photograph (c) Katherine Brown
Then 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.” … When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When 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.”
Exodus 16:4, 14-15; from Exodus 16 [NRSVUE]
Friday morning, I open my pocket prayer book and read praise to God ‘who is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine’ (Eph. 3:20). Sunday morning, the preacher recites the same line from the pulpit. I start at the unexpected repetition, sit thinking the paucity of our asking, the skimpiness of our imagination. I have this on my mind as I come to read — again, and hoping for the first time — Exodus 16.
Exodus 16. The story of bread from heaven [Exod. 16:4]. Flaky stuff, fine as frost [16:14], like coriander seed, and honey sweet [16:31]. Each of you gather what you need, Moses tells God’s people [16:16]. Some gather more, some gather less, but each finds they have gathered not too much nor too little, but for each tent-hold enough [16:17-18]. Manna rains down as an unexpected and precisely calibrated grace. Bread for the day.
Bread is given for the people’s hunger, and bread is given as a test, whether the people will follow God’s teaching or not [16:4]. I resist the word ‘test,’ at first, as if its purpose is our failure. But teachers do not test students to fail them but so that they learn, and show they know. What if God’s test, too, is invitation rather than stumbling block? What if its purpose is the possibility of practice?
The practice of dailiness: each morning gathering. The practice of sufficiency: each household having enough. The practice of consumption: heavenly bread hoarded breeds maggots and stinks [16:20]. The practice of pause: on the sixth day, double portions are gathered and kept for the seventh, for no bread falls on the Sabbath [16:22-27]. The practice of trust that underlies all of these.
I picture it covering the ground, a flaky frost of honey-sweet seeds. I imagine God’s people getting up early, going out in the morning’s first freshness to gather and prepare it. I wonder how it can be boiled or baked [16:23] yet melt in the heat of the sun [16:21], how kept over, it grows foul, except on the sixth day, when it stays good for the next day’s eating [16:24-26]. The logic of my questions is preoccupied with natural processes; the logic of the text is that these realities do not constrain God’s power, nor God’s will to work life beyond our asking, beyond our imagining.
I notice, then, that God’s people do not ask in this text. Not at first. They assume a dread outcome. They (implicitly) accuse Moses and God of — at best — culpable neglect. They do not ask.
God has brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They had groaned under the burden of their oppression [Exod 2:23], then praised God at their salvation [15:1-21]. Now, six weeks after singing, they seem to claim Egypt as a halcyon place: they were proximate to fleshpots, ate their fill of bread [16:1-3]. Better for God to have struck them down with full bellies there, they protest [16:4]. They know they will die from hunger. They do not ask for bread. Can they not imagine the possibility? Do they not trust its realization? Are their spirits still so broken by their cruel slavery [Exod 6:9] that they cannot hear that they were redeemed not for a different form of death but for life?
God hears their complaint. Heavenly bread is God’s response to the people’s need — an implicit refutation of the implicit accusation. Heavenly bread is God’s answer to the question the people have not asked, and heavenly bread draws from the people a question they could not have asked before. The people see this unexpected, unexpectable, coriander-seed-honey-sweet-fallen frost-flake — and they say to each other, ‘Man hu?’ ‘What is it?’ [Exod 16:15]. Their encounter with this miracle bread jolts them out of their anxiety into a present wonder, an explicit asking. What is it?
‘This is the bread the LORD has given you to eat’ [16:15]. Moses tells them to gather, and how much, and that it is to be eaten, not kept over [16:16-19], except on the sixth day, for the Sabbath [16:22-26]. Moses’ answer defines the ‘what’ not by its substance but by its source and its purpose. Here’s what to do with it, Moses says, here’s how to be in relationship with it. Daily. Sufficiently. Consuming. Trusting it will be provided because the provider of it can be trusted.
The question the people are surprised into asking becomes the name of the substance that surprised them: manna. The word an abiding reminder of gift beyond expectation or imagination. An invitation to persistent practice. A test not meant for failure but for formation, for coming to know [16:6, 12].
Manna. Summons to risk the asking that expands the trust, enlarges the imagination, extends the knowing. Gather and eat and taste the sweetness.
Here, in the wilderness, turn and see the glory of the LORD [16:9-10].