Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18
Much has happened in the biblical narrative between last Sunday and this one.
This people, a mixed group of rag-tag slaves, have witnessed God’s great power over Pharaoh on their behalf. This is a revolutionary act. Slaves are ignored and irrelevant in the course of history. Gods do not act for slaves, but for kings and empires. This Yahweh has turned the world and its rules upside down. It was a dramatic exit from Egypt with a rush of activity and a run to the wilderness. This God sealed the way behind them with the destruction of a pursuing army. There is only one way to go, forward into the unknown world, and so they follow God and Moses.
Reading this part of the narrative, it is easy to dismiss these former slaves as ungrateful and faithless. God has saved them, and here they are complaining. Indeed, a form of the word “complain” appears six times in this narrative. Yet, the biblical text does not condemn the people; God hears them and responds to their needs. We should do likewise and not be too quick to label them as ungrateful.
What would we do in their place? This narrative opens in the second month since the great escape. These folks are wandering in some of the most arid and barren real estate on the planet. To survive, the people will need to learn to depend on God for everything. Indeed, the first step in their process of becoming a self-determining people is to learn to trust this God. Just as a baby learns to trust that her parents will feed her, the people need to learn trust. Their bodies may be free from slavery, but it will take much more to free their minds and hearts.
God responds to needs of the people, first water (Exodus 15:25) and now food. The extravagance of these gifts can easily be overlooked today. “In the evening, quails came up and covered the camp” (Exodus 16:13). We are accustomed eating meat unless one has consciously chosen otherwise. But in this ancient world, “the average family ate meat only on festive occasions.”1 In this non-producing, arid land, the people not only received meat, but did so on a daily basis.
The second gift is equally generous. At first glance, it does not appear like much. Twice the biblical text uses the word thin, “as thin as frost,” to describe this mystery. When the people saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” or manna in Hebrew. Like God’s unfathomable name, this gift will remain a question, not a certainty. Indeed, this manna cannot be owned. If you gather a little, there is enough, and if you greedily gather up a great amount, there is still just enough, and if you gather just the right amount, it is the right amount.
As noted above, this Yahweh is turning the rules of the world upside down! What of the Protestant work ethic? Hard work equals more for me and mine. Not in God’s world. Like the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), God’s world is one of equality for all. God reminds them (and us) that work, even in the kingdom, is not why God gives us our daily bread. Here the people receive a message about the way they should learn to act as a people of God.
It is easy to see God’s gifts here as belonging to a long ago people who are dependent on God. It is a nice story but has little to do with us today. Their lesson is ours, as well. Part of understanding the biblical story as part of our story is to learn the lessons of the text.
We tend to think that farmers and smart people assure our food supply. Yet, despite all of our ingenuity, it is God who has made a planet where the seeds awaken to feed the world. Just because something is part of our ordinary lives does not mean it is not miraculous.
Whether we see it or not, we depend on God for our daily bread, just as this wilderness generation did. This world is full of a great variety of plants and animals that feed us all in a complex ecosystem. We are the ones who have made systems where food is more available in some places than others. God’s plan is a table for all — a definition that turns our world upside down.
In summary, once we stop and understand the context, this text is not one where we should stand in judgment of our ancient brothers and sisters, but one where we stand in their shoes and look around to see how God wishes us to order the world. God provides, and we are to take what we need. Greed and trust are incompatible. God still provides a world rich in resources, and we should marvel at this overabundance of God’s gifts. Possibly, we react to the people’s “complaining” because we know that we should not ever think of complaining with all of the gifts we have.
Finally, in the context of the narrative lectionary, this narrative is set in the midst of three call texts, one for Moses last week, next Samuel, and then David. This reminds us also that God does call us forth from whatever enslaves us to a life of trust and dependence on God, yet that does not mean it is going to be easy. Our path will be full of trials when we will be tempted to depend on things and persons other than God. Indeed, this group does not learn this lesson; all of them die before God’s promises are fulfilled. So too is the way of faith; results are not immediate, and much patience in the wilderness is required.
1 King and Stager, Life in Ancient Israel, 68.
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.
All who hunger, gather gladly ELW 461
God be with you till we meet again ELW 536
For the bread which you have broken ELW 494, H82 340, 341, UMH 615
I am the bread of life, Suzanne Toolan