It seems to me that this chapter details a blessing in the midst of a curse.
The curse is the same one that’s plagued other religious and philosophical thinkers: humans are happiest living a simple life, yet dissatisfied with it.
In The Republic, for example, Socrates describes an ideal, agrarian society where everyone is happy, and all his students agree that it’s just and peaceful… but it can hardly count as civilized! No silk? No spices? No theater? Who’d want to live a life like that? And so making a just society becomes much more complicated, maybe even impossible.
Laozi or whoever wrote the Dao De Jing likewise declared that you should keep people simple. Don’t let them travel far from home. Don’t let them even hear about the possibility of a complicated, difficult life. Self-subsistence in a farming village is the ideal. If you can bring everyone back to that, you don’t even need to have a government. People will govern themselves.
The Israelites here have been given something like this by God. They have all their dietary needs provided by the nutritious manna that falls from the sky. No one goes hungry or overeats. What’s there to complain about?
Like Socrates’ students, it’s the lack of variety. They want fish, cucumbers, melons, leaks, onions and garlic, the food they had back in Egypt. Eating the same thing every day might not kill you if it provided all the right nutrients, but it certainly isn’t appetizing.
The NRSV says the complaints start with the “rabble” and the NCT translates this as “people from various other nations who had joined them.” (v 4) It’s possible that non-Israelites like Moses’ in-laws began the complaining and the Israelites ran with it. But the Israelites go even further – they start to wonder if slavery in Egypt wasn’t worth it, since the food was better.
As with Plato and Laozi, people are willing to exchange freedom and simplicity for tyranny and variety. The short-sighted desire for something new or different can override the reality that what you have now is sufficient. Excess – that’s something we have a hard time avoiding. What is necessary for contentment and happiness? What’s enough?
That’s why I don’t think the plague that strikes them at the end of the chapter is God actively smiting them so much as letting them experience what happens when you switch from the nutritious sufficiency he’d provided to a glut of fatty quail meat. The image of eating “until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you” (v 20) reminds me of a parent who forces their kid to smoke a full pack of cigarettes when they catch them trying one.
You think you want this, but it’s only going to make you sick.
You really think that this is worth being slaves again?
The blessing amidst the curse of excess is the lightening of Moses’ burden and the sharing of God’s spirit. Moses just vents to God in this chapter about what a pain it is dealing with everyone all on his own. In earlier chapters he delegated his civil duty. Now, God is spreading out some of his spiritual duty. The seventy elders of Israel all receive a portion of Moses’ blessing and temporarily are able to prophesy. This disturbs Joshua, who thinks they’re usurping Moses’ power. To which Moses replies: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (v 29) In fact, the NCT has him say that he longs for all the people to be prophets.
Given that not long before this the Israelites celebrated Passover, it’s hard as a Christian not to see the parallels with Pentecost, which takes place around the same time (though without a harvest they wouldn’t have been celebrating it in the desert). In both stories the spirit of God descends on a large number of people who can temporarily prophesy, and at least some people are scandalized by it. Acts quotes the book of Joel about how God will “pour out [God’s] Spirit upon all flesh,” and surely Joel must have been thinking about Moses.
In the perfect reign of God, we’d all be like Moses: able to see God face-to-face.
The Japanese: tassuru “to reach,” ikidorareru “to be angered” (v 1), shizumaru “to become quiet, to calm down” (v 2), kuwawaru “to be added to,” zatta na “various,” ueru “to starve,” kawaki “thirst,” uttaeru “to appeal, plead” (v 4), hiagaru “to dry, to parch” (v 6), suritsubusu “to mash, to pound” (v 8), omoni “burden, load, heavy responsibility” (v 11), haramu “to be pregnant,” chinomiko “infant in arms, nursling” (v 12), hakike o moyousu “to feel nauseous,” kobamu “to defy, to refuse” (v 20), hikiiru “to command, to lead” (v 21), netamu “to envy, to begrudge,” setsubou suru “to long for” (v 29), tateyoko “length and width,” michinori “distance,” han’i “range, reach” (v 31), shuujitsushuuya “all day and all night” (v 32), don’yoku “greed, voraciousness” (v 34).