Science, Hebrews and a Bevy of Quail

What are quail doing in the Bible, and what do the bird experts say?

Anonymous, “Quails,” 1849
Anonymous, “Quails,” 1849 (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

There’s an interesting passage in Exodus 16 that mentions an appearance of quail in the context of the manna in the desert:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread [manna]; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp …

Elsewhere, Numbers 11 says:

Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, “O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; ...
[Moses] Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, `Give us meat, that we may eat.’ ...
[God] And say to the people, “Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wept in the hearing of the LORD, saying, “Who will give us meat to eat? For it was well with us in Egypt.” Therefore the LORD will give you meat, and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, or two days, or five days, or 10 days, or 20 days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the LORD who is among you, and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come forth out of Egypt?” ...
And there went forth a wind from the LORD, and it brought quails from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, round about the camp, and about two cubits above the face of the earth. And the people rose all that day, and all night, and all the next day, and gathered the quails; he who gathered least gathered ten homers; and they spread them out for themselves all around the camp. While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the LORD was kindled against the people, and the LORD smote the people with a very great plague. Therefore the name of that place was called Kib’roth-hatta’avah, because there they buried the people who had the craving. (cf. Psalm 78:26-31)

Now, as always, God can work through outright miracles — he could create a million quails on the spot and send them down to the complaining Hebrews — or he can marvelously arrange in his providence for lots of quails to appear right at the time when he said they would appear. Both are entirely in his capability, and either is an extraordinary event, showing his power (omnipotence) and/or his omniscience and sovereignty over nature.

He knew from all eternity that the ancient Israelites would complain in the wilderness about not having meat (longing again for their wonderful time of slavery in Egypt), and he knew (if the natural explanation was what actually happened) that quail would migrate across their path at precisely the time that this murmuring came about.

Egyptologist, archaeologist and evangelical Protestant, Kenneth A. Kitchen, probably the greatest living biblical “maximalist” archaeologist, in his book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, stated:

Twice on their travels (down to, and up from, Mount Sinai), the Israelites got involved with migrating quail. The first time, in the Desert of Sin (west coast; Exodus 16:13) [should be 16:1], quail alighted one spring evening [“on the fifteenth day of the second month”: also 16:1]; the second time, again in the spring (Numbers 11:31-34; date, cf. second month, 10:11) [“second month, on the twentieth day”], a flight of quail was blown the few miles inland (up the seaward end of Wadi Sa’l?) and fell to the Israelites. It is a fact that quails do migrate via Sinai twice a year. They fly from farther south up to Europe in the spring, going through the Suez and Aqaba gulfs in the evenings (hence their presence on the Sinai Peninsula’s west and east flanks then).

The second Hebrew month is Iyar, which usually falls into April-May of the Gregorian calendar.

Thus, the Bible informs us that (again, positing a natural event):

  • quails migrate through the Sinai Peninsula,
  • particularly along the coastlines, and
  • they do so in the spring.

Season (down to the day) and specific place are both recorded.

An article on quails in the journal Ornis Fennica observed that the Sinai Peninsula, along the Red Sea coast, was part of their spring migration.

A detailed map of worldwide quail distribution from Birdlife International indicates the same thing: precisely lining up with the biblical accounts.

Another article from Birdlife International states, “Having journeyed across the sea they fly low, heading for a place to rest.” This may coincide with the description of Numbers 11:31: “A wind from the LORD … brought quails from the sea, and let them fall beside the camp ... about two cubits above the face of the earth.” The birds fly about three to four feet above the ground, alongside the sea, as the article says, looking for a place to pitch. 

Speculation about what caused sickness and death, due to eating quail (Numbers 11:20, 33-34) is also fascinating. Bacterial food poisoning is perhaps thought to be the most likely cause. The text hints that the Hebrews were drying the meat in the sun (“they spread them out for themselves all around the camp”: Numbers 11:32). This would be prime conditions for decomposition and bacterial growth (possibly Salmonella), leading to severe vomiting (Numbers 11:20) and in the worst cases, death.