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Quails, Wandering Hebrews, & Biblical Accuracy

Quails, Wandering Hebrews, & Biblical Accuracy August 17, 2021

Exodus 16:11-13 (RSV) And the LORD said to Moses, [12] “I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, `At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread [manna]; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'” [13] In the evening quails came up and covered the camp;

Numbers 11:4-5, 13, 18-20, 31-34 Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, “O that we had meat to eat! [5] We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; . . . [13] [Moses] Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, `Give us meat, that we may eat.’ . . . [18] [God] And say to the people, `Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. [19] You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, [20] but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come forth out of Egypt?”‘ . . . [31] And there went forth a wind from the LORD, 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, round about the camp, and about two cubits above the face of the earth. [32] And the people rose all that day, and all night, and all the next day, and gathered the quails; he who gathered least gathered ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. [33] While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague. [34] Therefore the name of that place was called Kib’roth-hatta’avah, because there they buried the people who had the craving.

Psalm 78:26-31 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by his power he led out the south wind;
[27] he rained flesh upon them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
[28] he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
all around their habitations.
[29] And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
[30] But before they had sated their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
[31] the anger of God rose against them
and he slew the strongest of them,
and laid low the picked men of Israel.

Now, as always, God can work through outright miracles (He could create a million quails on the spot and send them down to the complaining Hebrews), or He can marvelously arrange in His providence for lots of quails to appear right at the time when He said they would appear. Both are entirely in His capability, and either is an extraordinary event, showing His power (omnipotence) and/or His omniscience and sovereignty over nature.

He knew from all eternity that the ancient Israelites would complain in the wilderness about not having meat (longing again for their wonderful time of slavery in Egypt), and He knew (if the natural explanation was what actually happened) that quail would migrate across their path at precisely the time that this murmuring came about.

I’m not opting for either scenario. I’m simply saying that it is entirely possible (and no less glorying to God) that a natural explanation could account for both the abundance of quail and death as a result of eating them. If that is the case, the inspired, infallible Bible would again be accurate in reporting what happened (as it always is).

I shall be citing John Wilkinson, from his article, “The Quail Epidemic of Numbers 11.31-34” (The Evangelical Quarterly, 71:3 [1999], 195-208). He wrote on the last page of his article (and I fully agree):

The book of Numbers has no doubt that the feeding of the Israelites with quail meat was the result of a miracle. It was the Lord who promised through Moses that he would give them meat enough to last for a whole month (11.18-20). It was the Lord who sent the wind which drove the quail in from the sea (v. 31) and it was he who struck the people with the great plague (v. 33). This is also the view of the Psalmist in Psalm 78.26-31. . . .

[T]he question arises of whether we can still maintain that the incident was also miraculous. . . .

[T]he natural explanation of an incident need not deny its supernatural origin and significance; a supernatural event need not be unnatural in its character and mechanism. What was miraculous in the provision of the Israelites with quail meat was not how it was done, but why, when and where it was done.

Egyptologist, archaeologist, and evangelical Protestant, Kenneth A. Kitchen, probably the greatest living biblical “maximalist” archaeologist, in his book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), stated:

Twice on their travels (down to, and up from, Mount Sinai), the Israelites got involved with migrating quail. The first time, in the Desert of Sin (west coast; Exod. 16:13) [should be 16:1], quail alighted one spring evening [“on the fifteenth day of the second month”: also 16:1]; the second time, again in the spring (Num. 11:31-34; date, cf. second month, 10:11) [“second month, on the twentieth day”], a flight of quail was blown the few miles inland (up the seaward end of Wadi Sa’l?) and fell to the Israelites. It is a fact that quails do migrate via Sinai twice a year. They fly from farther south up to Europe in the spring, going through the Suez and Aqaba gulfs in the evenings (hence their presence on the Sinai Peninsula’s west and east flanks then). (p. 273)

Thus, the Bible informs us that (again, positing a natural event):

1) quails migrate through the Sinai Peninsula,

2) particularly along the coastlines, and

3) they do so in the spring.

Season (down to the day) and specific place are both recorded.

An article on quails in the journal Ornis Fennica (Vol. 85: 2008) observed:

Eilat, Israel, is located at the northern edge of the combined Sahel, Sahara and Sinai deserts. During spring migration, the Quails reach this region after a long and arduous journey. . .Eilat is situated at the northern edge of over 2,000 km of continuous Sahel, Sahara and Sinai deserts. . . .

[A]long the Red Sea coast Quail was distinctly more common in spring than in autumn.

. . . spring migration across the Sahara and Sinai deserts. . . .

A map of quail distribution from the Birdlife International website, shows that one area is the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula (between the words “Egypt” and “Israel” on the map): precisely where the biblical accounts locate them.

