The complaining Israelites soon expressed dissatisfaction with the manna God had provided to feed them; instead they desired the six foods they had eaten in Egypt (v. 5). In response, God sent a strong wind and dropped a massive amount of quail near the camp (v. 31).
The amount of quail that fell is staggering. Quail lay about three feet deep (two cubits) all around the camp, and a person would have to have traveled a full day’s journey in any direction to reach the end of the birds. Some rabbis believe the quail became so tired from resisting the wind that they struggled low to the ground, making an easy catch. The people spent at least thirty-six hours collecting the quail. The least a person gathered was “ten homers,” an amount equivalent to 249 liters, or sixty-six gallons (v. 32).
The people began eating the quail and a plague struck the camp (v. 33). This plague may have come because the people were unable to properly prepare and store the quail in a hot, desert setting. After all, how can one person eat sixty-six gallons of fresh quail? Numerous people died, and the area was called Kibroth-hattaavah, meaning the “graves of lust.”
Skeptics believe that this story of God providing this amount of quail is simply an embellished myth. However, even in Israel today a huge migration of quail occurs during the spring season, bringing the birds into the southern Sinai in an area of the Wadi Abu Gada, the headwaters of Wadi Gharandal. Millions of various birds migrate through the Sinai twice a year on their way to Africa and Europe. In modern Israel, quail appear around February at the Gulf of Aqaba and in the Arabah, south of the Dead Sea. The quail often migrate in the dark and hide from predators during the day. This may be why the Israelites sometimes collected the birds at night (v. 32). We are told the birds came from the sea (v. 31), which agrees with witnesses who say migrating quail cross the Gulf of Suez and arrive on the western shore of the Sinai.