Meditations in Exodus: 55. A Lesson in Obedience
Ex 16:13-15 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
In Numbers 11 there is a further more detailed account of what happened here that reveals the provision of Quail as a semi-judgment on the people but here the emphasis is on the manna and so we will ignore the Quail and focus on that.
The Lord has said He will provide for them and in the morning there appears what appear thin flakes of some unknown food and “The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.” (v.31) You will see from a footnote to this verse that “Manna means ‘what is it?’ hence the link with verse 15.
Now so often when we come to this story we focus on the fact that this was God’s provision for Israel in the desert and “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.” (v.35) This was God’s supernatural food for Israel as long as they stayed in the desert. It was supposed to only be a matter of months but it turned out to be forty years. So, it was a sign of His love and provision for His people throughout their time in the desert. When they get to the Promised Land they can eat the fruit of the land but for now in a sandy wilderness, manna is their provision.
So, yes, it is right to focus on the provision aspect of this story but the detail of the account show there is a bigger issue at stake here. We see it when we look at the instructions for collecting this manna, which we have already briefly noted but which is now spelled out in more detail. So let’s turn now and look at the details of the collection of this manna.
First of all, Moses explains what it is: “Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat.” (v.15) Not literal bread maybe but God’s provision that is the equivalent to their staple diet, the basics of what they need to stay alive. He then tells them (FIRST instruction) that they are each to collect it and how much to collect: “This is what the LORD has commanded: `Each one is to gather as much as he needs. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’” (v.16) Your footnote will tell you that an omer is about 2 litres or 2 quarts measure. A small bucketful perhaps. Note in passing that each person was to go and collect their own. It was a very personal provision.
But then something strange is recorded: “The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.” (v.17,18) They went out and gathered it and when they then came back and measured it, everyone seemed to have the same – sufficient. The apostle Paul quotes this verse (2 Cor 8:15) and appears to imply they simply shared it out and it balanced out. As a community they got what was sufficient.
Then he gives them a SECOND Instruction: “Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” (v.19) This was provision for TODAY and not tomorrow; they were to trust that the Lord would bring it again tomorrow. We are then shown what happened when they didn’t do this and tried to provide for tomorrow: “However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.” (v.20) The lesson is very clear: the provision is for TODAY and only today. It was to be collected early morning because, “Each morning everyone gathered as much as he needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away.” (v.21)
What follows appears to have been the result of a THIRD Instruction: “On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much–two omers for each person–and the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses.” (v.22) The report of the community leaders appears to have been a confirmation to Moses that the people had obeyed for Moses instructed, “This is what the LORD commanded: `Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’” (v.23) What was amazing on this sixth day was that, “they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it.” (v.24) Then comes the clarification: “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a Sabbath to the LORD. You will not find any of it on the ground today. Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.” (v.25,26).
So note what we’re seen of this manna: i) It came every morning, ii) if they didn’t collect it straight away it would melt as the sun got hot, iii) it was provision for that day and if they tried to keep it, it went mouldy, iv) on the sixth day they could collect two days’ worth and it would not go off on the second day because, v) on the seventh day none would be provided.
Now we need to return to what we said at the beginning of all this, that there is a bigger issue here; it is of training and obedience and learning to trust. We see this emphasised when some of the people wouldn’t stick to the rules: “Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. 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.” So the people rested on the seventh day.” (v.27-30)
So we see two sets of disobedience and two ways of correction. Initially some tried to collect two days’ worth and it went mouldy and then later in the week some went out to look for more on the Sabbath and received a rebuke. This account is a mixture of divinely supernatural provision and a training course on trust and obedience. The thing is that by the second week of this provision, we can be fairly sure that the people were complying with the rules, if not then certainly by the third week – and forty years later they were still doing it! This is not a one-off provision such as the water at Marah, but this is a daily trusting and obedience for each and every person (adults at least).
What parallels are there with modern day Christian experience? It is still all about provision but that provision, in whatever form it takes, comes through the Holy Spirit. The lesson is still the same – the provision is for today. We see the failure of this so often in church life: we get blessed with one particular way of meeting with God on a Sunday, say, and so assume that that is the way for every week, instead of trusting Him for fresh direction week after week. But that is a bit challenging isn’t it, whether it is church services, Bible Studies, prayer meetings or whatever and so often we therefore fail to get the new provision for TODAY. May it not be so.