Table of Contents
Exodus 16 - Commentary by Rev. John Schultz
When this chapter starts, the people of Israel have been on the road for exactly two months. The Passover feast had taken place on the fourteenth of the first month and they arrive at the desert of Sin on the fifteenth of the second month. Grumbling starts again. They could have commemorated their deliverance from Egypt, but they grumble instead. As a matter of fact, this time they make a comparison between the abundance of Egypt and the scarcity of life in the desert, and they come to the conclusion that slavery was much better than freedom. "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" (vs. 3).
It is amazing how distorted their memory had become in such a short time. The execution of little children is never mentioned. The backbreaking labor is completely forgotten. The only thing they remember is those few minutes when they cooked and ate their food after laboring from sunrise till sunset. Evidently that is what they lived for. The vividness of this memory indicates that they probably had been starving. I remember the last year of World War II when we went through a period of severe starvation in Holland. I went to bed in the evening with the comforting thought that I would eat one slice of bread the next morning. "The pots of meat" were proof of their starvation.
The complaint suggests at the same time that the enemy takes better care of his victims than the Lord does of His children. There is no expectation that the Lord is going to provide. Even after the miraculous experience of Marah and the feast of abundance at Elim, the hand of God has not become a reality to them. They connect the hand of the Lord with the punishments that had rained down on the Egyptians, and they wished that they had fallen victim with their enemies. They had no inkling what the history of salvation was all about. Here is God leading them from Egypt to Canaan, and they mark their road with monuments of grumbling and resistance.
In Hebrews we read: "In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering."[ 1 ] This verse shows that what God is doing with Israel is a picture of the way of salvation for us. God was leading His sons to glory, and this road was, by necessity, connected to suffering. The apostles and the Christians in the early church understood this quite well. We read in Acts that Paul and Barnabas went around, "Strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith [Saying:] 'We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.' "[ 2 ] Israel never connected her hardship with the glory to come, and many Christians in the New Testament dispensation show an equal lack of understanding. Unless we keep our eyes on the glory to come, our suffering in the present will not make sense.
As usual, the problem is not what the Israelites think it is. They believe that the crisis is caused by a lack of bread. As it turns out, there was no lack of bread. For forty years the Lord would rain down on them enough bread to daily feed about two million people. Bread and meat were not the problem, the people were. The Lord says clearly that the point of it all was to test the people. The fact that their stomachs get filled in the meantime is incidental.
The implications of this principle are profound and far reaching. We tend to think that money or methods are the problems in the Lord's work. The monuments of prayer of the nineteenth century built by George Mueller and Hudson Taylor and Albert Simpson prove the contrary. Where people melted before the Lord, the means kept coming. It is as A.M. Bounds says in one of his books on prayer: "Men look for better methods; God looks for better men." In order to become better men, God puts us to the test. Our reaction is grumbling. But James says: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."[ 3 ]
The purpose of the testing in connection with the manna the Lord would provide was two-fold: God wanted the people to trust Him for the Sabbath, and He wanted them to understand that bread was not all there was for them.
When the manna started coming down, the people started gathering it in an opportunistic manner. They did not trust the promise of God that there would be manna again the next day; so many kept some for tomorrow, and they found out that yesterday's manna stunk. Then they did not trust the Lord that the manna of the day before the Sabbath would keep and that there would be no manna on the Sabbath. They only trusted their eyes. They did not know what hope means. Paul says: "We live by faith, not by sight."[ 4 ] And in Romans we read: "For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently."[ 5 ]
Our trouble is always with tomorrow. Even if God takes care of us today, we tend to put away reserves for tomorrow, "because you never know!" The hardest thing for us is to put our trust in the Word of God. Hence the warning of the writer to the Hebrews: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.' So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?' "[ 6 ]
The second point the Lord wanted His people to understand is expressed by Moses in Deuteronomy, where he says about the incident we are studying: "He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."[ 7 ] Without hunger the people would never have appreciated the miracle of the manna, and without the manna as a picture of eternal things, we would never have known that real life is supernatural.
