Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18
(This week’s scripture passage is Exodus 16:1-18, but it is helpful to keep Exodus 15:1–17:7 in mind in order to understand what is going on in this text).
Over the next four weeks we’ll be reviewing events in the lives of Moses, Samuel, David, and Solomon. These leaders are among those who represent particular moments in the life of Israel. We’ll begin with Moses. Moses represents the moment of Israel’s transition from enslavement to freedom.
In Exodus, the cries of a community touch God’s heart. God can no longer be a silent bystander listening to the cries bewailing the cruelty of their situation. God has to do something. God’s intervention and Moses’ leadership create a path for Israel to escape the bonds of enslavement. This is the moment when Israel became a nation, a community whose common experiences forever bound them to each other, to Moses, and to God.
With the plagues, the Passover meal, and the escape behind them, it is time to celebrate. The songs of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15:1-21 are the epitome of communal praise and rejoicing before the Lord. The people may not understand everything just yet. However, they are no longer in bondage and that is a reason to rejoice. Moses’ song, anachronistically, goes beyond victory over Pharaoh and the Red Sea to recalling victories yet to come over Philistia, Edom, Moab, and Canaan. Miriam leads the women in tambourine and dancing, rejoicing that horse and driver are no longer a threat. One would think that all is well.
Yet almost before the praises die down, reality sets in. The Israelites have no idea as to where they are, where they are going, how they will get there, how long the journey will last, or what life could be like when they get there. All they know is that they are hungry and there is nothing to eat.
Is it any wonder they complain (Exodus 15: 22-27)? Sure, there is plenty of gold, silver, and clothing in the plunder the Egyptians graciously, if unwittingly, provided. It would be more than enough to build the tabernacle, their tents—and the golden calf. Yet, once the Passover meal is over, what are they to eat? In this desert land, what would they drink?
All they can see is famine and death. Despite enslavement, making bricks, and providing their own straw, Egypt’s abundant food supplies looked mighty good. How could they know that God and God’s provision would be more than enough?
More than just food
Exodus 16:1-18 belies the depth of the trouble that lies ahead. Physical sustenance is one issue. Trusting God is another matter altogether. Would they understand the connection? Would they understand that even with no provisions in sight, their glass is half full, not half empty? Would they understand God’s provision of daily manna from a lens of abundance or scarcity? If abundance, they would follow Moses’s instructions exactly—no leftovers, double up on day six. If scarcity, they would hoard to the point of rotting excess.
Perhaps the reader should not be surprised at this sudden movement from audacious praise to relentless complaint. After all, this pattern of movement from positive to negative appears again and again throughout scripture:
- In Genesis: from the goodness of creation to the consequences of free choice
- In Judges: from the blessing of freedom in a new land to the chaos of independence when man does what is right in his own eyes
- In 1 Kings: from Northern Israel’s breakaway movement for freedom and social justice led by Jeroboam to defeat by the Assyrians
- From the promise of David in 2 Samuel to the Babylonian Exile in 2 Kings.
As it turns out, God’s provision is more than enough. For the complaint about bread, God provides morning manna. For the complaint about water, God makes bitter water sweet. For the complaint about meat, God provides evening quails. The provisions are to be a clear, unambiguous sign that leaves no doubt that YHWH and no one else is God, that no one else is their provider. God makes it plain in Exodus 16:11-12:
The Lord spoke to Moses and said, I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’
Beyond the complaint
In the midst of this discontent, the people’s complaints against Moses are really complaints against God. They want to know whether God is with them or not. As far as their physical eyes can see, God is not with them. Is it any wonder that Moses is exasperated to the point of crying out to God in Exodus 17:4b: “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
What about us?
We may criticize Moses and the people of Israel. Yet, before we do that, we would do well to look at ourselves. Do we trust God to provide when we cannot see God’s provision with our physical eyes?
Israel did not understand the times in which they lived. They did not understand who God is or that God would provide for them. In these days of a world-wide pandemic, national reckoning with racism, and a plethora of economic changes, do we understand the times in which we live? Are we doing our part to make the world a better place for all … or are we, like Israel, unable to see God or that we need not hoard God’s blessings, that God’s provision extends to us all? Hopefully, we are doing more than just complaining. Hopefully, we are doing our part!
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