In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today’s episode occurs some time after the crossing of the Red Sea, after leaving Egypt. The Israelites have worked through their stores of provision and now find themselves worrying about food. (It’s worth noting that both the prior episode and the subsequent episode have to do with water – I’m not sure what that means but it probably means something). Faced with what they perceive as imminent starvation, whether or not this is actually true, once again they lament that things were better in Egypt and they should have stayed there. In response (allowing that the structure and flow of the passage seems a little confused), God provides food for the Israelites in the form of quail and manna. Each day, the Israelites were to go out from their tents and collect enough food for their households, and no more. The only exception was to be on the sixth day (our Friday) on which they would collect enough food for both the sixth and seventh day, because they weren’t to collect food on the Sabbath.
So let’s take a look at some of the themes that seem to come out of this passage. Firstly, in their new life, the life apart from Egypt, the overarching theme is the providence of God. According to Old Testament Scholar, John Durham:
Further, the redactors of this sequence have gone to great lengths, to stress the comprehensive nature of Yahweh’s provision. It is provision in the morning, in the manna, and provision in the evening, in the quails. It is provision for the need for reflection and the strengthening of the spirit, in the sabbath, but that provision is not allowed to set aside the provision of food: the quantity of manna allowed is doubled on the day before the sabbath. It is even provision for the duration of the wilderness experience, for we are expressly told that the Israelites were provided manna until they reached the border of the land promised them, that land described elsewhere as “flowing with milk and honey,” where therefore manna would not be needed.
(Durham, John. WBC: Exodus)
To put it simply, God provides everything that the Israelites needed. It’s worth noting how the Israelites see this, prior to the provision of quail and manna, in the light of their once again mis-remembering life in Egypt.
2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Here we have to consider the unlikelihood of the Israelites sitting around pots of meat with all the food they wanted. But more importantly, the grumbling we see here indicates a failure to understand that God would, in their present situation and, indeed, their entire journey, provide for their needs. Rather than putting their trust in God, they looked to the past and mis-remembered what they thought they were entitled to. “It would have been better to stay in Egypt.” Imagine what this episode might have looked like, and how their journey of spiritual formation would have looked, if instead of complaining, they had turned to God in faith and trust.
Durham makes a further, important point. He indicates that provision is intimately tied to presence. So there’s something to be said about the Israelites’ failure to see God’s provision (or promise of provision) in their situation. In the end, it seems like they’re not just grumbling about their material situation – what they have or don’t have. More significantly, they are grumbling about the presence of God. We see this particularly in the upcoming incident with the golden calf. In yet another demonstration of rebellion and faithlessness, the Israelites essentially say that the presence of God Himself is not enough and make for themselves a golden calf to worship. Is God enough? This is fundamentally the question that the Israelites, and everyone, will have to answer.
Further, and as we see in the above passage, the question of whether God is enough seems to me closely related to the question of whether or not we trust God. And this isn’t to be understood as, “do I trust God to give me what I want?” Rather, we have to be able to answer the question, “do I trust God to decide what I need?” In other words, God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want.
The over-collection of manna illustrates this point.
17 The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. 18 And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. He says:
16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer l for each person you have in your tent.’ ”
In other words, God provided each household with exactly as much manna as they needed – not more and not less. Furthermore, God tells the Israelites:
19 Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.”
But as we see, the Israelites don’t do as they are told:
20 However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.
Quite simply, they don’t trust God. The only reasonable explanation that we can see as to why the Israelites didn’t do as they were told is that they were worried that, maybe, the next day there would be no more manna. They were storing up for themselves because they didn’t trust that God would continue to provide for them tomorrow. God promised to provide for the Israelites what they needed (enough bread and meat for each day), but what the Israelites thought they needed, or in other words what they wanted, was to be in control of how much they had.
So it seems that the Israelites and God had, at the very least, a difference of opinion of what constituted the Israelites’ needs. The question then is, do we trust God to decide for us what we need? Do we trust God to provide for us according to His plan for us or are we ready to go back to Egypt because we don’t get what we want?
Every now and then I day dream about winning the lottery. As we all should know, the lottery is a bad bet. The chances of winning the lottery, as it is commonly said, is lower than the chance of getting hit by lightning. And contrary to popular belief, you don’t improve your odds by playing the lottery more often – there’s no such thing as, “eventually, I have to win.”
At any rate, every now and then I daydream about winning the lottery and what I would do with the money. These dreams usually include a new house, a new car, and a variety of toys. It doesn’t take very long in my daydreaming to realize that I don’t need any of this stuff. In fact, experience has taught me that there’s very good reason for me to not have some of this stuff. It’s actually quite bad for me. But it would be really easy for me to start thinking, especially if I start looking around and seeing what other people have, that I have to have some of these things.
Luckily, God doesn’t give me what I think I want. He gives me what He knows I need. He gives me what He knows I need according to His purposes for my life. The question is, am I willing to trust that God knows better than I do what I need to live the life that He has called me to live, to live the life that He has made me to live.
One final word about this passage. It’s tucked away in the middle of this passage and it’s tempting to think that it’s kind of secondary – but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I’m referring to vv. 21-30.
21 Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. 22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much—two omers for each person—and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. 23 He said to them, “This is what the Lord commanded: ‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’ ”
24 So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 25 “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a sabbath to the Lord. You will not find any of it on the ground today. 26 Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”
27 Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. 28 Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? 29 Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.
So, in short, the Israelites would collect enough food on Friday for both Friday and Saturday, Saturday (the Sabbath) being a day of rest. On the one hand, we can immediately see that this also entails trust in God’s plans and provision. As to the other hand, here we see an introduction to the Israelites of the subject of Sabbath. Now we don’t have the time to go into much depth about the Sabbath but it’s important to note that it holds a key place in the theology of Israel. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the defining marks of the people of God. In contemporary Christianity, particularly in Protestant thought, there’s a variety of viewpoints and practices on the Sabbath. There’s a desire (or perceived obligation) to keep the Sabbath holy while at the same time acknowledging that Jesus famously said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Sabbath is most frequently related to the notion of stopping. A useful exercise may be to think about both “stopping from” and “stopping for.” In our example today, the Israelites stop from the daily collection of food, and they stop from the daily collection of food so that (or “for”) they can experience and enjoy what it means to trust solely in the provision of God.
There’s obviously much more we could say about Sabbath, but what we are seeing fits in with the notion that we see in the book of Exodus that Israel is delivered from Egypt so that they can be formed into the people of God – that is, that people who recognize and live in the Lordship of YHWH.
Therefore, we can see the importance of worship in Sabbath. It’s not a religious punch card – “attend church ‘x’ amount of times and get your next salvation free.” Neither does worship become entertainment or a social gathering. Worship is that centering activity that orients us as the people of God and focuses our hearts, minds, and spirits on the God who alone is King.
On the Sabbath we practice the truth, or we live in the reality, that in the new kingdom, in God’s kingdom, we don’t seek to find our sustenance, our self-satisfaction, or our self-identities in the jobs that we do, the things that we have, OR the things that we don’t have or strive for. We live completely in the providence and Lordship of Christ.
I’ve said before, and I still believe, that the journey that we’re seeing the Israelites embarking on is ultimately about formation. It’s about God forming Israel into that nation who recognizes and lives as if YHWH, and YHWH alone, is king. It’s a long, arduous journey. But, as we will see, it’s mostly made long and arduous because of the Israelites’ unwillingness to leave behind their old life, and to trust God for a new life. We think we know what we want. God knows what we need. Will we let God be enough?