Here we come to some of the most profound statements of our Lord Jesus Christ in His discourse in John. The meaning of the manna is nowhere better explained and put in its right perspective than in Jesus' sermon in John. Jesus calls the manna "food that spoils."[ 8 ] He also says that the real manna is not a thing, but a person: "For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.... I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."[ 9 ] Finally, Jesus presents the sin question and the atonement that is necessary when He refers to His death. It is in appropriating to ourselves His sacrifice for our sin that we live eternally and that our mortal bodies will be raised. This is implied in statements such as "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever."[ 10 ]
It is obvious that these truths would have been far beyond the comprehension of the Israelites in the desert. Because of their disobedience, they could not even understand the basic truths of what was happening to them; but even if their obedience had been perfect, they would still have been unable to grasp God's total plan of salvation. The mystery of God becoming Man dying for the sins of the world was still hidden beyond the horizon of time. This Gospel is ours today.
After having said all this, let us have a closer look at chapter 16. The people grumbled because they were hungry (vs. 1-3). God promised them bread (and meat) and He told Moses that the purpose of the experience was not physical satisfaction, but spiritual obedience. (vs. 4,5). Vs. 6-9 give us a condensation of several communications. Moses and Aaron spoke to the people, Moses gave instructions to Aaron, and Aaron addresses the nation. In vs. 10-12 we read that the Lord appears personally and speaks to Moses, announcing that not only bread, but also meat will be given to the Israelites. Vs. 13 and 14 describe the miracle of the quail that invaded the camp, enough to feed the whole nation and of the manna that appeared in the morning. Vs. 15-31 describe the reaction of the Israelites to the manna, and we read the instructions that were given to them as to how and when to gather it. Vs. 32-34 tell us that a jar of manna was kept in front of the tabernacle, as a reminder to future generations of the miracle that kept the Israelites alive.
The last two verses, 35 and 36 are obviously an editorial addition, since they mention the time after Moses' departure and they give an explanation regarding the "omer" which was probably no longer used as a measurement in later centuries.
Now we shall go back to the beginning: Vs. 1-3. The grumbling of the people was directed against Moses and Aaron, as if they were to be held personally responsible for what happened to the nation. At the moment of deliverance at the shore of the Red Sea the whole nation joined in to praise the Lord. But when trouble came God faded out of the picture completely. Evidently, the supernatural was only connected to pleasant experiences. It never dawned on the people that some supernatural experiences may not be pleasant to mortals at all. They forgot that to the Egyptians, God's supernatural intervention was fatal.
Later prophets suffered severely because of the Word of the Lord that was communicated to them. We read about Jeremiah's emotional struggle because of the Word of God. Ezekiel suffered depression and paralysis because of the Word. Daniel fainted in an encounter with the angel Gabriel, and John said: "When I saw Him I fell at His feet as though dead."[ 11 ] The idea that suffering is part and parcel of the Gospel of salvation is still foreign to us.
On the other hand, this grumbling must have been very hard on Moses and Aaron. They were being held personally responsible for the suffering of the people, as if the exodus had been their doing. We do not read about any personal crisis the two brothers went through, but from Moses' words in vs. 6: "In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt," indicate that the criticism had affected them deeply.
We tend to equate serving the Lord with success. If church attendance goes down the pastor is blamed. Statistics should show growth. Paul had his most successful ministry in prison. The churches he planted have disappeared, but his epistles have emitted blessing throughout the centuries. As servants of the Lord, we have to constantly cast our burdens upon Him, our burdens of success or of the lack of it.
In vs. 4 and 5 God told Moses that He would give bread and that He would use the blessing as a test of obedience. Obviously, the test consisted of the promise that the provision would be on a daily basis and that there would be no gathering on the Sabbath.
We do not know what the manna was. There is no record of its appearing anywhere else in the world or that it can still be found in the Sinai peninsula in our time. It was God's surprise provision for His people for the time they crossed the desert.
