Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Exodus might be regarded as the beginning proper of the Israelite story.
Now they are more than an extended family, they are a “congregation,” a single body united by ties of kinship, and affiliation by choice on their way to becoming a nation. Israelite identity is complex. Their founding family comes from what will become Babylonia (and later Iraq). They practice “internal” marriage, a euphemism for incest. Abraham marries his (half-) sister (Genesis 20:12); his uncle Nahor marries a niece, Milcah (Genesis 11:27, 29). The desire to marry only within the family sends Abraham’s servant in search of a blood relative, Rebekah, in Genesis 20:4. Her branch of the family is described as “Aramean,” (Genesis 25:20). In a generation marriage patterns change, Judah and Simeon produce heirs with Canaanite women, Tamar and her unnamed sister-in-law (Genesis 38:2 and 46:10), and Joseph marries and fathers children with an Egyptian woman, Asenath (Genesis 41:50). Joseph’s half-Egyptian children Ephraim and Manasseh will essentially become tribes in their own right. The scholarly designation for the ethnicity of ancient Israel is for this and other reasons, “Afro-Asiatic.”
To this multicultural mix is added an unknown number of persons of unknown ethnicity and nationality who escaped Egypt with Israel, (Exodus 12:38). All of these people are in the process of becoming a single nation, ritual actions like circumcision and covenant ratification will cement them together. Religious and cultural practices will help to differentiate them from other nations with whom they will share land and (similar) language.
In the period of wilderness wandering, the “entire congregation” grumbles repeatedly against Moses (and Aaron though Miriam has been rendered invisible). The word “entire” here should be read as literary exaggeration for effect: every one grumbles the exact same speech. In some rabbinic readings only the non-Israelite elements murmur. The word “entire” is also a marker of inclusivity. No matter how they got there, they are becoming a singular people with a singular lament.
It may be tempting to condemn the lack of faith the Israelites display in the God who has demonstrated such great power in the plagues on Egypt and the parting of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). It may be helpful to remember that those miracles were now more than six weeks past according to the chronology of v 1. Also six weeks behind them was the oasis of Elim with fresh water and date-laden palm trees. Six weeks later, their promised land was nowhere in sight and their provisions were being consumed at an alarming rate. And, the only thing the pillar of cloud and fire was leading them to was more sand.
In this text God is both attentive and apparently exasperated. God’s response to her whiny children will be familiar to many parents (and many raised by parents) — I’ll give you exactly what you’re asking for, so much so that you’ll lose your desire for it and learn a lesson. Even so, God appears to take the complaint in stride, raining food from the sky. (Lechem is both “bread” and “food.”) But this will be a test. Will the Israelites obey instructions they may not understand? Blind obedience is not always a virtue in our world. In fact, when such allegiance is placed in religious figures, it can be dangerous, even deadly. However, in the world of the text unquestioning obedience was prized.
In this story God is the One Who Hears, the One Who Provides, and the One to whom obedience is due. These characteristics are integral to the portrayal of God throughout the scriptures. God is also the Accompanying One, companioning and shepherding Israel through the wilderness in the form of the pillar that was cloud by day and fire by night. In the face of the people’s complaint God also reveals a bit more of the divine self, allowing a glimpse of divine glory to show through the cloud in v. 10. The broader lessons are that God is attentive to the needs, wants, and even complaints of God’s people. The provision of quails and manna demonstrate that will provides for God’s people, again and again, using extraordinary measures when called for. For Israel, all of this takes place in the bounds of a relationship that is being inscribed with each step of their journey.