The story of the Israelites (Abraham’s family) and their Old Testament travels and happenings are full of epic stories waiting to be made into movies better than the old Charleton Heston movie about the “exodus,” even though I still think it’s a pretty great flick. During this season of lent, I have been reflecting on the deeper reality of our sustenance. The passage in Exodus 16, when God tells Moses that he will provide manna for them in the wilderness has always been a powerful story with imagery much deeper than one would see at first glance.
Building up to this passage, we must understand that it comes on the heels of the exodus. After the final and devastating 10th plague, the Israelites are set free and travel out of Egypt with Moses, a huge caravan! But freedom would now come with a price, since Egypt isn’t there to protect them anymore, rather they become enemies and the great Empire. Pharaoh’s army is sent after them again, but God has now placed a fire over the children of Abraham by night and a cloud over them by day (to remind them that he’s with them and to guide them). God holds back the waters from the large sea, and Abraham’s family walks across the sea on dry land, as God crushes the Empire’s army behind them as the walls of the sea come crashing down on the Egyptians.
The Dual-Personality of Israel
It is at this point once again, where we see the the “dual-personality of Israel.” After the great victory, they spend the day singing songs and writing poems and praising God for deliverance, then they move on in their journey and find some bitter water that they can’t drink and the mentality of the years of slavery sets in again; doubt and complaints set in. I have to say, I can’t blame them after generations of suffering and slavery, to transition to this kind of radical freedom would be culturally debilitating in more ways that I will never fully know. God then turns the bitter water into sugar water… as you will see, either God has a sweet tooth, or He knows Israel has one. I’m not making this stuff up (Ex. 15:25).
And it is about at this point that our text picks up the story in Exodus 16:
1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of 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. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
It’s no new thing for the greatest kindnesses to be misinterpreted and represented as the greatest injuries. The worst of times are often brought upon us by the desires of our hearts. “We want to be free”, and now Israel experiences (in part) the cost of being free, and learning the hard lesson that the journey of freedom isn’t cheap nor immediate, and always comes at a great price.
Bread From Heaven
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against the Lord. For what are we, that you grumble against us?”
God hears their grumbling and his answer is bread from heaven. This bread though, is not the normal bread, it’s not Iron Kids or 100% Whole Wheat, this is the real deal, so much so that nobody knows what to call it. When the Israelites saw the manna on the ground that first morning, they asked, “What is it?” (Ex 16:15).
The word comes from two Hebrew words (2 pronouns: personal and interrogative) which form the phrase “What is it?; “man – hoo”, later referred to in Hebrew as “mawn”.
We learn a little bit about this manna if we were to read on in this text:
Now the house of Israel called its name manna. It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey. (Ex. 16:31) So there it is, it’s the first brand of Honey Nut Cheerios! I knew I liked that cereal for some reason!
They were told to only gather what their household needed for the day, no more, no less. And on the day before the Sabbath, gather enough for two days. They were also told that they were not to save any for the next day, because it would spoil. And yes, some tried to gather bread flakes on the Sabbath and there was none, and some tried to save the bread for the next day (“Insurance man, you never know!”), but it had worms and stunk real bad.
I find it interesting that they were to only take what they needed for the day, and only what God gave them that day was useful (maybe echoes of the Lord’s Prayer: give us this day our “daily” bread…). For forty years Israel had Honey Nut Cheerios, lived in the desert, longing for the city to come, and God sustained them.
The Mission of Israel
If we were to follow this story to see it’s fruition, the rest of the story of Israel, we would see many shadows or echoes of this story, this bread from heaven and this longing for the city to come. You see, God was preparing His people to be a display people, a people who were sustained by God, who obeyed Him, and showed the whole world what it was like to submit to a king like God (the geographic location of Israel, once they were in the promised land, was a strategic location, one that would allow all the nations to travel through on their way to Africa or Europe, to see an alternative community).
In Exodus 19, just a few chapters later and just before we read for the first time about the 10 Commandments (probably around 2 months after the first appearance of Honey Nut Cheerios), we hear God speak to Moses and tells him the mission He has for Israel. Essentially, I am giving you bread from heaven to preserve you, so that… you will be my people.
