Numbers 11—a story about the people’s complaining to Moses that they have no meat to eat, only manna—is part of the murmuring traditions, some of which we have already looked at (#125, #126, #127) and even seen use contradictorily by other biblical scribes (#124).
To a large extent the quail story of Numbers 11, where Yahweh responds to the Israelite’s complaining that they have had no meat to eat only manna by sending them quails just before he strikes them down anyway, has already been dealt with in contradiction #126 (see also #125). Here I’ve worded the contradiction differently in order to expand upon #126 in more detail.
The tradition now preserved at Exodus 16, from the Priestly source, claims that the people have not eaten meat since their departure from Egypt. However, where this story presently sits in the wilderness narrative is already problematic since according to the later Priestly redactor the event recorded in Exodus 16 occurs exactly, only, 1 month from the Exodus (16:1). And we are to remember that on the eve of (or the morning after; see #115) the Exodus, the Israelites enjoy their first Passover meal—a roasted lamb per household (Ex 12:3). So the complaint of not having meat to eat only 1 month after having eaten a nice lamb dinner is ill-conceived in the narrative as it has been redacted.
Although Exodus 16:13 is a one-verse Priestly version of the quail story, the real focus of Exodus 16 is the manna tradition. Here we learn that “the children of Israel ate the manna 40 years until they came to the settled land. They ate the manna until they came to the edge of the land of Canaan” (Ex 16:35). The tradition implies that all they eat for the duration of the 40-year wilderness period is manna! Thus Numbers 11:6:
“There isn’t anything to eat, except the manna before our eyes.”
This is not in fact the case! And as I’ve mentioned in other entries, the present wilderness narrative is rather a collection of once separate traditions, random legislation, and stories. The biblical texts themselves bear this out. For we are informed of many instances where the Israelites eat meat, that is where they eat more than just manna. In fact, manna is curiously absent from these variant traditions:
- First, contrary to this manna/quail tradition or story the Exodus tradition itself claims that the Israelites left with a large number of livestock: “sheep and oxen, a very heavy livestock” (Ex 12:38). The Israelites’ possession of cattle and livestock is reiterated in Ex 17:3 (just after they had complained of no meat to eat in Exodus 16!?), Ex 34:3; Lev 17:3, 22:19, 23, 27:9; and Num 7, 32:1.
- The Jethro tradition now preserved in Exodus 18 claims that Moses, Aaron and Israel’s elders ate bread (not unleavened manna!) with Jethro, and presumably meat too since sacrifices were performed (18:12).
- Exodus 24:5 records a covenant tradition where (some of) the people eat meat—peace-offerings (the peace-offering was the sacrifice performed on consumable meat; see Lev 3, 7:11-21, 19:5-8). This “occurs” less than a month after the quail story, according to the chronology imposed on the narrative by the later Priestly redactor (see Ex 19:1).
- The Golden Calf story now at Exodus 32 states that all the people “sat down to eat and drink” (32:6)—that is meat; peace-offerings were made, as well as whole burnt-offerings to Yahweh.
- The eternal law of presenting daily Yahweh’s show bread in the Tent of Meeting assumes that there is grain to make, and eat, bread (Ex 25:30; Num 4:7)—reinforced throughout the book of Leviticus.
- Lev 1-7 is a priestly manual instructing the Aaronid priesthood about how to perform the various sacrifices, especially when an impure contamination happens or a sin is committed. The sacrifices, each of which requires livestock and assumes the Israelites have numerous livestock (see especially #9 below), are to be performed during the wilderness period in order to maintain the camp’s and the people’s holiness—a reoccurring theme throughout all of Leviticus! So the eating of meat is a constant and regular happening in the Priestly source!
- In Aaron’s consecration ceremony, both Moses and Aaron and sons eat meat (Lev 8-9)
- Leviticus 23 records the mandatory observance of “Yahweh’s appointed times” all of which entailed the sacrifice of animals, and some of which entailed the eating of those animals (see: Festive Calendars).
- The dedication ceremony recorded in Numbers 7 records the festive slaughtering of, excluding Yahweh’s burnt-offerings, 36 bulls, 72 rams, 60 goats, and 72 lambs for consumption as meat! This happens on 1/1/2 according to Priestly reckoning (see also #221).
- In Numbers 9 we are informed that in the second year of the Exodus, on 1/14/2, the Israelites kept the Passover—that is ate a lamb per household! And ditto for the remaining 38 years!
And now, in Numbers 11, just 1 month after the Passover celebration in Numbers 9 (see Num 10:11), are we to assume that the Israelites had no meat to eat, and only manna!? Obviously there are conflating traditions here.
Point of fact is that the wilderness tradition as we now have it is a composite of various, and contradictory, once separate stories. The Bible itself tells us this, and moreover that its stories are not to be taken literally, nor historically for that matter (see How we know that the biblical scribes were not writing history). Rather they are stories with powerful theological punchlines—don’t test Yahweh, or else!