Thirty days out of Egypt the people have a food problem. They’re in the wilderness, their provisions have run out, and there’s no visible means of feeding themselves. The conditions are ripe, therefore, for a show of faith in the God who so miraculously delivered them from Egypt and has brought them to where they are. Unfortunately the show of faith doesn’t materialize and the people instead have to learn a lesson (again) about God’s mercy, power, and daily provision.
Fortunately, the lesson isn’t for Israel alone. The story of manna in the wilderness shows us that God is faithful to those who depend on and trust Him and that He often provides in such a way that His people must keep on trusting Him. We serve a God who LOVES and DEMANDS our faith and trust and, unlike an earthly parent, wants us to become more dependent as we mature in Him.
The people have traveled for thirty days since leaving Egypt (fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt). They come to the wilderness of Sin after leaving an oasis area where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms (and the living was presumably good). Before that, they were in Marah where God miraculously provided water (shortly after miraculously drying up the Red Sea which was shortly after afflicting Egypt with ten plagues that miraculously delivered the people from generations of slavery [you get the picture]).
When they reach the wilderness they apparently run out of food. The provisions they brought from Egypt are gone and they likely do not want to start slaughtering livestock – of which they have a large number (12:38) – because it would jeopardize the livelihood they want to set up in Canaan.
When the food runs out the people respond as they have already on two other occasions (beside the Red Sea and upon arriving in Marah with its bitter water) – they grumble and accuse. They accuse Moses and Aaron of bringing them out to the wilderness to starve to death. They speak wistfully of Egypt and remember pots of meat and bread to the full and wish that Yahweh had just killed them there instead of bringing them to the wilderness to die. They essentially look back at the Passover and wish that God had killed them instead of having redeemed them.
On the one hand it’s easy to sympathize with the panic that would set in upon running out of food in a wilderness area where there’s absolutely nothing to eat and no means of producing food (and absolutely no civilization of any kind). On the other hand, the implications of what the people say are staggering and inexcusable. They actually say out loud that if they had it to do all over again they’d reject God’s deliverance or choose to die at the hands of the angel of death like the firstborn of Egypt. Their ungratefulness for all God’s done and their apparent galactic amnesia regarding God’s miraculous acts that took place a month ago (or less in the case of providing water) are amazing. What a commentary on the human heart and what a case study in why God goes to such great lengths to establish customs that memorialize His acts.
Along those same lines, it’s fascinating (and very sad) that the people establish a habit – one they will practice for the next forty years – of grumbling instead of inquiring or requesting. When things get bad they instantly jump to complaints and accusations. They never come to Moses and say, “We’re out of food, what’s the plan?” or “What should we do now that we’re out of water?” They instead grumble and accuse either Moses or God or both of trying to kill them. Their faithlessness is both startling in its scope (“What’s God done for us lately?”) and mind-numbing in its repetition. They’re very predictable; when things don’t go well they instantly blame and complain. And they never learn from their experiences. No matter how many times God provides for them, at the next crisis they lose hope and lash out.
God responds to the people’s complaints by telling Moses what He will do to address the problem. Amazingly, He simply responds without condemning the people. The people are faithless, ungrateful, and borderline blasphemous, yet God simply tells Moses how He’s going to provide for them. God’s mercy throughout this scene is extraordinary. He has every right to visit His wrath on such a thankless people, yet He simply and graciously provides for the need that’s caused them to be thankless and demanding.
What God will do is rain bread from heaven. Every day He will rain enough bread to feed them for a day. Each day the people must gather enough for just that day. On the sixth day, the people should gather enough for two days. The reason the people are to gather just enough for one day (except on the sixth day) is that God wants to test them to see whether or not they will walk in My instruction. Will the people have enough faith to only gather what’s needed for each day?
