This week in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures (Exodus 16:2-15) the Israelite's are in the wilderness just six weeks when they start living in the past. Hungry and cranky, realizing they don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll get there or how long it will take, with no established religion or government, no social safety net, and no leftovers— they complain. “If only we had died in Egypt where we sat around and ate as much as we wanted!” (Ah, flawed memories!)
God again listens to their cries and provides abundance they could never have imagined. This is the central wilderness experience, the first of many lessons in the making of a people. God says, “I will be your God,” calls them “my people,” then needs to teach them what that means— they have to work the vision making process and discern a mission statement (“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself,” seems pretty good!).
They need to wander in order to discover that God will lead them if they will follow. They want to look back without rose-coloured glasses so they can look forward with hope. They need to learn that God is love and discern who God is calling them to be. This first lesson is learning to rely on God’s goodness and abundance. It sounds cliché and naïve now, and I suspect then, too— but alone out in the desert, the Israelites literally depended on God for their daily bread, their safety, their lives.
Even as they learn the stark truth that we are all dependent on God despite our perceived independence, they learn of God’s faithfulness. They learn that hoarding doesn’t get us anywhere. They learn that God’s abundance comes along with justice— not whatever I want, but what we, the community, need. The story is a familiar one. It happens again and again, not just on the Hebrew people’s trek through the wilderness, but in our communities today. When times are tough, when we are threatened, when we are afraid, it is hard to remember our blessings, and very easy to focus on what is lacking.
Nor should we underestimate the difficulties of life in the desert. The routines of Egypt— whatever their hardships— were a known quantity. Life as slaves is difficult, but survivable. The wilderness, though, has no known support system. But when the waters of the sea closed over Pharaoh’s army, God burned any bridge back to Egypt. The story of manna in the desert is rightly understood as God’s providential care, God’s mercy for the people, and God standing with them to see them through— bread from heaven, indeed. What are we to make, though, of the Lord’s purpose? The Lord speaks to the peoples. God needs to “test them to see whether they follow Instruction or not.”
“What is it?” the people exclaim, when they encounter this manna. Apparently, this is a test indeed. This manna is food (the Egyptian word mennu means “food”), but it is strange food (the Arabic man hu means “This is insect secretions”). God will faithfully send manna throughout the time in the wilderness. Is the “testing” a part of the Lord’s teaching process, reinforcing again and again that God is trustworthy and worth following?
Today it is enough to remember that we are tested like this all the time. More than a thousand years after this story, Jesus will teach that asking for daily bread is enough to pray. We might wish for a lifetime supply of our favourite delicacies, but can we be thankful for what God provides? For the gift of life? For all that God has done and has promised?