Exodus 16: The Manna Tests
Our passage for today is Exodus 16, the story of the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness for food. Chapter 15 closed with them grumbling for drinkable water and Yahweh "torah-ing" Moses a tree to make the bitter water drinkable. That was three days into their desert journey. Now we are a month and a half into the journey to Sinai and the Israelites are grumbling that they were better off in Egypt where they had pots of meat and lots of bread to eat. They accuse Moses of leading them into the desert to starve them to death. They would have rather died in Egypt with full stomachs.
Isn't that something how their old life under Pharaoh began to look better than their new life under Yahweh? They could only remember sitting around pots of meat and having all the bread they wanted. Sounds to me like they forgot how bad the old life was, how bitter the slavery was, how distasteful it was to make brick houses for someone else to live in, how it was to live off slave rations. In the midst of their present trying time they were falling prey to the deception that the old life was better rather than bitter. And so they grumbled, longing for the days in Egypt.
How often do we grumble, longing for the days in Egypt when we could eat whatever we wanted and as much as we wanted? How often are we deceived in the midst of trying times, thinking that life under Pharaoh was/would be better? It's not uncommon for new/young Christians to fall into the deception that life before Christ was easier and therefore better, that if they had not turned to Christ they would not be going through their present struggles - as if the old life were not a struggle. Likewise, even older/mature Christians get hit with the deception that life over in Egypt would be more fun, more satiating, more struggle-free then present difficulties. But it's all deception, a way to avoid having to deal with the sometimes harsh realities of life in the present.
Yahweh does not leave his children to starve to death in the desert. He hears their grumbling and tells Moses that they will have both bread and meat to eat. Yahweh will rain down bread from heaven every morning and serve poultry (quail) in the evenings. Yahweh provides. He is not limited by desert conditions.
I think of Jesus' words, "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things (food and clothing) will be added unto you." I also think of Paul, "I can do all things (live with plenty or plenty little) through Christ who strengthens me." Yahweh provides for our needs, even and especially in the desert times of life. Yahweh is the Provider.
What I find fascinating about this story is that Yahweh's provision brings with it testing. Yahweh gives instructions/torah about the gathering of the manna, stating that "in this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my torah." We tend to think that the test is waiting on Yahweh to provide. While that is indeed a test, the testing is far from over with the arrival of provisions – it has only begun. The purpose of testing is to expose and to train: to expose Israel's actual level of trust/commitment/obedience and to train them to trust Yahweh more and more. The testing is for the sake of their "Yahweh formation", that is, transforming them into a Yahweh-centered people, teaching them to be a people who live by the Word/Torah of Yahweh. Yahweh gives them bread to live by with the intention that they will learn to live by Yahweh's word.
"One does not live by bread alone." "I have food to eat that you do not know about."
The instructions are to gather an omer (about two liters) of manna per person every morning except on the sixth and seventh days. On the sixth day the people are to gather twice as much, for the seventh is to be a day of rest. There will be no manna to gather on that day. Also, no manna is to be kept over night except on the sixth day. Every other day it is to be completely consumed.
The Israelites passed the first test: they did not gather too much or too little. Those who needed to gather much because of large families were able to gather an omer per person. Those who needed little gathered little. They too had an omer per person. What a concept: every one gathering the needed omer, no one gathering more than needed, no one left in need. I doubt we would pass that test.
On test number two the Israelites performed more like us. Some of them attempted to keep the manna till the next morning. Why do you suppose they did this? I do not think it was greed, or they would have attempted to take more than their allotted omer. It must have been a lack of trust, a lack of faith that there would be manna the next morning, that Yahweh would "give us this day, our daily bread." They were content with their manna for the day, but they could not trust tomorrow's manna to Yahweh. As a result, the manna they saved became full of maggots and worms. When we can't trust our tomorrows (or todays) to the Lord, life generally turns to worms.
Some of the Israelites did not fare very well on the third test either. They went out to gather manna on the seventh day after Yahweh had told them there would be no manna that day, for the seventh day was a day of rest. Notice that Yahweh provided the Israelites rest. Why did they go looking for manna instead of taking advantage of this Yahweh-ordained rest? Could it be that they were workaholics? Could it be that they did not trust Yahweh enough to take a day off from trying to gather provisions for daily living? They were so consumed with meeting their daily needs that when Yahweh provided both the needs and a time for rest, they could not rest. Their effort was counterproductive, fruitless, and restless. Do you trust Yahweh enough to rest?
What strikes me about these tests of trust is that their issues do not require huge leaps of faith but disciplined daily and weekly acts of trust. Sometimes faith is a leap, like when we commit our whole selves - past, present, and future - to God. But here in the desert of hunger and provision, faith is a discipline. It is the discipline of gathering enough and only enough, the discipline of trusting Yahweh for tomorrow's bread, the discipline of resting. It is the discipline of abiding by Yahweh's word in the blessedness of Yahweh's provision. The goal of the provision and testing is that Israel might know that Yahweh is their God, that they might behold Yahweh's glory. The provision and the testing are for the sake of relationship. Yahweh provides and tests in order to create a covenant people who know His glory, who feed on His word, who are Yahweh-centered in their identity.
For us this passage is an invitation to disciplined trust in God for our daily needs and our weekly rest. It is a challenge to live by God's word at the checkbook level rather than by the cravings and fears of our stomachs (I think of Paul's phrase, "their god is their stomach").
What disciplines of trust are you practicing at the checkbook level of daily needs?