Numbers 11 Quail

In Numbers 11, quail that were poisonous caused the deaths of many people. God’s actions in this story need to be understood correctly. God does not poison people.

Not long after leaving Mt. Sinai, the mixed multitude (Egyptians who came with the Israelites from Egypt and who dwelt in the uttermost parts of the camp) got tired of eating manna:

“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? We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick: But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes.” (Num 11:4-6)

Their complaining displeased God and greatly discouraged Moses who got to the point of praying that he might die:

“And if thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray thee, out of hand, if I have found favour in thy sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.” (Num 11:15)

After promising to deal with Moses’ leadership concerns, God addressed the complaints of the people about the lack of flesh food:

“And say thou unto the people, Sanctify yourselves against to morrow, and ye shall eat flesh: for ye have wept in the ears of the LORD, saying, Who shall give us flesh to eat? for it was well with us in Egypt: therefore the LORD will give you flesh, and ye shall eat. 19 Ye shall not eat one day, nor two days, nor five days, neither ten days, nor twenty days; 20 But even a whole month, until it come out at your nostrils, and it be loathsome unto you: because that ye have despised the LORD which is among you, and have wept before him, saying, Why came we forth out of Egypt?” (Num 11:18-20)

“Give” in “the LORD will give you…” in verse 18 is the Hebrew word “nathan” (H5414) which often means to give in the permissive sense meaning God permitted/allowed this to happen even though it was not His desire.

“And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and brought quails from the sea, and let them fall by the camp, as it were a day’s journey on this side, and as it were a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and as it were two cubits high upon the face of the earth. 32 And the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and they gathered the quails: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp. 33 And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague.” (Num 11:31-33)

The story of the poisonous quail in Numbers 11 is a very similar situation to the serpents in the wilderness.

“Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint;” (Deut 8:15)

The wilderness was already infested with the fiery serpents that God was protecting them from even as He was protecting them from the drought. God only sent the serpents in that He withdrew His protection due to the people’s complaining:

“And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Num 21:6)

Read about that and other examples in the study of the word “sent” which is often used in the permissive sense. Similar to protecting them from snakes that were already in the land, God protected them from poisonous quail that were migrating in the area. When they forfeited His protection, the poisonous quail arrived either sent by Satan or simply the forces (winds) of nature.

Here is an interesting article showing that poisonous quail in that part of the world were and still are a natural phenomenon:


“One of the most widely known and studied poisonous birds is the European quail (Coturnix coturnix) in Eurasia and North Africa. Cases of quail poisoning have been reported since antiquity, although scientific evidence for the presence of poison in their tissue is still inconclusive to this day. In the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers recounts that many Israelites died after the consumption of this poisonous bird during their exodus form Egypt. In addition, human poisoning after eating European migratory quail, known as coturnism, was so common in the Roman Empire that quail consumption was prohibited during the 1st century AD.

Interestingly, quails are poisonous only during migration, and more specifically, while they are flying certain routes.” (Guérin Nicolas, When poison takes flight: these birds might kill you – if you eat them., Sep. 1, 2022)

Before we jump to the conclusion that God killed the people, shouldn’t we look for other plausible explanations? We even do that in our justice system today – “innocent until proven guilty.”

A possible scenario is that the people’s rebellious complaining and distrust of God led to Him honoring their choice and allowing quail that were already not far away (in their migration path) to be blown into the area of their camp. God did not make the quail poisonous but, by their complaining, they forfeited the protection of God with terrible results.

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