Wilkinson describes their spring migration journey:

They winter in African lands and then during the months of March and April they migrate northwards, first to the lands of North Africa and Egypt. They then cross the Mediterranean and spread throughout Europe and western Asia, descending to rest on the islands of the Mediterranean which may lie in their path. . . . On the east they converge on the Red Sea from southern Egypt and Arabia and fly up alongside it until at its bifurcation they enter the peninsula of Sinai. It is here that the route of their migration would cross the path of the Children of Israel as they journeyed from Egypt to Canaan. After crossing the Sinai desert, the quails continue their flight northwards across Israel and Syria until finally they reach Europe . . . (pp. 196-197)

The second Hebrew month is Iyar, which usually falls into April-May of the Gregorian calendar.

Another article from Birdlife International (3-21-19) states that “Having journeyed across the sea they fly low, heading for a place to rest . . ” This may coincide with the description of Numbers 11:31: “a wind from the LORD,. . . brought quails from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp, . . . about two cubits above the face of the earth.” A biblical cubit is about 19-23 inches.

Thus, this passage could be saying that they were flying 38-46 inches above the ground (3’2″ to 3’10”), alongside the sea, as the article, says, looking for a place to pitch. If so, it’s yet another of innumerable examples of minute (in this case, botanical or ornithological) biblical accuracy, from about 3,300 years ago. Wilkinson notes that “This interpretation is accepted by Jewish commentators and by the Vulgate, and is used in the NEB and the REB” (pp. 199-200).

James L. Tullis, M.D. in “Don’t Eat the Quails”, New England Journal of Medicine 297, no. 9 (1977): 472-75), opined:

In analyzing the event as accurately as possible, one can place its time in either April or September, and its location in the Sinai Desert about 160 kilometers southeast of the Mediterranean coastline. Vast flocks of quail are known to migrate north from Africa to Europe in the spring of the year and back again each autumn. The flocks fortunate enough to pass one of the islands that dot the Mediterranean often pause to rest. The normal flight time of a quail is quite short and the journey of 300 to 500 kilometers across open water is known to exhaust them so much that they often fall into the sea or onto the deck of a ship. Hence, the great heap of quail that fell around the Israelites did not in itself imply that the birds were sick or about to die. They might easily have been blown 160 kilometers inland on the great wind that is described in this passage.

The numbers of migrating quails in the area are truly massive. An article in The Guardian (7-19-13) referred to the migration southward from Egypt (in August through October) and noted that “trappers’ nets . . . will catch at least 140 million birds this year.” Wikipedia (“Common Quail”) adds: “It is estimated that in 2012, during the autumn migration, 3.4 million birds were caught in northern Sinai and perhaps as many as 12.9 million in the whole of Egypt.”

Wilkinson makes his best guess as to the “very great plague” resulting from eating quail, up to and including death (11:33-34):

The suggestion that the quail epidemic which affected the Israelites in the Wilderness of Paran was one of bacterial food-poisoning is the most probable of all the suggestions which have been made.

The epidemic followed the eating of quail meat which had been kept in desert conditions for up to a month after being dried in the sun (“they spread them out for themselves all around the camp”: 11:32). In cases where this method of curing had been inadequately carried out, the conditions for the growth of bacteria and chemical decomposition would be ideal.

The eventual condition of the meat is described by the Hebrew word zara (v. 20) which is commonly translated ‘loathsome’ (AV, RV, RSV, NRSV & NIV) or ‘nauseating’ (NEB, REB, JB & GNB) , presumably due to its state of bacterial and chemical decomposition. . . .

In this case it would appear that vomiting predominated. The meat was nauseating and made the people sick, and the vomitus was so copious that it came out through their nostrils as well as though their mouth, as Preuss suggests is the meaning of verse twenty.

There are two main varieties of bacterial food-poisoning. In the first variety the bacteria and their toxins originate usually from other human beings, and in the second variety they come from animals including game-birds and table-birds and their eggs. This second variety is due to bacteria of the Salmonella group and the organism responsible for the quail epidemic amongst the Israelites was most probably a member of this group. (p. 207)

Wikipedia (“Common Quail”) suggests another theory:

If common quails have eaten certain plants, although which plant is still in debate, the meat from quail can be poisonous, with one in four who consume poisonous flesh becoming ill with coturnism, which is characterized by muscle soreness, and which may lead to kidney failure.

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Photo credit: Peter Griffin: quail [public domain / PublicDomainPictures.Net]

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Summary: Everything you ever wanted to know about quails in the Bible, but never thought to ask. I show how the accounts of Israelites eating quail line up with their migratory patterns & other aspects.

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