Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Whine, whine, whine…. Complain, complain, complain. That’s all the Israelites do.”

September 18, 2011

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Exodus 16:2-15

“Whine, whine, whine…. Complain, complain, complain. That’s all the Israelites do.”

I often hear this kind of complaint (!) from students. But is that what this story is really about? The stubbornness of the Israelites and their inability to accept their freedom?

My students are picking up on an important theme in the wilderness stories, to be sure. In this passage alone, someone complains or is said to complain seven times in just 14 verses. But are we as readers to conclude that Israelites are ungrateful whiners testing the patience of a long-suffering god? Or is there something more to this story?

This week’s lectionary text contains the second story of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness. It was only at the end of chapter 15 that they found themselves, by the skin of their teeth, on the other side of the Red Sea and celebrated their freedom from and Yahweh’s victory over Pharaoh. Prior to the events narrated in this passage, they have spent part of that time at an oasis in Elim, perhaps to regain their strength and prepare for the journey to come.

And once they have set out, they find themselves in a battle for survival. The inhospitable environment of what we know as the Sinai Peninsula and southern Israel prompted the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament to imagine this desert wilderness as a land of chaos and death. It is, of course, to the wilderness that Jesus must go to endure forty hunger-filled days of temptation and testing by the devil himself (Luke 4:1-13). The Israelites’ move from the oasis into the depths of the wilderness signifies a move directly into the heart of risk.

The reality television series “Survivor” has shown us what happens to groups of people forced to survive difficult conditions together. They can turn on one another quickly, especially if they’re hungry and thirsty! And they do a good bit of complaining.

But is this story merely trying to tell us that these Israelites are a bunch of no-good complainers and that this is just the beginning of God’s trouble with them?

It might be interesting to take a different sermonic tack here. While the writers cast judgment on Israel’s complaining in Numbers 11-21, after they have made the covenant with God at Mt Sinai in Exodus 20, the narrator in the pre-Sinai tales of wilderness wandering does not depict the Israelites’ behavior in a strictly negative light. Instead theses narratives focus on God’s response.

In verse 3, the people complain specifically against Moses and Aaron and accuse them (not God) of leading them into the wilderness “to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” God responds immediately, telling Moses that he will “rain bread from heaven” (verse 4). There will be enough for that day and that day only, with the exception of the Sabbath. On the sixth day, they can gather enough for the seventh day because God’s food-from-the-sky restaurant will be closed on Sunday. On the Sabbath, both God and God’s people will rest. God indicates that, “in this way, I will test them” (verse 4).

Although God tells Moses all of this, Moses’ speech to the Israelites goes in a remarkably different direction. First of all, Moses never tells the people that God has designed the food gathering rules as a test. And at this point, Moses does not even tell them about the stipulations against storing up the food.

Instead Moses says, “In the evening, you will know that it was Yahweh who brought you out of the land of Egypt and in the morning you will see the glory of Yahweh…” (verse 6). Moses’ words here suggest that the people do not know or do not understand that the god who enacted their deliverance also plans to be with them in the wilderness.

Moses also tells the Israelites that they will see God’s glory — even though God did not mention to Moses that God planned to show up in a cloud. Surely God’s glory does appear in a cloud in verse 10, but the disconnect between God’s words and Moses’ is intriguing. Moses interprets God’s promise to rain food from heaven as a means for the people to come to know their deliverer.

And to know that Yahweh is the one who sends the food, Moses’ speech implies that the people will need to see it to believe it. To connect the action of provision with this god, the people need more than magically appearing bread; they need to see direct — or at least, indirect but strong — evidence that the food gift comes from Yahweh.

The disjunction between what God says to Moses and what Moses then relates to the people is striking because Moses makes some tremendous interpretive leaps. Moses even makes an extravagant promise — that the people will see God — even though God has not said this at all! Perhaps Moses can read the divine mind or there was more to their conversation than what the narrator reports.

Or perhaps Moses’ speech is meant to be overheard by God. As Moses speaks to the hungry and ornery people gathered before him in the wilderness, bent on rebellion, perhaps Moses suggests to God that talk of testing and rules is not really what is called for at this moment. What these tired and starving people, barely surviving in the wilderness, need is something more along the lines of a pep talk, a promise.

After all, what they have seen of God so far is a god of drama, a god who engages in mighty deeds of battle and deliverance. God’s people suffered in Egypt for 400-plus years (according to the biblical chronology) before God heard their cries and acted to liberate them. These people might be justified in worrying that this god, whom they have only recently become acquainted with, may not be the steady and reliable type.

It is remarkable that God responds to the people’s need for assurance and for a promise, accompanied by a visible sign of presence, of provision and guidance. But God does something else in this passage as well. God designs and implements a plan to shape these former slaves into the people of the Yahweh. Prior to their liberation, the Israelites knew only life in Egypt, an empire where they constructed storehouses for food (Exodus 1:11), where they were exposed constantly to a hoarding, competitive ethos, and where human lives were abused and broken in order to fuel the hunger of the elite.

In this passage, God acknowledges not only the Israelites’ need for assurance but also God’s desire to shape them as a different kind of people, a different kind of community. In the ritual practice of daily gathering of food that falls from the sky, they will learn, with their very bodies, to come to trust their god; they will learn to share their basic human resources equitably.

They will come to know a food distribution practice antithetical to the one designed by Pharaoh. And the keeping of the Sabbath will remind them that they are more than technologies of empire; they are human beings who, like their god, require rest and rejuvenation. Even in crisis, with chaos all around, Sabbath practice is essential to their lives and their emerging identities.

In a society shaped by values of consumerism and capitalism, the options for preaching the counter-cultural nuances of this text are rich and multivalent.