The first essay in this series is Birth of the Israelite Nation. The second is Torah: Instruction for Living. This is the third in a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments.
Today we will look at a small part of Chapter 16 of Exodus in some detail because it forms the foundation of the relationship which God will have with his people throughout the entire time of wandering in the Wilderness.
The issue is TRUST. Will the people trust God? Will God trust the people to believe that he can provide; and, therefore, will they keep his commandments? The object of the issue is FOOD; the necessary nourishment to sustain life.
After God made the bitter water sweet at Marah and led the Hebrews to the oasis at Elim where they rested a short while, they set out from Elim and came to the Wilderness known as Sin. (It does not mean "sin" as we know the word.)
This was about a month and a half after they left Egypt. There they complained again; this time because there was no food. They accused Moses and Aaron of leading them out to die; and they longed for the "flesh pots" and bread of Egypt. There, at least, they had meat and bread.
This time Moses did not "cry out to the Lord," but God heard the people's complaint. God said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instructions or not."
Moses passed this word on to the people, telling them that, in this way, they shall know that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, and that they shall see God's glory.
He also cautioned them against complaining about him and Aaron, since, when they did that, they were actually complaining against God: "Your complaint is not against us, but against the Lord." Then Moses had them look toward the wilderness, not Egypt, where they saw God's glory in the cloud.
That evening a great cloud of quail covered the camp, so they had meat to eat. And the next morning all the surfaces of the wilderness were covered with a fine flaky substance which they could use like flour and eat. They did not know what it was, but Moses told them it was "the bread the Lord has given to you to eat." They called it "manna." man huh in Hebrew means "What is it?"
Then Moses gave them God's specific instructions to gather no more than each family needed. They did not follow the instructions, some gathering more, some less. But, miraculously, when they measured it all had enough, but no more.
They were told to use all of it and not try to store it. But they disobeyed, only to find it had bred worms by morning and was foul. It could not be hoarded. Moses was angry at them for continuing to disobey God's instructions.
Part of the gathering instructions included gathering twice as much the day before the Sabbath and none on that day of rest. They actually did what they were told, and the extra did not spoil. Even so, the people went to gather more of the manna on the Sabbath, but found none.
This time the Lord was angry, telling Moses, "How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day." Apparently God's anger had some effect, for we are told "So the people rested on the seventh day."
The remainder of the chapter describes God's command to keep some of the manna in a jar to remind future generations that God took care of them in the wilderness. We are told that the Hebrews ate manna in the wilderness for 40 years. ("40 years" can mean in Hebrew either a literal 40 year period or simply "a long time.") Later, in Joshua, we learn that on the day the Hebrews ate the produce of the Promised Land the manna ceased.
I am not sure how important this sub-story within the Exodus story is when Jewish children are taught. But this indelible subplot about Manna is one that for centuries has been told to every Christian child and is one of the great stories from which Christianity has taken many lessons. For Christians like myself it forms the basis of some of the most fundamental understandings of how people relate to God, and how we relate to Christ.
Jesus said that "It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven" (John 6:32) and, tellingly, a short while later, he added: "I am the bread that came down from heaven." (John 6:41) The stories of feeding the 4000 and the 5000 also make it clear to Christians that Christ is the one who provides for the daily necessities of life.
And the Lord's prayer incorporates the idea that we are to be satisfied with looking to God for our daily bread, or, translated literally, "our bread for each day." So too in the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, (Holy Communion) we break and distribute the bread to all, equally, sharing so that each has enough. The language and symbolism of bread from God is strong in many basic Christian rituals.
There are important lessons to be learned here. Foremost is the lesson that we often must travel from bondage through wilderness in order to get to the promised land. We wish it were not so, but the realities of life seldom allow us to go from slavery to delightful freedom. Most of our lives are full of wilderness experiences.
