Yahweh freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, and led them into the wilderness as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night (13:17-22). The cloud and fire gave Israel visible assurance of the presence of God in their midst.
However, the Egyptians had second thoughts about allowing the Israelites to leave, because the Israelites constituted a large body of cheap labor (14:5). Pharaoh therefore led his army in pursuit of the Israelites—to capture them and return them to Egypt.
When the Israelites came to the shore of the Red Sea, with the sea at their front and pursuing Egyptian soldiers at their rear, they complained to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you treated us this way, to bring us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians?’ For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness” (14:11-12). Moses, however, reassured them, saying, “Yahweh will fight for you, and you shall be still” (14:14). Yahweh did just that—fought for them—in the familiar story of the Egyptian army being drowned in the Red Sea (14:15-30). As a result, “they believed in Yahweh, and in his servant Moses” (14:31).
However, when the Israelites came to Marah where the water was bitter, they complained again to Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (15:24). When Moses cried out to the Lord, Yahweh had Moses drop a piece of wood in the water. Moses did so, and it sweetened the water so that the people could drink (15:25a).
Yahweh then promised, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of Yahweh your God, and will do that which is right in his eyes, and will pay attention to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you, which I have put on the Egyptians; for I am Yahweh who heals you” (15:26).
The Israelites then proceeded to Elim, where there were a dozen springs and seventy palm trees—an abundant oasis in the midst of the desert wilderness (15:27). From there, “on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt,” they proceeded to the wilderness of Sin, located between Elim and Sinai (16:1), camping by the Red Sea as they went (Numbers 33:10). Since they departed Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month (12:6, 51), they have been traveling for one month.
The word Sin in “the wilderness of Sin” might be related to the Hebrew word for Sinai, but is not related to our word “sin.” Also, we should not confuse the wilderness of Sin with the wilderness of Zin, which is also mentioned in the Old Testament.
Numbers 11 tells a similar but different story. In that story, the place was Taberah, the people were already receiving manna, and they complained, “Who will give us flesh to eat? We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:4-5). The Lord responded to their complaint by giving them meat for a month—abundant meat—”until it come out at your nostrils, and it is loathsome to you; because that you have rejected Yahweh who is among you” (Numbers 11:19-20). The Lord brought in quails—quails covering the whole region, stacked two cubits (six feet—two meters) deep. When the people ate the quails, many of them became sick and died (Numbers 11:31-34).
EXODUS 16:2-3. ALL THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL MURMURED
2The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured (Hebrew: liyn) against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; 3and the children of Israel said to them, “We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
“The whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness” (v. 2). The Israelites have come to realize that, while God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt, their lives in the wilderness are not especially appealing.
This is not the complaint of a few malcontents, but of the whole people of God. As noted above, they complained at Marah about the quality of the water, and God responded by giving them good water and leading them to a beautiful oasis. Their complaining now makes it appear that they have forgotten how Yahweh freed them from slavery—and saved them at the Red Sea—and gave them fresh water at Marah. However, it could be that they expect Yahweh to respond favorably to this complaint as he did to those complaints.
The people appear to be complaining against Moses and Aaron because they are the visible leaders—the ones who have taken them to this place. However, Moses will soon make it clear that their complaint is really against Yahweh (vv. 7-8).
“and the children of Israel said to them, ‘We wish that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread'” (v. 3a). This is a serious case of distorted memory—the kind of thing that often happens when people begin to reminisce about the “good old days.” As slaves in Egypt, they had been oppressed in many ways—although it doesn’t seem that they were deprived of food. They almost certainly enjoyed better food in Egypt than they have had in the wilderness. Short of a miracle, it would be impossible to feed so many people in the wilderness.
“for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (v. 3b). They accuse Moses and Aaron of disastrous leadership—leadership so flawed that it threatens their fledgling nation—leadership so demented that it threatens to kill them all. It sounds as if they are accusing Moses and Aaron of something even more serious—deliberately setting out to bring them to ruin.
We know that the Israelites “despoiled the Egyptians” as they left Egypt (12:36)—taking silver and gold and clothing (12:35). They also took “flocks, herds, and even much livestock” (12:38). However, they would be loath to slaughter sheep more quickly than lambing could replenish their flocks, because in watching their flocks gradually shrink, they would also see their own eventual demise.
When I read this story in the past, I usually responded, “Those Israelites! Won’t they ever learn?” But while preparing this exegesis, it occurred to me that I wasn’t hungry—and couldn’t remember the last time I was really hungry. These people were hungry, desperately hungry—and they couldn’t see where their next meal was coming from. When we become truly hungry, we will be better prepared to understand these Israelites.
