Where’s the beef (or quail)?

BCP Proper 21 Year B

Numbers 11:4-29 (with various verses omitted)

Psalm 19:7-14

James 4:7 — 5:6

Mark 9:38-48

Both the passage from Numbers and the passage from Mark’s Gospel are confusing, and seem disjointed. On the face of it, they seem to be saying the same thing — God’s Spirit and power will pop up where it will. Eldad and Medad prophesy even though they weren’t at the tent of meeting, and some unknown person is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. But from there, things just get stranger.

This whole section in Numbers (chapters 11 and 12) concerns several challenges to Moses’ authority. In K 11:1-3, certain unknown persons make an undetermined complaint against God. God’s anger flares up (literally) and people on the fringes of the camp are burned up. Moses intercedes and God relents. Then, beginning at 11:4, the “rabble” among the people begin to complain about having no meat, like a petulant child, Moses complains to God that he (Moses) did not conceive this people or give birth to it (God did), so why should he (Moses) have to carry it in his arms and nurse it. Note the contrast between meat-eating and breast feeding. God responds to Moses’ complaint first: gather seventy of the elders of the people and bring them to the tent of meeting. There God’s spirit falls on them and they prophesy, but only once. Eldad and Medad, however, are not at the tent, and yet receive God’s spirit. They too prophesy (and continue?). Joshua, Moses’ hand-picked successor is jealous and wary of God’s uncontrolled Spirit and asks Moses to make them stop. Moses would rather the whole of God’s people prophesied (was ready for meat?).

But God clearly doesn’t think this people is ready for meat yet. And just to prove it to them, he will give them meat until it comes out their nostrils. The next morning, quail fall around the camp, up to two cubits (four feet!) deep. The least anyone gathers is 10 homers. But while they were still eating it (while the meat was still between their teeth, in the wonderfully graphic language of the text), God’s wrath flared against them, and all the meat eaters died. Is the meat-craving rabble a fringe group? Who are the seventy elders? They seem to drop out of the story, along with Eldad and Medad. Do they die with the meat-eaters? In the next vignette, Miriam complains to God that Moses has married a Cushite woman. All these stories seem to be dealing with insider/outsider issues, and are settled in favor of the insiders. Moses continues to lead the people, and Joshua takes them across the Jordan. The Seventy disappear from sight.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, the plot seems to point in the other direction. The outsider is doing a better job of casting out demons that Jesus’ disciples have done, and the disciples are warned against all manner of causes of stumbling. This passage has the feel of several left-over sayings all jammed into the narrative at this point, associated by the word for stumbling block, or tripping (scandalizo). However, the disciples have just been arguing about who is the greatest, and Jesus has set a child in their midst. It is their concern about greatness that causes the failure of the disciples to cast out the demon. So also, their concern about the outside exorcist — he is diminishing our control. Perhaps these sayings all point to control being the problem. Anything that causes you to try to keep control (over others) gets in the way of God’s power. Better to enter the wide open life of God’s kingdom with diminished control, than in possession of all your faculties and power, to be thrown out on the fringes of the camp.

One thought on “Where’s the beef (or quail)?”

  1. This is off-topic, but I noticed you updated and reorganized the “Bible versions and editions page”. I found the sections on terminology, versions, editioins, and the Apocrypha very helpful and commend them to readers of this blog!

    Also, thanks for the direct link to the Lectionary Page for the week.

    Bill S.

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