This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 24, 2017.
In the article, Exodus 16 as an Alternative Social Paradigm, Ann Fritschel introduces an analogy of the Israelites’ wilderness experience to a liminal experience. Taken from the Latin word for ‘threshold,’ liminal is defined as an ‘in-between place,’ a rite of passage as one moves from childhood to adulthood. With the aforementioned in mind, perhaps the actions of Israel are more plausible as we witness a continual disconnect between expectation and application of God’s commands. In Exodus 15, the Israelites take a praise break and worship the LORD that brought them up out of Egypt and through the Red Sea on dry land. It’s not long though, in fact just a month from their miraculous aquatic-based deliverance, before the Israelites piggy back on their earlier disposition of complaining while living in the wilderness. The initial murmuring motif raises its head again in Exodus 15:22-27 when the Israelites are grumbling for the need to quench their thirst. Even after God directs their feet to an abundance of springs and shade trees, the tension of living in-between reappears even in our pericope.
From an exegetical perspective, Exodus 16:2-15 is a rich reservoir for exploration, a gold mine for excavation. While there exists much scholarly debate about sources and literary form, one thing is for certain, our text parallels a traditional pattern of murmuring found in Numbers 14 and 16. Simply put, the people murmur, a conflict occurs, and a theophany combined with a divine word for Moses provides instructions for relaying to the people. Within the text, we find the manna and quail traditions (believed to exist independently) combined to relay an intended message to its hearers that differ from its counterparts in Numbers 11 and Psalm 78. Exodus 16 maintains the tension of the two aforementioned accounts. On the one hand, we witness the gracious provisions of God through the manna and quail. On the other hand, Israel’s disobedience is clearly visible even in the absence of judgment by God.
In the opening verses (Exodus 16:1-3), an itinerary with an emphasis on time and distance is relayed. While the route the Israelites took from Egypt to Mount Sinai is up for debate, the overarching theme remains, God alone leads the Israelites through the wilderness. In Exodus 16:4-5, on the surface, Yahweh’s initial response seems out of place as there exists no direct response to Israel’s lack of faith. However, a closer inspection brings to light three critical pillars of the Israelites’ liminal state (the promise of manna, the theme of testing, and the Sabbath). Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4, and Luke 4:4 all suggest that the underlying principle behind God’s response in Exodus 16:4-5 extends well beyond the physical needs of sustenance, rather to a greater need of obedience and faith in the LORD who provides. In Exodus 16:6-8, we find Moses and Aaron responding to the indictments of the Israelites directed at their leaders. Yet, Moses will have no part of this diatribe and quickly conveys that the object of the people’s complaints are not aimed at Moses nor Aaron, rather the LORD. Ironically, the Israelites are guilty of the same case of mistaken identity as Pharaoh, while at the Red Sea he discovers that the battle is not with the Israelites, rather the LORD. Clearly, the murmuring of the people is a chief concern of the text as it is referred to seven times in the next eight verses. Having cleared the air, Moses now instructs Aaron to call a special worship service at the Tent of Meeting for the people ‘to approach Yahweh,’ a technical term used in Exodus 27:21 and Numbers 16:1 (Exodus 16:9-12). With God addressing Moses as the climax, the focus of quail appears to fade into the sunset with the significance of the manna taking center stage (Exodus 16:13-15). Historically speaking, the manna has created two schools of thought. On the one hand, the manna is seen as ‘bread from heaven’ with no earthly comparison. While on the other hand, the manna is a natural substance on earth similar to the substance found in the wilderness of Northern Arabia.
Regardless of one’s position, ecclesiastically speaking, there are several salient points worth consideration. According to John 6:31-58, the role of manna goes beyond its origin and speaks to the issue of life and death, where faith brings life and unbelief (blindness) brings death. For John, Jesus Christ (God’s gift from heaven) is the only way to eternal life. In Deuteronomy 8, a correlation is made between the manna and Israel’s lessons in humility. Meanwhile, the Psalmist points to the unbelief of the Israelites in God’s ability to provide that brings about judgment. If we consider Exodus 16:2-15 from a perspective of God preparing His people to live in a covenant relationship with Him that exemplifies His character, might this text challenge us individually and within the context of community? When God instructs the Israelites to gather only a day’s worth of bread and to double up on the sixth day in order to honor the Sabbath, the LORD makes it clear that this is a test. Of course with every test, there exists a desired outcome. Might this outcome involve the Israelites and our comprehension of God’s disdain for hoarding? After all, how much is enough? Moreover, in trusting God for our daily bread, do we trust God to provide for our needs on the seventh day while we commune with God in divine rest? Surely, if we like the Israelites are living in the in-between times (what we know as the process of sanctification), there must exist the time period of maturation needed to develop spiritually from a mentality of once living in the bondage of slavery to a perspective of life lived in the Promised Land. May we consider God’s promise of manna, the Sabbath, and moments of testing as tools our Heavenly Father uses in developing our story, while we are wandering in the wilderness for the ultimate purpose of His glory?
Arbra L. Bailey
National Director of African American Relations
Compassion International in Colorado Springs, Colorado
Tags: Murmuring, Tests, Manna, Sabbath, Wilderness