Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18
The story of the manna from heaven in Exodus 16 indeed can be described as the quintessential image of the God who provides.
A recurring theme throughout the biblical traditions, this compelling metaphor for God extends into the New Testament when God’s gracious provision of food is embodied in Jesus’ act of feeding the hungry crowd who had come to listen to Jesus.1
In Exodus 16, one encounters the Israelites who in narrative time had just been liberated from the forced labor they had experienced under the Egyptian Empire that caused great physical and emotional harm to the former slaves. But instead of celebrating their newly found freedom, the Israelites are faced with the reality of having no food. And being refugees in the wilderness, they are without the means to cultivate the food necessary to survive.
In response to their complaints, God let manna rain down from heaven. The people’s reaction to this flaky white substance that covered the ground like dew is: “man-hu?” meaning “what is it?” — the Hebrew reference informing the name of this bread that God gives to still the people’s hunger.
Central to this account of manna from the heaven is the belief in a God who will continue to take care of the Israelites. Thus, God is not only the Deliverer God who liberates those who are in bondage, but God is also the God who provides for the people in the wilderness all the way to the Promised land. God is thus portrayed as a God who hears the complaints of the people (refer to the repeated reference to “complaining” in Exodus 16:2, 7, 8, 9). God is a God who sees that the people are hungry, and most importantly, God is a God who acts to give the hungry Israelites whatever they need.
This text further introduces the notion of “enough” as it pertains to God’s provision of food that is said to satisfy all of the needs of the Israelites (Exodus 16:12, 18). Throughout this text, the manna is shown to be just enough, no more and no less than what the people need. Even when some people would be greedy and take more than they need, or others found less food to gather, it all equalled out so that everyone’s basic needs are met (verses 17-18).
This emphasis on being completely satisfied by God’s provision of food has been responsible for the rabbis using an image of nursing to talk about the manna being as sufficient as a mother’s milk is to her baby. The rabbis even imagined the manna changing flavors so as to offer some variation, inspired by the notion that the taste of breast milk would be impacted by what the mother eats.2 The point of this creative expression is that God graciously offers all that the Israelites need — a theological conviction we profess every time we sing the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Indeed, we are reminded in Exodus 16 that there is a close association between the gracious gift of the manna and the glory of God that appears as a sign of God’s presence (verse 10). It is in God’s gracious blessings that we experience that God is with us.
However, it is also important to recognize that God’s provision of food occurs in a context of depravity. The fact that the Israelites are finding themselves in the wilderness with no food reminds us of the reality of food shortage and famine that for many people all over the world may be a life-threatening reality — quite often due to no fault of their own. The recent effects of climate change, war, terror and globalization on the everyday reality of many people in places like Darfur, Nigeria, Sudan, and Syria challenge us to recognize that far too many people today do not experience the proverbial manna from heaven.
In his provocative contribution, “The Truth of Abundance: Relearning Dayenu,” Walter Brueggemann takes on the “myth of scarcity” that one sees in the greed and the hoarding practices of the imperial policies of the Pharaoh of Egypt that is reminiscent of the economic monopoly of contemporary superpowers that one is seeing play out in, for example, “greedy CEO salaries,” in “so-called welfare reform,” and one may add tax reform, which all speak of “the drive to privatize wealth away from care for the public good.”3
In contrast, Brueggemann challenges us to relearn the “lyric of abundance” that believes that there is more than enough food to go around in God’s good creation. However, vitally important for this vision of dayenu — translated as “there is enough in God’s goodness” — is that each and every one of us must make sure that all members of the community take just what they need.4 No more, no less. The manna story in Exodus 16 warns against hoarding, against greed that capitalizes on this “myth of scarcity.” Instead it encourages sharing that is exemplified also in the stories that tell of Jesus taking five loaves and two fishes, and after he had blessed the food, he broke it and gave it to feed a multitude of hungry people (Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-9; John 6:1-14). This inherently Eucharistic act continues the notion of the absolute sufficient nature of God’s provision of food first evident in the story of the manna in that the twelve baskets of bread left over after feeding the multitude of people symbolizes “abundance that overrides all of the fearful anxiety of the world.”5 Similarly, we are called to embody God’s provision of food by feeding those near and far who are in need, precisely because we have been fed by God.
1. For a comprehensive exploration of this metaphor, see L. Juliana Claassens, The God Who Provides: Biblical Images of Divine Nourishment (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 2004).
2. For more on the rabbinical interpretations on this topic, see Claassens, 1-5.
3. Walter Brueggemann, “The Truth of Abundance: Relearning Dayenu.” in The Covenanted Self: Exploration in Law and Covenant (ed. Patrick Miller; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 108-122.
4. Brueggemann, 122.
5. Brueggemann, 120.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Despite your people’s hardened hearts you gave them manna when they were hungry. Soften our hearts, and make us grateful for your marvelous gifts. Amen.
I am the bread of life, Suzanne Toolan