The first three pesukim of the eleventh perek of Sefer Bemidbar read as follows:
“And the nation was like ‘mitonenim’ bad in the ears of God; and God heard and was angered, and a God-fire burned amongst them and consumed at the edge of the camp. And the nation cried out to Moshe, and Moshe prayed to God and the fire settled. And he called the place ‘burning’ because the God-fire burned amongst them.”
Four questions on this ambiguous and brief event: What are ‘mitonenim’ and why was the nation merely ‘like’ them (and what were they really doing/saying)? If we know that it was done ‘in the ears of God’, why are we then told that ‘God heard’? What is this God-fire, and what exactly did it do in the camp (i.e. kill? Just burn there?) Why is this scene so brief – they falter, God reacts, they cry out, Moshe prays and the fire is extinguished – all in three verses!
Abravenel explains that the word ‘mitonen’ connotes a person presenting a claim, and that the nation was therefore alleging that “God’s ears were ‘bad’”, that He didn’t actually hear what was going on in the camp, that He was unaware of their day-to-day goings-on. However, according to this approach, the argument would have been much more pointed if they had complained against God’s eyes – the symbol of awareness. Also, according to this explanation, it would seem that the prefix ‘like’ would convey an uncertain or ambivalent claiming, as if they were unsure whether they truly believed that God was unaware of and absent from their lives.
So why specifically God’s ears and why were they unsure of their claims? There are two sections that lead into this three-pasuk episode: Moshe’s pleading with Yitro to accompany them to assist them in their travels as an experienced, seasoned desert traveler, and the following two pesukim:
“And it was when the Aron traveled, Moshe said, ‘rise up, God, and scatter Your enemies and cause them to flee before You’. And when it [the Aron] rested, he [Moshe] would say, ‘return, God, [to] the myriad of Yisrael’s thousands’.”
The contradiction between Moshe’s two messages is painfully blatant: first Moshe begged Yitro to stay with them during their upcoming travels (even after being rebuffed, Moshe attempted to convince his father-in-law again with the benefit of a shared Divine reward) in order to scout out the ideal places to camp, therein demonstrating a strong desire for leadership-assistance in the desert. Then, immediately after this scene, the Torah tells us that the Aron (the representation of God’s presence) traveled three days before the nation in order to ‘scout out the best place for encampment’! The Aron (God!) performed exactly the same service Moshe had just beseeched from Yitro. And then we are told that Moshe calls out to God (depending on the Aron’s status – traveling or encamped) to disperse their enemies and join their ranks, respectively. What exactly is Moshe demonstrating concerning God’s presence amongst them? On the one hand he pleads for human assistance in the desert (to accomplish the very job that the Aron (God) performs), but then also calls on God’s active involvement during their travels! It was this mixed signal that nation was reacting to; even their leader seemed unsure of God’s involvement in and awareness of their situation. And this is why they claim that ‘God’s ears are bad’ –their questioning stems directly from the seeming hypocrisy of Moshe’s saying (x2) to God ‘defeat the enemies’ and ‘join our ranks’; Moshe’s preceding Yitro scene belies his personal belief in his subsequent appeals to God. The nation therefore is in essence questioning, ‘is God truly hearing that which Moshe requests?’
Then we are told that in fact ‘God did hear’ (of course God’s ears are fine!) and it angered Him because once again the nation was doubting His continuous awareness; and even in light of Moshe’s seeming ambivalence, they certainly should never have doubted and never questioned whether God was ignorant of their daily activities after so long a sojourn in the desert during which time God so outwardly expressed His daily presence – how many different ways can He say that He’ll always be there for them? A God-fire then flares up at the edge of the camp: no deaths, no massive spreading, and it immediately dies down after Moshe’s prayer so the place is merely called ‘burning’ – episode concluded; obviously, this fire was not meant as a punishment and was therefore sent merely as a quick (yet powerfully poignant) lesson for what the nation was less than certain about – God does hear and He knows exactly what’s going on. And why use a ‘God-fire’ to teach this? The only other time a God-fire is recorded in TaNaKH is in Melakhim 1 (18; 38), when a God-fire descends upon Eliyahu’s completely saturated sacrifice, conclusively convincing the entire nation (who had previously been ‘balancing on two branches’ – wavering in their belief in God vs. their belief in ba’al) that ‘God is the Lord’, ‘God is the Lord’ – obviously a God-fire outwardly and conclusively expresses a powerful God-presence! Mistake, quick reaction, lesson immediately learned – case closed.
And what about the catalyst to the nation’s mistaken uncertainty? Is Moshe’s ambivalence also corrected by the God-fire and is the lesson also sufficiently learned? In his book Horev, R. Hirsch points out that the root of the word ‘prayer’ is the same for the word ‘judging’ (pilel), and when conjugated in the reflexive form (as it is when used for ‘to pray’, ‘lehitpalel’), it defines the act of prayer as an exercise in self-judgment; the goal of prayer is therefore to take stock of oneself, to raise a self-awareness and develop through that introspection within the context of one’s relationship with God. Throughout the Torah, Moshe only ‘prays’ to God twice, and this episode is the only time that he does so by his own volition, unsolicited (the other instance is when Bnei Yisrael expressly ask him to pray to God after they are attacked by vipers). After the nation ‘cry out’ to Moshe (expressing their regret and inculcation of the lesson), Moshe decides to specifically ‘pray to God’, demonstrating an independently initiated exercise in self-judgment and correction.