Today's reading is Numbers 11-13 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers the Lord sending fire into the camp; the Lord sending quail upon the Israelites' complaining; Miriam and Aaron's opposition to Moses' new wife, and the consequences that result from the conflict; the scouting of Canaan; and the report of that scouting.
In today's readings, we have a classic case of the proverb, "with friends like these, who needs enemies?" Not once, not twice, but three times, people complain and God exacts vengeance that is apparently far beyond the crime.
The first instance is also the shortest, in Num. 11:1-3. In brief, the people complain, the Lord becomes angry and sends fire to burn the outskirts of the camp, Moses prays to the Lord to stop it, and the fire abates.
The second episode, Num. 11:4-34, is about food. The Israelites, now two years out of Egypt, yearn for the food of that land. Manna simply isn't enough for them anymore. Moses, after a bit of self-pitying complaining himself, prays to God. God finally agrees to give the Israelites quail for a month. Indeed, God sends a huge storm of quail to the land, three feet high and a day's walk in every direction out of the camp. The people gather it up by the bushel, bring it back to camp, and before their first meal can even be digested, promptly become sick with a great plague.
Finally, in Num. 12:1-15, Aaron and Miriam, Moses' siblings, are angry at Moses' Ethiopian wife. God calls Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before the tabernacle and reminds the complainers that Moses is not even a regular prophet, but someone to whom God speaks "mouth to mouth." When God's cloud lifts after delivering the chastisement, Miriam discovers she has leprosy, which is not relieved until Aaron intercedes with Moses and Moses intercedes with God. Even so, Miriam needed to spend seven days outside the camp before her ordeal was complete.
At this point, the practical reader may be forgiven for asking, "what the heck was God thinking?" The Israelites complain, certainly, but does that warrant the punishment God is meting out upon them: fire, plague, and disease? For the second episode in particular, God seems to answer the Israelites' prayers, only to twist the reward into a punishment. In the case of Miriam and Aaron, perhaps they were only concerned about their brother, lord commander of nearly two million people. Is this enough to deserve leprosy?
On the other hand, all these punishments were terrestrial in nature. Fire, plague, and disease were no doubt routine parts of life in the camp. Living in a tent city, surrounded by open flame, with poor sanitation conditions, these "punishments" were bound to happen. The second case seems particularly apt: if God did manage to bring gigantic flocks of quail to the camp, and these birds could not be preserved properly, they would no doubt make their eaters sick. Today we are well aware of the dangers of eating undercooked or rotten meat. While no doubt the ancient Israelites were similarly aware, their yearning for meat may have overpowered their common sense.
When we combine these two facts, that God's punishments seem unexpectedly harsh and that certain catastrophes were bound to happen in the camp, we have a clearer picture of what may have happened. The Israelites suffer a terrible fire that burns the outskirts of the camp and look to place blame on someone. Obviously, a fire of this magnitude must have been driven by God, they think. They cast about for a reason for God's anger and realize that they have been complaining a lot lately. Ah ha, think the Israelites, God was angry with our complaints! Case closed.
But the case is, of course, not closed. The people ask for meat, and God graciously provides. However, before the people can finish consuming it, they are struck with the plague. Plagues must come from God, so yet again the people cast about for a reason God is angry. Searching their recent actions, they realize they have removed a lot of quail from the area around the camp, so God must be angry at their gluttony. Yet again, God is blamed for what might, today, be attributed to poor sanitation or improper storage techniques.
The same is true of Miriam. When the people see that Miriam has leprosy, they realize that she must have done something truly wrong. She is, after all, Moses' and Aaron's brother. Reflecting in the incident, they realize that she has been very vocal about Moses' new wife, the Ethiopian. Putting one and one together, the people realize that it is not a good idea to criticize the man who speaks with God, and this must be the reason Miriam was stricken.
In all cases, we have a strange sort of circular logic. Something bad happens, which in the Israelites' minds can only be the result of God, so they look for a cause and find one. In a camp of two million people, there would almost always be someone doing something against the rules written in Leviticus, so it would only be a matter of time before the Hebrews found the culprit and blamed them for their hardships. Unfortunately, this is a self-perpetuating prophecy, because any time a natural disaster hit the camp, the process would repeat itself.
We moderns can look at this situation and feel superior. After all, we know that plagues are caused by viruses and bacteria and fires are generally created from well-known sources. On the other hand, when things go wrong, we still look for people to blame. Even today, fundamentalists sometimes still play the "God hates our society" trump card. One needs only look as far as the response to hurricane Katrina to prove this point.