By John Vonder Bruegge, Associate Professor of Religion, Northwestern College
Last Sunday, Pastor Brian explained that the exodus event—the Israelites’ escape from Pharaoh’s army via the miraculous parting of the Red Sea—drew to a close “Act I” of the Exodus narrative. To be sure, the text of Exodus isn’t presented formally as the script of a play, but the metaphor is rich and effective. As is so often the case with a multi-act drama, it’s in Act 2 that we see a resurgence of all that the protagonists fought so hard against in Act 1. (If you’re a Star Wars fan, think “The Empire Strikes Back.”) Such is the case in Exodus as well. As soon as the turbulent waters have grown calm and the last notes of Moses’ and Miriam’s hymns have finished resonating, the people pick up where Pharaoh left off and begin displaying their own trademark form of rebellion against the LORD: complaining.
From a literary point of view, this section of Exodus is rife with ironic contrast. On the one hand are the great feats of God, performed right before the people’s very eyes (cf. Deut. 29:2-3), which should be the basis of an enduring covenantal bond. On the other hand is the forgetful and faithless grumbling of the Israelites. No doubt, we as readers are supposed to be horrified by this ungrateful people’s blatant disregard for God’s mighty deeds. More infamous examples are looming, notably the building of a golden calf even as Moses himself is atop Mt. Sinai receiving the law forbidding idol worship (32:1-6), but in ch. 16 we see that the this attitude is already in full form.
The people have barely moved on from Elim, a veritable Shangri-La complete with 12 springs and 70 palm trees (15:27), when their complaining turns caustic: “If only we had died in Egypt! Anything would be better than starving in the wilderness!” God hears their sardonic grumbling and responds, but we should be careful not to assume that this is a way to force God’s hand. In 16:4 (as in 15:25), God responds on own terms, not theirs. His intention is to test the people as to whether they will obey his instructions.
The testing takes two forms, and at least some of the people fail the test on both counts. First, God provides “manna” (the Hebrew literally means, “What is it?”—see 16:15, 31) and quail to sustain the people as they wander through the wilderness, but he wants them to understand that he alone is the provider. To this end, they are to collect only enough food for the day and consume it all, knowing that God will provide more “bread from heaven” on the following day. As we might have guessed, the people try to save some of the bounty for the next day. Not only does this anger Moses, but the food rots and becomes inedible. Second, God desires to underscore the importance of the Sabbath, so he commands that the people collect a double portion on the sixth day only, prepare it, and have it ready for the day of rest. Regardless, some of the people go out to gather on the Sabbath—and find nothing.
When we think of God’s covenantal love, our first inclination may be to associate it with the provision of food for a hungry people. We would be correct, but only partially so. To stop there is to stop too soon. In a retrospective passage in Deuteronomy, we are reminded that the testing is not only part of God’s expression of love, it is the ultimate expression, summed up in one of the most famous lines ever uttered:
Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
We know this final line less because we are familiar with the intricacies of the Old Testament and more because Jesus quotes it while in (of all places) the wilderness, the place of testing (see Luke 4:13). Where the people fail, Jesus succeeds.
In the end, the failure of the Israelites is not theirs alone; we see it in John 6:26 as well. Soon after the miraculous feeding of the 5000, Jesus addresses the crowds who have followed him to a new location, and he questions their motives: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” When Jesus tells them that what they really need is “the true bread from heaven,” which is Jesus himself, what do the people do? They complain (John 6:41-43). They have yet to learn that real sustenance comes not from bread that spoils, but from the Word of God.
We may not think of “complaining” as one of the seven deadly sins, but it’s worth noting that it was the starting point of Israel’s downfall following the exodus event. The attitude required to complain is the same attitude required to commit any sin: a blatant disregard for God’s mighty deeds.