QUAIL (שְׂלָו, H8513, quail all Eng. VSS). Although the origin of the name is uncertain (possibly the bird’s liquid note, repeated several times, is reflected in the ‘L’ of the name), there is full agreement about this tr., and no other bird fits the Biblical narrative (Exod 16:13; Num 11:31, 32; Ps 105:40). This requires (a) a clean bird and (b) one that passed in great numbers. This miraculous supply to the traveling Israelites is mentioned on two specific occasions; first in the Wilderness of Sin, in the SW of the Sinai Peninsula, some six weeks after leaving Egypt; second at Kibroth-hattaavah, not far away, a year later. This is another example of natural resources being used by God, the miraculous element being in the precise timing of the supply. Although such concentrated flocks may have been exceptional, the quail must have passed across the Sinai area twice a year, and it is reasonable to assume that they were taken and eaten more or less regularly.
Quail are almost the smallest game birds and the only ones that truly migrate. The best known is the Common Quail (Coturnix coturnix) of Europe and Asia. It is only seven inches long, mottled brown and much like a miniature partridge. Like many of its relatives, it is more often heard than seen, the call being made as much by night as by day. These birds breed over most of Europe and in W Asia. In autumn they migrate toward N Africa, many of them crossing the route of the Exodus, and do so again on their return journey in spring. There is some difficulty about the tr. of Numbers 11:31—KJV, “two cubits high upon the face of the earth” implies that they were piled to that height, whereas RSV “about two cubits above the face of the earth” suggests that they were flying a few ft. from the ground, which is preferred. The Douay VS trs. “they flew in the air two cubits high above the ground.”
Although strong fliers over short distances, quails need help from the wind for long migration flights and the narrative says that they came in with the wind. An unfavorable change of wind can bring them to the ground and make them easy prey for man. Various estimates have been made about the numbers taken in these incidents, and one researcher has suggested that the Israelites killed some nine million. This could be a gross over-estimate, but there is recent evidence that such a figure is not entirely fanciful. Heavy exploitation of migratory quail took place throughout the 19th and well into the 20th centuries. For many years, Egypt exported over two million a year; in 1920, a peak of three million was reached. This was far more than the quail population could stand and mass migration soon ceased.
A. Parmelee, All the Birds of the Bible (1959), 76; O. L. Austin, Birds of the World (1961), 95.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
A game bird of the family Coturnix, closely related to "partridges" (which see). Quail and partridges are near relatives, the partridge a little larger and of brighter color. Quail are like the gray, brown and tan of earth. Their plumage is cut and penciled by markings, and their flesh juicy and delicate food. Their habits are very similar. They nest on the ground and brood on from 12 to 20 eggs. The quail are more friendly birds and live in the open, brooding along roads and around fields. They have a longer, fuller wing than the partridge and can make stronger flight. In Palestine they were migratory. They are first mentioned in Ex 16:13: "And it came to pass at even, that the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the camp." This describes a large flock in migration, so that they passed as a cloud. Nu 11:31-33: "And there went forth a wind from Yahweh, and brought quail from the sea, and let them fall by 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 up all that day, and all the night, and all the next day, and gathered the quail: he that gathered least gathered ten homers: and they spread them all abroad for themselves round about the camp"; compare Ps 78:26-30:
"He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens;
And by his power he guided the south wind.
He rained flesh also upon them as the dust,
And winged birds as the sand of the seas:
And he let it fall in the midst of their camp,
Round about their habitations.
So they did eat, and were well filled;
And he gave them their own desire."
Again the birds are mentioned in migration. Those that fell around the camp and the bread that was sent from heaven are described in Ps 105:39-42. Commentators have had trouble with the above references. They cause the natural historian none--they are so in keeping with the location and the laws of Nature. First the Hebrew selaw means "to be fat." That would be precisely the condition of the quail after a winter of feeding in the South. The time was early spring, our April, and the quail were flocking from Africa and spreading in clouds--even to Europe. They were birds of earth, heavy feeders and of plump, full body. Migration was such an effort that when forced to cross a large body of water they always waited until the wind blew in the direction of their course, lest they tire and fall. Their average was about 16 birds to each nest. If half a brood escaped, they yet multiplied in such numbers as easily to form clouds in migration. Pliny writes of their coming into Italy in such numbers, and so exhausted with their long flight, that if they sighted a sailing vessel they settled upon it by hundreds and in such numbers as to sink it. Taking into consideration the diminutive vessels of that age and the myriads of birds, this does not appear incredible. Now compare these facts with the text. Israelites were encamped on the Sinai Peninsula. The birds were in migration. The quail followed the Red Sea until they reached the point of the peninsula where they selected the narrowest place, and when the wind was with them they crossed the water. Not far from the shore arose the smoke from the campfires of the Israelites. This bewildered them, and, weary from their journey, they began to settle in confused thousands over and around the camp. Then the Israelites arose and, with the ever-ready "throw sticks," killed a certain number for every soul of the camp and spread the bodies on the sand to dry, just as Herodotus (ii. 77) records that the Egyptians always had done (see Rawlinson, Herodotus, II, for an illustration of catching and drying quail). Nature and natural history can account for this incident, with no need to call in the miraculous.