The issue is not whether we will have them, because we will. The issue is who we will turn to and trust during those times. The times of wilderness and crisis are the very times when we need to lean most heavily on God. And, ironically, they are usually the times when we turn from him, choosing to try to "tough it out" on our own. The crisis of faith often occurs in just this time between bondage and well being. The challenge we face is not really so different from the one faced by the Israelites.
Another of the things that happened to them also happens to us. When faced with crisis in the wilderness they looked back through rose-tinted glasses at the time of bondage. At least in Egypt the flesh pots were full of meat, and there was bread. Forgotten were all the evils they were subjected to in the old days. So too we, when challenged by the desert of the transition from bondage to new freedom, sometimes look back and see only the good of the past time of bondage; forgetting that it was mostly not so good.
After all, we tell ourselves, it can't be worse than the present uncertainty. Again, the issue is trust. Can we trust that the Lord will provide and get us through to the good future he promises? We have to trust the Lord to provide on a daily basis. Such trust is often in short supply.
The Lord's instructions not to hoard but to share are also difficult for the Israelites. Any who have been members of churches or synagogues know something about that problem. It is clear that we are to be generous, self-sacrificing, and open in our giving to others.
Yet it is very hard to give generously when we don't have a lot ourselves; even when we know full well that we have much, much more than the vast majority of the people on the entire planet.
It is hard not to hoard, to try to gather just a little more for ourselves, even when we know that it is taking from others. Sometimes we joke about the "starving children in Africa" when we throw away more food in a week than many of them eat in a month.
But there is truth in the saying: there ARE starving children in Africa, and right here in America, if we bother to look. Yet we tell ourselves we have to be sure that we have enough. We reason that we have gone without this or that long enough; that we are only being prudent, saving for a rainy day. Still, the children starve.
The temptation is to try to serve two masters: God and Pharaoh, or in this case: God and our selves. We want to put our trust in two bread supplies at once: in the bread of heaven and in the bread earned by the sweat of our brows.
But this story and many of the stories told in the Bible teach us that trying to have it both ways leads only to anxiety.
We may not want to hear it, and we may never do anything about it, but the gospel message is that only one master, only one bread supplier is needed. This story says, and the gospel message of Jesus says, that God knows what we need and faithfully supplies everything required for life for those who totally trust Him. Few, if any of us, are willing to put that truth to the test!
Thus it should not surprise us that, after the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves to feed the 5000 that Mark tells us the disciples did not understand its meaning. They did not understand, we are told, because "their hearts were hardened." Like the Israelites, and like the disciples, our "hard hearts" make us rely on our own capacities and to make our own bread, and to hoard it at the expense of others.
Nor should it surprise us that the Israelites tried to hoard the manna and to harvest it on a day for which God had already supplied enough. We too always try to have it both ways. Sometimes it works. But it is not the way God would have us live.
One final thing I think we need to get out of this story about the manna is the fact that, when God is in control, food abounds even in the wilderness. The wilderness, feared from the beginning of time by God's creatures as an area of death and desolation, is, after all, also part of God's creation.
Just so, if we are traveling with God, the wildernesses of our lives are also part of his creation and he is in control of them. Through trust in him we shall find in the worst wildernesses of our lives food and water to sustain us -- and a guide to take us by the hand and lead us out of the wilderness into the promised land.
If this story tells us nothing else it tells us that God is present in our daily lives, not just some abstract being remote from what is important to us. We always find that hard to believe. We even seem ashamed to ask for our daily bread.
The illusion of self reliance and total independence from others is a very strong thread woven into the fabric of this country, and we are a "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps" kind of people. Which is well and good to a point. But the truth is that the gospel message is something quite different than American rugged individualism and pride.
It is a message of TRUST: trust in God to provide and sustain and lead. Not abstractly. But concretely. Every day. Day in. Day out. If we pray "Give us this day our daily bread" do we understand that? That daily bread is there for those who trust God to provide. That is Good News, if we are bold enough to believe it!
Next: Water from a Rock and Testing and Quarreling in the Desert
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