Last week we left off the Exodus story with the Hebrews caught between the sea and the greatest army on earth, the Egyptian army coming to bring them back into the slavery they were trying to escape. God parted the sea and the Hebrews passed through to the other side. The sea came back together and engulfed the army.
This week’s story takes place on the other side. Egypt and its pyramids, temples, culture, and power are in the rearview mirror. It is one of those “today is the first day of the rest of your life” days. The slavery and harsh treatment are in the past. Of course, so are the securities of living in a civilization with food and a stable water supply, a place to go home to at night, the protection of an army from outside threats.
Ahead is…. Who knows what? Who knows where? What’s for dinner and where are we spending the night? They may have just seen God do some amazing miracles, but when people start getting hungry and thirsty and sleepy those miracles are forgotten in a hurry.
The first problem was water, because they journeyed three days without finding any. Finally they came to a spring, but when they drank from it the water didn’t taste good. A couple of times in the last three or four years the water around here hasn’t tasted right, and I remember the outcry and complaints about that. “Why doesn’t somebody do something about the water?” “This is terrible!” At least we had plenty of water and it was safe to drink. Imagine the complaining that Moses faced from people who hadn’t had any water in three days and now what they found was undrinkable. Moses cried out to God, and God provided a way to make the water drinkable.
They continued on from that place, and issues both of water and food continued to be major problems. It reached a crisis point a month and a half in when everyone was complaining to Moses about not having enough to eat. It was bad enough that they wished they were back in Egypt where their lives may have been hard but at least they had plenty to eat. They accused Moses and Aaron, saying, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
At that point, God announced to Moses his plan for feeding the people on this journey through the inhospitable wilderness. There are several interesting elements to the plan which I would like to point out. God said, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” Moses told the people, “In the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.”
The statement “I will rain bread from heaven for you” has always given me the impression that whatever was provided was ready to eat. In the same way as staying at a hotel and going downstairs in the morning and pulling a croissant out of the little glass case, you would go out of your tent in the morning and pick up whatever was on the ground and eat it and be satisfied.
But when the people got up in the morning they looked and saw a fine flaky substance as fine as frost on the ground. They looked around at each other and at Moses and said, “Manna.” We hear the word “manna” and think “bread from heaven.” Actually, in Hebrew, manna meant “What is it?” It was not ready to eat and it did not look like anything they were familiar with.
Moses replied, though I wonder if he was any more impressed than they were, “This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” And he gave them the instructions about going out every morning to gather enough for the day, but not to try to save any of that for the next day because it would spoil. On the sixth day they were to gather enough for two days, though, because there would be none provided on the Sabbath.
Just as when God said to Adam and Eve, “You can eat from any of these trees except that one,” you can see the train wrecks getting ready to happen. Sure enough, some of them decided to hoard some for the next day just in case there wasn’t any. When they got up in the morning it had bred worms and become foul. Not only did the hoarding not work out for them, but I’ll bet they couldn’t put any manna in their mouths for the next few days after seeing and smelling that mess. Others did not collect extra on the sixth day and went out on the Sabbath to gather some only to find there was none.
Slaves don’t have decisions to make from day to day, but free people do. This was part of their training, their re-education into the ways of freedom and personal responsibility. Let me mention a few of the learnings and experiences of the manna.
First is the fact that while God provides what is needed, you are going to have to do some work in order to use it. Later on in the book of Numbers we are told that the manna was not something you could just pick up and eat as is. It says, “Now the manna was like coriander seed and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.” I don’t read anywhere that God provided them this recipe, so I picture some ingenuity and testing going on to figure this out. So they had to go out every morning to gather the manna, then there was a several step process to use it to make something that was good to eat. Food wasn’t just dumped into their laps ready to eat – work was required, time was required, preparation was required.
A second point to make is that it is provided one day at a time. It is not like having a pantry and a freezer full of food to choose from. You couldn’t prepare food for a month and put it in Tupperware to pull out each day. There weren’t 50 fast food places or restaurants to choose from. One day at a time food for basic needs was provided. Terence Fretheim writes, “The will of God for Israel is a ‘discipline of dailyness.’ One’s prayers are to ask only for daily bread. There is to be no hoarding of God’s creation, no building of larger and larger barns, no anxieties about what they are to eat on the morrow.” (Interpretation, Exodus, p. 186)
A third point is that God rests on the seventh day and wants us to rest on the seventh day as well. And that doesn’t just happen. It has to be planned for in advance in various ways. In the food area, it meant collecting extra manna the day before and preparing it and trusting that it will not spoil.
So God provides for Moses and the people in providing manna, but he does so in such a way as to be teaching and training the people about living faithful and responsible lives in freedom. This training is to instill in the people: awareness of God’s grace every single day and gratitude for the gift of sustenance; a work ethic to do what must be done every day in order for your family to eat, whether you feel like getting up and doing it or not; and a vivid weekly lesson about observance of Sabbath rest.
Many more lessons and learning experiences lie ahead on this long journey through the wilderness. The ten commandments and rules of lesser importance are given to provide a structure for people to live in freedom and responsibility. A pillar of fire by night and cloud by day train people to expect and follow God’s guidance. A movable tabernacle and tent of meeting teach people that God is everywhere and we should worship and pray regularly.
There continues, though, to be lots of complaining and whining on the journey. There is open rebellion against Moses. There is refusal to go in and take possession of the promised land because of fear of the occupants, which leads to forty years of wandering until a new generation is prepared to lead.
We can’t point a lot of fingers, though, because this is our story as well, the story of human nature and sinfulness. We tend to be complainers, unsatisfied with what we have. We are quick to blame our leaders and to blame God when we don’t think we are getting what we deserve. We don’t listen to the instructions that are given for our welfare and well being.
We hoard whatever we can, having pantries and refrigerators and freezers that are so stocked we frequently have to throw out those items which are past their expiration date. We are so dependent upon eating out that we no longer know the discipline of planning, working, and preparing in order to have daily bread. We over eat to the point of causing ourselves many preventable health problems. Treating all seven days the same has robbed us of both rest and reverence.
And we wonder why we end up in the wilderness, the place we have to go in order to learn these lessons. We end up alienated from loved ones; overwhelmed by anxiety, battling anger, depression, and addictions; wondering where God is and why God hasn’t fixed all of this. Even if there were negative things about our lives, change is hard and most of us resist it kicking and screaming.
But here is the thing. If we submit to the wilderness experiences of our lives and persevere through them instead of trying to rush back where we have come from, it is truly a life changing experience. We learn to travel light, realizing that much we have regarded as important really isn’t. All that stuff we have fought so hard to get and to keep safe really isn’t doing anything for us. The second home, the boat, the gated community, the alarm system, the tvs, gaming systems, computers, and cell phones – you can get along without them. In fact it is a load off your shoulders to be able to let go of them. The social status, the clubs, the party affiliation, the clothes – they aren’t truly who we are. In the clarity of the wilderness we come face to face with ourselves, with the people who truly matter to us, and with God.
The people of Israel later came to understand that their faith had never again been as vital, their relationship with God had never again been so important and intimate, as during those 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They had no choice but to depend on God to provide for daily needs and to lead them and prepare them for life in the place they were journeying toward.
When you find yourself in the wilderness, the one thing you can be certain of is that God will be there with you and wants to provide for you, lead you, and teach you some new and important things. When we first see these things God provides for us in the wilderness we will probably look at them skeptically and ask, “What is it?” But in time we will learn that it is the bread from heaven which God sends, and that as we learn how to use it God will nourish us, nurture us, prepare us, and save us.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 8, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church