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Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Even after monumental occasions of blessing upon life-changing blessing, if trouble follows close upon its heels, we humans can have exceedingly short memories. Exodus 14 is the narrative account of God’s stupendous demonstrations of power over the wannabe deity of the day, effecting Israel’s deliverance from an Egyptian bondage of several generations. Exodus 15 is Israel’s celebration of the event in a sublime, soul-stirring epic poem/song, very likely one of Scripture’s earliest compositions. Together, these chapters accurately climax and credit Israel’s release/rescue/redemption to God’s initiative and power, albeit featuring God’s working through two reluctant siblings: the leader/agent, Moses, and the elder brother/spokesman, Aaron.

Exodus 15:24 reports Israel’s first relatively mild complaint, perhaps even readable as a normal Near Eastern way of expressing dismay over the lack of potable water. Justifiable anxiety? They were in a desert, and the water before them was too bitter to drink, probably because of a strong mineral content. Ancient Israelites, as do we, knew humans cannot go more than about three days without water; you and I probably would have voiced our concern, also. At Marah, any given Israelite’s “grumbling” may or may not have represented an incipient rebellion against God and God’s brother-team of leaders.

Exodus 16:2-4 is a different matter. It is the record of Israel’s first serious complaint, the first of many recorded in Exodus and Numbers. Coming so soon after God’s provision of water at Marah, this much longer, stronger, and more bitter complaint hardly would have been thought justified among observant and thoughtful Israelites, though they also were gripped by hunger. This was only days after the obvious “healing” of the water (as it is called on another occasion in another place and time).

More important, in this narrative, this episode of bitter complaining begins only eight verses after Miriam’s/Moses’/Israel’s “Sing to the Lord” anthem (15:21), concluding the epic celebration of God’s triumph over that day’s greatest earthly monarch! Israel’s cries of despair initially had been enough to bring God down to Egypt’s Goshen to investigate in person (Exodus 2:24-25). Now, scarcely six weeks on from the deliverance foreshadowing and defining every subsequent deliverance from social/political/economic oppressions, Israel had forgotten, and longed to return to Egypt’s “fleshpots” (16:3). They even charged Moses and Aaron with nefarious genocidal motivations. We humans truly can have short memories of the good, when we find ourselves in a batch of new and different troubles.

The mother of a whiny child is unlikely to critique God’s testiness with Israel here. She even may wonder whether she may learn something in this account for her own situation. God had not brought Israel into the Wilderness of Sin to slay them with hunger. (“Sin” here is not “sin”: not a pun, not an allegory, not any sort of reference to English “sin.” Hebrew “Sin” is a proper noun, a geographical name). On the contrary, God would “rain bread from heaven” upon them (16:4), until Israel was profoundly and everlastingly tired of manna and quail. This was the desert; variety in Israel’s cuisine simply would not be available. “You get what you get.” But neither would Israel starve in this desert where they were not prepared to fend for themselves.

God promised “meat” (Hebrew, “flesh”) at twilight, and “bread” (Hebrew, “bread” or, more generally, “food”) in the morning (v 12). The promise of meat, God fulfilled through flocks of quail that settled over Israel’s camp “in the evening,” exhausted from their long migratory flight over water (v 13). Numbers 11, a much more detailed account of a later provision of quail once Israel had resumed their journey, from Sinai toward Canaan, is well worth reading for the insights it gives into this earlier occasion of Israel’s “milder” insubordination.

God’s provision of “bread” was “a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” (v 14). Again, Numbers 11 helps, even while adding to the puzzle of what this “substance” was; 11:7 says it was “like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin.​

Man hu (MAHN who), “What is it?!” the gatherers on the first morning of its appearance asked (v 15), and “manna,” it has been ever since. An etymology from Hebrew is more than a bit difficult; much paper and ink have found their end preserving reports of myriads of inconclusive results. Trying to keep it to Hebrew, one could hazard the presence of an energetic nun, but that too would be speculation, and hardly helpful here. Whatever its source, the name is “manna.”

The name, however, preserves the real question, “What is this stuff?” They didn’t know it that first morning, but every Israelite was to eat it every day for the next forty years. You and I may fancy we would have been more polite about it, but we probably ought not kid ourselves. We should try (scrambled eggs? oatmeal/porridge?) every day for a month before measuring our patience at the unending sameness of this menu against that of Hanani, Chava, and company.

As for what it was, neither Exodus 16:14 nor Numbers 11:7-8 gives us much. More than 3,000 years later, neither are we likely to reverse engineer, package, and market it to satisfy what is, in the end, a mostly idle curiosity. A “fine flaky substance,” “like coriander seed,” ground or beaten fine, then boiled (and baked?). Not much to go on, but as with manna, the name, lively speculation on its substance never dies. Several natural substances, occurring in the Sinai (and elsewhere) at certain times of the year, are proposed. All founder on the fact that no tree, no insect, no other entity or process, produces enough “manna” daily to be the primary food for even the 20,000-25,000 individual Israelites of the Exodus/Wilderness generation. (The textual inflations of Numbers 1 and 26, and how they were introduced into the Hebrew text, have been known for over 100 years; they do not affect the narrative’s integrity.)

Whether talking about the name “manna” or the food itself, then, we still don’t know. Perhaps that is the point, at least in part. This (and its counterpart, Numbers 11) is a text about trust–or rather, about Israel’s lack of trust, and God’s graciously stubborn provision for them, anyway. Whatever it was, manna sustained “Wilderness Israel” until the next generation safely crossed the Jordan into the Land of Promise (Joshua 5:12).

A cautionary tale. A narrative of extravagant grace. An invitation to “irrational” hope. God’s provision of manna for ancient Israel is all these, and more. The sample of the manna is long gone from the Ark of the Covenant, but its story remains to instruct, encourage, and inspire the faithful as currently as this coming Sunday.