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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 10/20/96
1Then they set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the Sons of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin. . . . 2 And the whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 And the sons of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died by the Lord's hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full: for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." 4 Then the Lord said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion for every day, that I may test them whether or not they will walk in my instruction. 5 And it will come about 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 sons of Israel, "At evening you will know that the Lord has brought you out of the Land of Egypt; 7 and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, for he hears your grumblings against the Lord; and what are we that you grumble against us?" 8 and Moses said, "this will happen when the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening, and bread to the full in the morning. . . . " 13 So it came about at evening that the quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew had evaporated, behold, on the surface of the wilderness there was a fine cake-like thing, fine as frost, on the ground. 15 When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it? [Heb. Man hu?]" For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, "It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what that Lord has commanded, 'Gather of it every man as much as he should eat: you shall take an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent.'" 17 And the sons of Israel did so, and some gathered much and some little. . . . 19 And Moses said to them, "Let no man leave any of it until morning." 20 But they did not listen to Moses, and some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 And they gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat; but when the sun grew hot it would melt. 22 Now it came about on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread. . . . 23 Then Moses said to them, "This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning." 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had said, and it did not become foul, nor was there any worm in it. 25 And Moses said, "Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none." 27 And it came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. 28 Then the Lord said to Moses, "How long do you refuse to keep my commandments and my instructions? 29 See, the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore, he gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day." 30 So the people rested on the seventh day. 31 So the house of Israel named it Manna, and it was like coriander seed, white; and its taste was like wafers with honey. 32 Then Moses said, "This is what the Lord has commanded: 'Let an overfull of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.'" 33 And Moses said to Aaron, "Take a jar and put an overfull of manna in it, and place it before the Lord, to be kept throughout your generations." 34 As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the Testimony to be kept. 35 And the sons of Israel ate the manna forty years until they came to an inhabited land. . . . 36 (Now an omer is a tenth of an ephah.)
Scripture is plain, but it is also deep. Therefore, there is often more to these "simple" stories than meets the eye. So it is with the familiar story of the manna. We can look at the nature of the miracle involved, God's reason for providing it, and what it all means. All these things are plain in the text, but not to a superficial reading.
Manna was obviously a strange phenomenon. The Israelites were puzzled by it at first. The first thing they said when they saw it was "Man hu?" In other words, "What's this?" in Hebrew. When an Israelite mother offered you seconds of it, in other words, she said "Have some more 'What-you-call-it.'" That has not stopped modern scholars from trying to figure it out.
Those who wish to explain away the supernatural character of the biblical revelation often point out that there is a natural phenomenon that can be encountered in the Near East called "Tamarisk Manna." It is a secretion of the tamarisk tree, a waxy substance containing natural sugars that appears in the morning and melts away in the heat of the day. This, they say, is undoubtedly the source of the biblical story.
Well, I don't know about "undoubtedly." I think we ought to follow C. S. Lewis' excellent advice and be intelligent doubters--i.e., once in a while "try doubting something besides Scripture"--like the "assured results of modern criticism" for example. Tamarisk manna appears only in May and June, and in some years not at all. There is no way it could have fed a large army of people for forty years. Tamarisk manna is obviously found only under tamarisk trees. But the biblical manna came "from heaven." It would have had to be much more widespread to feed such a large group in any case. Tamarisk manna does not have very much food value. It is a waxy base with some sugars; it can't be baked or boiled. The biblical phenomenon appears to have contained some kind of grain with protein. Tamarisk manna does not breed worms overnight, nor does it fail to appear every seventh day nor have twice as much appear on the sixth day. So even if this miracle consisted of a divine enhancement of a natural phenomenon--as many miracles do--identifying the phenomenon does not explain away the supernatural element. And, as its very name suggests, Manna was not anything the Israelites were familiar with in their previous experience.
Not only was this substance a miraculous provision of their need, but it was designed to respond remarkably to whether one followed the instructions that had been issued concerning it. If you tried to horde it, it rotted immediately. Six days of various neighbors trying that with such putrid results would set you up for a real test of faith when the end of the week came and you were supposed to gather two days' supply and keep it over night. But then it kept just fine, and if you had not kept it you ended up with nothing. It's a rather impressive object lesson that we ought to take God's word seriously.
And yet, surrounded by daily manifestations of the supernatural, as majestic as the pillar of Fire or as mundane as the manna, most of the children of Israel continued to be chronic complainers and unbelievers. How is this possible? Apparently when the miraculous becomes normal it all too quickly becomes commonplace. By Num. 11:6 the people will be complaining that "there is nothing at all to look at except this manna!" This may help explain why miracles have rarely been granted on a wholesale basis, why they continue to be rare to this day. It explains why many of us are profoundly uncomfortable with the Pentecostal/charismatic demand for definitive evidence or "signs" of the work of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues or apparently dramatic deliverances. It is not that we do not think God still does such things, but that, as our Lord noted, "A wicked generation seeks for a sign." To be obsessed with dramatic outward manifestations like tongues to the detriment of an emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit is like trying to walk by sight rather than faith. Not only does the need to hype things up in order to keep believing that we are seeing the "signs" destroy our credibility, but even if God gave us what we are seeking it would not really build out faith. Do we really think we are more spiritual than the Israelites? Only by the grace of God, if so. and if so, we will show it by walking by faith rather than by sight.
Why did God provide this miraculous food? Well, duh, most people assume, because the children of Israel needed it. Did they really? This was a nation with beaucoups of flocks and herds, and we haven't heard any complaints about lack of pasture. It may have been imprudent to slaughter very many of their animals until they had secure grazing grounds and folds for them again, but the Israelites were probably not in danger of starvation. They were just tired of having nothing to eat but goat milk and cheese! And, by the way, they had not sat by any flesh pots in Egypt. They had been slaves. Meat was a luxury reserved for the rulers. So the people's complaints may have been more petty even than we realize.
What we notice in the provision of the Manna then is the great forbearance as well as the goodness of God. The people were lucky that God did not destroy their camp for presumption! That alone is grace, unmerited favor--but God's goodness goes far beyond this, despite their ingratitude. I suspect the opportunity for instruction it provided may have been part of the reason. The testing is itself no small part of the blessing of the Manna. The Sabbath had not apparently been regularly observed until now. But now there was a way to make it special indeed. Those who obeyed must have marveled at the miraculous preservation of their manna and had their faith confirmed. Those who failed had an opportunity to repent. And the lesson would be repeated every week! What could be better than that?
The New Testament gives us a very interesting comment on this passage--in the words of our Lord himself.
"I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever, and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died. He who eats of this bread shall live forever" (John 6:48-58).
We have Scriptural warrant here for taking manna as a type of Christ--a picture of him that foreshadows the meaning of what he came to do. How so? In such a case, both the parallels and the differences are important and should be noted. Both manna and Christ are "bread"--one literal, the other figurative--that came down from heaven. Both are God's gracious provision. Both are undeserved. Both go beyond a superficial conception of our need--the manna provided a more varied diet, not just survival, and Christ gives us not only "spiritual" survival (in justification) but much more: glorification. Both can only be truly received by a response of faith manifested in obedience. But the difference is that between a picture (manna) and reality (Christ). Manna only gave temporal life, for the ones who ate it all died later. But those who "eat" of Christ will never die.
When you think of the manna, then. think of God's gracious provision for Israel in the wilderness, but think of more: of his gracious provision for us, lost in the wilderness of sin. "I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever, and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died. He who eats of this bread shall live forever" (John 6:48-58).
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams