We are studying Exodus 16:1-8, 13-15 for Sunday, September 15. This is the story of the first appearance of manna in the wilderness, for the Children of Israel en route from Egypt to Mt. Sinai. Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Exodus is famous. Everyone, even people who don’t know any Bible stories, even people who are too young to have seen The Prince of Egypt, have heard of Moses and have heard of “Let my people go!” And a lot of people have heard of manna. We have probably heard sermons on it in church, or at least heard the story in church, because this text comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary a couple of times in its three year cycle, once paired with John 6 (the true bread from heaven), once paired with Matthew 20 (the generous employer). All in all, we are in familiar territory, which always poses its own special problems.
At this point in the story, the Children of Israel have been liberated from their long slavery in Egypt, after YHWH has rained down plagues on the Egyptians, not just to persuade the Egyptian Pharaoh to act properly, but as a demonstration of divine power. The last plague, the death of the firstborn, was the occasion for the first Passover. The Israelites have crossed the Red Sea waters with “unmoistened foot,” and are being led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They are on their way to the mountain of God where Moses first heard God’s call, after God got his attention by setting a bush on fire without burning it up.
Now, however, the unleavened bread the Israelites brought with them from Egypt has run out, they are not “there yet,” and they are complaining. This is not the first recorded occasion of complaint (that was in the last chapter when they couldn’t drink the water), and it definitely won’t be the last.
They will shortly receive a good deal of systematic instruction from YHWH, but they haven’t gotten any of that yet (at least, not if we are taking the narrative as telling the story in a straightforward chronological fashion, which according to Jewish commentators we cannot do, or not always). The first time the word shabbat is mentioned in the Torah is in this chapter.
CLOSER READING: This text strikes me as peculiar.
It starts out in v1 with the word “congregation.” Repeated in v2, and again in vv9-10, which aren’t part of our focus. It’s the narrator’s word for the group, and also Moses’s (v9). The Children of Israel themselves call themselves an “assembly” (v3). God calls them “the people” in v4. The words are related, but don’t seem fully synonymous, although what we are supposed to understand by this description isn’t obvious. Maybe a congregation has an identity, more of one than an assembly. If so, it is really being forged in the wilderness, because most of the uses of the word adath are in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
What will forge that identity will be experiences like this.
In v2, this “whole” congregation complains, and the complaint motif matters, because complaining or complaints are repeated five times in our eight verses, seven times in the first twelve verses. For one thing, the word “complain”, which a lot of commentators make a lot out of, is an odd word. The word only occurs in three chapters in Exodus, three chapters in Numbers (also complaint narratives) and in a verse in Joshua, and seems to be a homonym with a verb that means “lodge.” No one really satisfied my curiosity about how we even know what this word means, although Robert Alter did say that in modern Hebrew the verb means “to complain.” Presumably we know from translations of this Hebrew into other languages, like the Greek of the Septuagint, since there seems to be no disagreement on the translation – except possibly the precise English word to use, whether “murmuring” or “grumbling” or “complaining.” Bellyaching would be too much like slang.
In v3 there’s a whole speech of complaint, and that, too, seems strange … it’s literally something like “who would give us to die by the hand of YHWH in Egypt.” Rashi has a long (for Rashi) note on it, attesting to its peculiarity. But again, there is no dispute about its basic meaning: we could have died in Egypt, and that would have been quicker and with better food than you-all dragging us out here to kill us with hunger. We might note that the assembly of the congregation here is identifying Moses and Aaron as the ones who have brought them out here, rather than YHWH.
I think we need to sense a little rising panic in this congregation/assembly here. They are running out of food. And they don’t know what the plan is, they can’t see it right in front of them yet. So … anxiety is happening. [Now what? NOW WHAT?? Guys – WhatarewegonnaDO???] Sounds like people, and congregations, I know.
Alter notes that it’s odd that they are asking about meat when they have their flocks and herds with them; that maybe they don’t want to deplete those flocks and herds yet, so that the livestock they have with them are more mouths to feed more than they are food for Israelite mouths at this point.
God’s speech to Moses is also unexpected. God will rain “bread”, which could also mean food, from the heavens. Making sense, because that’s where rain comes from. Also suggesting that the citizens of heaven eat this food. Then the people will gather it – the same word used for Ruth during the barley harvest, elsewhere translated “glean.” So, maybe we shouldn’t think of “gleaning” as necessarily making do with leftovers; and if people were more like God, we might not have to make a distinction between “gleaning” and “gathering.”
What the people are supposed to gather is literally a word of this bread from heaven. (Hmmm. This might remind us of “People don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of YHWH” Deuteronomy 8:3, and see Matthew 4:4 … where Jesus is also in the wilderness, also hungry, having been there longer than the Israelites have been traveling from the last oasis, but with the benefit of the instruction gained from the congregation of the Children of Israel.)
And YHWH is doing this as a test to see if the Children will follow God’s instructions.
Being about half-way through the class I’m teaching, and daily explaining to this or that student that what they’ve turned in needs to be revised to do this or that small but vital thing that I asked them to do in the instructions for the assignment … I don’t like to say I empathize with God, but … I can just see God slapping the divine forehead and saying “I did say ‘don’t save the manna overnight’” and “as it says clearly in bold print in the syllabus, and as I have also said several times in class, don’t go out on Saturday.”
Following instructions is difficult for people.
But the whole assembly of the congregation gets quails and the wondrous, mysterious, unfamiliar manna, anyway.
And then, they will know that it was YHWH who brought them out of Egypt, which was not as good as they remember it, into the wilderness, and not to kill them, either. More like, to teach them something.
So then, when they know that it’s God they’re dealing with, when they know that truth, they will really be free.
Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Also: a couple of interesting links I ran across trying to track down the word on “complaints,” which evidently only interests me:
Joel Hecker at Torah.com on manna and mystical meals Fascinating.
Zvi Ron, “’What Is It?’ – Interpreting Exodus 16:15” Jewish Bible Quarterly 230-236 So now I don’t feel I can just say “they called it ‘manna’ because they didn’t know what it was” even though everyone else does. Except for Zvi Ron. And all the other people he found who don’t.