Since our reading last week it doesn’t look as though a great deal has happened, although apparently quite a bit of time has passed. Most of chapter 5 is taken up with the celebration and worship of the Israelites once they have made it through the Red Sea and before they set off into the wilderness. Once they go into the wilderness they are unable to find water for 3 days, and when they do find some water at Marah they discover that it’s undrinkable.
Since our reading last week it doesn’t look as though a great deal has happened, although apparently quite a bit of time has passed. Most of chapter 5 is taken up with the celebration and worship of the Israelites once they have made it through the Red Sea and before they set off into the wilderness. Once they go into the wilderness they are unable to find water for 3 days, and when they do find some water at Marah they discover that it’s undrinkable. They complain to Moses who goes to God for help. By a miracle the water becomes good enough to drink, and God promises the people that if they listen and do what God asks they will be provided for. They continue on their journey. At Elim they find an oasis of 12 springs and 70 palm trees and they camp there for a while before continuing on into the wilderness named Sin, between Elim and Sinai. We’re told that they arrive here on the 15th day of the 2nd month since leaving Egypt. So we get a little bit of detail about what has happened to the Israelites in those 6 weeks, but not a great deal.
As we pick up the reading today in 16:2, already the Israelites are complaining to Moses again. This time they are hungry. As we know that the Israelites ultimately spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness, it struck me that there’s so much moaning happening early on. Part of me thinks, you’d shut up if you realised just how long you’re going to be out here! But then again I realise that it’s so typical of any kind of drastic change. There’s often a lot of discomfort and complaint when something new initially happens, but as time goes on we get used to it and we learn to live with it. There was a lot of disquiet early on in lockdown when it seemed like such a shock to the system to have to stay at home and not see anyone. As the weeks went by we learned to live with it and we had to get more creative in the ways we kept in touch and tried to cope. The analogy begins to fail when the messages became more confusing, but for the early experience I think it works! Poor Moses and Aaron are getting in the neck because they can’t lay their hands on the food and water supplies that the people want and need, but they don’t try to carry this burden of responsibility on their own. They turn to God, and although we don’t hear what they say to God, we might imagine that it’s something along these lines: “Come on God, help us out here! We’ve done everything that you asked us to do and we’ve finally got the people out of Egypt and out of slavery, and we’re trying to trust that you’re going to make this work, and we know we need to rely on you - after all, all this was your idea. But please God, give us something to work with!”
God tells Moses that God will test the people to see how well they can follow instruction. God tells Moses to tell the people that 2 types of food will be provided for them - there will be quail in the evening and manna in the morning. When the people see the quail they will be reminded that it was the LORD who brought them out of Egypt, and when they see the bread in the morning they will also see God’s glory, and they will know that God heard their complaints and has provided for them. The manna seems to be given greater prominence than the quail. It’s been suggested that the quail remind the people of God’s intervention in the past, which is perhaps less urgent than their need to remember the present glory and provision of the LORD as seen in the manna. But this distinction is only hinted at and isn’t developed any further. Another way in which God’s immediate presence is made obvious is through the cloud of glory that is described in verse 10 and witnessed by the whole assembled people. Moses (and perhaps the people there too, although we’re not sure) hears God giving instructions about the forthcoming food and God draws attention to the special significance of this daily provision of this bread and meat: “Then you shall know that I am Yahweh your God” we read in verse 12.
The passage that is set ends with a description of the arrival of the first foods - quail in the evening that covered the camp (that must have been a spectacular sight!), and manna in the morning, and again we have that main focus on the manna (vv. 13-15). The appearance of the divine bread that God had promised is described, and the puzzled question from the Israelites reminds me of similar questions I’ve had from my children when something different has been presented to them for dinner! I can just imagine their facial expressions and tone of voice as they ask me, “What is it?”. Well, perhaps the “What is it?” from the Israelites is in that reluctant, are-you-trying-to-poison-us tone, or perhaps it’s a bit more excited. Either way, this question shows us how the name came about - manna, meaning what is it? - and it also gives Moses the chance to give a theological reason for the miracle. In verse 15 Moses says to the people, “It’s the bread that Yahweh has given you to eat!”
Parallels have often been drawn between the sending of the manna and the Lord’s Supper. Despite many differences, there are significant things in common that it’s worth bearing in mind as we think about this passage today. In both cases, the people are in need of God’s grace. In both cases, those who are there to receive this divine grace don’t immediately see the significance of the food that is in front of them. In both cases, the food is present as a result of God’s intervention in human life. And in both cases the food is symbolic of something more than a simple meal. The food is there to fill a present hunger, but it also represents that which can fill a deeper need that goes beyond the present physical appetites. The words of Moses in verse 15 could just as easily have been said at the Lord’s table as they were to the Israelites in the wilderness of Sin.
This passage also contains in part an emphasis on the ability of the miraculous bread to test the people’s faithfulness. To see this more fully you need to read on into the rest of the chapter, but part of it is contained here. The bread will be given daily for 6 days, but there will be no miracle on the Sabbath in order to test the people (vv.4-5). On the day before the Sabbath the people need to gather twice as much as they normally need, and only on the Sabbath morning will the bread have kept fresh. If we read on we see that later some people disobey these instructions and end up going hungry. Not even God’s miraculous gifts may be taken for granted, but they are to be used for the manner and purpose which God intended.
It might seem difficult to understand the lack of gratitude from people who have witnessed first hand such powerful expressions of God’s love and care. It might seem difficult to understand how they can prefer grumbling and disobedience to thankfulness and praise. Until, that is, we start to see ourselves in the lives of the Israelites and begin to identify with them. So perhaps this text can be translated into so many more different contexts in our own daily living, as a reminder of how inclusive and how patient is the love and grace of God.
For further reflection…