By the Numbers

The Text

1 Now the people set up a lament which was offensive to Yahweh's ears, and Yahweh heard it.

4 The rabble who had joined the people were overcome by greed, and the sons of Israel themselves began to wail again, “Who will give us meat to eat?” they said.

5 “Think of the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic!

6 “Here we are wasting away, stripped of everything; there is nothing but manna for us to look at.”

7 The manna was like coriander seed, and had the ap pearance of bdellium.

8 The people went around gathering it, and ground it in a mill or crushed it with a pestle; it was then cooked in a pot and made into pancakes.

9 It tasted like cake made with oil. When the dew fell on the camp at nighttime, the manna fell with it.

31 A wind came from Yahweh and it drove quails in from the sea and brought them down on the camp. They lay for a distance of a day's march either side of the camp, two cubits thick on the ground.


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“A wind came from Yahweh and it drove quails in from the sea… .The people were up all that day and night and all the next day collecting quails.”

32 The people were up all that day and night and all the next day collecting quails.

Numbers 11:1, 4–9; 31–32a, The Jerusalem Bible

The History

According to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, generally accepted as canonical by Jews and Christians), Moses led an incredibly large group of Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert: the Book of Numbers indicates that the group included more than 600,000 men who were of the right age to serve as soldiers! If one also counts the women, children, and aged, the Israelites must have numbered well over one million persons. Unfortunately, there are few reliable extrabiblical sources to corroborate the narrative found in the scriptures, nor have archaeologists been able to unearth at this far-removed date evidence that would definitively prove the passage of such a large mass of people from Egypt through the Red Sea (a mistranslation of the Hebrew Yam Suf, which means “Sea of Reeds') and into the Wilderness of Sin.

To follow the scriptural narrative: God protected and guided the Israelites with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, sending a strong wind to part the waters of the Sea of Reeds so that the Israelites could escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. When they had reached the other side, God allowed the water to close over the Egyptians, drowning them. (In actuality, the sea may have been a marshy expanse that would not have impeded pedestrians but would have bogged down horse-drawn chariots.) Moses then led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where on behalf of his people he received the tablets of the Covenant (commonly known as the Ten Commandments) from God, indicating God's intention to keep the covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Upon descending from the mountain, Moses found that his brother, Aaron, had allowed the people to worship a golden calf; enraged, Moses broke the law tablets that he had received from God and called upon the faithful of the tribe of Levi to slay those who had worshipped the idol. Because of their idolatry, God turned against the Israelites and sent a plague to punish them. Climbing the mountain again to speak with God, Moses attempted to atone for the sins of the people, and God gave Moses two new tablets to renew the covenant. When Moses returned to the people this time, his appearance was transfigured; thereafter, he was compelled to wear a veil, lest the Israelites die of fright. Under Moses' instructions, the people constructed an elaborate gilded ark to house the tablets and a tent to protect the ark. At some point God instructed the Israelites to enter Canaan, which was identified to them as the Promised Land, but when they refused to advance (their spies had said that the Canaanites were too powerful), God sentenced all of them to wander in the wilderness until the next generation had replaced the elder one. They did, however, manage to conquer the lands of the Amorites and of Bashan. Moses also transgressed one of God's commands, and for this he was forbidden from entering the Promised Land himself; tradition indicates that he spent the rest of his life conversing with God and writing the history of his people. When he died on Mount Nebo at the age of 120 (a propitious age according to Jewish tradition), Joshua, his top general, assumed leadership of the Israelites and assembled them to march west across the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

What does archaeology say about this story? The evidence is sketchy, but there are some indications that the biblical narrative has its basis in actual events. For example, an ancient Egyptian medical document known as the Brooklyn Papyrus (because it is owned by the Brooklyn Museum), dating from the 17th century b.c.e., is believed by some scholars to include slave names that are the same as some Israelite names found in the Bible. At the other end of the story, an Egyptian inscription known as the Merneptah Stele (dating from 1210 b.c.e.) is thought by some scholars to speak respectfully of a people known as Israel dwelling in Canaan. At best, the archaeological evidence would seem to suggest that the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt occurred sometime in the 16th century b.c.e., after the descendants of Jacob had been in Egypt for a little more than 200 years, and may be identical with the expulsion of the Hyksos during the reign of Ahmose (1570–1550 b.c.e.). (Some scholars, however, place the date of the Exodus in the 13th century b.c.e.) By the 13th century b.c.e. the Hebrews (called Hapiru) had conquered Canaan and consolidated into a nation of twelve tribes known as Israel. But scholars have yet to agree on any irrefutable evidence, and the debates over the reliability of the artifacts and the interpretation of their meaning, not to mention the efforts to translate and interpret the biblical passages themselves, have often become quite emotional. This is perhaps understandable, when the history of a faith is at stake.

