Now when the people complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes, the LORD heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the LORD burned against them, and consumed some outlying parts of the camp. But the people cried out to Moses; and Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire abated. So that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the LORD burned against them (Numbers 11:1-3).
During their journey through the wilderness toward the Promised Land, the people encountered many hardships and started doubting God’s purpose for them. According to the books of Exodus and Numbers, the people complained to Moses and to God many times about their hardships. These complaints came after the people had seen the powerful hands of God in delivering them from the army of Pharaoh and after the Lord had provided water for them at Marah (Exodus 15:22-27) and after the Lord had provided manna and quails for them to eat (Exodus 16:1-36). The rebellion, the dissatisfaction, and the murmuring of the people were visible demonstrations of their lack of trust in God to provide for them in their time of need.
In Numbers 11:1 the reason for the people’s complaint against God is not stated. The complaint was made “in the hearing of the LORD.” Another translation of the Hebrew text would be: “And it came to pass that the people were like those murmuring evil in the ears of the Lord.” One translation says that “the people were saying evil against the Lord.”
Number 11:1 is a continuation of Numbers 10:29-36 in which Yahweh had promised to do good (Hebrew tob) for Israel. In fact, the word “good” appears five times in Numbers 10:29, 32. The word “misfortune” in Hebrew is ra‘, a word that literally means “evil.” This is contrary to the “good” the Lord had done for the people. Whatever their misfortune, the complaint was directly against God.
The people’s complaint provoked the anger of the Lord against them. As a punishment for their rebellion, the Lord sent a fire that “consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” In the Bible, fire is generally associated with God’s judgment (Leviticus 10:2; Numbers 16:35).
When the people became aware that the fire was a severe punishment of Yahweh for their rebellion, the people also became aware of the potential destruction of the whole camp. So, they stopped complaining and approached Moses, crying for help, asking him to intercede for them.
As a result of the people’s request, Moses prayed to Yahweh. The Hebrew word for prayer in verse 2 is pālāl, a word used several times in the Hebrew Bible to refer to intercessory prayer. In his prayer, Moses stands between Israel and God, trying to stop God from destroying Israel.
The verb pālāl is generally used in situations where God’s wrath has to be averted. God told Abimelech to ask Abraham to pray for him: “for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live” (Genesis 20:7). In Deuteronomy 9:20 Moses speaks about his intercession for Aaron: “The LORD was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him, but I interceded also on behalf of Aaron at that same time.”
In his commentary on Numbers, Jacob Milgrom said that Moses was defending Israel “against God” (2003:82). According to Milgrom, Moses “defends Israel almost to the point of accusing God of breaking His promise to the patriarchs, thus showing unconcern for his people.”
In his prayer Moses stood in the breach before Yahweh interceding on behalf of the people to avert the destruction of Israel. It was Moses’ intercessory prayer that saved the people from God’s wrath.
There are several important things this text teaches about prayer and about the God who answers prayer. First, the Lord was judging Israel because of their rebellion against him and Moses prayed and the fire abated. The fire would continue to burn if Moses had not prayed for Israel asking God to stop the judgment.
Second, had not Moses prayed the fire would consume the whole camp. Because Moses prayed, the fire only consumed the outskirts of the camp. It did not consume the whole camp because of Moses’ prayer. Thus, Moses’ prayer changed what God had intended to do to Israel.
Third, prayer matters. God needs our prayers in order to do his work in the world. John Wesley once wrote: “God does nothing on earth save in answer to believing prayer.” A biblical text that supports and emphasizes the view that God needs our prayer is Ezekiel 22:30-31:
“And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one. Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath; I have returned their conduct upon their heads, says the Lord GOD.”
In his book Intercessory Prayer Dutch Sheets wrote: “The implications of these verses are staggering . . . The passage is clearly saying, ‘While My justice demanded judgment, My love wanted forgiveness. Had I been able to find a human to ask Me to spare the people, I could have. It would have allowed Me to show mercy. Because I found no one, however, I had to destroy them’” (1996:32).
Moses was that man in the breach before God on behalf of Israel. Walter Brueggemann wrote: “The power of prayer to impinge upon God and to invoke God’s changed response is evident in the prayer of . . . Moses” (1995:148). According to Brueggemann, Moses’ prayer did “indeed evoke God’s faithful response, but it is human initiative that seems decisive for the changed situation between the parties. The one who prays holds the initiative, and God is faithful to respond” (1995:148).
Another lesson that this text teaches us and one that many Christians refuse to accept is that God in his creation of human beings, created people to enter into a genuine relationship with him, a relationship in which there is a give-and-take relationship so that the other partner in the relationship has a say in what God does in the world.
God answers prayers because God has established a special relationship with his people and prayer is one of the many benefits that comes out of this relationship. In the judgment of Israel, Moses was that person standing in the breach before the Lord, opposing him against the destruction of Israel. Because God honored the relationship he had established with Moses, God honored Moses’ request and did not destroy Israel.
Because God honors this relationship, then when God’s people pray their interaction with God is genuine conversation, not a one-way affair between human and God. In this relationship between God and the one who prays, God speaks and the human listens; then the human speaks (prays) and God listens. Because of the nature of this relationship, God speaks and the human responds; the human speaks and God responds.
This is the reason the Bible says that God delights in the prayers of his people: “The prayer of the upright is His delight” (Proverbs 15:8). God wants his people to pray because it is prayer that strengthens the relationship.
Moses’ intercessory prayer changed God’s mind. Because of the evil complaint of the people against the Lord’s goodness, the Lord’s anger was kindled against the people and a fire from the Lord burned against them. Because of Moses’ prayer the fire only consumed the outlying parts of the camp. However, because of Moses’ prayer, the whole camp was not destroyed.
The power of prayer to change God’s action is based on his grace and mercy. This truth is expressed in several places in the Old Testament. Jonah said of God: “thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil” (Jonah 4:2 RSV). During a time of great calamity in Israel, the prophet Joel told the people: “rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil” (Joel 2:13 RSV).
To repent from evil does not mean to repent from sin, for God never sins. In his article “Prayer in the Old Testament: Creating Space in the World for God,” Terence Fretheim wrote: “To repent of evil is to turn from an announcement of judgment, the effect of which, if forthcoming, would make for less than total well-being (and hence, evil). The theme is also used in connection with God’s turning away from wrath” (1988: 58).
Turning from wrath because of God’s compassion is found in Psalm 106:40-45: “Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; . . . nevertheless he regarded their distress when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and showed compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”
Moses interceded for Israel not because Israel did not deserve God’s wrath nor because Moses believed that God’s judgment was unjustified; Israel deserved the punishment. The reason God answered Moses’ prayer was because of the relationship that existed between God and Moses in which God allowed Moses to have a say so in the future of Israel. Without Moses’ prayer most of Israel’s camp would be destroyed in the fire; because Moses prayed only the outskirt of the camp was destroyed. Prayer made a difference. Because Moses prayed the camp of Israel was spared; if Moses had not prayed the camp of Israel would probably be totally consumed.
The God of the Old Testament is a God who answers prayer.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Studies on Moses’ Prayers:
Other Studies on Moses
Brueggemann, Walter. “Prayer as an Act of Daring Dance: Four Biblical Examples.” In Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.
Fretheim, Terence. “Prayer in the Old Testament: Creating Space in the World for God.” In A Primer on Prayer, ed. Paul R. Sponheim. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
Sheets, Dutch. Intercessory Prayer. Venrura, CA: Regal Books, 1996.