In giving the manna, God suspended the curse of sin which Adam had incurred upon himself and the human race, which is recorded in Genesis: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."[ 12 ]
There is probably no more God-forsaken place on earth than a desert. The curse has come to its end there. Even "by the sweat of [his] brow" man cannot grow and eat food there. It is at this place of death which Moses called "the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions,"[ 13 ] that God blesses with life sustaining elements in a supernatural way. This life out of death foreshadows the resurrection from the dead.
The Israelites were amazed at the sight of the miracle, but, for some of them at least, it did not increase their confidence in God. They wanted to build up some reserves, so they need not worry about tomorrow and they did not have to trust the Lord. God is a daily provider. In the Lord's prayer "Give us today our daily bread," the emphasis is on daily. The Lord says in the same context specifically: "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."[ 14 ] I am not arguing against savings accounts and other kinds of provisions for the future. The point is whether we trust in the Lord or in something else. We have God's promise that He will take care of us. That means He wants to use for that purpose is up to Him.
The second testing concerns the Sabbath. On the sixth day the people were to gather twice as much manna as normal, and on the seventh day they were to rest. On the Sabbath the curse is broken completely. The Lord Jesus says that the Father works on the Sabbath. When the Jews accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath by performing a miracle of healing, He answers: "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working."[ 15 ] It is true that, after completing creation, God rested on the seventh day, according to Genesis.[ 16 ] But, evidently, when man fell into sin, God immediately started to work on the process of salvation. But here, in instituting the Sabbath, God wants His people to go back to the original condition before the fall and enjoy creation and life in fellowship with Him to the full. So on the Sabbath the curse was lifted twice.
Apparently in vs. 6-8, Moses and Aaron are addressing representatives of the people, because in the following verses Aaron speaks to the whole nation of Israel. The point is that the exodus was not the work of a human agency, but of God. From our perspective it seems hard to understand that the Israelites would not have comprehended this. How could the plagues of Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea be explained as natural phenomena? By leaving God out of the picture life could not have made sense for them.
Yet, the Israelites were not doing anything worse than what modern man is doing. Looking back over my life and my time on the mission field, I could say that I have been lucky and successful up to a point. But, unless I see the hand of the Lord in recurring miracles for which I find no natural explanation, my life would not make sense. The problem with Israel, as we have seen already, was that, in grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they "barked up the wrong tree." Their grumbling and complaining was directed to God, the One whom they had left out of the picture. And griping to God is serious business. Only people who have no inkling of Who God is would dare to grumble against Him. Once we stand before the great white throne and see the One from Whose presence earth and sky flee and no place is found for them to hide,[ 17 ] we will have no inclination whatsoever to grumble or mutter.
The first miracle was the coming of the quail. There is another account about an invasion by quail in Numbers.[ 18 ] That occurrence took place one generation later. It seems, therefore, that the quail did not come on a daily basis as the manna did, but that this was a treat that was given to the people once, or maybe a few times and then stopped.
As Aaron addressed the people, the glory of the Lord appeared to all (vs. 9-10). The presence of the Lord had always been visible in the pillar of fire and the cloud. But, just as in ch. 14:19, a distinction is made between the cloud and the presence of the Lord. We are given no details as to what the Israelites actually saw, but it must have been obvious to them that they were in the presence of God Himself.
The Lord confirmed what Moses had said already, that the grumbling of the people had been misdirected. It was God at Whom they had been angry, not man. It is strange that man hardly knows himself and understands very little of his own actions. Much of our anger against other people is anger with ourselves or with God. We do have a right to be angry about sin and unrighteousness, and we should be angry with ourselves about the fact that we are sinners, but we should not blame God for our condition or for our own actions.
In vs. 12 we read that the feeding of the nation should bring about the knowledge of God. God says: "Then you will know that I am the LORD your God." The statement is meant positively. God reveals Himself to the people, not as One who is angry about their grumbling, but as their Provider. But at the same time, this blessing should bring Israel to their senses and give them reason to bow their head in shame. It is primarily the goodness of the Lord that brings man to repentance and not the fear of hell.
