Desert Stories – Exodus 16:2-15
Children’s Moment: What do you do when you’re hungry? Where do you get food? Where does water come from? How do you get water? There were no grocery stores or fast-food restaurants to buy food, no river or water reservoir in the desert. God shapes the heart of a nation to fully rely on him (F.R.O.G.) through the provisions of bread and meat in the Desert of Sin.
Last week we traveled through the waters of the Red Sea. A great exodus of people passed through the barrier of water that led them into a season of wandering in desert lands. This exodus is the single most important event in Israel’s history. Without the Exodus all of God’s people wouldn’t know God, and they wouldn’t know the promises to Abraham. All God’s promises to Abraham would have been empty. There would be no Covenant given to Abraham, no Commandments given to Moses, no Prophets to call the people to live out the standards of loving God and neighbor, and no Messiah Jesus to ensure our relationship with God today. It is in the wilderness that the people learn to fully rely on God.
It is through the waters of the Red Sea that God wins over the heart of the people of Israel as worshipers of the One True God. No longer are the Israelites dependent on one man’s testimony about God, the whole nation has experienced this great deliverance. And, for all of history God chooses for this event to be the cornerstone of the Israelites belief system. Through the event of the Red Sea the people have experienced freedom to live their own lives as freed persons to worship their own God – Yahweh, the Great I Am. But the freedom comes with a price. They had to learn how to love God with their whole heart, and obey his voice.
Once the Israelites came through the waters of the Red Sea, the Egyptian army was wiped out – drown in the sweep of waters that came crashing down. Through the discovery of a series of oasis along the journey the people of Israel are enabled to sustain themselves as they travel through the desert wastelands. It is here in the Desert of Sin that the Israelites learn an important lesson.
They learn that God’s presence in the ordinary leads to a denial of God’s activity in the extraordinary. Truly, they learn that the miraculous events that saved them from Egypt are quickly forgotten. And, it the midst of God’s saving activity the people prefer the common everyday reliability on God’s natural grace provisions rather than rely on his supernatural grace provisions. In spite of the people’s preference to rely only on God’s everyday grace, God continued to send the miracles of food and water with his supernatural grace.
The Israelites are now moving about from oasis to oasis in the Desert of Sin all along the Sinai Peninsula. Here in this wandering season there are two phenomenon that occur – the provisions of bread and birds. Today there are two similar accounts of birds and bread in the Sinai Peninsula. In fact there is a type of “plant lice” that create a sweet substance that locals use to make bread, which they call manna. The substance deteriorates quickly just like the Bible story.
In our story the Israelites were to gather manna daily to make their bread (Exod. 16:16-21). The word “manna” means “What is that?” And, it’s the name given by the Israelites to the food that miraculously showed up on the ground. Manna can also mean “gift.” This gift of manna was from God. It is described as “a small round thing” with a taste “like wafers made with honey.”
It could be baked and boiled, ground in a mill, or beaten in a mortar (Ex. 16:23; Num. 11:7). If any was leftover till morning, it became corrupt with worms. However, none fell on the Sabbath, and on the preceding day a double portion was collected. This double portion could be kept over night to supply needs of the Sabbath day of rest.
The Israelites experienced a miraculous supply of birds (Exodus 16.13). Today these birds are found in countless numbers on the shores of the Mediterranean, and their annual migration is quite an event. These migratory birds fly in from Africa and are blown in by an easterly wind from the Mediterranean Sea. These birds are often exhausted from their flight and are easily caught by hand.
The writer of Psalm 78 remembers this story of bread and birds as “God showering bread upon them” and “birds were like the sand of the sea.” It seems that the quail lay one on another across the ground (Numbers 11.31). If you were to walk through the quail, they would come up to your knees.
But once the Israelites made it to the Promised Land (Josh. 5:12), they no longer needed the bread or birds of their wilderness wanderings. After 40 years of eating manna and quail under strict supervision from God, the provisions stopped.
It is not hard to connect the Exodus to the story of Joseph. Joseph was taken into Egypt to serve as a slave just as the Exodus people were enslaved. Joseph was raised up in Egypt to deal with a famine that swept across Egypt creating a food shortage. Both Joseph and Moses are God’s chosen leaders through a great food crisis. Joseph provided for the people through the natural order of things, while Moses provided for the people through a supernatural occurrence of bread and meat.
