The Israelites were not finding things easy. Yes, they had been liberated from slavery and oppression, but that didn’t mean that their troubles were over. They had been living in Egypt for centuries, it had become home to them, even though they were treated badly. They knew where they were in Egypt. In coming away, everything changed. They left their homes, their way of life, their world view, to step out into the desert. And it was a desert, a wilderness. There was nothing comfortable or homely. It wasn’t safe or secure.
Change is never easy. You change one thing, and then you find it has a knock on effect and everything else is turned upside down. And just adjusting to the change is hard. When things change outside, you find you need to change inside as well, and that’s the hardest thing – you have to change your perception of who you are and how you relate to the world and what everything means.
So they started murmuring about Moses and Aaron, grumbling behind their backs. It happens all the time of course. At work, people grumble about the boss. At home, they grumble about the woman down the street. Here in church, people grumble about me – I know they do. I wish they would just tell me, and we could sort it out. But no, they moan and murmur, and eventually someone tells me about the grumbling.
Let’s face it, the desert was not an easy place to be. The landscape is harsh. The sand gets everywhere. You can’t so much as get a wash.
Eventually, word got back to Moses and Aaron that the people were complaining. When people are unhappy about everything, they will pick on one issue as the focus for all their complaints. For the Israelites in the wilderness, it was food and drink that became the problem. They were saying: Egypt may have been difficult for us, but at least we had something to eat. Perhaps God should have killed us there rather than bring us into the desert to die of hunger.
Which shows just how lost they were spiritually. When the sons of Israel moved to Egypt, they had brought with them their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but over the centuries, that faith had dissipated. When Moses came to bring them out of Egypt, he had recalled them to that early faith, but they were still struggling with what it meant to be the people of God. They hadn’t learnt to trust God to care for them and provide for them.
Whereas Moses goes back to talk to God about the situation and God explains how it’s going to work, how food will be provided, and he promises bread from heaven, which will appear every day, so that they can gather enough to eat every day. Every morning, when the sun dried up the dew, there was a flaky substance lying on the ground. They had never come across anything like this before. They called it manna. it may well have been a secretion of the cochineal insect on the tamarisk bushes which drips to the earth by day and becomes hard at night. It tasted like crystallised honey. This was to be their major source of food for all the time they spent in the wilderness.
But God built in a test. The Israelites were to gather enough each morning to feed themselves and their families for the day. If they tried to keep any left over until morning, it went off and became wormy. Except on Fridays, when they could collect double the amount, so that they had enough to eat on the Sabbath without going out to gather it. And the Israelites had to learn to live in God’s way, trusting God that if there was enough food for today there would be enough food for tomorrow. You get the same idea in the Lord’s Prayer – give us today the food we need for today.
And another part of the lesson God was trying to teach them was about keeping the Sabbath day holy by refraining from work and dedicating the day to resting in God. The idea is that our lives should reflect the pattern that God established in creation, with the seventh day being set aside for renewal and refreshment. That way of being had been lost in Egypt, just as we have totally lost it in our culture.
The Israelites didn’t get it straight away. Some tried to bring in spare manna to keep for breakfast the next day, but when they came to it in the morning, it was horrible. And if they tried to gather manna on the Sabbath, there was none to be had. It was a steep learning curve to living God’s way.
Living God’s way means trusting in God to provide. When you live trustfully, things happen. Whatever you need will come to you. It’s about not hoarding things for a rainy day. Be satisfied with what you have. Share what you have with those who need it. Live generously and you will never go short. It’s no good grabbing food and goods – for one thing, you get a bit of a reputation, because people notice – but getting things for yourself and your own family gets in the way of being generous with others.
There’s a picture here of the story, painted by the German priest Sieger Koder who died in 2015.
You can find it here: https://www.paulineuk.org/browse/item/manna-petite-picture-card-pack-of-25/5031446901618
It helps to bring the meaning of the story home:
- You can see the amazement on the face of the guy in yellow, wondering what this is and where it came from, and the guy in green is looking at it in his hand;
- You can see a couple of people tentatively tasting the strange food.
- It brings home the reality of the food coming to the people – there’s a couple of people just peering out of their tents, and the food is there.
- The guy in yellow – you can see his bare feet. Now they may have had no shoes, but it also recalls the instruction to Moses at the burning bush to take his shoes off. This is holy ground, touched by the grace of God.
- All of them are kneeling or sitting on the ground. They are in the presence of God who gives them everything.
- The skies are dark but dawn is coming up on the horizon. Life is a struggle now, but there is hope of a new day coming, a new land, a new life.
Take this card and use it as a prayer. Just spend time looking at and noticing the details. Read the story again from the bible. Let the picture take you into prayer. Talk to God about whatever the picture evokes in you.