Hunger is primal—it hooks us at the deepest part of our being. Miss a meal, and feel hungry. Miss a day of meals, and feel really hungry. Miss a week of meals, and become desperate. Missing a month of meals can become life-threatening. We don’t know how many meals the Israelites have missed, but we know that they are hungry enough to regard their condition as life-threatening.
To put their problem in perspective, consider this. Yahweh required Moses to take a census at Sinai, shortly after the events related in our text. According to that census, there were six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty men aged twenty years old or older and fit to go to war—not counting the Levites (Numbers 1:45-46). Assuming that the Levites constitute one-twelfth of the population, the total number of adult men in the twelve tribes would be over six hundred fifty thousand. We know that the Israelites had large families, because Pharaoh had been worried about their rapid growth as a threat to Egyptian control (Exodus 1:9). Assuming even an average family size of four, six hundred fifty thousand men would extrapolate to a total population of two and a half million people—roughly the population of Chicago or Houston. Just imagine how much food it requires to feed that many people.
I live in a town of twenty-five thousand people. To feed us, we have four large supermarkets—plus several convenience stores—plus a half dozen fast food restaurants—plus a number of traditional restaurants (our Yellow Pages, which serve several towns, list sixty-six pages of restaurants). To feed two and a half million people would require multiplying all those resources by one hundred.
Or, if that fails to paint the picture clearly enough, imagine taking a youth group of twenty-five kids to a remote camp ground for a week. How much food would you have to take to feed those kids for a week? Multiply that times one hundred thousand to get the amount of food required to feed the Israelites for a week.
Even if we assume that the Israelites’ numbering left was inexact, we can begin to appreciate the scope of their concern.
Their contention that they would have preferred to die well-fed in Egypt is hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point). They didn’t want to die in Egypt, and they don’t want to die in the wilderness. They just want food to relieve their hunger. Anyone who has missed a few meals can appreciate their concern.
EXODUS 16:4-8. I WILL RAIN BREAD FROM THE SKY FOR YOU
4Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from the sky for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law, or not. 5It shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily.”
6Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel, “At evening, then you shall know that Yahweh has brought you out from the land of Egypt; 7and in the morning, then you shall see the glory (Hebrew: kebod) of Yahweh; because he hears your murmurings against Yahweh. Who are we, that you murmur against us?” 8Moses said, “Now Yahweh shall give you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning bread to satisfy you; because Yahweh hears your murmurings which you murmur against him. And who are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against Yahweh.”
“Then Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from the sky for you'” (v. 4a). Yahweh responds to their complaint about food in much the same way that he earlier responded to their complaint about bad water at Marah (15:24-25). In that case, he gave Moses the means to sweeten the water to make it potable. In this case, he promises Moses that he will “rain bread from the sky” to feed the people.
Note that the food is called “bread” here, as well as in verses 12 and 15. It will receive its name, Manna, in verses 31ff.
“and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law, or not” (v. 4b). Yahweh words these instructions to make it clear that there will be more bread from heaven than the people will require for any given day. However, they are to collect only enough bread for that day. By requiring them to collect only enough to meet the needs of the day, Yahweh is testing them. Will they obey, or will they succumb to the temptation to collect more than they require for the day?
“gather a day’s portion” (v. 4b). In the New Testament, Jesus will teach his disciples to pray for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). Presumably, the inspiration for that prayer comes from this provision of daily bread for the Israelites.
“It shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily” (v. 5). They are to collect twice as much on the sixth day so they will have food for the Sabbath (see also 16:22). The concerns here are threefold:
• First, Yahweh understands their need for food, even on the Sabbath, and so he is providing for their need.
• Second, they are to honor the Sabbath by not working on the Sabbath, and collecting manna would constitute work.
• Third, this is a test to see if they will obey Yahweh or succumb to the temptation to collect more than they need.
This is the first mention of restricting activity on the Sabbath. Sabbath law has not yet been given. That will happen at Sinai not long from now (20:8-11). However, Yahweh initiates part of the Sabbath law here, and plans to broaden its scope at Sinai.
“Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel, ‘At evening, then you shall know that Yahweh has brought you out from the land of Egypt'” (v. 6). The manna is a morning gift, but we will learn in verse 8 that quail will be an evening gift.
Moses and Aaron tell the people that Yahweh’s daily provision of food is intended to remind them over and over again that “Yahweh has brought you out from the land of Egypt.” These people have shown that they need reminding over and over that Yahweh is with them and has promised to save them. Yahweh saved them at the Red Sea and at Marah. Now they will be reminded again and again—every time they sit down to eat.
