Human memory can be remarkably pliable. It isn’t just illness or advancing age that can bend and twist it. Trauma too can do remarkable things to memory.
Exodus 15 describes how God responds to God’s Israelite children’s grumbling about their lack of something to drink. At Marah and Elim God gives them refreshing water to drink. We also imagine Israel spends a lot of time languishing in Elim’s palm trees’ relatively cool shade.
As the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday opens, however, Israel has left her oasis. She’s back in the barren wilderness. Her lunchboxes and water bottles are probably about as empty as the land across which she trudges.
Battered by hunger and baked by the hot desert sun, the Israelites’ memories begin to play tricks on them. As Scott Hoezee notes in his exploration of our text in The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings (Eerdmans, 2001), in their minds, Egypt’s “house of bondage and land of death” turns into some kind of Sandals Resort. The Nile River, which was full of their dead babies, has become cool and sparkling. While Egypt was the place where the Israelites were so exhausted they hardly had the energy to eat, now it’s the land of never-ending all-you-can-eat buffets.
Yet are those who preach and teach Exodus 16, as well as those who hear us really so different than the Israelites? How often don’t God’s people murmur something like, “If only we were back in the good old days when teachers prayed in school and everyone knew right from wrong? If only we were back where we sang out of hymnals accompanied only by the organ.”
Hungry Israel isn’t shy about expressing her preferences to Moses and Aaron. She insists she wishes she’d just stayed back in Egypt. As Terrence Fretheim (Exodus: John Knox Press) notes, Israel believes that if she were going to die anyway, she may as well do so with full bellies in slavery as with grumbling ones in freedom.
Yet Brevard Child (The Book of Exodus: Westminster) points out that Exodus’ narrator doesn’t present Israel as begging Moses for bread because she’s starving to death. The Israelites claim to long for Egypt’s “pots of meat” and “all the food” they wanted (3). She, in other words, begs God to swap her freedom for slavery.
For neither the first nor the last time, Israel’s unhappiness with her circumstances fuels her unhappiness with the leaders whom God used to lead her out of slavery. She accuses Moses and Aaron of not just leading them out of Egypt’s bounty, but also of orchestrating their death.
In fact, the Israelites charge their leaders with dragging them out of Egypt in order to starve them to death. This isn’t a charge of negligent homicide, to use 21st century North American legal terminology. It’s a charge of 1st degree murder.
Yet although verse 2 reports, “the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron,” in verse 8 Moses insists they’re actually complaining against God. It wasn’t, after all, Moses and Aaron’s idea to lead Israel out of her Egyptian slavery. Moses, in fact, was quite content to stay away from that mess and in Midian’s relative peace and prosperity. What’s more, Moses was simply doing God’s liberating work … that the Israelites’ complaints about their slavery had fueled in the first place.
Yet while Israel directs her bitter complaints to Moses and Aaron, it’s God who takes the initiative to respond. Later God will respond swiftly and harshly to similar grousing. Here, however, the Lord doesn’t speak harshly to Moses. God doesn’t even offer a hint of judgment. Instead God quickly and graciously reacts to Israel’s’ “grumbling.”
Not, however, before we read what Hoezee calls “one of the most stunning and theologically loaded verses in the Bible: Exodus 16:10.” The Israelites are both terrified and famished. They see that the road ahead of them runs through acute danger.
So the Israelites want to make a 180-degree turn. They want God to rewind the video recording of salvation history and return them to their “home” in Egypt. So if God had answered, “yes” to her grumbling and prayers, Israel would have ended up back in Egypt.
God, however, doesn’t give Israel what she prays for. After all, God doesn’t always give God’s people what ask for. Instead the Lord graciously gives Israel what she needs. God, after all, always gives God’s adopted sons and daughters what we need. So God doesn’t send Israel a return trip to at least slavery and probably sure death in Egypt. Instead God sends Israel himself.
Like its modern preachers, teachers and readers, Exodus 16’s Israel’s right where God wants her to be. She’s in a place where she must totally depend on God for her well-being and survival. So it’s almost as if the Lord hugs the Israelites whose hearts and faces look toward Egypt and gently turns them toward the land of promise.
