Onions Depict the Universe


After the Israelites built and dedicated the tabernacle, they left Mount Sinai and restarted their journey to the Promised Land. After about three days travel, the community started complaining. The complaints began with people the Bible called, “the rabble”. The rabble was non-Israelites who joined the Israelite exodus so they could escape Egypt. Hearing the rabble complain, some Israelites began to complain. The substance of the complaints was: 1) if only we had meat to eat; 2) we remember the fish, cucumbers, melons, leaks, onions, and garlic we ate in Egypt at no cost; 3) we have lost our appetites; and 4) we never have anything to eat but manna.

When Moses heard people of every family wailing, he was troubled. When God heard the complaints and wailing, he became exceedingly angry. God was angry because he graciously provided the community –both Israelites and non-Israelites — with bread from heaven (manna). Rather than thanking God, the peoples spurned the manna; thus they spurned God. Moses was so amazed and troubled by the people’s complaints that he asked God, “why me?” Essentially, Moses wanted to know what he did to warrant carrying the burden of these people. Ironically or completely frustrated, Moses noted that he did not conceive or birth the Israelites. He asked God, how was he to “nurse” them along to the Promised Land? Where was he going to get meat to feed them and stop their wailing? Moses admitted to God that the people (all 2 million of them) were too heavy a burden for him.

God heard both the people’s complaints and Moses’ distress and responded to each; however, God chose to respond to one person’s (Moses’) genuine distress before responding to complaints from the two million member community. God worked with Moses to appoint 70 Israelite elders to share the burden of leading the people. Then, God rained down enough quails on the camp to last the Israelites for 30 days. Avidly, the Israelites collected the quails and prepared them. As they began to eat the meat, God’s anger burned against the people for spurning him. He sent a severe plague and killed the people who craved food other than manna.

The Egyptian Onion Plant

The vegetables identified in Numbers 11:5 were the most extensive list of vegetables given anywhere in the Bible. The listed vegetables were eaten in Egypt, not Canaan or Israel. Vegetables available in Egypt and Israel were not always the same genus and species. The Bible onion is the Allium cepa, also called Egyptian onion; it is the common garden onion found in the United States. Onions were eaten in Egypt over 4000 years ago. For the slaves and workers who built the pyramids, onions were everyday food. Reportedly, nine tons of gold was paid for onions and garlic to feed these pyramid builders. Onions are one of the hardiest of all garden vegetables and are cultivated for their bulbs and leaves. Most home gardeners replant onions started in greenhouses; but on a large scale, cultivated onions grow from the onion plant’s small black seed. Onions are a biennial plant; often they die in the second year after flowering. Bulbs can be eaten fresh, e.g. in salads, and used for cooking, e.g., stews. Cutting the bulb horizontal at the diameter reveals that onions grow in concentric layers; the larger the onion, the more layers

Symbolism: Universe

Ancient Egyptians regarded the spherical bulb of the onion as a symbol of the universe. Egyptians believed that the spheres of heaven, earth, and hell were concentric, like layers of the onion. Western society believes the universe is both the world of human experience and the cosmos. It includes phenomena both observed and postulated. When something is universal, it exists or operates everywhere and under all conditions. The Book of Hebrews declares that the universe was formed through Christ at God’s command (Hebrews 1:2; 1:3).

God tried to help the Israelites comprehend that he was the God of the universe. He demonstrated power over the physical world by bring 10 plagues on Egypt so the Israelites could have their freedom. God provided water from rocks and bread from heaven. He assured the Israelites that he would make them whole, e.g., physically and mentally (Exodus 15:26). Spiritually, God gave the Israelites his holy law to live by. He directed them to build a tabernacle where he would dwell among them.

Despite these demonstrations of God’s control over all things, many Israelites did not accept him as their God and the God of the universe. Instead, the Israelites spurned what God offered them, wailing and complaining about his offering of food from heaven. Every time I read, think, and write about the Israelite’s behavior, my first reaction is to shake my head. I wonder how they could spur the God of the universe. How could they complain so much? Yet, complaining was not a behavior unique to Old Testament Israelites. Writing from prison to the church at Philippi, Paul caution: “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so you may become blameless andpure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in whichyou shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:14-15).

My default behavior used to be complaining in many situations. Then, I asked myself what kind of a representative am I for Christ when I complain so much? Complaining and shining like a star for Christ are incompatible. Christ created my situations so that I could mature in my Christian walk. Complaining did not add value to my life; in fact complaining devalued me and most assuredly devalued God. When I complained, I spurn the God of the universe in the same way that the Israelites spurned him.

Reflection. Changing our default behavior from complaining to praising takes time and effort; but it pleases the God of the universe.

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at

copyright September 27, 2011; carolyn a. roth


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