What is it?
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16:2 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.
16:3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
16:4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.
16:5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”
16:6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
16:7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your complaining against the LORD. For what are we, that you complain against us?”
16:8 And Moses said, “When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against him–what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD.”
16:9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the LORD, for he has heard your complaining.'”
16:10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
16:11 The LORD spoke to Moses and said,
16:12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'”
16:13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.
16:14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.
16:15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.
- 2020 has really been something, hasn’t it? What is it? Can we just get back to normal? What is it? People of Israel felt the same way. As it turns out, however, that was the wrong question, and God, through Moses points them to a better question.
- Israelites away from Egypt, a place of bondage and oppression, are in the wilderness. Contrast is drawn for them. Egypt represents plenty of meat and bread and the satisfaction of their material needs, while the wilderness represents hunger and death. Their anxiety over their circumstances distorts the memory of the previous situation. Their concern about their survival and the urgent need for food short-circuits their long-term focus on freedom and prosperity in the promised land.
- In this passage, God redefines the wilderness. Instead of being a place of death and despair, it becomes a place of life and revelation of God’s faithfulness and provision. Bread will be offered in a new and different way. In the process, Israel will be tested, however, as to whether they will be able to perceive and then receive the bread from heaven with new conditions. The old ways of Egypt, marked by anxiety and abuse that led to hoarding are no longer going to be the way in the wilderness.
- God declares that God has heard their complaints and that the people will know that it is the Lord, Yahweh, who has rescued them. This wilderness that had been without anything life-giving, will be the site of the revelation of God. God’s hearing leads to the people’s knowing and seeing that God is omnipotently present and powerfully in control.
- The mechanism for turning their worry to confident obedience is worship. In vs. 9, Moses tells the people to “draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” In drawing near, Israel turns its attention away from Egypt and beyond the wilderness towards God. The wilderness then is revealed to be not an barren place of death, but rather the site of God’s splendor. The manna and quail nurture not only their bodies but their spirits as well and the evidence is faith.
- The provision of bread becomes a model for the distribution of food and how a community is functions that is dependent on God’s steadfast generosity. No one gathered too much or too little to have their and their neighbor’s needs met. The instruction was clear. Gather just enough for the day so that there is no surplus, except on the day before the Sabbath. In so doing, God is revealed to be one who can be trusted and everyone lives together with adequate supplies. Those who seek to create a zone of self-sufficiency, who revert to the old practices of Egypt—hoarding out of anxiety and greed, discover their efforts are useless and what they reap becomes disgustingly worm infested and rotten.
- How can we interpret this text for our times:
- We are in a wilderness: pandemic, effects of climate change—fires, storms, extreme social unrest, violence threatening our communities, main-line church in decline, an entire generation may be lost while we try to reckon with all these issues, a highly contentious election is around the corner, and we have just lost yet another voice for justice and equality for all people in the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this on the heels of the loss of civil rights icons John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian.
- Yet, we look longingly back to Egypt. Pre-pandemic. But we know there were still a disproportionate number of African Americans unemployed, inequity in allocation of resources, policies and practices in place that contributed to climate change and the degradation of the environment; violence and drugs infesting our communities, and churches in decline. Do we really want to go back there, to feast on manna that really isn’t bread at all. It’s false. Even for those who claim that they want to make America great again—I wonder if they are thinking of the time the feast of the day was something other than what God equitably provides for all God’s children. Listen to how MLK describes this food that some found oh so succulent at the time and perhaps would like to feast on it again today. MLK uttered these words in his address at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March in March of 1965.
- “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir). Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike (Uh huh) resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; (Yes, sir) they segregated southern churches from Christianity (Yes, sir); they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; (Yes, sir) and they segregated the Negro from everything. (Yes, sir) That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would prey upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.
- Some of those wanting to make America great again are wanting to go back to this American version of Egypt. Where there was no manna. Where things really weren’t that great anyway or at least not in the equitable way depicted in our scripture today, where each person was able to reap what they needed for themselves and their families and then help those who may have needed help if that should have come up.
- Some hearing me today are in their own personal form of wilderness, perhaps known only to themselves and God. It is a place of barrenness and desolation, not being able to see the horizon of the promised land and wondering how you are going to make it through. Some even this morning are crying out to God over your need in despair and anxiety. You want to go back to the way things were and may be forgetting how uncomfortable they were. But God may have you and any of us in this place to not only test but to cultivate our faith.
- God told Moses and me to tell you, draw near to God in worship—not just today, but everyday. Praise can be on your lips. And when you ask the question, what is this? You will receive the answer. But it won’t be a what but rather a who—The Lord is the one who is rescuing you from the pit.
- We may not have manna, but we have something better. Read about it in John 6: 25-59. “It is my Father who gives you true bread from heaven.” John 6:32 and “I am the bread that came down from heaven”. 6: 41.
- Jesus is the sign of the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness, supplying all the needs of those who accept the invitation to believe in Jesus as the messiah.
- The Israelites asked “What is this?” But that’s the wrong question. The better question is “Who is this?” Hear the answer, it is the Lord! We might not be able to make sense of the what it is that we are observing, but if we know WHO is with us in the midst of, then we will be alright. God is providing. God has provided and will provide for us in the midst of our need. He hears our complaining and our cries.
- It’s not about what you know, but who you know.