Feb. 16 Reading: Numbers 11-13 Commentary

Below is our Numbers 11-13 commentary from our Beginning to End Bible reading program. You can find an email link at the end of this page to share your thoughts or comments with us.

Key Verse(s):

“The Lord answered Moses, “Is the Lord’s arm too short? Now you will see whether or not what I say will come true for you.” (Num. 11:23)

“Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it. But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.'”  (Num. 13:30-31)


commentaryNumbers 11-14 is probably the worst four chapter stretch of content written thus far in the Bible. Something bad happens in every chapter and with increasing severity.

For starters, the people complain twice (Num. 11), once about food in such a severe way that God has to step in and help Moses and teach the people a lesson. Then, Moses is verbally attacked and questioned by an unlikely source, his own brother and sister (Num. 12). In Numbers 13, the 12 spies sent to explore the land bring back a bad report (except for two of them – Joshua and Caleb) that drives the people to a devastating decision in Numbers 14.

It’s as if the events spiraled out of control and no person could do anything to stop it. In the end, God would put an end to the foolishness. But it would cost the people the one thing they had always wanted – a permanent home in Canaan.

Numbers 11 – More Complaining and Help for Moses

It’s unclear why the people initially complained in Numbers 11. They had been traveling for three days (Num. 10:33) and something frustrated them. But God was displeased when he heard it and sent fire on the outskirts of the camp that consumed some before Moses intervened in prayer asking Him to stop the plague.

The next complaint was worse. We read that the “mixed multitude” (v. 4) gave into their desire for food and complained about having no meat to eat. The fact the words mixed multitude are mentioned here is significant. Remember that not all who were in the camp were purely Jewish. Others had escaped with them from Egypt or possibly had joined them along the way. So perhaps it was these people who were the driving force behind the complaining.

Regardless of its origin, the complaints were widespread (v. 10) saying: “Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our whole being is dried up; there is nothing at all except this manna before our eyes!” (vv. 5-6). So not only did they complain about what they didn’t have, they complained about what they did have. God provided manna for them to eat and they were not thankful for that blessing. 

The Lord was angry (v. 10) when he heard it. In fact, Moses was so distraught it led him to pray for help in dealing with the people (vv. 11-15). He begged God to give him help or kill him saying, I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now…” (vv. 14-15). 

God Helps Moses

God focused on Moses first. He needed to take care of his servant and the request Moses had given for help in dealing with the people. It’s actually a reasonable request given the amount of people under his care – 600,000 men (v. 21).

God told Moses to:

“Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone” (vv. 16-17).

Moses did so and the Spirit of God came down on these men so that they prophesied (vv. 25-30). Going forward, they would bear the burden of the people with Moses (v. 17).

God Answers the People

But what about the meat? What would God do about that? Moses specifically wanted to know (v. 13).

God answered by saying:

“….the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall eat, not one day, nor two days, nor five days, nor ten days, nor twenty days, but for a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you…” (vv. 18-19). 

Moses is incredulous. How could that happen in the middle of the wilderness? He asks God, “Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, to provide enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to provide enough for them?” (v. 22). It reads exactly like the disciples who questioned Jesus about how to feed the 5,000 people (see Matthew 14 and John 6). Likewise, it’s the mindset we slip into when we doubt God can accomplish something for us.

God responds with an amazement statement. He said to Moses: “Has the Lord’s arm been shortened? Now you shall see whether what I say will happen to you or not” (v. 23). In other words, “Is there anything I can’t do? Hold on…just you wait and see!”

God caused a wind to bring quail from the sea into the wilderness (v. 31), all around the camp, hovering about three feet off the ground. The people stayed up all night gathering the quail, “ten homers each” (1 homer equals about 8 bushels). So yes, that’s A LOT of meat!

It wasn’t so great though for the people who complained. While they were eating the meat, God caused a plague to come over them and they died. That space became a graveyard for the people who, in their ingratitude, had craved meat (v. 34).

Numbers 12 – Turning on Family

Anger. Bitterness. Betrayal. All are on display in Numbers 12. They occur in a odd confrontation between the most unlikely of people – Moses, Aaron and Miriam (Moses’ sister). Who knew family could be so harsh?

Aaron of course was appointed by God as high priest. Miriam also had a very high status in the camp, herself being a prophetess (see Ex. 15:20). However, neither of them enjoyed the kind of favor that Moses had with God. In God’s own words, “I speak with him face to face” (v. 8). 

The pretext seems to show that Aaron and Miriam were upset about a woman Moses married (v. 1). We don’t know for sure who this was. It may have been Zipporah (Ex. 2:21) or another unnamed woman. 

But the real issue is found in verses 2-3. Aaron and Miriam were jealous of Moses’ special relationship with God. They thought they deserved that too and they spoke out against Moses saying, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” (v. 2).

Well, God wasn’t happy with it and struck Miriam with leprosy for a week as punishment (showing that she was probably the real instigator of events)(vv. 9-10). And despite being the target of criticism from his own family, Moses intercedes to God on their behalf asking for Miriam’s healing (v. 13). God grants that request, but Miriam is shut out of the camp seven days in accordance with the command for a person defiled by leprosy (see Leviticus 13).

Numbers 13 – The Spies Negative Report of the Promised Land

The people are now on the doorsteps of the Promised Land. Through all the miracles, the complaining, the hunger and the dirtiness of the wilderness, they had survived. Now, one last task remained – the scouting of the land.

Numbers 13:1 says the command to do this came from the Lord. The recap of this event in Deuteronomy 1:21-23 says the sending of the spies was the people’s idea. Perhaps they persuaded Moses to take this action as a precautionary measure. Regardless, God gave his approval to it in this chapter.

At God’s direction, Moses chose 12 men for this task. Their names are listed (vv. 4-16) and include Hoshea, son of Nun (aka Joshua) and Caleb, son of Jephunneh. Moses gave them instructions about the direction to go and what to look for, such as the types of the cities, the might of the people, and the produce of the land (vv. 17-20). With those instructions in hand, the men left on a 40 day journey (v. 25) to scout the land.

A Good Report and a Bad Report

Upon their return, the initial reports are positive. “It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” they said, showing them a giant cluster of grapes and other fruit they found in the Valley of Eshcol (vv. 23-24). But that was the end of the positivity:

Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.” (vv. 28-29)

This did not deter Caleb (and Joshua, although that is not noted yet). He quieted the people with his courage saying, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (v. 30).

But 10 of the other spies would have none of it. They cast a negative report, filled with fear, doubt and distrust at what God could do. They said:

“We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we….The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight” (vv. 31-33). 

Who would the people believe? Numbers 14 gives the answer. For more on this incident, read our blog post below.

Related Content: Lessons from the 12 Spies and Their Vision of God

Questions to Consider:

Numbers 11-13 is not Israel’s finest hour. We see the people complain for food, Moses’ own family go for a power grab and a group of fearful men failing to trust in God. Have you ever had a spiritual moment when it seemed like it was all falling apart? What did you do?

Have you ever been wrongly criticized or accused by someone close to you? How did you keep from becoming bitter in that circumstance? 

What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 11-13 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.