Before there was manna in the Wilderness of Sin, there was quail. Manna came the morning after they ran out of food. And every morning thereafter for 40 years. But the quail came that same evening.
How did the quail arrive? What type of quail? How often did the Israelites get to eat it? How did they prepare it? These questions and more are answered (okay, speculated upon) below.
The LORD spoke to Moses:
“I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the LORD am your God.”
In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.Exodus 16: 11-13
Not much there. The rest is about manna. But there is another mention of the quail in Numbers 11. The Hebrews are complaining (again) and God sends a plague. Immediately afterwards:
The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!
We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.
Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” …
Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent. The LORD was very angry, and Moses was distressed. …
Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’
I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.
If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!”
Then the LORD said to Moses…say to the people: Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the LORD and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ The LORD will give you meat and you shall eat.
You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty,
but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you. For you have rejected the LORD who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’”
But Moses said, “The people who are with me number six hundred thousand men; yet You say, ‘I will give them enough meat to eat for a whole month.’
Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?”
And the LORD answered Moses, “Is there a limit to the LORD’s power? You shall soon see whether what I have said happens to you or not!”Numbers 11: 4-23 (truncated version)
This narrative implies that they did not have the quail every evening since that first night in Sin. Prof. Jonathan Jacobs in The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading carefully goes through both Exodus and Numbers as well as numerous commentary to provide a variety of possible answers. But the narrative continues.
A wind from the LORD started up, swept quail from the sea and strewed them over the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and about a day’s journey on that side, all around the camp, and some two cubits deep on the ground.
The people set to gathering quail all that day and night and all the next day—even he who gathered least had ten ḥomers—and they spread them out all around the camp.
The meat was still between their teeth, nor yet chewed, when the anger of the LORD blazed forth against the people and the LORD struck the people with a very severe plague.
That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah, because the people who had the craving were buried there.
Then the people set out from Kibroth-hattaavah for Hazeroth.Numbers 11: 31-35
Jacobs presents commentaries that say the quail did come daily but this was extra meat for those who were not satisfied, though the text says they only had manna to eat. Other commentaries say that the quail came for a while then stopped sometime in the first year. Others say the quail came now and then.
The best bet for the type of quail the Hebrews encountered was the Common Quail aka European quail (Coturnix coturnix). It nests in the ground, migrates (the only species of quail or of land fowl that does), and moves between northern Africa and Europe.
The Common Quail sings at sunset and has a characteristic triple trill. Its range is fairly large and it has been spotted in modern times in Tabuk Province, where I am placing Mount Sinai (it’s also in Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula).
Breeds in taller grassland and grain fields from western Europe east to central Asia and winters in similar habitat in Africa, southern Europe, and South Asia. Rarely seen, and most often detected by male’s emphatic whistled “wet-my-lips!” song, which can be given at night. When flushed, explodes from underfoot and flies off strongly with whirring wingbeats and short glides. Plumage cryptic and streaky brown with pale eyebrow; male has black throat stripe.Galliformes > Phasianidae. Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. eBird.
How & When Did They Arrive?
By all accounts, they were alive and well when the Hebrews caught them. Presumably they were resting during a migration. The first appearance of quail in the Exodus takes place a month and a couple days after Passover. Passover in the modern era is usually in late March to mid/late April. So this would be April or May. Common Quail winter in northern Africa (among other places) and start breeding in Europe around mid-May.
Are They Poisonous?
The account from Numbers certainly describes a sudden bout of poisoning. And it turns out that Common Quail are known for this.
Coturnism is an illness featuring muscle tenderness and rhabdomyolysis (muscle cell breakdown) after consuming quail (usually common quail, Coturnix coturnix, from which the name derives) that have fed on poisonous plants.Coturnism. Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia page on Coturnism mentions Numbers 11 and James Tullis, in “Don’t Eat the Quails.” references it as well. It’s uncertain which plant causes this. Most writers assume hemlock. Tullis suggests bitter almond.
Torah doesn’t say how the quail were prepared in the Wilderness of Sin (later, in the Numbers 11 story, they may have been eaten raw and undressed).
Under normal circumstances, a bird would be killed then plucked clean of all its feathers, and its entrails removed. Then cooked. But in this case the Hebrews were out in the desert in a temporary camp without any sort of a kitchen.
And it was night time! Whatever religious reasons there may be for providing bread in the morning light and meat as the sun went down and it was too dark to see, this may have been when the migrating quail needed to rest for the night.
Fires of dried animal dung would have been the way to cook the quail. Probably roasted on a stick or rock. Maybe boiled in water.
- The Double Quail Narratives and Bekhor Shor’s Innovative Reading. Prof. Jonathan Jacobs. The Torah—com.
- Tullis, James L. “Don’t Eat the Quails.” New England Journal of Medicine 297, no. 9 (1977): 472-75.
- Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. Cornell Lab.
- Common Quail. Wikipedia.
- Coturnism. Wikipedia.
- Common Quail. Singing birds. Wildlife World. YouTube video, July 24, 2020.
- Quail. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- Galliformes > Phasianidae. Common Quail, Coturnix coturnix. eBird.
- Coturnix coturnix: common quail. Animal Diversity Web.