The story of the quail and the prophets, from Numbers 11, is strange to us, in many of the details. But the point could not be more contemporary.
The people are on the other side of the Exodus, and are three days into a new season of their journey. But they complain, sentimentalizing their slavery in Egypt, wishing they could be back there again (v. 1-6). The manna from heaven had grown . . . boring. So they complained.
It is worth contemplating the nature of complaint, in light of what transpires next. Moses complains to God, really mirroring the feelings of God on the matter – for it is God who gave birth to this country; it’s God Who sustains her (v. 12). So Moses also complains, too. But He does so in line with the desires of God – unlike “the rabble”, who complain according to their “strong craving” (v. 4).
So God answers both complaints. To the people, the “rabble”, he gives the meat they ask for, so much so – incredibly, considering the nation numbers maybe 2 million – that they could not eat it. But worse, they became sick – God also sent a “plague” with it. Many were buried there (v. 31-35). The satisfying of their “strong craving” led to their death.
But to Moses’ complaint, God gives “seventy elders” (v. 16), who would bear the burden with Moses. God fills them with His Spirit, and even a few others in the camp. Joshua’s famous words come from here – shall I silence them, Lord? No – oh that ALL God’s people would be filled with the Spirit, and would prophesy! (v. 28-30).
God’s answer to both was redemptive. The people were meant to see what was already clear to God and Moses, but not to them – that idolatrous desires had grown up in their hearts. The quail that made them sick was the only way to break through their cravings, because their cravings were “strong” – and blinding.
The way of escape was through God’s answer to Moses – by hearing God’s words, spoken through His Spirit-filled messengers – even those who were “unofficial”. Oh, that all would walk by the Spirit – then they would not be controlled by their strong cravings, but by the desires of God.
Paul would see parallels, in 1 Cor. 10-14. We too are led along by the same cloud, and that cloud is Christ (1 Cor. 10:1-4). God uses trials to squeeze us, to reveal what’s really in our hearts. Yet he does this to transform our desires (1 Cor. 10:6). We become like what we desire. Pray then, repentantly, to desire God!