Biblical Passage Notes

The book of Numbers is so named in English because a portion of the biblical tome deals with the numbering, or counting, of the Israelites, in the telling of the epic about how they came to be known as “the chosen people.” The book's Hebrew title, “In the Desert,” is perhaps more appropriate, as the majority of the book is the saga of a wandering people who have left Egypt and are on their way to a promised land. During this journey they test God often, and God in turn tests their allegiance. Sometimes the complaints to God are for basic needs: water and food. In chapter 11, the voice of the people is raised in anger: they are tired of manna, and they want meat! At least in Egypt there was meat and fish (they remind God), and lots of good fruits and vegetables, too! “Ah, we remember the good old days with great fondness,” they seem to say, having forgotten that they were slaves in Egypt, and now murmuring against God as they trample on their new-found gift of freedom.

True, they had dust in their mouths, and it made them ungrateful. Even though the Israelites were a nomadic group of tribes who kept and nurtured animals that could provide them with meat, what they seemed to have wanted was variety, and they wanted it garnished with spices! Without the garnishes, they felt empty; they lacked the strength to continue (what was the point?); their souls were dried up, like the wilderness in which they were to wander for forty long years.


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The people whose story is recounted in the book of Numbers might not have eaten as well as the meal shown here, but they would certainly have recalled the great variety of tastes they were missing, having left Egypt to wander in the wilderness.

The Preparation

It appears that however unpleasant it was in Egypt, the food was apparently good there, if not memorable. There were scores of species of fish, for instance: puffers, tetras, catfish, tilapia, carp, perch, minnows, squeakers, elephant fish, and many more swimming in the Nile, all for the having, and free! Cucumbers and melons, both of which are rich in water, were widely cultivated in Egypt as they grew well in the silt runoff from the nutrient-rich Nile. The cucumbers (in Hebrew, qishshuim, literally “gourd”) mentioned here are not the garden variety we are used to seeing in Western markets. What is being described here are probably muskmelons or chate melons (an unsweet variety), and the melons (in Hebrew, abattichim) were most likely cantaloupes, casabas, or honeydew. Watermelon was also grown in Egypt from the earliest times, their seeds having been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. The people also remembered their taste for leeks (in Hebrew, chatsir, which literally means any type of grass, including hay); onions (in Hebrew, betsel); and garlic (in Hebrew, shum); but they were apparently unable to cultivate these vegetables until much later in their history, as these Hebrew words (abattichim, betsel, shum) do not appear again in the scriptures.

Still, there was always manna to keep their stomachs filled. Just what manna was has been the topic of thousands of historical, archaeological, and anthropological articles over the years. The biblical scholar F. S. Bodenheimer has theorized that manna was a kind of honeydew secretion of two types of insects that feed on the sap of the tamarisk, or salt-cedar bushes, that are native to the wilderness area mentioned in the Bible.1> Or perhaps, as others have suggested, it was either a dried form of algae or drought-desiccated and wind-dispersed lichen.2 The Israelite wanderers describe it as a kind of white substance, not unlike coriander seed, and sticky like bdellium, a resinous gum. It was boiled in pots or ground up so that it could be baked or made into cakes. It was most likely very bland, and a steady diet of mainly manna made the complainants long for the spices and sweetness of their former lives in servitude.

God does respond to their spates of unhappiness by sending quail (in Hebrew, selaw) from the sea inland (a story not unlike the experience of the Mormon pioneers at the Great Salt Lake). But the people's appetite is not sated, and they further complain—an action that angers God, who in turn complains to Moses about the greed of the tribes he is leading. When will they “possess the land of milk and honey as promised to them?” a growing angry mob wants to know. Whether it be happenstance or bad directions or God's stubborn insistence on teaching them to rely on Divine Providence, they still had many miles and years to travel.

Notes

1. F. S. Bodenheimer, “The Manna of Sinai,” The Biblical Archaeologist 10 (1947): 2–6.
2. Kitty Morse, A Biblical Feast: Foods from the Holy Land (Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1998), 7. In the first chapter of her book, Morse discusses the work of noted biblical botanists Harold and Alma Moldenke regarding manna.
3. “Shavouth: Holiday Laws and Customs,” www.jewish-holiday.com/shav65laws.html