#125. When did Yahweh provide quails as meat for the Israelites: before OR after Sinai? (Ex 16:1-15 vs Num 11:4-35)


Many of the stories from the “murmuring” tradition (#124) were told in more than one textual tradition. In the present case, the story about the people’s desire for meat in the wilderness and Yahweh’s reluctant response to send quails is recorded in both the Elohist and Priestly traditions. When these textual traditions were later edited together, both versions of the story were preserved. In the composite text we call “the Bible,” the Priestly version of the quails story is found in Exodus 16 before the Sinai revelation, while the Elohist version is preserved in Numbers 11, after the Sinai event.

The story of the quails in Numbers 11, where the people demand meat to eat, proceeds as if the earlier quail episode in Exodus 16 never occurred. There is not only no recognition of this earlier “miracle” that according to the later imposed chronology of the Priestly writer happened exactly one year ago, but there is the mention in Numbers 11:4-6 that the people had not eaten any meat since they left Egypt (see also #126)! In other words, according to this textual tradition, the Israelites only eat quails here, and only after they have left Sinai.

The depiction of Yahweh in this earlier Elohist account (Num 11) is also different and more shocking than its Priestly counterpart in Exodus 16.

  • “And Yahweh heard and his anger flared, and Yahweh’s fire burned among them” (Num 11:1).
  • “And Yahweh’s anger flared very much and it was bad in Moses’ eyes” (Num 11:10)
  • “And the meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, and Yahweh’s anger flared at the people, and Yahweh struck down the people in great numbers” (Num 11:33)—another great scene for a children’s “real” Bible coloring book!

This depiction of Yahweh as the wrathful deity who slays his own people—only after liberating them from Egypt!—is completely suppressed in the later Priestly version of the story which now exists at Exodus 16, before the Sinai event. Indeed, it may be argued that this was one of the reasons why the Priestly writer rewrote the story—to suppress this depiction of Yahweh.

Furthermore, this is not an event that happens twice, or even happens at all (see #126). Rather they were stories that served a pedagogical purpose: to instil faith in Yahweh by depicting in horrific terms what happens to those who have no faith in Yahweh (#124).

The manna tradition, which is also found in both of these passages, is a duplicate as well. But it has been reworked by the redactor so its second appearance in Numbers 11 is now presented as a recapitulation of its first occurrence now at Exodus 16. Furthermore, the Priestly version lays greater emphasis on the Sabbath, and rightly so since, as we have already seen, the Sabbath is one of the three central covenants of the Priestly literature. In fact, Exodus 16:28-29 assumes that the people have already been given the commandment to observe the Sabbath, but this hasn’t happened yet. It happens in the Elohist tradition in Exodus 20, and in the Priestly tradition at Exodus 31—supporting further the idea that this manna and quail passage originally stood after Sinai, like its duplicate in Numbers 11.

Finally, there is another and more serious problem with these stories of the people’s desire for meat lest they starve to death in its larger narrative context. Can you spot what it is? Tune in for tomorrow’s contradiction.

5 thoughts on “#125. When did Yahweh provide quails as meat for the Israelites: before OR after Sinai? (Ex 16:1-15 vs Num 11:4-35)

  1. I’ll note that the Psalms make reference to each version of the quail incident: Psalm 105:40 refers to the “good” episode of Exodus 16; Psalm 106:14-15 and Psalm 78:27-31, to the “bad” episode of Numbers 11. Also of interest is that in Numbers 16, Yahweh can’t seem to remember what he promised he would do. Here are verses 18-20, in which Yahweh responds to the Israelites’ request for meat:

    18And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of Yahweh, saying, “If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore Yahweh will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected Yahweh who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”

    That seems clear enough. Yahweh was going to give them so much meat for so long that they would get sick of it. But look at what actually happens, as narrated in vv. 31-33:

    31 Then a wind went out from Yahweh, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground. 32So the people worked all that day and night and all the next day, gathering the quails; the least anyone gathered was ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. 33But while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of Yahweh was kindled against the people, and Yahweh struck the people with a very great plague.

  2. When you say, “there is the explicit mention in Numbers 11:4-6 that the people had not eaten any meat since they left Egypt,” you are quoting:

    “But the multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, ‘Who will feed us meat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.'”

    However this is far from explicit. Perhaps by mentioning meat from Egypt and not previous quail they are implying they hadn’t had any meat in the wilderness, but they are not explicitly stating so.

    1. Thanks Alex. I agree; I recant my “explicit”—perhaps should even be implicit! As long as we’re quoting texts, the same thing is implied in Ex 16:3: “in the land of Egypt when we sat by a pot of meat, when we ate bread to the full.”

  3. So the redactor was not concerned so much about having contradictions, but more so with preserving both accounts? Is there any textual evidence of how the redactors thought of themselves?

    1. It would seem that way. The better cases, to which this question has been posed, are the stitching together of the 2 flood narratives (#14-18), 2 Joseph stories (#72-73), 2 versions of the crossing of the Red sea (#120-122), etc. In all these examples (and many many others), when the sources are separated out they both read as complete uninterrupted wholes, which indicate that the Redactor has preserved both accounts in their integrity.

      The question that naturally ensues is why preserve both flood narratives through a cut-and-paste job? Or why preserve the version of Yahweh blowing the wind back in the Red sea account? Why just not expunge one version from the redacted text? The Redactors didn’t, on numerous occasions, so we must surmise that they felt obligated to preserve both accounts (perhaps they both were already deemed authoritative by their communities), and this preservation of both accounts was more important than having a narrative without contradictions, albeit in some instances, such as the Joseph stories, we see that the Redactor tries to minimize, or even cover up, the contradictions.

      At this point, we’re really in a more speculative area. For example, the Redactor felt that he was capable of stitching together the 2 flood accounts to yield one Flood narrative, albeit with minor inconsistencies and contradictions. For the 2 creation accounts (#1), on the other hand, the Redactor felt that they could simply be preserved by placing one after the other. That m.o. would not have worked for the flood stories, nor the crossing of the Red sea, for example. But indeed does work for others, such as the quail stories above.

      Based on the textual evidence, we must conclude that whole contradictory textual traditions were preserved in the redacted text. This process itself created the narrative inconsistencies and contradictions that we are exploring here. Why these narrative anomalies did not bother the Redactor is a speculative question. Perhaps our modern notions of “narrative,” “authorship,” and even “text” and what these terms assume are much different than how ancient scribes understood these texts. Some scholars have even proposed that they might have seen these scrolls as a repository of stories from different scribal guilds and geopolitical eras. In this case, preserving the different traditions even when they contradicted each other was the important element. In that case, why not just keep the Yahwist scroll, the Priestly scroll etc. as independent scrolls? So we must assume also that there was an effort to create as much as possible a “unified and whole story.” That story eventually became more important than the individual voices of these once independent traditions. Furthermore, that “story” is ever evolving and changing with respect to later interpretive frameworks that are endlessly imposed on this collection of diverse texts. Just think about how the Christian interpretive lens changes this story in dramatic, and yes, even contradictory terms from the ways in which Israel’s “stories” have been narrated in their own texts.

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