The usual low-grade grumbling which had once so distressed Moses seemed to pass over his head now. Wrapped in a comfortable certainty that nothing very bad could happen now that he was in possession of his covenant with Yahweh, he moved cheerfully, kindly through the camps, encouraging, advising, and stopping off to listen to the children.
They were hardy children, able to milk when they were not much more than walking confidently, able to call a special lamb or kid to follow them almost as soon as they were singing songs. They were used to a world where, unless they were at an oasis, water was rationed, and they listened astonished to their parents’ tall stories of a land where everybody could wash any time they wanted, where fish swam in every pool, where the great river could carry houses away, where there were onions as big as a baby’s head and where everybody eat meat every day.
‘Well,’ Moses answered a solemn four-year-old enquirer, ‘Our masters had meat every day. Your mother only had onions every day.’ But the myth grew of astonishing quantities of delicious meat.
The herds were much bigger now, but meat was generally only eaten at the sacrifices, where Yahweh enjoyed his share of the roast, and everybody got some and nobody quite enough.
Then one day, a wind blew in an astonishing number of little birds. Those who had been older and a little richer in Egypt knew them at once. Quail. The numbers were astonishing, and at once the people were out gathering and slaughtering as many as they could catch. Oh, they were easy to catch. Moses, beaming, drew attention to how carefully Yahweh provided for his covenant people.
The cooking began, and as soon as the meat was half cooked, the feasting. The agonising stomach cramps, the vomiting and diarrhoea started a few hours afterwards.
Moses, as ever in a crisis, organised tirelessly. Those who had not eaten the deadly treat were dispatched to travel around the camps warning against eating the meat. Others were sent to fetch water so that the sick could be given all they needed to drink. Miriam organised women to care for the stricken.
Despite all that could be done, there were deaths. Not as many as would be remembered when the story was told, when the quail became as fabulous as stories of life in Egypt, but too many.
When the crisis was over, Moses withdrew to his tent. His wife Zipporah watched helplessly as he wept. She had never been truly able to persuade him to listen to her. She was grateful when Miriam arrived, grey-faced with exhaustion, looking every one of her many years. Moses tried to make sense of the tragedy. ‘Yahweh must have been angry,’ he suggested.
‘Why?’ asked Miriam, ‘Yes the people were grumbling, yes they always do, but why NOW? Why not punish us years before?’
Zipporah thought of her father. She wished she could run to him, ask him to comfort her, but he was miles away. Even thinking of him consoled her, though. She could hear his voice. ‘Oh, dear foolish girl. To imagine that following a God would mean you did not need to use your own good sense. Why would so many birds fall down unless something was wrong with them, eh? Now, dry your tears, learn, and move forward.’ It was only when she saw the other two looking at her in astonishment she realised she had spoken out loud.
Moses, turning to really look at her, saw the familiar hook nose, and suddenly realised that his wife was, indeed, the daughter of his beloved father-in-law. ‘I have never valued her enough,’ he thought with a pang, ‘she is not an Israelite, but how wise she really is.’