The most difficult problem for the people was discerning God’s presence through the provisions in their daily lives. It was easier to see God’s goodness through the natural order rather than the supernatural order. They struggled with their own independence rather than relying on God. They complained to God about the lack of resources, and it became a 40-year training ground for them. Their inward selves needed a lot of work and the entire generation was not allowed to cross into the Promised Land because of the the condition of their hearts.
God was calling the Israelites to a faithful love toward God and neighbor, and the spiritual discipline of relying on God and obeying his directions every day began by collecting manna and quail.
God chose to provide for his people so that they might know him, Yahweh. Yahweh is their God. Yahweh hears the cries of his people. Yahweh cares for their needs. Yahweh wants people to “see” who he is – his character and his nature of love. In the midst of providing for the people God’s supernatural grace is lost. The people cannot “see” God’s handiwork around them. They are quick to forget.
Through resting one day a week, the people have the opportunity to remember God’s goodness. But the problem the people face is the human quality of forgetfulness. Through the provision of Sabbath Rest, God reminds his people that he is with them. Even when the people cannot “see” God’s handiwork, God requires his people to rest once a week in order to remember. Sabbath Rest is for the people to help them clear their head, reorient their thinking, and aid them in their remembering of who God is to them. It is God’s design for his people to rest one day a week to reestablish their relationship with God.
We learn from the story that God intentionally provided just enough food for the day. And, God is not going to tolerate greediness of keeping more than is necessary. If the people collected more than one day’s supply, it would decay. The people had to learn to listen and obey God’s commands daily. The people were given instructions by their leader, Moses, and they were to obey their leader. If they disregarded Moses’ guidance they would find themselves at odds with God’s plan.
Every day they were to gather manna… just enough for the day, and on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much. On Sabbath Day no manna was found upon the ground. By giving these instructions to follow day-by-day God was preparing them for bigger things. God was preparing them to receive the commandments and the laws that would govern them as a people.
God had prescribed a new identity for the people of Israel but they had not yet adjusted to their new position. They have not yet become who they were called to be. They wished that they had remained in bondage in Egypt. The past always seems easier to live in than the present. It seemed easier to remain where they were rather than experiencing change: following God’s directions and obeying his voice.
God teaches his people through Moses how to love God with all their hearts, and to the love their neighbors as themselves. Through Moses, God’s servant, the Israelites learn what it means to choose life. Choosing life means loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and clinging to him. That’s how they will survive and live a long life (Deuteronomy 30.19-20).
Moses spends his whole life training the Israelite people to love the Lord God by walking in his ways and keeping his commandments. Moses insists that if the people refuse to listen to God’s voice, they will lose their lives.
All of Jesus’ teachings are based on the history of Israel. When Jesus goes up on the mountainside to give his most famous sermon – the Sermon on the Mount – he is remembering the teachings handed down to the Israelite people from the very beginning of their existence. Jesus teaches the people that he did not come to do away with the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus instructs us that whoever keeps the commandments and teaches them to others will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Here in the Desert of Sin on the Sinai Peninsula God begins to mold the heart of his people to know him, to love him, and to live with him. God seeks a community of people who are willing to follow his voice unreservedly. God seeks to bring a people out of bondage step-by-step leading them into a lifestyle of righteous living. God was willing to pour out his supernatural grace on the people when times were tough, and he was willing to do so through the natural order of things around them. Here in the season of desert wandering God invested in his people to transform their hearts to become a people wholly devoted to him.
You and I have the opportunity to learn from their example. We too can learn to trust God with our whole-heart. God never promises us an easy journey, but he promises to transform us into his image on the journey. So when life’s troubles are all around our task at hand is learning to listen to the voice of God. We must learn how to fully rely on God through both natural and supernatural means of grace. The journey is long. Don’t be discouraged when you’ve not seen the Promised Land. You may not see the benefits of your faithfulness to God in the struggles of your life, but rest assured that your faithfulness impacts others for the good.
At the end of Moses life his instructions to the people of Israel remained the same as it was in the beginning. Choose life. Choose life everyday. Love the Lord your God by obeying his voice, and clinging to him. This week I want to encourage you to find time for Sabbath rest to reorient your life to put God at the center of every day. Most of us will be distracted this week with the need to gain provisions – work, children, family, and community concerns. But hear the message of this sermon, and choose God. Put God at the center of your life.
You may have walked with God a long time, but you’ve noticed your love for God has waned. You may have walked with God a short time, but you’ve noticed your not listening to God’s voice like you were. If you have not kept God at the center of your thoughts… take a moment now and repent. Get right with God. If you want to devote your life to him again, it only takes a moment of prayer.