Numbers 11

I’m always interested in old stories – essentially the stuff of legend – and the truths (i.e. scientific or rational explanations) that might be contained there. Some people prefer to believe the stories as is – if you’re one of those people – good for you. I am not. I prefer to think of myself as a legend-thropologist – someone who looks for the threads or seeds of truth behind the stories. So, if you are a rabid believer, and you KNOW I’m wrong, please feel free to write in your own blog.

So. Numbers 11. From the Old Testament. Here’s a quick update – Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, they’re wandering around somewhere on the Sinai, and lugging the Covenant Box with them. They’ve been on the road now for a couple of years, and they’ve been through the winter – just in spring. In Numbers 9 we read about the Passover – it’s March-April – spring. Although they’d been working class in Eqypt, most of the people had a reasonable standard of urban living – not the kind of living that has prepared them for roughing it in the desert. The promised land hasn’t turned up yet. And like good people of any time, any where, when their belly buttons start rubbing on their backbones, it’s time to start complaining. Not just the Israelites (as if that wasn’t bad enough) there were other foreign people travelling along as well. Moses was probably thinking/wishing he’d booked into one of those nice resorts on the coast…

From New International Version (NIV) –

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” 7 The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. 8 The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a handmill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into cakes. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. 9 When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down.

From King James

4 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? 5 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: 6 But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna, before our eyes. 7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium. 8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil. 9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. (Bdellium is an aromatic gum like myrrh.)

From Exodus 16 NIV

11 The LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ ” 13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.

From King James (again, Exodus 16)

13 … and in the morning the dew lay round about the host. 14 And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. 15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.

OK – so there’s something called manna, apparently falling with the dew – either in the evening, or present there in the morning. If you read on, particularly in the Exodus verses you find that the preferred cooking method was either baking manna as a bread, or boiling it. Also, if it wasn’t gathered promptly enough, or stored uncooked, it spoiled – verse 20 notes that by the next morning it would have maggots and starting to smell. So, what was it – this manna?

As per the verses above, small round things, like the hoar frost, and, based on the King James Exodus 16, verse 31, “The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.”

When I was a kid I was fascinated by this story. What exactly can fall from heaven with the dew, be good enough to eat (almost immediately), but spoils apparently equally fast – and it’s white? The only thing I could think of was hail. Hardly nutritional, boilable, or bakeable. Not exactly wafers made with honey.

I had overlooked the obvious. Just because the dew comes down doesn’t mean the manna has to come down. Could be the manna comes up. It just has to be on the surface (with the dew) in the morning. Now, that changes the dynamic from a miracle to some other kind of explanation. But what could it be? What grows that fast?

Many desert plants have evolved to go through their flowering and life cycle very quickly after rains. Within hours of rain, seeds are germinating, the plants then grow incredibly rapidly, flowers burst, become pollinated, seeds set and are distributed, and the plant dies very shortly there after. Manna couldn’t be one of these flowering plants – the Bible is clear about it being overnight – and spoiling equally quickly. So, what is it? In fact, that’s the meaning of Manna – see verse 15, in both versions, above. What is it? The answer appears to be a plant, but not a flowering plant. Mushrooms. Mushrooms grow that fast. Can mushrooms grow in the desert? Yes – to be precise, these are truffles – desert truffles.

Can this be the case? I think there’s some very good evidence, given in the description above – And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium. I’m not sure if the manna as coriander seed is in terms of colour – where there’s a clear reference to the colour of bdellium. Bdellium is a traditional name for a resin similar to myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) – the liquid resin is a yellowy-brown colour, it hardens to a reddish brown. I think the reference is less to the colour of coriander seeds (also yellowish brown) and more relevant to the coriander’s habit of bolting – growing very rapidly to flower (and seed heads). Coriander produces a mass of flowers – I think the biblical reference therefore is to prolific (coriander-like) numbers of truffles.

Image of desert truffles from http://botit.botany.wisc.eduSo, is there a desert truffle? A shallow growing species that would answer the question? According to Tom Volk, manna is is the desert truffle (Tirmania nivea, zubaydiya) –

Its light outer skin turns slightly scaly and bleaches white. It spoils within a few hours in the heat, sometimes filling up with maggots and turning into a stinky slime. All desert truffles are collected in the early morning hours. The main reason is to get them before animals and maggots can get to them first. It is also easier to spot them in the early morning hours, as the dew softens the sand …

According to Tom Volk, desert truffles are still harvested by the Bedouin today –

Traditionally, they are best roasted in the fire, or cooked with camel’s milk. To preserve them, truffles are dried and powdered, then added to the dough of flatbreads. Truffles are often eaten at the end of the meal, like desert, with honey.

