Exodus 16 has many themes that speak to Christians today--grumbling by the people of God, good provision by God, and the importance of Sabbath rest.
Exodus 1:8 tells us that after the Israelites had lived in Egypt for some time in relative peace, "a new king [pharaoh] arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." That pharaoh oppressed the Israelites, and their cries for help reached the ears of God. We read in Exodus 2:24-25, "God heard their groanings, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them." God called to Moses from the burning bush and sent him to demand that pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. A series of confrontations between Moses and pharaoh, in which God demonstrated his power over the Egyptian gods, culminated in the death of all the Egyptian first-born. Afterward, the Israelites left Egypt and began their journey to the land God had promised to their ancestors (Exodus 6:7-8).
No sooner had the people left Egypt, however, than they began to grumble against Moses and God. When they reached the shores of the Reed Sea and saw that the Egyptian army was pursuing, they cried, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?" (Exodus 14:11). God intervened, allowing the Israelites to cross the Sea in safety. Exodus 15:1-21 records the people's joyous celebration of their miraculous deliverance.
Only three days later, the people were thirsty, having found only bitter water and they grumbled again, saying, "What shall we drink?" (Exodus 15:24). God provided fresh water and they continued on their journey. On the fifteenth day of the second month, the people again found themselves in seemingly dismal circumstances, and they complained, "If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger" (Exodus 16:3).
"If only we had..." "If only I had . . ." Words of regret in the present, of fear for the future. "If only . . ." the Israelites cried out to God in their oppression under pharaoh. God sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead them out of their oppression. God guided them through the first perilous days of their journey to freedom. God provided water when they felt they could go no further. At every juncture, God was there. According to Exodus 13:21-22, "The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day . . . and in a pillar of fire by night . . . Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people."
Yet the grumblings, the "if only's", are a constant theme in the stories of the wilderness. Our text for this commentary marks a dramatic moment in the story. After the third episode of grumbling, God spoke to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you" (Exodus 16:4). But the "rain of bread" came with a condition. The people could gather the bread for six days each week and on the sixth day, God would give a double portion of the bread. The people were not to gather bread on the seventh day. Why? Why only gather bread for six days? In Exodus 16:6-7, Moses and Aaron said to the people, "In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, for he has heard your complaining against the LORD."
Exodus 16 is a story about trusting in the provision of God, and it is a story about Sabbath rest. The root of the Hebrew word for sabbath means "to stop"--stop doing what you do during the other six days of the week. Our model for Sabbath rest (Sabbath stopping) comes from Genesis 2:2; when God finished the creative work, he "stopped" on the seventh day. Our instruction for Sabbath rest comes from Exodus 16. God commanded that humans stop, put aside their daily chore of gathering bread, and marvel at God's provision for them. In the wilderness, God forged a relationship with the people that called them to trust God to provide for their every need, not just for today, but for tomorrow as well.
Sabbath rest is a difficult concept in the twenty-first century world. How can we simply "stop"? What will happen to our jobs, our families, our sense of identity if we "stop" for Sabbath? And, what does it mean to "stop"? Stopping has to do with cessation, with taking time to contemplate our place within the created world. Stopping has to do with reflecting on the good provisions of God in our lives.
The manna was a gift to our ancestors in faith and it was a test. The gift was food for the journey; the test was of faith in God's promise of good provisions. When our ancestors saw the manna for the first time, they asked "What is it?" (Exodus 16:15), in Hebrew "man-hu." Thus, the name of the substance both commemorates the people's wonder at God's provision and reflects their lack of trust in the God who delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians. Manna from God, in whatever form it takes in our daily lives, is God's promise to provide for us; it is up to us to gather the manna during the days it is given and to trust God to give us manna during the days of stopping--the days of Sabbath rest.