A quail is a small, brown-feathered bird that resembles a partridge. It is also called a bobwhite for its distinctive call. Quail are known for their delicious meat and are often hunted as game birds for that reason. Quail are mentioned in Exodus 16:13, Numbers 11:3 and 32, and again in Psalm 105:40 in reference to God’s provision for the children of Israel when God brought them out of Egyptian slavery (Leviticus 25:38; Deuteronomy 6:12). The people following Moses had complained that they were sick of eating manna every day and longed for meat, such as they had back in Egypt (Numbers 11:4–6; 21:5). God heard their grumbling and gave them quail to eat (Exodus 16:11).
Although the Lord gave the Israelites quail, He was displeased with their grumbling and their ungrateful words against Him. He told Moses to tell them, “The Lord heard you when you wailed, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!’ Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (Numbers 11:18–20).
So God sent quail in the evenings for the people to gather in the wilderness. The Bible says that “a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea” (Numbers 11:31) and that the birds were plentiful: two cubits (approximately 3 feet) deep all around the camp. Scholars interpret this to mean that the quail flew about three feet off the ground, which made them easy to catch and kill. The quail came in such great numbers that each person was able to capture about ten homers, or eight bushels (Numbers 11:32).
We have no reason to believe that these quail were any different from the quail (Coturnix dactylisonans) that are still common in the Mediterranean region. It may well have been that they were on their spring migration northward and were exhausted from their flight, making it easy for the Israelites to capture them. Quail are known to migrate at night, which is the time God specified that they would arrive (Numbers 11:32). A large number of quail was caught by each person as the migrating flock continued to fly in from over the sea all night long, exhausted and easily taken. The people then “spread them out all around the camp” (verse 32), which probably refers to the Egyptian practice of drying the meat in preparation for eating it.
Despite the fact that God gave the people what they wanted, He was angry over their rebellion and grumbling and sent a severe plague among the people (Numbers 11:33). The plague may have been a disease carried by the quail as a lesson to His people that often what they think they want is not good for them. When God rises up in anger against our sin, it is so that we learn to trust and obey Him. The Israelites named the place Kibroth Hattaavah (“The Grave of Lust”) to remind them of what happened when in their greed they had grumbled against the Lord (Numbers 11:34). The Israelites had already been given manna and were therefore well supplied with food. But they demanded meat in addition to the manna, and their insistence on having more than they needed displeased God. “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8). The Israelites failed to learn contentment, and they paid a high price. First Corinthians 10:11 says, “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come.” God holds us to an even stricter accountability since we now have the written record of His wrath and judgment upon human rebellion. We have His written Word (Romans 15:4), the testimony of all those who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1), and His Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16) to keep us from making similar mistakes and suffering a similar fate.