Updated

June 20, 2024

Footnotes

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Dr. Philip Yoo is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He holds a D.Phil. from Oxford, an S.T.M. from Yale, and an M.Div. from Knox College, Toronto. He is the author of Ezra and the Second Wilderness (Oxford 2017) and co-editor of To Gaul, to Greece and into Noah’s Ark (Oxford 2019).