Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15
Exodus 16 is the second stage of Israel’s wilderness journey, following the dramatic defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 14-15).
Departing from the oasis at Elim (Exodus 15:27), Israel arrives at the “Desert of Sin” on the way to Sinai. Exodus 16, in other words, sits in that uncomfortable space between departure and destination—or in the case of Exodus, between liberation and covenant. Chronology also matters. Verse 1 indicates that these events took place a month after Israel’s departure from Egypt (see also Numbers 33:3).
Long journeys in adverse conditions often bring out the worst in people. This was certainly the case for the newly liberated Israelites in Exodus 16: “The Israelites said to them [Moses and Aaron], ‘If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death’” (Exodus 16:3). The compounding forces of time, environment, and uncertainty snuffed out the afterglow of victory. In the process, history and memory are rewritten as well. Forgotten are the years of domination, terror, and enslavement under Pharaoh. All the Israelite community can remember about Egypt is that they had full bellies at the end of the day. Nostalgic longing for a misremembered history is a powerful and dangerous force, especially in an environment of scarcity and adversity.
But God is patient and commits to offering the Israelites scheduled, regular rations for their journey: “I will rain down bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16:4). The heavenly bread, however, must be gathered and prepared in a very particular manner, with special consideration for the demands of the Sabbath: “The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days” (verses 4-5; see also 21-26). According to verse 35, this “daily bread” was to be their staple until they finally reached Canaan.
God’s test of Israel is not so much a matter of determining whether they properly follow the instruction manual. More to the point is whether they will truly trust that the heavenly bread will also be daily bread. This point is underscored by the fact that the first reported violation is a case of hoarding: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them” (Exodus 16:20). On the whole, the biblical texts are not opposed to wise preparation (see, for example, Proverbs 21:20; 30:25). In the context of Exodus 16, however, hoarding is a sign of distrust, because it demonstrates a refusal to believe that Yhwh is worthy of trust. Exodus 16, in other words, is less about “grumbling” and more about unbelief. The grumbling of the Israelites is a symptom of their lack of trust in their God.
There is another lesson that God seems intent upon teaching: the God of Israel hears prayers. The point is made several times throughout the text, beginning at verses 6-7: “So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?’” (emphasis mine). Verse 8, similarly, reads, “Moses also said, ‘You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him’” (emphasis mine). In verse 9, Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’” And finally, verse 11 reads: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’’” An important lesson from the wilderness is that Israel does not travel alone, and neither do we. The God of the desert is a gift-giving, life-sustaining, and prayer-hearing God. But in the wilderness, the most difficult test is to believe that these claims are true.
Zooming out for a moment, a similar point is made in the early chapters of Exodus. For instance, Exodus 2:23-24 reads: “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (emphasis mine). Exodus 3:7 is similar: “The LORD said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.’” Israel’s future identity as a covenant people depends upon their recognizing that Yhwh is a God who hears and answers prayers. When they pray, heaven responds. When they groan under the crushing weight of the world, that groan reaches the throne of God.
Moments of disruption and adversity often expose the stories that we tell about ourselves, our past, and our relationship with God. In Exodus 16, a narrative of distrust in God’s goodness feeds a distorted recollection of Israel’s past, and activates a nostalgic hunger for the fleshpots of Egypt. The compounding pressures of food scarcity, vulnerability, and a journey of uncertain length make these responses understandable. Like every single one of us, the Israelites are on a lengthy journey of trying to unlearn habits cultivated under Pharaoh’s whip and learn anew what it means to wander this world under the care of a loving God.