Wednesday of Week 16 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:1-5, 9-15

After crossing the Sea of Reeds in safety, the Israelites begin their long, meandering journey to the promised land. 

In spite of all that God had done for them, they began complaining first of all about their water situation. There was water but it was too bitter to drink. They discovered it could be made drinkable by throwing a certain kind of wood into it. God also told them that if they acted properly and observed the Lord’s precepts, they would not experience any of the problems which had afflicted the Egyptians. They reached an oasis called Elim, an oasis with twelve water springs and 70 palm trees. There they had an abundance of water and shelter.

Then, as we see in today’s reading, they set off again and arrived in the desert of Sin, which lay about half way between Elim and Sinai and was clearly not a very hospitable terrain. They were following a route close to the eastern shore of the sea they had crossed earlier. It was the 15th day of the second month, just one month since they had escaped from Egypt They had eaten the Passover meal and left Egypt on the 15th day of the first month, Abib, later known as Nisan.

Once again the grumbling started. They spoke with nostalgia of the “fleshpots” of Egypt and the abundance of food they had when they lived there. Apparently, all the hardships from which they were so anxious to escape, were now all forgotten. And, once again, they laid all the blame on Moses for bringing them to a place where they could only die of starvation.

A patient God heard their complaint and told Moses of his plan to rain down ‘bread’ from heaven on them every day. As a gift from God, the manna was said to come from the sky. It may, in fact, have been something similar to a natural substance still found in small quantities on the Sinai peninsula, but here it is, at least in part, clearly miraculous. 

However, there were some rules to test their obedience to God’s law. Each day they were to pick just what they needed and no more; and, on the day before the sabbath, they were to pick a double portion. Clearly, there was to be no gathering of manna on the sabbath.

This message was passed on by Moses to Aaron who announced it to the people. And, just then, “the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud”. This was the cloud which was accompanying them on their journey, the pledge of God’s closeness to them. What form this manifestation took we do not know, but the message was clearly understood by the Israelites and was intended to put a stop to their grumbling.

Once again the Lord spoke with Moses. He was to tell the people that, from now on, in the evening they would have their fill of meat and in the morning their fill of ‘bread’. Sure enough, that evening a flock of quail came and covered the camp and, in the morning, they saw what looked like hoarfrost all over the ground.

When they first saw it, they asked: “What is that?” and were told by Moses,

This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.

“What is that?” is represented in Hebrew as man hu and is taken to be the origin of the word ‘manna’.

We are told that quail are common in the Sinai and that, as mentioned, the manna was possibly the juice of some local shrub. However, the narrative intends some special intervention under natural forms by which God fed his people. 

The Psalms and the Book of Wisdom gratefully recall the gift of manna which, in Christian tradition (as early as John 6:26-58), is a figure of the Eucharist, the spiritual food of the Church, the new Israel, on her earthly journey to the Promised Land. Jesus will refer to the manna as a type of the Bread that he will give (see John 6:32,49-52).

We have since taken over phrases like, “I will now rain down bread from heaven on you” and “This is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat” and given them Eucharistic significance.

What is made clear in the story is that the source of the food (and indeed of all we have and receive) is a compassionate and caring God, one who is largely deaf to his people’s constant complaints, their short memories of former help and protection and their weak faith.

We too so often suffer from the same weaknesses. It is so easy to be aware of our grievances and to forget the wonderful blessings we have received in life. Let us count our blessings today and say a big Thank You to our God and Lord.

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