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Numbers 11:1-3

Context
The Israelites Complain

11:1 1 When the people complained, 2  it displeased 3  the Lord. When the Lord heard 4  it, his anger burned, 5  and so 6  the fire of the Lord 7  burned among them and consumed some of the outer parts of the camp. 11:2 When the people cried to Moses, he 8  prayed to the Lord, and the fire died out. 9  11:3 So he called the name of that place Taberah 10  because there the fire of the Lord burned among them.

1 sn The chapter includes the initial general complaints (vv. 1-3), the complaints about food (vv. 4-9), Moses’ own complaint to the Lord (vv. 10-15), God’s response to Moses (vv. 16-25), Eldad and Medad (vv. 26-29), and the quail (vv. 30-35). The first part records the burning of the camp, named Taberah. Here is one of the several naming narratives in the wilderness experience. The occasion for divine judgment is the complaining of the people. The passages serve to warn believers of all ages not to murmur as the Israelites did, for such complaining reveals a lack of faith in the power and goodness of God. For additional literature, see W. Brueggemann, “From Hurt to Joy, from Death to Life,” Int 28 (1974): 3-19; B. S. Childs, “The Etiological Tale Re-examined,” VT 24 (1974): 387-97; G. W. Coats, Rebellion in the Wilderness; and A. C. Tunyogi, “The Rebellions of Israel,” JBL 81 (1962): 385-90.

2 tn The temporal clause uses the Hitpoel infinitive construct from אָנַן (’anan). It is a rare word, occurring in Lam 3:39. With this blunt introduction the constant emphasis of obedience to the word of the Lord found throughout the first ten chapters suddenly comes to an end. It is probable that the people were tired of moving for several days, the excitement of the new beginning died out quickly in the “great and terrible wilderness.” Resentment, frustration, discomfort – whatever it all involved – led to complaining and not gratitude.

3 tn Heb “it was evil in the ears of the Lord.” The word רַע (ra’) is a much stronger word than “displeased” would suggest. The bold anthropomorphism shows that what the Lord heard was painful to him.

4 tn The preterite with vav (ו) consecutive is here subordinated to the next verb as a temporal clause.

5 tn The common Hebrew expression uses the verb חָרָה (harah, “to be hot, to burn, to be kindled”). The subject is אַפּוֹ (’appo), “his anger” or more literally, his nose, which in this anthropomorphic expression flares in rage. The emphasis is superlative – “his anger raged.”

6 tn The vav (ו) consecutive does not simply show sequence in the verbs, but here expresses the result of the anger of the Lord for their complaining. With such a response to the complaining, one must conclude that it was unreasonable. There had been no long deprivation or endured suffering; the complaining was early and showed a rebellious spirit.

7 sn The “fire of the Lord” is supernatural, for it is said to come from the Lord and not from a natural source. God gave them something to complain about – something to fear. The other significant place where this “fire of the Lord” destroyed was in the case of Nadab and Abihu who brought strange fire to the altar (Lev 10:2).

8 tn Heb “Moses.”

9 sn Here is the pattern that will become in the wilderness experience so common – the complaining turns to a cry to Moses, which is then interpreted as a prayer to the Lord, and there is healing. The sequence presents a symbolic lesson, an illustration of the intercession of the Holy Spirit. The NT will say that in times of suffering Christians do not know how to pray, but the Spirit intercedes for them, changing their cries into the proper prayers (Rom 8).

10 tn The name תַּבְעֵרָה (taverah) is given to the spot as a commemorative of the wilderness experience. It is explained by the formula using the same verbal root, “to burn.” Such naming narratives are found dozens of times in the OT, and most frequently in the Pentateuch. The explanation is seldom an exact etymology, and so in the literature is called a popular etymology. It is best to explain the connection as a figure of speech, a paronomasia, which is a phonetic wordplay that may or may not be etymologically connected. Usually the name is connected to the explanation by a play on the verbal root – here the preterite explaining the noun. The significance of commemorating the place by such a device is to “burn” it into the memory of Israel. The narrative itself would be remembered more easily by the name and its motif. The namings in the wilderness wanderings remind the faithful of unbelief, and warn us all not to murmur as they murmured. See further A. P. Ross, “Paronomasia and Popular Etymologies in the Naming Narrative of the Old Testament,” Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1982.



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