And despite the complaining, the Israelites got over it, from the King James Exodus 16, verse 35, “And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.”

image from http://scienceblogs.comSo, what about the quail? The quail (Pharoah Quail – Coturnix coturnix – آشیل) would be migrating north in the Spring. Exhausted quail have regularly dropped unexpectedly from the air, and while resting would’ve been easily captured by motivated Israelites. According to Numbers 11, NIV,

31 Now a wind went out from the LORD and drove quail in from the sea. It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. 32 All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. Then they spread them out all around the camp.

Ten homers, according to the NIV, is about 60 bushels – 2.2 kiloliters. That’s a lot of quail. King James tells pretty much the same story:

31 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.

Two cubits, again according to the NIV, is approximately one metre.

Finally, the Israelites had meat to go with their manna. Seems a pretty good diet to me. Unfortunately, according to Numbers, God had had quite enough of the moaning and the ill manners, and so – according to King James (and the NIV) –

33 But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. 34 Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah [translates as graves of craving], because there they buried the people who had craved other food.

So, ignoring the plague from God punishment for your greed concept, what is it about quail that could strike down probably quite fit people – remember, they’ve been on the road for a couple of years – the weak ones would’ve died out already. They had ample food (see above) and water, plus (I’m guessing) milk from camels and goats. What could lay them low?

I wondered if it was possible to catch something like West Nile virus from quail. Quail could possibly be a vector, but that virus is normally delivered by mosquitoes. I thought maybe the quail might’ve been infected by mites, which bit the people who did the harvesting and then bingo. It’s a bit of a leap, and anyway, the virus isn’t that fast – according to the story, people dropped in their tracks ‘meat was still between their teeth’. I wondered about a variant of bird flu – again, it’s not that fast – people had only had a limited exposure time-wise – the birds were also alive enough to have flown in.

This was an exceptional event – quail normally fly at night (it’s cooler) and land – yes – exhausted, but to feed and hide for resting during the heat of the day. It’s not clear why they would arrive at night – typically I would expect them to be looking to leave at that point – but the story does tell of the wind from the sea – a storm, perhaps? It is possible that the southerly wind only blows during the day – and quail – being sensible creatures they are – a likely to use the tail wind to their advantage. But why did some of the people die?

According to, quail migrate along from Africa, in March and April, on their way to Europe. Quail flying to the northerly climes do land in the evening – as it is Spring, perhaps it is not as hot during the day. They do use the Sinai as resting points. In terms of the enormous numbers – in days gone by it was common for species to migrate in huge numbers – the passenger pigeon, as noted in wikipedia, lived in enormous flocks—the largest of them a mile (1.6 km) wide and 300 miles (500 km) long, taking several days to pass and probably containing two billion birds.

OK – so, it is possible to have huge numbers of quail, migrating in Spring, across the Sinai, from Africa, on their way north to europe. What about the people dying? It is possible for some quail, particularly those on that flight path, to be poisonous. Not to everyone, but to certain susceptible individuals – and not every quail is poisonous either. The condition is known as ‘coturnism’ – and appears to be unique to quail – hence the name, derived from the scientific name for quail – Coturnix coturnix. The condition was reported on by the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, reporting on a review by Louis Grivetti, a nutritional geographer at the University of California at Davis. There’s a suggestion of a genetic susceptibility to the poison – sounds reasonable given that the biblical story notes in Psalm 78, verse 31, King James version: “The wrath of God came upon them, and slew the fattest of them, and smote down the chosen men of Israel.” The chosen men – suggests to me there might’ve been families that were particularly susceptible – and that it appears in men, rather than the females who might’ve married into the family. Could be that the men ate first, and/or were ‘more important’ than the females. The sexist explanation doesn’t appear overly strong in the reporting of the time – women figured prominently in the biblical stories.

Coturnism exhibits a number of symptoms – vomiting, respiratory distress, excruciating pain, and paralysis – and apparently tends to affect the elderly rather than the young. More detail on the symptoms is available, along with further analysis of the quail migrations, compiled by Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre. It remains somewhat unclear what is the exact root cause of Coturnism. It might just depend on the volume consumed, and the concentration. If, as an example, the birds were stewed or roasted the poison might be more concentrated than if consumed in a dilution of soup. This is thought to be a poison, rather than a bacterial based food poisoning, possibly as a result of the quail having eaten poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) seeds, or perhaps the seeds of Stachys annua – the Hedgenettle Betony. Betony seeds appear to contain cyanide compounds. If this is the case, the quail may have surprisingly high tolerance to the compounds – and the consumers perhaps less.

People who believe in the biblical version will probably find God’s wisdom in everything. People who don’t will probably find the rational explanation equally wise in everything. I just find it fascinating how stories carefully recorded and kept can be found to have at least some foundation of truth, and that there is some value and wisdom remaining for us today.

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