A desert is a hostile environment. Even for those used to living there, life in the wilderness poses severe challenges. And that is a picture the Bible often uses to describe the Christian life.
Here, we see Israel is a physical desert but it is also more than that. For them, it is a place of spiritual challenge. And in the scene before us, a food crisis turns into a faith crisis.
1. Community challenge
We have already seen the people face an issue similar to this one but there is a key difference in how this chapter opens and then continues: four times we read about the “whole community” (vv.1,2,9,10).
They have been brought out of Egypt by the Lord to be a real community, to be the first-fruits of a whole new society, a people belonging to the Lord. And in that community they are to help and support each other, they are to encourage and strengthen one another as they journey on with the Lord.
But it is just at this point that they singularly fail. Instead of urging each other to remain faithful to the Lord they complain and grumble as a whole community.
It’s all too easy for us to be guilty of something similar, of failing to stand for faith in the face of difficulties. The days we live in are full of challenges that demand a robust faith from the church as the church. We all have a part to play in that; it is vital that strengthen each other to face those challenges. The last thing the world needs is a church that falls like a house of cards under the first breeze of trouble.
Are you looking to be an encouragement to others? Do you pray that others’ faith will not fail them? Our calling is to be faithful as a whole community.
And it is at that point that Israel failed here so badly. They judged their lives (and their God) by their appetites; all that mattered was getting food and the lack of it signified to them a lack of care.
We are very physical creatures and have been made that way by the Lord but we must not allow our appetites to govern our thinking about the Lord and his purposes for us. He does not intend to harm us; his reason for calling us to be his own is not in order to keep us chained in misery. The lesson they had to learn (and learned painfully slowly) was that people do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God’s mouth.
And because they judge their God by their bellies they end up making a preposterous charge against Moses and Aaron (v.3b) and presumably think the same about the Lord too. It’s almost laughable but we might see something of ourselves in their words if we look closely enough. Have there been times when you have thought that the Lord had it in for you, that he didn’t want you to prosper, that for some reason (usually because you weren’t holy enough) he needed to treat you harshly?
We need to tell ourselves to grow up. The Lord is not like how we portray him in our thinking. Such attitudes and fears on our part are deeply immature and tragically insecure. How can we ever think he is variable and his love for us unstable once we have truly seen the cross?
2. Testing and teaching
As before, the Lord’s amazing response to such immature thinking and behaviour is to be patient with his people and to graciously provide them with food – with manna and quail.
The reason the Lord does so is stated in two ways. Having given his people manna, the Lord is going to test them, to see if they will follow his instructions (v.4). But alongside the testing of the people – and, perhaps, in this context more prominent – he is going to teach them. They will “know” that the LORD brought them out of Egypt (v.6) and they will “know” that the LORD is their God (v.12).
There is more that we can and will say about that teaching in terms of its details but we need first to grasp what is being said here because it is utterly vital to genuine and healthy Christian living. We are called to know the Lord and he will do all that is necessary to bring us every more deeply into that knowledge.
Here we get to the heart of why he called Israel out of Egypt – that they might know him, that they might be restored into relationship with the Creator and, in that relationship, that they might then be a witness, a light, to the nations.
We need to know that it is the LORD who has rescued us and that the LORD is our God. We need to know that he is not a tame God but the self-existent, eternal and all-glorious God. There is no rival to him and we need to know that afresh and ever more deeply.
And we need to know that this God of glory has pledged himself to be our God, to be our Lord, to take complete ownership of us and responsibility for us. We need to know that more deeply and more truly. Grasping those points will greatly enhance our walk with him, encourage our faith and make us a blessing to others.
3. Further lessons
But this incident allows us to go further into the nitty-gritty of knowing the Lord and responding to his ways with us (it was, after all, a test for them). I want to say a number of things quite briefly on this point.
ii) Having enough – In a way that is not explained, they all collected just enough for themselves. None had too much; none had too little. Quite how it happened, we aren’t told – it just did. But when Paul refers to it in the NT, he uses it to encourage those who have much to share with those who have little (2 Cor. 8:13ff). That’s how a growing maturity shows itself.
ii) Having enough daily – The LORD provides for his people daily and so they are to trust him every day. This, of course, is the lesson Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s prayer – “Give us today our daily bread”. We are to rely on the Lord not periodically but perpetually; it is not maturity to think we can somehow go beyond that.
Some of the people test that out and get a shock – the manna has gone off. The Lord has tested them and they have failed the test. They want to do things their way; they want to go the road and God’s promises plus their own efforts. It doesn’t work for them and it won’t for us either.
iii) Having enough daily within God’s rhythm of work and rest – The Lord tells the people to collect extra on the 6th day and they’ll have enough not to need to collect any on
Whatever your take on the whole Sabbath issue, whether it continues into the NT unchanged or is modified (and I think it’s the latter), this scene at the very least shows us that as people created in God’s image we need to live within the pattern he sets for work and rest.
This incident comes before the giving of the law on Sinai; it is clearly linked to it but it is also linked backwards to creation and the Lord resting on the 7th day – which is just what he does here. They aren’t to try to collect manna on the Sabbath because there won’t be any – the Lord is resting from that activity.
The rhythms of work and rest are important for us as the Lord’s people. He has made us that way. We do well to learn that lesson.
iv) Passing on the lessons – All this is taught in the specific situation of Israel is the desert needing to be fed and the Lord responding in grace through manna and quail. When the situation changed (entering the promised land), that provision stopped (v.35).
But while the situation is specific, the lessons learned are suitable for every generation to reflect on. And so a sample of the manna is kept as a kind-of exhibit for future generations to learn from.
Some say that we have to learn from our mistakes; no doubt we do. But alongside that, we can and should also learn from the mistakes and the experiences of others. The manna in the jar would allow future generations to be taught important lessons about knowing and trusting the Lord – they would need to make those lessons their own but they ought to help them not to make the same mistakes.
The NT says the same to us as we read the OT. God grant us grace to do so. Amen.