Numbers 11 – The first of what Schocken Bible editors call “rebellion narratives,” [there will be six] the people become discontented in the year following the second Passover celebration, angering God, so that “the fire of the Lord burned among them and consumed the outskirts of the camp” (11:1).
Despite the organization of the people and the establishment of a kind of community order; despite the loving care of the Lord in providing manna and water for the people, a spirit of discontent and longing for the comforts of the life of slavery in Egypt comes upon the people and angers the Lord. The immediate cause of the people’s discontent is the memory of the good foods they can no longer get: the meat, the cucumbers and melons. They are tired of the simple sustenance God has provided them with. But beyond the immediate causes, one senses that there is just a conflicted spirit in the people.
They are ambivalent about the freedom God has brought them into. The desire for freedom is not unequivocal. We desire also the things that satisfy our appetites. If we look into the universal meaning of this story we see that we too are not single minded in our desire for the kind of freedom that comes from God.
As George Fox puts it in his journal, “I found there were two thirsts in me, the one after the creatures, to have gotten help and strength there, and the other after the Lord the creator and his Son Jesus Christ. And I saw all the world could do me no good. If I had had a king’s diet, palace, and attendance, all would have been as nothing, for nothing gave me comfort but the Lord by his power. And I saw professors, priests, and people were whole and at ease in that condition which was my misery, and they loved that which I would have been rid of. But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself from whom my help came, and my care was cast upon him alone” (12).
We who are in the process of deliverance, the time of conversion must be stayed upon the presence of the Lord and be satisfied with the simple food he gives us. It may not be a feast at first; we may feel ourselves called strongly by desires more superficial and more likely to lead us backward, but we should not be surprised by our ambivalence either. The people of Israel felt restless and ungrateful at times; they even fell into complete apostasy. The time in the desert is a time of drama, not a time of unceasing rejoicing. It is only the power of the Lord that can bring us through.
The Lord tells Moses to assemble 70 elders: “I will . . .take some of the spirit that is on you and will bestow it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself” (11:17).
But he also tells him that He will provide meat for the people—for a month, until they’re sick of meat (11:20). The sated appetite cloys after a while. Moses doubts the Lord can bring them victory, seeing there are 600,000 soldiers.
The burdens of leadership are dramatized throughout the story of Moses’ life—he is set apart, he is alone, rejected by his people for trying to help them; he must run away, yet his “call” to lead will not leave. He feels overwhelmed by the burden God puts on him; he feels ill-equipped humanly speaking. He is asked to do the impossible—confront the most powerful ruler on earth on behalf of an enslaved group of people. He must deal with the frustrations of failure, the logistics of success and the burdens of leading; now he must contend with the venality of the people he wants to save, and the wrath of the God, who is angry that the people are ungrateful. He must wrestle with God for His support and help on a number of occasions and later he will be challenged by others who feel they too should share in leading, even by members of his own family. In the end, he will not even get to enjoy the reward of entry into the land he has labored to bring his people into.
The spirit does come down on the elders (11:25), but two men who had been asked to come, were not there. Still the spirit came to them in camp, and they prophesied [or as Schocken translates, “acted like prophets”]. Moses is told and people ask him to stop them, but he says: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” (11:29). Then the quail come.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c.180 AD)
Selections from the Work Against Heresies
Book III – The Faith in Scripture and Tradition
The Unity and Number of the Gospels – “These, then, are the principles of the gospel. They declare one God, the maker of this universe, who was proclaimed by the Prophets, and who through Moses established the dispensation of the Law, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and besides him they know no other God, nor any other Father.”
The Gnostics know that the Gospels refute them. That is why they dispute them or cut them up [Marcion]. The followers of Valentinus turn to John, but Irenaeus repeats that the preface of John totally undermines Valentinus’ views.
Then he gets into a little Christian “numerology” – he argues that there is a reason why there are only four gospels; they correspond to the “four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men.”
He goes on to make reference to Psalm 80, thought to have been written by David, to emphasize the “fullness” of the number four. He says, “the cherubim have four faces, and their faces are images of the activity of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it says, was like a lion, signifying his active and princely and royal character; the second was like an ox, showing his sacrificial and priestly order; the third had the face of man, indicating very clearly his coming in human guise; and the fourth was like a flying eagle, making plain the giving of the Spirit who broods over the Church. Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these.” This is “the first appearance of the creatures of Ezek., ch. 1, and Rev. 4:7, 8, as symbols of the Evangelists; later the lion is assigned to Saint Mark and the eagle to Saint John” (note in online text).
The Gospel of John corresponds to the first “face” – the lion – for he “signif[ies] his active and princely and royal character.” The second, Luke, shows “his sacrificial and priestly order.” Matthew, the man’s “face” tells of his human birth, and Mark represents the eagle, for he “takes his beginning from the prophetic Spirit who comes on human beings from on high, saying, ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet,’ showing a winged image of the gospel.”
He also points out that there were four covenants “given to mankind: one was that of Noah’s deluge, by the bow; the second was Abraham’s, by the sign of circumcision; the third was the giving of the Law by Moses; and the fourth is that of the Gospel, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”