Daily bread. Give us today what we need for today. Jesus taught us to pray in this way, but the idea is not original to him. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus reaches way back –back into the history of God’s people, back to the wilderness of Sinai, back to manna, the original daily bread.
God gives us today what we need for today. And God’s people first learn that lesson in the wilderness.
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 4Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but” against the Lord. 9Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’“ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12“I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’“13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.16This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’“ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.
Last week God spoke to Moses in the burning bush, telling him to tell Pharaoh to let God’s people God.
So, Moses goes…and a great contest ensues. Call it the Prizefight by the Pyramids. In one corner, we have Pharaoh, the undefeated heavyweight champion, uncontested ruler of the mightiest Empire on the face of the earth. In the other corner: the unranked amateur contenders, an enslaved people and their eccentric God.
Moses and Pharaoh go round and round: the River Nile turned to blood, frogs, ice, boils, locusts. And slowly, as punishing round gives way to punishing round, Pharaoh’s resolve begins to crack. After the tenth and most terrible plague claims the life of every firstborn in Egypt, Pharaoh lets God’s people go.
And then promptly changes his mind and chases them out into the wilderness, where God delivers the people by parting the waters of the Red Sea. They cross over on to dry land and Pharaoh’s army drowns.
God has delivered the people at last!
Only…the people are having some second thoughts. Life in the wilderness is not what they expected. It is hot, they have to walk everywhere and worst of all: no food. As our passage opens, we find them looking back with longing to the fleshpots of Egypt. We may have been slaves, but at least we had enough to eat.
God hears the grumbling and God responds by promising to rain food on the people. Quails come and cover the camp, providing some tasty, locally-sourced, farm to table poultry. And in the morning, as the dew lifts, they find a fine flaky substance covering the ground. “What is it?,” they ask –“man hu? In Hebrew, a pun on its name: manna.
What is it?
What is it?
What is it?
It is enough.
Heaven comes a little closer to earth: manna from heaven, sustenance in the wilderness, the bread of angels. God gives them today what they need for today.
As we prepare for the weekend, what will we want to keep in mind?
GRUMBLING IN THE WILDERNESS
This is our first recorded instance of what will become a common occurrence. In the wilderness, Israel grumbles. Israel grumbles against Moses and Aaron and Miriam and God. Israel looks back with longing on their slavery in Egypt. Israel fails to be thankful for all that God has done.
God’s best work is done in the wilderness. I believe—and I have no scholarship to back me up, this is just One of Matt’s Theories—I believe that the Babylonian Exile was a theologically formative time for Israel. And when God’s people were uprooted from their homes, forced to live in a foreign land, stories about wandering in the wilderness took on a new resonance. Sometimes God uses the wilderness to strip away distractions, to get back to basics, to form a people worthy of the work to come. It happened after the Exodus from Egypt. It happened during the Exile in Babylon. And it happened again when Jesus went out, after his baptism, to wrestle with the question of what kind of Savior he would be.
God gets things done in the wilderness. But when they go there, God’s people tend to grumble, grouse and gripe about how hard it is to belong to this God. Like a dentist’s chair, like a doctor’s office, the wilderness is where we go when the painful work needs to be done on us for the sake of our wholeness and healing.
The wilderness may make us grumble, but God means to make us well.
“A BENEVOLENT REBUKE”
I take that phrase from Walter Brueggemann. It’s his description of God’s response to the grumbling in this story. Unlike the parallel story in Numbers 11, where the grumbling makes God grouchy, in Exodus 16, God responds by meeting the needs of the people. I like the idea of God “killing us with kindness” –responding to our faithlessness, not with anger and wrath, but with even more blessing.
It is a nice counterexample to the false caricature of “the wrathful God of the Old Testament.” That is exactly what we do not see here.
God looks pretty good in this story.
Manna is a powerful metaphor, one that seems to open up more and more meaning for me as time goes by. I find the reflections of John D. Caputo to be especially helpful here. “We pray,” he writes, “each day for God to provide what we need for that day….We must learn to let God be God in us, as Meister Eckhart said, to let God be God each day, day by day…” (The Weakness of God, p.157).
Understanding that God is the God of daily bread—the God who gives us today what we need for today—can change one’s entire outlook on life. We want to worry about tomorrow but God gives us what we need for today. We want to hoard and hold on to what we have given, but God promises to provide for us each day, day by day. Anxiety is futile. If we really get that, we can focus on the present moment –the place where God meets us, day after day. When we learn to be present in the present moment—to receive with gratitude the good gift of daily bread and let tomorrow worry about itself—when we are present, here, now, in this moment…God meets us.
Heaven is a place on earth. Learning to live on manna makes it so.