There could be given a natural explanation to the phenomena of the quail. But, if the first arrival of the birds equaled the second feeding, as described in Numbers, the sheer quantity of birds would exclude the theory of a coincidence in the realm of the laws of nature. Vs. 31 says: "It brought them down all around the camp to about three feet above the ground, as far as a day's walk in any direction." That is not normal!
As far as the manna is concerned, there is no indication where that came from, or what it could have been. In his book Worlds in Collision, Veliskowsky proposes a theory about Venus coming into our solar system as a comet and that the sweeping of Venus' tail over the surface of the earth would account for some of the phenomena described in the Pentateuch and Joshua. There is, however, no way to prove this. Even if Veliskowsky is correct, it would be miraculous that the manna fell only in the desert where the Israelites happened to be travelling. On the other hand, I do not believe in magic. God works with the laws He established Himself. With some we are familiar; we call them laws of nature, others belong to the miraculous, as far as we are concerned. But none of them are magic.
So, the fact that six days of the week the manna would spoil if it was kept till the next day, but on the Sabbath it would not, defies human logic.
Evidently the very word "manna" means "what?" The Hebrew word is mahn. Moses answers the question with: "It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat." The Israelites are told to go and gather the manna at the rate of about one "omer" per person. The NIV says in a footnote: "That is, probably about 2 quarts (about 2 liters)," which is a large quantity of food for one person. It means that the Israelites were not going hungry. Then the food is measured after each person has done his gathering. We are not told exactly how this worked, but from an interesting quotation by the apostle Paul, we understand that every person who did the gathering contributed his harvest to a larger pool from which it was redistributed. The way Paul inserts the quote it in II Corinthians, there was not a miraculous increase for those who had not gathered enough, nor a miraculous decrease for those who had too much, but a fair redistribution. We read: "At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, As it is written: 'He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.' "[ 19 ]
Vs. 19-21 deal with the daily gathering of the manna. As we mentioned above, this made God the focus of their security instead of the reserve of manna. Having one's security in God instead of in material things means that we make ourselves dependent upon a miracle. In the natural this is the most unpleasant experience we can have. It takes a lot of spiritual maturity to rejoice in such a condition, that is, before the miracle happens. This attitude towards life was the key of the work of George Mueller, who built this monument of faith by caring for five orphanages simply by daily praying for the needs of the day. These verses suggest that God expects us to have this kind of attitude toward Him as a part of the normal Christian life.
What is true of the sustenance of physical life is true, too, of our spiritual relationship with God. God wants to feed us spiritually on a daily basis. Yesterday's blessings will stink if we try to feed upon them for today. Moses was angry with the Israelites when they tried to keep the manna overnight. We should understand that God wants us to take His blessings on a daily basis. As a child that is drinking his mother's milk does not get yesterday's supply in a bottle, but drinks it directly from the mother in this most wonderful physical contact between mother and child, so we should daily "taste and see that the Lord is good!"[ 20 ] In the darkest moment of history Jeremiah says: "Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness."[ 21 ]
Vs. 22-30 deal with the gathering before the Sabbath. The people started gathering double portions the day before the Sabbath, and this fact is reported to Moses by the leaders of the people. It is not clear why the leaders reported this. It almost sounds as if the people knew more than their leaders did, but that is not very likely.
The word "Sabbath" is used for the first time in this chapter. Previously, the Bible only spoke once about the "seventh day" in Genesis.[ 22 ] There is no indication that God meant the patriarchs to observe this day and there is no record of it that they ever did. So the first time the Sabbath is mentioned as a day of rest is in connection with the gathering of the manna. This connection between the supernatural feeding of the people of Israel and the first mention of the Sabbath gives a great depth to this episode. The writer to the Hebrews works this out quite extensively in ch. 4:1-13. God wanted His people, not only to feed on Him daily, but also to enter into His Sabbath rest. He wants us to fellowship with Him and enter into His joy.
