(an outtake from Once More, From the Beginning. This is one of the bits that didn’t make it into the book.)
As time and miles went by and the pleasures of hiking in the wilderness grew a little stale, people began to get peevish, and became very hard to please. The sun was too bright, the air was too dry, their luggage was too heavy, their feet were beginning to blister and they were getting a bit bored with a constant, unrelieved diet of manna. They remembered fondly the food they had been accustomed to eat in Egypt. It hadn’t been remarkable in any way (as they were slaves, you’ll remember) but nostalgia improved it significantly in flavour and variety. The women, who were still clandestinely gathering and preparing the food before dawn each day, thought their men might do well to feel grateful at being fed at all. But to the men, manna was an unearned gift, and like children, they saw no reason why God couldn’t be just a little more lavish and provide some additional diversity.
Far from being thankful for their daily bread, they craved meat – or, at very least, fish – although the more level-headed among them admitted that the chances of fish materializing in the wilderness seemed slim. Eventually, they became obsessed with this desire; it filled their dreams and monopolized their conversation. In fact, they so whined and complained about it that Moses began to feel like a harried father caring for three hundred thousand fretful babies, which was too many altogether. Finally God, too, became disgusted with their ingratitude and irritated by their interminable whimpering.
“Meat you want, and meat you shall have,” snapped The Lord. “I’ll give you meat aplenty . . . and you’ll eat it until it comes out of your noses!”
Forthwith, he caused a strong wind to blow inland from the sea, driving innumerable plump quails into the wilderness where they fell, hip deep, around the camp. Aware that the delicious birds would eventually rot, the people scrambled to gather every last one, and greedily stuffed themselves until they vomited – and then they ate again.
As the days went by and the meat passed its prime, the women prepared to discard it and return to their furtive predawn food preparation. They, too, had enjoyed this respite from the manna diet, but they knew too much of a good thing when they saw it.
“No!” howled the men. “You can do wonders with spices. Please! Just a few days more . . .”
Knowing, of course, what damage spoiled meat could do to a stomach already stressed from gorging, the women protested that they were pushing their luck, but their husbands flattered and wheedled and eventually convinced their wives to try their skill at masking the signs of decay. Being excellent cooks, the women were uncommonly successful. The meat tasted wholesome and the people continued to feast. Just as the women had predicted, the meat had been tainted, thousands sickened, and God allowed many of them to die – as an object lesson in greed control. This didn’t work in any long term sense, but at least it put an end to culinary criticism for a while.
As Moses continued to commune with God over the years, Aaron and Miriam became jealous of their brother’s favoured relationship with The Lord. Aaron was able to control the people with his oratory and was an excellent negotiator, and Miriam, as leader of the women, knew how important a part she had played behind the scenes in providing nourishment – no mean feat, in the wilderness.
They directed their complaints to The Lord. “We’re just as indispensable to this project as Moses,” Aaron argued. “Why can’t we share in the honours every once in a while? Why should he be allowed to make all the flashiest prophesies? It would impress our friends no end, and show everybody that we’re favourites too!”
“Since nobody even knows where we’re all headed,” added Miriam, “it seems like there should still be prophesies enough to go around!”
The Lord would tolerate no such sibling squabbles to upset this extended desert pleasure jaunt. Angry at their effrontery, he punished Miriam by turning her skin white with leprosy. Horrified, her brothers begged that she be released from this hideous, deadly disease before her flesh started to rot and fall away. After ordering her to be shut out of the camp, terrified and in despair, for seven days, God felt that she had learned her lesson in humility and slipped her a cure.
As punishment for his presumption – identical and equally offensive, one would think – Aaron was allowed to feel rather bad about his sister’s terrifying experience for a few days. Poor Aaron.