One of the lessons for the ordination of a priest is Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25—“omitting the final clause” (BCP p. 528). If we look at that snippet of the lesson, we are struck by the power of God’s spirit, which descends upon the elders Moses has appointed. Even the two who were left in the camp—Eldad and Medad—were filled with the spirit and began to prophesy. The ordination propers tell us to leave out the final clause because it reads, “But they did not continue doing it,” which, given the context of an ordination service, makes sense.
But the REAL beauty of this lesson comes when we read the whole thing, most of which we have in today’s OT reading from the Daily Office (Numbers 11:24-33). The lesson continues past Eldad and Medad. It goes beyond the fact that they stopped prophesying. It goes all the way to the quail that God brings in by a wind from the sea—and then it keeps going. My favorite line is the last verse of our lesson: “But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD struck the people with a very great plague.”
That’s not very nice, is it? While the people of Israel were sitting around their family tables eating the quail which God had given them—the first meat they had eaten in a while—God got angry and sent a plague upon them. Sounds like a mean-spirited prank. Actually, it has more to do with Israel’s faithlessness than with God’s presumed mercurial nature.
In the beginning of Numbers 11, we read that the people of God were tired of eating manna. They began to complain against God and against Moses, saying, “Back when we were in Egypt, we had meat to eat. We had leeks and fish and melons and garlic. All we have out here is this flaky bread substance. We wish we were back in Egypt.” At that point, they had crossed the line. The single greatest expression of God’s salvation was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and now the very people God had saved were regretting his salvation. That was too much—for God and for Moses.
Moses comes to God and says, “Will you please just kill me now if I have found favor in your sight? These people are a burden too great to bear. Take me now so I don’t have to hear them anymore.” God had pity on Moses, so he did two things: he invited Moses to share the responsibility with the seventy elders and he sent the people quail so they would have meat to eat. But that was a gift to Moses—not to Israel. God was answering Moses’ prayer of desperation. The people of Israel needed to learn their lesson. And that’s why he sent a plague.
I choose not to read that as God’s intervening punishment for Israel’s faithless whining. Instead, I read it as the naturally expected outcome of their selfishness and shortsightedness. Because of their thanklessness, the true benefit of God’s blessings could never have been appreciated. Like a spoiled four-year-old, they stomped their feet and pitched a fit and, sure enough, got what they wanted. But that never ends well. It had to fall apart. They had to realize their mistake. So, even while the meat was still between their teeth, the plague came.
We are an ungrateful people. We demand luxuries and consume them with no regard for their real source. We credit ourselves as the source of our success, and we deny God any respect for his providence. How will that story end? I don’t think God reaches down from heaven and causes our fillet mignon to poison us because of our faithlessness, but I do believe that a life lived only for ourselves is bound to end in ruin. We cannot sustain ourselves. We must only subsist on God’s gift. Denying that is to deny our very lives.