The Book of Numbers takes its English name from the Greek Septuagint title, a description of the census-taking in its first four chapters. The Hebrew title is a bit more descriptive, bemidbar, “in the wilderness.”
These chapters record a series of complaints, some reasonable, some less so. Note, however, that the Israelites are not alone. When they left Egypt, they were accompanied by a “mixed multitude,” a large mixed group. (Exo 12:38). This group has remained with them, and initiate one of the complaints, which is quickly picked up by the Israelites. “And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting: and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us flesh to eat?” Or,”The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” (Num 11:4 NRSV)
Note that while the KJV translates identically in Exodus and Numbers as “mixed multitude” two different Hebrew words are used. Numbers uses a hapax legomenon (a word that occurs only once in the whole Old Testament), and Exodus a rare word. They’re clearly referring to the same group, but Numbers is suggestively pejorative, leading to a translation as “riffraff” (Jewish Publication Society translation) or “rabble” (NRSV). One scholar has suggested that these two mentions represent the memory of a historical detail, and connects it to an Egyptian inscription by Hatshepsut, which describes the expulsion of the “Canaanite” Hyksos along with the “foreigners” who lived among them. This Bible Review article gets into the details.
Something else of note in that verse is that the food they miss is described as “flesh.” The KJV represents English usage that was already somewhat archaic at the time of its translation; it uses “flesh” to refer to meat whereas “meat” to refer to food in general. When we read about the lists of offerings, then, the “meat offering” is actually vegetarian, and translated in modern versions as “grain offering” (Leviticus 2 and elsewhere). This is also the case in the oft-quoted verse 1Co 3:2, in which Paul tells the Corinthians that he “fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” The difference here is not milk vs steak, but milk vs solid food. Paul scolds the Corinthians for still being immature, unable to move on to solid food. Milk is the appropriate and nourishing food for newborns, but solid food starts being mixed in at a young age.
We’re a bit short this week due to some travel (Boston Marathon!) and such, so for the rest of this week’s notes, check out my podcast and notes here.
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