Moses and Aaron go to the people and tell them that God will respond to their grumbling. This very evening they will see God’s response and then they’ll know that the Lord has brought [them] out of the land of Egypt (they’re ONE MONTH removed from crossing the Red Sea but apparently they need reassuring AGAIN that God is with them). Even more, in the morning He’ll respond again. Tonight they’ll have meat to eat (not sure how Moses knows this since nothing is in the text about God telling him yet) and in the morning they’ll have bread to the full (note Moses using their own words to describe the bread).
Moses ends his words with a sobering statement. He tells them, “…the Lord hears your grumblings which you grumble against Him. And what are we? Your grumblings are not against us but against the Lord.” God delivered them from Egypt. God brought them to this place. If they complain about their circumstances, their complaint is against God, not Moses and Aaron. They may have accused Moses but their accusations were ultimately against God.
What Moses says to Israel is just as true for us today. When we complain about our lot in life or about the circumstances that surround us we ultimately complain against God. If God is sovereign, then He’s Lord of circumstances. And if He’s the Lord of circumstances our unhappiness about those circumstances is ultimately directed against Him. We may think we complain about the people who are responsible for our plight or about the state of our world generally, but what we really do is complain against God.
Moses tells Aaron to tell the people to come near to the Lord because He has heard their grumblings. This can’t make anyone feel comfortable. “The Lord would like to see you now – He’s heard your complaints.” If they weren’t sobered by Moses telling them they were complaining against God they’re likely very sobered now that they hear God wants to see them.
As Aaron speaks to the people, the glory of the Lord appears in the cloud. It’s not exactly clear what this means. If God has been leading them with the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (13:21-22), then what happens here that’s different than the normal cloud? Could this mean that the pillar of cloud isn’t always present or perhaps that it went away after the crossing of the Red Sea? Or is this some kind of special appearance inside the cloud that’s already there? It’s hard to know, but since in 13:22 it says that God didn’t take away the pillar of cloud at any time (and assuming that that applies to the entirety of the wilderness travels), it probably makes sense that this is some kind of special appearance from within the cloud that’s already there (and if the cloud is always present, it means that every time the people grumble they do so in sight of a visible reminder of God’s presence and glory). Regardless of what exactly happens, the effect has to startle the people and give enormous weight to Aaron’s words.
God speaks to Moses from the cloud (presumably Moses goes out to meet Him) and tells him that He will provide meat at twilight and bread in the morning for the people. He will do this so they shall know that I am the Lord your God (again!).
God does as He promised. At twilight, quail come up and cover the camp. The people are able to catch them and eat their fill of meat (this apparently is a one-time event since God will later repeat the miracle but use it to punish the people – Num 11). The next morning, a flake-like thing is on the ground after the dew melts – it’s the bread God said He would rain from heaven. The people see it and ask, “What is it?”, thus giving it its name (the Hebrew for ‘what is it’ is ‘man hu’).
The bread on the ground is not a one-time event and so it comes with rules for its gathering and use. The people are only to gather enough for each day. They are not to store it or hoard it (which, for an agricultural society, goes against every instinct they have). They must gather just that day’s requirement which is judged to be one omer (roughly two quarts) per person per family. This is the rule for the first five days of the week. On the sixth day, they are to gather enough for two days (two omers per person per family) because God will not rain bread on the seventh day. The seventh day is a sabbath and they are to rest on that day (note that God institutes the Sabbath before giving them the Law).
Note also that the bread melts once the sun grows hot. So on the one hand they aren’t to hoard it or store it, but on the other hand they have to get to it each morning before it goes away. They have to trust and work. It’s God’s provision but they can’t just find it whenever they want it. They have to gather when it’s available.
The people do as Moses commands. They gather the bread in the morning. Some gather much, some gather little. Once it’s all gathered, however, everyone has enough when measured using the omer. [It’s not entirely clear what verses 17-18 mean but it could be that the people pool what they gather and then parcel it out based on the one-omer-per-person allocation and everyone ends up with enough – this protects the weak who perhaps can’t gather as much or as fast as the young and strong – this explanation seems to go along with what Paul says in II Cor 8:15.]
