Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Give us this day our daily bread…and meat.
Anyone who has ever led a large group of people through unfamiliar territory is sure to have heard complaints — often over trivial matters — from some or even many members of the group. The complaining can quickly sour relationships and provoke the leader to regret that he or she took the group away in the first place.
The complaining is loud and clear in this Exodus passage. Moses, Aaron and God get an earful. For us as readers, it is tempting to adopt the position of story outsider and treat the complaining as whiners, condemning the Israelites as faithless.
No one likes listening to complaint. Individuals in power or in the majority can often choose to ignore a complaint, dismiss it as mere whining, or punish the complainant. In contrast, to listen to a complaint involves seeing the world from another’s position and hearing a call to act.
Thus, to condemn the Israelites for complaining in Exodus 16 would be to introduce a judgment that the text itself does not make, sending the message that complaint has no place in life with God.
This, of course, is not true. The laments in the Book of Psalms give voice to the human experience of abandonment, suffering, fear, and danger. The laments call upon God to see, arise, and act (e.g., Psalm 10, 13, 89). In the Book of Job, Job rejects an attitude of resignation toward his suffering. Instead, he unleashes a lengthy and detailed complaint against God’s treatment of the righteous and God’s management of the world. From the cross, Jesus cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1).
At its core, complaint is a turning to God — not away — trusting that God the Almighty does not ignore, dismiss or punish those who call out in fear, anger, suffering, and need.
In Exodus 16, the Israelites are beginning their second month of wilderness walking (16:1) following their deliverance from Egypt. The dangers of the wilderness are real — the Israelites have already faced thirst (Exodus 15:22-25), now hunger, and later they will face attack (Exodus 17:8-13). They do not exaggerate their predicament. They are no longer part of the system of labor that fed them in the past. They cannot supply their own needs. They are hungry. Their situation is dire and there is no visible way out.
The complaint that there is no food, the fear of the present, and the longing to be back in an earlier time are not constrained to the pages of Exodus. The situation is the same for the world’s poor today, and they are joined by increasing numbers of people losing homes, jobs, health care, pensions, dignity, property, and savings in the wake of global economic turbulence.
Exodus 16 offers the assurance that the wilderness of want is not a God-forsaken time or place. As Moses instructs Aaron to say to the Israelites: “Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining” (16:9).
It must be acknowledged that a complaint does not always contain the best solution. In their complaining, the Israelites declare it would have been better to have died in Egypt than be facing hunger in the wilderness. In recalling Egypt, they think not of death but of food, specifically meat and bread. In their complaint, Egypt sounds like the good life as they remember how they “sat by the fleshpots and ate [their] fill of bread” (16:3). In their real fear for the future, the Israelites look back to Egypt as the way of life that sustained them.
The wilderness is a place of danger and want. It is also a space for learning new ways of relating that are not based on the identity the Israelites had and the life they lived in Egypt.
In Egypt, the Israelites’ lives and service benefitted Pharaoh. In the wilderness, their lives begin to be reordered. In the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 20:1-17) the loyalty of the Israelites is redirected from Pharaoh to Yahweh. Their service no longer benefits Pharaoh but goes towards building a community characterized by integrity, honor, care and compassion.
The wilderness is also the place where the Israelites come to know the God who has demanded and accomplished their release from slavery. In the dispute with Pharaoh, Yahweh claims the Israelites as Yahweh’s own (“Let my people go so that they may worship me” Exodus 9:13). God demonstrates power over humans in defeating Pharaoh and power over creation in delivering the Israelites.
What is unknown as the Israelites exit Egypt is how this powerful God will relate to them in the future. Exodus 16 offers a glimpse of this emerging relationship.
God hears the complaining of the Israelites. God recognizes not only their need for sustenance — daily bread — but their desire for a life beyond scarcity — meat. God responds by sending quail for meat and manna for bread. God proves to be a different type of lord than Pharaoh.
What an awesome scene as the dew lifts and the sun rises: the wilderness ground is covered with a “flaky substance, as fine as frost” (16:14). It is unfamiliar to the Israelites and they are puzzled, perhaps even fearful, as they ask each other: “What is it?” (16:15).
It is, Moses explains, bread from Yahweh given to them. As the Israelites move into their wilderness journey God has found new ways to provide for them. The manna supplied to the Israelites may offer hope to people today that God can and does provide in new and fitting ways in changed and uncharted conditions.
There is another amazing surprise in this passage. As the people “looked toward the wilderness…the glory of the LORD appeared” (16:10). It is not just on a mountaintop or just to Moses and Aaron that God appears.
God is near and listening to those whom we might be tempted to call faithless: those who complain to God because they are hungry, anxious, dislocated, in unfamiliar territory and without a clear plan for the future. There God is present. For them the glory of the LORD is revealed in daily bread…and meat.