Whether this means that the Sabbath was not observed till that time we, do not know. There are many points that are stated in the Ten Commandments that were, obviously, practices long before they were written down. So it could very well be that the observance of the Sabbath had been part of the Jewish tradition long before the law was given on Mount Sinai.
It isn't until the journey in the wilderness starts, however, that God reaches out beyond the problem of sin and redemption toward His perfect rest and invites His children to join Him in the rest and joy He experienced when creation was young and perfect.
One amazing feature of the Sabbath is also that the law of corruption is conquered. The manna did not stink on the Sabbath. Bodies decompose in the absence of life. It is the presence of life that keeps decomposition away. God's life is present in the Sabbath and that is why the manna keeps.
We read in vs. 27, "Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none." Those people were like the women who went to Jesus grave on the morning of His resurrection to whom the angel said: "Why do you look for the living among the dead?"[ 23 ] Those people incur God's wrath. We read in vs. 28 and 29, "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? 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 he is on the seventh day; no one is to go out.' " And so for some of the Israelites the Sabbath became a day of confinement, instead of a day of joyful rest. They act as if they preferred to labor by the sweat of their brow.
One of the main objections by the Jews of His time against Jesus' ministry was that He did not observe the Sabbath. There are numerous references in the Gospels about healings Jesus performed on the Sabbath. Jesus introduced a concept of the Sabbath that was completely new to the people. In Matthew's Gospel He says: "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."[ 24 ] In Mark He explains: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."[ 25 ] Luke states that the Sabbath should be the day "par excellence" when people would be freed from all the consequences of sin. When He heals the women with the bent back he says: "Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"[ 26 ]
In the desert God wanted the Israelites to look back to what the world was like before sin came. In the Gospels Jesus wants us to look forward to what the world will be like when sin is done away through His death on the cross and when the consequences of sin are conquered. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and the rest He gives is the real Sabbath rest.
Vs. 31 says: "The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey." We find some further information about the manna in Numbers: "The manna was like coriander seed and looked like resin. The people went around gathering it, and then ground it in a hand mill or crushed it in a mortar. They cooked it in a pot or made it into cakes. And it tasted like something made with olive oil. When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down."[ 27 ] But at that point the miracle had lost its novelty, and the people even complained about it. Later we read, "The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, 'If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost; also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!' "[ 28 ]
What can we say about such a fickle attitude toward the miracles God pours out upon us? The danger that we get used to the miracle and do not experience God's grace as something new every day can kill all traces of spiritual life within us. It is no sin to enjoy good food, but to complain about the food God gives us opens the door to all kinds of spiritual dangers. The proverb says that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. It seems that the devil knows that way also and uses it frequently.
But there are all kinds of miracles we can get used to. Imagine that God who sits on the throne says to us: "I am making everything new!"[ 29 ] and we answer: "Déjà vu!"
Vs. 31-34 tell us that a jar of manna was gathered and kept as a memorial for future generations of the miracle God had performed. It was placed "in front of the Testimony" which, obviously at that point, meant in front of the two Stone Tablets. But later it was placed in the ark. According to Hebrews the jar in which the manna was kept was a gold jar.[ 30 ] Whether this jar was preserved through the centuries and only disappeared when the ark disappeared, we do not know. Who knows! if ever the ark turns up again, the jar of manna may also be found.
Ch. 16:35 says: "The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan." As mentioned before, Moses, who died before the people witnessed the end of the miracle, cannot have written this verse.
It is hard to imagine the sheer magnitude of this miracle. The feeding of a multitude of over two million people takes a mammoth human organization. The Lord took this whole organization upon Himself as if it were the easiest thing in the world. And for God it was. God wants us to understand that our food and clothing are the least of His problems. Jesus says: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?"[ 31 ] God's own real problem is our unwillingness to let Him save our souls. We have the awesome power to resist.
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John 6:33, 35
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