Not everyone obeys, however. Moses specifically gives them two prohibitions: don’t leave any leftovers overnight and don’t try to gather any manna on the seventh day. The people violate both commands. Some leave excess manna overnight to eat the next day (assuming everyone ends up with just an omer per person, this means that some don’t eat their whole allocation) and find it foul and worm-eaten in the morning. And some go out on the seventh day to gather only to suffer Moses’ wrath over their stubborn refusal to obey. God gives them two tests – “Do you trust that I’ll provide manna tomorrow?” and “Do you trust that the manna you gather on Friday will still be good on Saturday?” – and they fail both.
Moses describes manna for the reader. It’s like coriander seed (which may refer to its size instead of taste) and is white and tastes like wafers with honey (which is appropriate for a nation on its way to a land flowing with milk and honey).
These verses are very obviously a later addendum to the chapter. The ark hasn’t been commissioned or built yet and at this point no one realizes that it will be forty years before the nation reaches the Promised Land, so this section of the text is written looking back. It serves as a postscript to the manna story. God tells Moses to place an omerful of manna in the Ark of the Covenant as a remembrance of His provision in the wilderness (as we know, the people’s memories are amazingly short). The author also tells us that God continues to provide manna six days per week for the next forty years. God provides food for FORTY YEARS.
Lessons from Manna
- God loves and demands trusting dependents. Every day the people receive one day’s provision. Every day the people wake up and realize that if there isn’t manna on the ground they’ll go hungry. Every day they have to trust God all over again. What happened yesterday isn’t relevant because they can’t hold on to what they collected yesterday. And tomorrow doesn’t mean anything to today. They have to trust God for today, every day. Years from now, Jesus will teach His followers to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” pointing to the same trusting dependence. God loves dependents. And God demands dependents. He tells Moses that He provides one day’s provision so He can test the faith of the people (and they of course fail the test). But He continues to provide only one day of provision for the next forty years – He never stops the test. He demands that they continually understand and practice their dependence on Him. So what does that mean for us? We must remember that He’s the same God with the same perspective on His followers today. Every day we must trust Him for today. He doesn’t promise to give us enough strength and guidance for the next week. He promises us today. So every day we must wake up with the faith that He will provide what we need today. And we have to keep on faithfully depending every day. HE LOVES to be pursued and He LOVES to be depended upon and He thus demands that we pursue and depend upon Him. It is only after we learn this (and continually relearn it) that we walk in close (and less frustrated) fellowship with Him.
- God’s faithfulness is truly awesome. He will provide manna six days a week for the next FORTY years. The Israelites will rebel, they will fall away, they will fail when given the opportunity to enter the Promised Land (the whole point of their deliverance from Egypt), and God will repeatedly punish and judge them. But one thing will never change until they actually enter the land four decades from now – the manna will be there every morning. EVERY MORNING. This is what informs the faith and dependence God demands of His people. He is EVER faithful. Regardless of circumstances, regardless of what His people deserve, the manna will be there EVERY morning. This should become something of a mantra for us – the manna will be there EVERY morning. It’s who God is and it’s why we can wake up every day filled with faith that our needs for today will be met.
- God’s manna points to God’s Son. Jesus will say that He is the bread of life which comes down out of heaven (Jn 6:48-51), the living bread that God provides in the same way He provided manna. Unlike manna, however, this bread provides eternal life. God’s ultimate provision for His people is His Son.
- God’s provision spurs generosity. Some gather much every morning, some gather little, but everyone ends up with what they need. The strong and wealthy don’t get more than the weak and poor. Paul will point to this as an encouragement to the Corinthians to give to the needs of the Jerusalem church (II Cor 8:13-15). When we have faith that God will provide every day, we give generously (I’m willing to share my manna today if I trust that there will be manna on the ground tomorrow). And when we give out of what God provides and with an understanding that what we have is ours only because God provides it, we give generously (I don’t have pride of ownership in something that is mine only because God gave it to me, so sharing it is easier than giving away what I feel is mine). Understanding and depending on God’s provision make us generous givers.