The kids ask and ask for the thing they want more than anything in the whole world. They get it. They’re ecstatic for awhile. Then it’s not exciting anymore. Kids ask: How come you didn’t get me that other thing? Mom says they don’t need that other thing.
Kids get hungry. Really hungry. Could eat three pizzas in one sitting hungry. Dad gives them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Kids push back: but you left the crusts on my bread, and it’s the wrong kind of jelly and anyway, I wanted pizza. Dad says stop arguing and eat your lunch.
Kids hide peanut butter sandwiches in their pockets. Mom says don’t do that, it’ll make a mess. Kids keep stuffing it in. Mom says don’t do that, I mean it. Kids do it with gusto, then wonder why their pockets are so sticky.
Then the kids get thirsty. . . But that’s not until Exodus 17.
OK, I’ll admit it’s a somewhat irreverent paraphrase of today’s Scripture lesson. I expect it’s human nature to complain sometimes, just as it’s human nature to disobey our parents on occasion. And part of what we have here in Exodus 16 is a phenomenon true of many parent/child relationships. It’s just that in today’s performance the role of parent is played by God, and the role of child is played by the ancient Israelites.
The theme for our annual leadership retreat here at church last month was “Sharing the Bread of Life.” Over the next few Sundays we’ll be focusing in worship on Scripture texts that guided our conversation at that retreat. One of them being God’s provision of food – this manna, or bread from heaven - as the Israelites made their way through the wilderness, from slavery in Egypt into the promised land of Canaan.
And to be fair,the people’s complaints are really only a small part of what’s going on in this text. The weight of the story lies in God’s response; that is, in how their needs are met.
First, notice that God responds with compassion and understanding. As any good parent knows, the fact that the kids are complaining doesn’t mean they’re not genuinely tired and hungry. Before any real learning can take place, they need some food. Notice the sequence. The Israelites lament, and God rains down bread from heaven for them to eat. After all, what father, when his children ask him for bread, would give them a stone? What mother would forsake her nursing child? Feeding is the most basic form of provision, and it’s not for nothing that we have been taught to ask Godfor our daily bread. Yahweh’s been in the food business ever since Adam and Eve first strolled around the garden. And here in the wilderness, a month out of Egypt, the people may well have been truly hungry.
As for how God meets their need, I guess we’re free to come to our own conclusions about how extraordinary we feel it was for the people to have just as much food as they required each morning and each night for forty years. There are scholars who argue it wasn’t all that unusual to find these particular food sources in the desert – both this flaky white residue that could be baked and eaten, or the quail to provide them with meat. They claim it was a happy coincidence for the Hebrew people rather than a miracle. But accepting the gist of the ancient author’s interpretation – that the manna and quail were a tremendous gift from God – I think it’s important, even for those who may be drawn to more scientific explanations. Because the main question addressed within the text is not whether we are dealing here with “unparalleled food sources,” but whether the Israelites had Someone to thank for their daily bread. After all, when the tax refund arrives precisely when we need it most? Thanks be to God for bread from heaven!
It’s even been argued that it was the very ordinariness of the manna and quail that was significant. That the point of this particular story following on the heels of the more dramatic Passover and Red Sea events was “not to stress the extraordinary acts of God one more time but to keep God linked with everyday blessings.”God is concerned about all the little things”too.
Though for the manna to keep well over the Sabbath, and to spoil on other days certainly indicates there was something unusual about it. The fact that a portion of manna is kept for later generations to see also shows us this was felt to be a supernaturalprovision of food. Manna as superfood, you might say.
At any rate, another element of the divine response to Israel’s complaints is that while God meets their need, God doesn’t exactly let them order off the menu. Flaky manna paste was presumably a far cry from the mouthwatering meals they’d had in mind. Keith Green has a great song, “So You Want to Go Back to Egypt?” in which he imagines just how far the recipe file might be stretched as they wandered around: manna hotcakes, manna-burgers, filet of manna, manna-cotti, and naturally ba-manna bread. It wouldn’t exactly rate its own show on the Food Network. On the other hand, the people weren’t hungry anymore. They had enough to eat, and what remained was for them to learn to be content with what they had.
Meanwhile, as the chapter opens and closes we find clues that there is yet another important dimension to this story. And that’s the role of memory for these people of God.
First, notice the selective memory of the former slaves as they reflect back on their life in Egypt, where they “sat by the fleshpots (that just means pots full of stew meat) and ate [their] fill of bread.” That’s funny, I don’t remember any mention of mouth-watering Egyptian cookouts back in the opening chapters of Exodus. Being forced to make bricks without straw, yes. And groaning under the heavy yoke of slavery. But not so much about fragrant stew simmering over the fire.
So, too, the people demonstrate a bit of forgetfulness, at best, in the way they go about collecting their manna. “Only take what you need,” says God. So they promptly go out and try to gather extra. “Don’t bother going out on the Sabbath; there won’t be anything there.” So out they go on the Sabbath and wander around wondering where all the manna went. How quickly we forget!
But on the positive side, notice the ways in which Israel wouldremember what happened here in the wilderness. I find it interesting, for instance, that they recall their own mistakes in so much detail. Remember: this is a Hebrew document we’re reading, the Israelites reflecting back on these experiences in the desert, and it’s hardly a flattering self-portrait! It reminds me of the way our perspective changes as we grow older. Like Mark Twain’s line about how foolish his parents were when he was a teenager, and how much they had wised up by the time he hit 21. So perhaps we can see a certain maturity in the way Israel was willing to paint such a realistic picture of themselves as they reflected back on this episode from a distance.
And the single most fascinating element of the story to me is this jar of manna they later kept for all generations to see. They were commanded to take this jar of stuff, whatever it was (the word manna may be a word play; it sounds a little bit like the Hebrew for “what the heck is this?”), and they were to place that jar front and center in the tabernacle of God. In other words, every time they gathered for worship, here was this reminder of bread from heaven, given so they would know that it was Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt. A tangible memento of God’s presence in their lives each and every day of that long journey. A visible reminder that a place in their lives that had at times seemed godforsaken was really quite the opposite. For God had provided them, daily, with the bread of life.
What kinds of things do you suppose went through their minds years later as they considered that jar of manna? And where might be our takeaways?
Remember when we had reached the end of our rope, and God came through for us? Remember how much trouble we had trusting God really would provide for us every single day? Remember how we complained about what we had, rather than giving thanks that we had enough? Remember how we foolishly tried to hoard too much for ourselves, but learned, over and over again, that there would be plenty for everyone, if we just took what we needed and left some for our neighbors too?
Behold that jar of manna. Bread from heaven. Bread of life. Bread to be shared, along our journey. Amen.
 Fretheim, 183.
 Fretheim, 184.