I have often thought that God created us with a need for daily food as a reminder, over and over, that God is providing for our needs. In our home, we say grace at every meal, in part to express our thanks to God for providing for our needs, and in part to remind ourselves that the food which we could so easily take for granted is, in fact, a blessing from God—a daily blessing—a thrice-daily blessing.
In our culture, many families don’t even eat together, much less say grace together. That is, in part, because we have become so affluent that we take food for granted—and, in part, because many families have no religious grounding. However, we live in a highly developed world where we are dependent on many complex systems (farming, manufacturing, trucking, marketing) to feed us. These systems are fragile, and there are dangerous people (terrorists and third-world nuclear powers) who would love to disrupt them. We might yet see the day when we will no longer take food for granted.
“and in the morning, then you shall see the glory (kebod) of Yahweh” (v. 7a). The word kebod is often used to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portray it as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20)—but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to endure it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us. We couldn’t deal with it.
So when Moses tells these people that they will see Yahweh’s glory, we should hear an undertone of threat. However, in this case we will not see the threat actualized as it is in Numbers 11.
“because he hears your murmurings against Yahweh. Who are we, that you murmur against us?”(v. 7b). Moses re-emphasizes that their complaining, while apparently directed against him and Aaron, is really complaining against Yahweh. It wouldn’t make sense for them to complain against Moses and Aaron, because “what are we?” They are just doing what Yahweh has commanded them to do.
“Moses said, ‘Now Yahweh shall give you meat to eat in the evening, and in the morning bread to satisfy you; because Yahweh hears your murmurings which you murmur against him. And who are we? Your murmurings are not against us, but against Yahweh'” (v. 8). Yet again, Moses emphasizes that their complaining is against Yahweh.
This is the first that we have heard of “meat to eat in the evening.” Verse 13 tells us that the meat is quails that come in the evening.
EXODUS 16:9-12. COME NEAR BEFORE YAHWEH
9Moses said to Aaron, “Tell all the congregation of the children of Israel, ‘Come near before Yahweh, for he has heard your murmurings.'” 10 It happened, as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud. 11Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 12“I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel. Speak to them, saying, ‘At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread: and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God.'”
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Tell all the congregation of the children of Israel, “Come near before Yahweh, for he has heard your murmurings”‘” (v. 9). Moses has been Yahweh’s spokesman. Now he asks Aaron to serve as spokesman.
Aaron is to tell the people to “Come near before Yahweh.” “This expression normally describes an act of worship” (Janzen). By gathering together in Yahweh’s presence, they will demonstrate their readiness to hear what Yahweh has to say.
“It happened, as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud” (v. 10). Yahweh has been leading them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As the congregation gathers, they see “the glory of Yahweh…in the cloud.” See the comments on the glory of the Lord in verse 7a above.
“Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying” (v. 11). The people have presumably gathered in the presence of the Lord, as Aaron directed, but the Lord addresses his remarks to Moses.
“I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel. Speak to them, saying, ‘At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread: and you shall know that I am Yahweh your God'” (v. 12). Other than the mention of fleshpots in verse 3, we have not heard a complaint about the lack of meat in this story. However, as noted above, in a similar story in Numbers 11, the people complained specifically about the lack of meat.
In any event, Yahweh promises meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Not only will they have both meat and bread, but Yahweh promises that they will have their fill of bread (but not necessarily of meat). This providence is so that they “shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
EXODUS 16:13-15. THERE WAS A SMALL ROUND THING, SMALL AS FROST
13It happened at evening that quail came up and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay around the camp. 14When the dew that lay had gone, behold, on the surface of the wilderness was a small round thing, small as the frost on the ground. 15When the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, “What is it?” (Hebrew: man hu) For they didn’t know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread which Yahweh has given you to eat.”
“It happened at evening that quail came up and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay around the camp” (v. 13). Now Yahweh begins making good on his promises. In the evening, quails cover the camp. This is the last time that quails are mentioned in the book of Exodus, but (in addition to the Numbers 11 story), Psalm 105:40 says, “They asked, and he brought quails, and satisfied them with the bread of the sky.” This phrase, “bread of the sky,” is usually synonymous with manna rather than quail. There are no other references to quail in the Old or New Testaments, which suggests that the gift of quails mentioned here is a one-time event, in contrast to the manna, which is mentioned many times in both testaments.
In the morning, there is a layer of dew around the camp. The layer of dew is not the manna. The manna will be revealed as the dew dissipates.
