The LORD Will Provide—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17A/Proper 20A (Exodus 16)


Exodus 16:2-15 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “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.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites: ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.


                A constant refrain in many circles, whether politics or sports or church, is “What have you done for me lately?” The people cried out as they experienced the oppressiveness of slavery under Pharaoh, and they seemed grateful when God sent Moses to deliver them. But, when they finally escaped and discovered that they were trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s army, they wondered whether slavery was better than what faced them at that point (Exod. 14). Of course, God opened the waters of the sea, and made a path for Israel to escape from Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Once through the sea, they celebrated their deliverance with songs by Moses and Miriam. Yes, Moses and the Israelites sang to the LORD “for he has triumphed gloriously” (Exod. 15:1). Yes, Moses and the people sang: “In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode” (Exod. 15:13). Miriam echoed Moses’ song, leading the women in song and dance. They also sang to the LORD “for he triumphed gloriously” (Exod. 15:20). 

                The celebration didn’t last long. Pharaoh’s army no longer pursued Israel, but they faced other challenges. The first one was bitter water, which Yahweh made sweet (drinkable). Yahweh told the people to heed God’s directives and they will not face disaster (Exod. 15:22-27). It was good to have something to drink, but what about food? This was a rather large group of people who had migrated into the desert. It’s not as if there were supermarkets available to the people, so once again the people began to complain. They grumbled against Moses and Aaron. Once again, they began to pine for the old life, back in Egypt. Yes, their hunger created nostalgia for the way things used to be, apparently forgetting that with food came slavery. But now, instead of eating the bread of Egypt, Moses and Aaron had let the people into the wilderness to kill the people with hunger.  As is so often true in life, the known seems better than the unknown, even if the known is not that good. Their hunger was real, so it’s understandable that the people might be concerned about their situation. Back home might not be perfect, but at least there was some food on the table. Since going forward seemed risky, maybe it was better to go back to what they knew. Pastors of churches sometimes hear such complaints. Oh, it was better, back in the day. But was it?

                Although the people grumbled against their leaders, God once again came through. To Moses’ great relief, God told Moses that bread (manna) and meat (quail) would be provided. The meat would arrive in the evening and the bread every morning. God did put a few qualifiers on the offer of bread and meat. That came in the form of a test to see if the people would put their trust in God for their daily bread. God promised to rain bread from heaven. They were to gather only enough bread for the day, though on the sixth day, they were to gather a double portion to cover the Sabbath. Moses and Aaron reported this good news to the people. Yes, God had heard their complaints and was ready to provide the necessary resources to sustain them on the journey. Moses (actually it was Aaron who made the announcement) also let the people know that when they complained against his leadership they were really complaining about God.

                Yahweh didn’t lie!  That very evening quail flew into the camp and the people gathered the birds, cooked them, and had their fill. Promise number one fulfilled. Then the next morning they woke up to find the ground covered with a fine flaky substance that appeared after the dew lifted. Accompanying this substance was the Glory of God. Anathea Portier-Young takes note of this report, which can easily be missed: “God’s visible presence at the passage’s heart almost gets lost between the sound of complaint and the smell of food upon the ground. Yet, canonically speaking, this passage contains the first references within the Old Testament to God’s “glory” (kabod, 16: 7, 10), a term that denotes the awesome, visible manifestation of divine presence.”  She writes further:

Repeatedly, God makes divine glory visible in order to reveal aspects of God’s nature and to demonstrate God’s commitment to the people of Israel. This first revelation of God’s glory offers the congregation of Israel deeper and surer knowledge of the God who journeys with them. The food they will eat provides sustenance, but also a daily reminder: “you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (16: 12). God thus begins to reveal to them God’s nature as a deity who is present in their midst, even in the heart of a barren wilderness, who saves them from oppression and sustains them in their direst need (vv.   10– 12).  [Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 718). Kindle Edition].

It’s interesting that the people didn’t seem to take notice at that moment of God’s glory or kabod but focused on the white stuff on the ground. They asked Moses what this substance was, and Moses told them that this was bread from heaven. This would be their daily bread, their daily provision, during the long march through the wilderness. Again, God added that caveat. Only take what you can eat in one day. There was not going to be any hoarding on this journey. I wonder if when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, with that clause regarding daily bread, we assume that we need only gather what we need for that day. I guess that most of us don’t visit the grocery store each day and get just what’s needed that day.

                While the provision of food stands at the center of this passage, it would seem that God is intent on making this wilderness trek a season of trust-building. It’s worth remembering that the people have only recently been reintroduced to this God whom they were trusting their lives, and they hadn’t known Moses any longer than this God who revealed Godself as “I Am who I Am.” So, will the people trust this God to provide their daily bread and meat? Or will they try to stock up because they’re still not sure God will provide? Since Moses made it clear that grumbling against him is grumbling against God, perhaps there’s also a question here of whether the people trust Moses to be their guide on this journey. After all, it appears that Moses is the one whom God talks with, and so they must trust him. Fortunately to this point, the team of God and Moses seems to be fulfilling the promise. The question is, how long will the trust last and how long will this journey take?

Returning to that clause in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and that many of us regularly recite in worship. Where is our faith, our trust, in the one who provides daily bread? Catherine and Justo González point out that “the more security God gives us, the less we trust in God. Instead, we constantly search for more and more security. To be secure in this world goods should be seen as a test. Will we be faithful? Will we use what we have for God’s purposes or hoard it for ourselves, always afraid of not having enough? The purpose of security is to be free to follow God’s will” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 406].

                These are important questions for us to consider, especially as we gather together as the people of God at the Table of the Lord. Does not the Lord’s Table offer a witness as to God’s hospitality to all who would gather at the Table of God? When it comes to divine hospitality, biblical scholar Joshua Jipp writes:

In Israel’s Scriptures, God is often portrayed as the host of Israel as he provides manna and quail in the wilderness (Exodus 16;4, 15; Nu 11:1-9; Deut 8:3, 16; Pss 78:24-38 and 105:40; Neh 9:15, spreads a table of peace and divine nourishment for the Psalmist (Ps 23), and, as the owner of the land, grants Israel the gift of benefiting from the land as his guests (Lev 25:23). But God also promises his people that one day he will act to inaugurate his kingdom, will save his people, and make known his presence in full by means of a banquet feast between God and his people. God’s climactic act of salvation for his people will come, then, in the form of God sharing his presence with his people through shared hospitality. [Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality, p. 19]

God is the provider of the bread of heaven, will the church make that bread available to the world? Or will it hoard the bread for its own use? If this provision by God of manna and quail serves as expressions of God’s hospitality that foreshadow God’s final banquet, how might we understand our own wilderness journeys as precursors to sharing a meal at the messianic banquet? Are we in it for the long haul?

Pamela Scalise brings to our attention the bread from heaven that “gives life to the world” (John 6: 31–34). She then writes that “Christians use manna as a metaphor for Christ, the word of God, or the Holy Spirit. It is especially important as an image for the bread of the Lord’s Supper. Like the Israelites, Christians obediently share God-given sustenance and are formed as a community who acknowledge and follow the Lord. Christians, by taking the bread of Christ, become bread for the world.” [Connections (p. 723). Kindle Edition]. May we take seriously God’s provision of life-giving food for the Spirit and thus become this bread for the world that it too might be nourished by the Spirit.

And so, we who are recipients of God’s gift of bread and meat, provisions for the journey of faith, might we sing:

Prepare the banquet, make the feast of love.

Invite your neighbors, friends, and strangers too.

The Table of the world is set for all.

Come, all who long for what is good and true. 

                —Ruth Duck, Hymn written for Central Woodward Christian Church


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