But when God faces them toward the misery that lies between that gift and them, what do the Israelites see? Not just deprivation and emptiness, but also “the glory of the Lord!” When the Israelites look ahead at hard times, they see God himself.
Of course, they can’t yet see the Promised Land. Life will also continue to have its heartaches and hardships. What’s more, Israel’s faithlessness will extend her trip through the desert to the Promised Land by a whole generation. Yet in verse 10 God shows the liberated Israelites that they won’t have to endure any of that suffering alone.
God’s generous gift of manna serves not only to sustain the Israelites, but also to confirm God’s presence. God meets the Israelites’ need for food by richly providing them with what verse 4 calls “bread from heaven.” “What is it?” the Israelites ask in verse 15 as they perhaps crinkle up their noses. “It is the bread the Lord the Lord has given you to eat,” Moses answers.
As Hoezee also notes, later God will teach God’s adopted sons and daughters that this bread points to the bread that is God’s Word that nourishes and sustains God’s people’s whole life. Here, however, it’s a unique sign of God’s glory that awaits them — out in the desert of all places!
Yet it’s not just “bread from heaven” (with its hints of divine intervention) that God promises Israel. In verse 12 God also promises ungrateful Israel the gift of “meat” that comes in the wrapping of “quail” that come “and cover the camp (13).
The manna and quail is a reminder, says Fretheim, that Israel will find God’s gifts to her not only in the extraordinary, but also the ordinary. God’s provision is, after all, never just in what’s unusual. It’s also in what flies around God’s adopted sons and daughters and even sometimes lands right in the middle of their campsites.
Fretheim sees this as particularly instructive for Israel. But perhaps there’s something for Exodus 21st century readers to learn as well. When we limit God’s involvement with us to what’s miraculous, we look for God’s care in only what we think of as extraordinary. Then we ignore God’s provision in the gifts of each new day, the food we grow or buy, and the health we enjoy. We no longer see God as caring so deeply about us that God provides even the most mundane things that sustain us. As a result, Fretheim grieves, when we can no longer recognize the miraculous, we assume God is simply uninterested at best, and completely absent at worst.
As Hoezee notes, not a few Christians wish that the life of a Christian were like some kind of Disneyworld kingdom. We wish that God’s kingdom were a place where the streets were always clean, the trash was always swept away and night brought only twinkling lights.
But the Christian life generally just isn’t that way. Even those who know and receive God’s grace with our faith must sometimes walk through the desert of things like mental illness and economic hardship. Like the Israelites who walked through the Red Sea, we die and rise again with Jesus in the waters of baptism. Yet we often find various deserts even on the other side of those baptismal waters.
The good news is that such desert experiences don’t nullify God’s gracious presence. Our text reminds God’s adopted sons and daughters that when we can peer into various wildernesses, we can see the Lord’s glory and gracious presence. When God’s people look with the eyes of faith, we find evidence of God’s presence even in those various deserts.
Of course, the manna God provides God’s “hangry” adopted Israelite sons and daughter is far from the Promised Land’s milk and honey. But it’s enough to remind the Israelites that they’re not alone, that the covenant is still in affect and that a better day will graciously come.
In a society that attaches material explanations to virtually all mundane things, it’s among Exodus 16’s preachers and teachers greatest challenges to help our hearers recognize God’s provision for our daily needs. It’s among our most important jobs to remind each other than it isn’t just miracles that display the depths of God’s love. It’s also things like Cheerios for breakfast, safe round trips to the gym and loyal family members and friends that are gifts from God’s loving and gracious hand.
In a real sense, western citizens of the 21st century no longer ask, with the Israelites, “What is it?” about our daily bread. Yet when we claim, “It’s (just) lunch,” we also reveal our own ignorance about that bread. It is, after all, nothing less than “the bread the Lord has given you to eat” (15).
Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is a remarkable work of art. Among its many themes is a reflection on the malleability of memory. Its Charlotte and her daughter Handful are slaves. While Charlotte repeatedly tries to escape her captivity, she dies before she can reach freedom.
On the 6th anniversary of the death of Charlotte, whom her daughter calls “Mauma,” the other slaves reminisce about her. Those reflections cause Handful to observe: “Now that she was gone, they loved her a lot better.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2017
Exodus 16:2-15 Commentary