YEAR A: PENTECOST 20
September 18, 2011
The people of Israel have journeyed on from the Reed Sea and are now on the way to Mount Sinai (v. 1). There is yet no definite identification of the location of their destination, Mount Sinai. In tradition it has been associated with a range of granite mountains in the south-central part of the Sinai Peninsula. This area has three peaks within 25 miles of one another. One of these, Jebel Mûsa (the mountain of Moses) is traditionally associated with Sinai-Horeb and God’s giving of the Law. Some have suggested another location in the north-east of the Sinai desert, on the direct route to Kadesh-Barnea. But while it is tempting to consider the location of Mount Sinai, it is the language associated with the mountain that is important, for example, in Exod 19:16: ‘On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain’. The thunder, lightning and dark cloud are characteristics of a storm and are part of the language associated with the appearance of storm gods in the ancient Near East. But Israel have not yet reached the mountain so let us return to Exodus 16.
In Exod. 16:2 both Moses and Aaron share the responsibility of feeding the people on their journey through the wilderness. This is a continuation of their shared responsibility for freeing the people from Egypt. Moses received God’s instructions and passed them on to Aaron, who spoke the words to Pharaoh (Exod 7:1-2). That partnership continues in the wilderness. Yet the people are now hungry, and they are complaining to both Moses and Aaron (16:2). The Sinai Peninsula is a barren place, so it is neither unexpected nor unrealistic that such a large group of people are finding it difficult to get adequate food and water. They do what most people do when they face change, or difficult circumstances – they idealise the past and complain bitterly to those responsible for the present. They forget that life in Egypt was slavery and oppression. At least they had food and water. Their rescuers Moses and Aaron are made to share the blame for the present conditions.
The answer from God through Moses is that enough bread for each day will be ‘rained’ from heaven. The people are to learn to trust that God will continue to provide enough for each day, and accordingly they will not gather more than one day’s worth. Instructions about the sixth day of gathering the ‘bread’ actually pre-empt the giving of the Sabbath law (vv. 22-29). In v. 5 Moses is told to give the people special instructions on the ‘sixth day’ (of the week). They are to gather enough of the heaven-sent ‘bread’ for two days, obviously so that they need not work on the Sabbath. The call to trust incorporates space for worship too. But we ought not to miss the point that before the people cried out (v. 2) there had been no word about the provision of food. Their anxiety does not seem to have been unreasonable. The testing of trust (v. 4) only seems to come when the daily provision is mentioned. Complaining to God, or even God’s lieutenants, does not seem to be out of place here.
Moses and Aaron tell the people that in two ways they will understand it was God who brought them out of Egypt (vv. 6-7). This is a clear warning that in their complaining they are not against Moses and Aaron, but against God. In the evening this will become clear to them, and in the morning the people will ‘see the glory of the Lord’. In v. 8 Moses makes it plain that they will receive meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The ‘glory of the Lord’ apparently refers to the appearance of the bread. Moses and Aaron then call the people together, to draw them back to God (v. 9). They are reminded that they have not been abandoned in the wilderness. God has heard their complaining. Moses and Aaron are only human, it is God who looks after the people. They are reassured by the reappearance of the cloud in which God has accompanied them from Egypt, and which precedes them toward Sinai.
As the people were promised, on that evening a flock of quails appeared and on the following morning the ground was covered in a ‘fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.’ In Numbers 11, another account of hunger in the wilderness, the quail actually follow the manna. The account in Exodus also eliminates any delay in God’s response. The people have meat on the very day of their complaining.
Yet even so, there is hesitation in the people when confronted by the ‘bread’: ‘What is it?’ They are in desperate straits in unknown, hostile territory. They have not yet reached a point of wholehearted trust in God to bring them safely to the ‘Promised Land’. And even when confronted by God’s provision they will not let go of their anxiety. They also have to learn to trust that their leaders are in turn being led by God. It seems that trust in such hard circumstances is not only a matter of adopting a sense of confidence in another but in letting go of the fears that so easily dominate from within.
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