“When the dew that lay had gone, behold, on the surface of the wilderness was a small round thing, small as the frost on the ground” (v. 14). This is the first appearance of manna (but this flaky substance won’t receive its name until verse 31). Some scholars, in an attempt to explain that manna occurred by natural means, suggest that manna was the secretion of insects—and there are insects in that wilderness that secrete a sweet substance. However, while Yahweh could provide for his people by natural means, the tenor of this story is that he did so by miraculous means. While he could have provided food by having billions of insects secrete tons of ooze every day for a forty year period, why would he bother? It seems more likely that God simply spoke his powerful word, and the manna came into being.
However, the major point (the one revealed in scripture) is that Yahweh provides for his people. The lesser point, the means by which Yahweh did this (not revealed in scripture), is simply a matter of conjecture.
This verse tells us that the manna “was a small round thing, small as the frost on the ground.”
• Verse 16 tells us that Yahweh commanded the people to collect one omer per person per day. Verse 36 tells us that an omer is a tenth of an ephah. We aren’t certain of either measure. Estimates of the ephah range from a half bushel (20 liters) to a bushel (40 liters). An omer would therefore be roughly two to four liters. There is no prohibition against families dividing the manna unevenly—i.e., a child might get less than an omer per day with the excess going to one of the adults.
• Verses 17-18 tell us that some people collected more than an omer per person and some less. However, they experienced no negative consequences unless they tried to keep it overnight.
• Verse 20 tells us that some people tried to keep manna overnight, but “it bred worms and became foul.”
• Verse 21 tells us that when the sun became hot, the manna melted.
• Verse 23 tells us that the people could bake or boil the manna. Numbers 11:8 tells us that they could grind it in mills or mortars and make cakes of it.
• Verse 31 says that the people called it manna—and that “it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Numbers 11:8 describes the taste as that of “cakes baked with oil.”
• Verses 32-34 tell of Yahweh’s commanding Moses to keep a jar containing an omer of manna for future generations. Moses and Aaron comply with that requirement.
• Verse 35 tells us that the Israelites ate manna for forty years in the wilderness. Joshua 5:12 tells us that it “ceased on the next day, after they had eaten of the produce of the land” in the Promised Land.
“When the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, ‘What is it?’ (man hu) For they didn’t know what it was” Verse 31 says that the people called it manna (Hebrew: man). Apparently this name is related to their question. “What is it?” (Hebrew: man hu).
“Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread which Yahweh has given you to eat'” (v. 15b). Moses could have told them the components of the substance or the manner by which Yahweh made it. However, he goes straight to the point—the manna is bread (food) given by Yahweh to provide for their nourishment.
NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES TO MANNA:
Manna is mentioned three times in the New Testament:
• In John 6:31-33, shortly after using five barley loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, Jesus reminded the crowd that their ancestors had eaten manna in the wilderness—as it was written, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.” He went on to say that it wasn’t Moses who gave the people the bread from heaven, but “my Father” (John 6:32). He said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). When the crowd asked Jesus to give them that bread always (John 6:34), he responded, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
• Hebrew 9:4 mentions that there was, in the ark of the covenant, a golden pot that contained the manna that Yahweh commanded Moses to save as a memorial (Exodus 16:32-34).
• In Revelation 2:17, Jesus promises those at Pergamum, “To him who overcomes, to him I will give of the hidden manna” “The hidden manna represents Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven (John 6:48-51). He provides spiritual sustenance for those who put their faith in Him (MacArthur on Revelation 2:17).
Christians have sometimes linked Yahweh’s giving manna to Israel and Jesus’ giving the Lord’s Supper to the church. While the manna served to meet Israel’s physical needs, both manna and the Lord’s Supper serve to meet people’s spiritual needs.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Bruckner, James K. New International Biblical Commentary: Exodus (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008)
Brueggemann, Walter, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Childs, Brevard S., The Old Testament Library: Exodus (Louisville: The Westminster Press, 1974)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Craghan, John F., Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Book of Exodus (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1985)
Dunham, Maxie D., The Preacher’s Commentary: Exodus (Dallas: Word, Inc., 1987)
Durham, John I., Word Biblical Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 3 (Dallas, Word Books, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Interpretation Commentary: Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
Hoezee, Scott, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Janzen, J. Gerald, Westminster Bible Companion: Exodus (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Janzen, Waldemar, Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Exodus (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1987)
John MacArthur, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1-11 (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 2001)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Rawlinson, George, The Pulpit Commentary: Genesis-Exodus, Vol. 1 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, no date given)
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Copyright 2010, Richard Niell Donovan