Did God provide quail before or after Sinai? (Comparing Numbers 11 to Exodus 16)

Problems with the narrative in Numbers 11

Numbers 11 – Quail sent to the Israelites – James Tissot

Many of the “murmuring” stories in the Exodus narrative were told in more than one textual tradition. In the present case, the story about the people’s desire for meat in the wilderness and Jehovah’s reluctant response to send quail is recorded in both the Elohist and Priestly versions of these events, many of which contradict each other in various ways. When these textual traditions were later edited together, both versions of the story were preserved by the redactor of the Pentateuch. In the composite text we call “the Bible,” the Priestly version of the quail story is found in Exodus 16 before the Sinai revelation, while the Elohist version is preserved in Numbers 11, after the Sinai event.

The story of the quail in Numbers 11, where the people demand meat to eat, proceeds as if the earlier quail episode in Exodus 16 never occurred. Not only is there no recognition of this earlier miracle, but the author of Numbers 11 tells the reader that the people had not eaten any meat since they left Egypt! 1 Another problem with the Elohist narrative of Numbers 11 is that the Israelites sacrifice (and presumably eat) 2 many animals just a few chapters prior to chapter 11! In the Priestly author’s account of Numbers 7, we read that the Israelites sacrifice many animals to Jehovah. 3 So we have a glaring contradiction here in the telling of these events from these two scribal traditions- one in which no meat is available until the quail incident, and the other, where Israel faithfully sacrifices (and eats) a multitude of animals.  In other words, according to the Elohist account of these events, the Israelites only eat quail here, and only after they have left Sinai.


  1. From the JPS, or the Jewish Publication Society, which has produced the Jewish Study Bible, we read, “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” (Numbers 11:4-6).
  2. Regarding Israel’s eating of animal sacrifices, see William Gilders, Sacrifice in Ancient Israel. See also Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, How Ancient Israelites ate their meat: burned on the altar, and rarely. Haaretz, September 9, 2014. Accessed 12.11.17. She writes, “after providing the requisite sacrifice, and after it was “burned” on the altar, families could eat the rest of the meat themselves.”
  3. How many animals are sacrificed in Numbers 7? The Priestly author (concerned with sacrifice, priests, and the rules of the temple) tells us that 24 bulls, 60 rams, 60 male goats, and 60 male one year old lambs were slain in this chapter. See Numbers 7:88.

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This entry was posted in Messiness of scripture, Old Testament and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Did God provide quail before or after Sinai? (Comparing Numbers 11 to Exodus 16)

  1. Pingback: Over a Billion Quail – Numbers 11 | LDS Scripture Teachings

  2. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

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