Monday of Week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 11:4-15

We move on today to the Book of Numbers and we will just have four readings from it (Monday to Thursday). Its Hebrew title is “In the Wilderness”, which seems a more appropriate description of its contents. ‘Numbers’ simply refers to the beginning of the book where a census of the people is described.

The book, as a whole, is divided into three main sections:

  1. Preparing to leave Sinai (1:1-10:10);
  2. The journey to Kadesh, where a first attempt to enter Canaan was made (10:11-21:13); and
  3. the journey from Kadesh via Transjordan with the intention of approaching Canaan from the east. (21:14-36:13).

Following the estimation of the book itself, the Israelites spent more than 35 years of their 40 years of ‘wandering’ in Kadesh.
Numbers immediately follows on the book of Leviticus as the fourth book of the Pentateuch, (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). It continues the story of the journey in the desert, but also includes various legal prescriptions which either supplement the Sinaitic code, or prepare for the time when the people will have settled in Canaan.

The first four chapters consist of a census of all the tribes of Israel (hence the title of the book). There follow various laws and the offerings of the leaders and consecration of the Levites. Chapter 9 consists of a supplement to Exodus about the Passover. In chapter 11 we come to a section describing halts in the wilderness. Today’s reading comes from this section, and we find the Israelites still grumbling about their lot.

The foreigners among them were so anxious to have meat that the Hebrews also complained that they wanted some too:

Would that we had meat for food!

In fact, meat would not have been part of their regular diet when they were slaves in Egypt. Now that they were in a new type of distress, they romanticised the past and minimised its discomforts. And they do not mention meat as food they had in Egypt, but only fish, vegetables and fruits.

Now, they claim they are starving, with nothing to eat but manna. Manna seems to have had quite a pleasant taste, but as we also know, too much of anything can become tiresome. It also seems to have been quite nutritious, so the claim about starvation was somewhat exaggerated.

We are given a description of manna and how it was prepared. It was like coriander seed, and in Exodus we are told that it was white (lying on the ground it looked like hoar frost) and it tasted like wafers made with honey. It had the appearance of bdellium, a transparent, amber-coloured gum resin, which is also mentioned in Genesis as being found in the Garden in Eden. Every night (except on the Sabbath) when the dew came, the manna fell also. To eat it, the people ground it into a kind of flour, cooked it in a pot and made it into loaves which tasted like cakes made with oil.

The target and scapegoat of their troubles was, as usual, Moses, whom they blamed for their present situation. God, too, was not very happy with the ingratitude of the people for whom he had done so much.

Poor Moses! He was caught in the middle, receiving flak from both sides. In great distress he spoke to God. He had his own complaints to make:

Why do you treat your servant so badly?

He wants to know why he has to carry the burden of blame when it was God’s own idea to bring the people out of Egypt:

Was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, like a nurse with a baby at the breast, to the land that I swore to give their fathers’?

Moses felt he could no longer carry the burden alone. Our reading ends with Moses saying he would prefer death than to have to carry on like this.

In fact, God was listening. It is not in today’s reading, but God did hear his prayer and spread Moses’ responsibilities among 70 elders. As for the people’s cry for meat, they would get an abundance of quail every day for a month, until they would get so sick at the very sight of meat that they would never want to see it again! They got what they asked for, but it was turned into a punishment for their grumbling.

How much of our conversation with colleagues and friends consists of grumbling about all kinds of things? How many people do we see made the scapegoats for what we think has gone wrong? How many of the things we think we cannot do without lose their attractiveness once we have got them in abundance? We are not so different from the Israelites.

Let us today once again count our blessings. Most likely, we will see they far outweigh our grievances.

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