The Lord called to him (Moses) out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings (think of the movie Hobbit and eagles!) and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Ex. 19:3-6).
The Fuller Meaning of Manna
Now, I don’t want to over do this bread from heaven thing, but it’s so significant, that we must see the parallels in Scripture. God gives Israel “What is it?” to eat for 40 years. This sustains and preserves them until they reach the promised land, and I imagine myself as an Israelite saying, “Okay, thanks for the manna God, now we can move on, grow our crops on this fertile land and have an occasion bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios with all the milk and honey you’ve given us. But for now, I’m thinking wild game, growing some frijoles, and having a real hearty meal.”
Well, after Israel reached the promised land, they no loner needed the manna, but they needed God more than they could ever imagine. He was the one who sustained them. God was the one who delivered Israel or allowed them to be defeated. Israel was unfaithful, seeing God as the “occassional” provider or the “bail out” provider, but not the source of provision. They seemed to think they would be fine with just a little bit of God, occasionally, you know, like only collecting manna some days, and trying to save some of him for the days they wanted to be lazy, not realizing they needed “daily bread”.
Enter the Christ
Fast forward this story to the New Testament. Jesus the Christ, arrives on the scene, and the Jews don’t say “What is it?”, but they do say, “Who is this?”. Jesus answers:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They (the Jews) said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:32-35)
And isn’t it ironic, that right after Jesus says this, the Jews grumble?
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42)
Jesus is teaching them Old Testament interpretation and they got mad at Him. He’s saying, “Hey guys, I AM what sustained you throughout the wilderness. You thought it was Honey Nut Cheerios, but indeed, they were pointing to me. After all, I’m sweeter than honey on your lips, remember the Psalms!”
Then Jesus goes on to say:
47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)
There you have it, bread from heaven, Jesus Himself. Ingest the bread from heaven, and ingest Jesus you will. And here we are today, living in the already… Christ has died for us, risen up from the grave, now lives in us by His Spirit, and we are living on the bread from heaven… but we are also living in the not yet… This is just the manna for this season, but we are awaiting the promised land, the heavenly city, longing for the fulfillment of the promise.
Living in the Tension
And although we are in the wilderness and struggling and living in the tension of Christ with us, but sin still enslaving us, we know we are going to make it because God has sent bread from heaven to not just preserve us, but prepare us to be presented before Him. And as we are being prepared, we are displayers of our great God, showing and telling the world what it’s like to live under the rule of the King who is better than Honey Nut Cheerios.
But of course, we are Israel (all the examples of Israel in the Old Testament are pointers to us as well). We were slaves, but God redeemed us, and when we get set free, we have the Egypt mentality, that always goes back to the comfort of slavery, forgetting that the bread from heaven is pointing to a freedom beyond our wildest dreams. We need to be reminded; we need to remember, that there’s more, that we are free, and that Egypt is an evil slave master and desires our destruction, and that the Empire is really our only means of protection.
We need to remember that Egypt represents success built on the backs of slaves and a hierarchy of power. The exodus narrative shows us that God radically opposes the Empire mentality of oppression, greed, and over-consumption at the cost of the weak. It also shows us that to leave the Empire means a costly road of true freedom that will be opposed by the Empire mentality lying to us and tricking us that there’s no other way than to return to business as usual in Egypt.
So for now, in the 21st century, the church is still sustained by manna, as we regularly gather around the table of the Lord, and feast on the flesh of Christ, our bread from heaven, as we fellowship with the divine, and the fathers who have gone before us, and share in the heavenly appetizer, of Christ and with Christ if you will. A meal with Jesus. How cool is that? Bread from heaven, bread being significant because it is essential to living. Bread and water are our bare essentials, we can’t live without them.
Christ has given Himself, so we can eat of His flesh, drink of His blood that washes us clean, and we can be filled, and offer the never ending leftovers to those whom God has put in our lives today. Be filled with Christ, the bread from heaven, the water of life, and share the abundant leftovers.