Exodus 16 & Numbers 11
“Lord, teach us to pray!” The disciples come to Jesus with a simple request. And Jesus teaches them the words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Teach us to pray.” And one can imagine a mother sitting down with her daughter, teaching her to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”; sitting down with a son, teaching him to fold his hands and say, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest…” “Lord, teach us to pray.” And we imagine teaching with words.
Ah…but more often God Himself teaches us to pray without words. He teaches us to pray by dropping those events and experiences into our lives when, without any thought at all, the prayer erupts from our lips, “O God!” Often not very subtle events or experiences…great joy…great tragedy…and we learn to pray, “O my God!”
Israel is learning to pray in this way. But here in these early lessons their prayer sounds a whole lot like complaining!
Exodus 16:1, “They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin [not “sin” in the sense of how we usually use that word, it’s a geographic location], which is between Elim and Sinai…” We’ve taken a couple steps back here. This is before Israel had arrived at Mt. Sinai. Then with Numbers 11 we’ll jump back ahead to after Mt. Sinai.
V2, “And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…” This isn’t just a few disgruntled folks. The whole nation of Israel is grumbling. V3, “And the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’”
Two and a half months after leaving Egypt and their provisions are running out. They’re hungry. And from the sounds of it, really hungry. So hungry that the food they ate as slaves now seems good in their minds. So hungry that they accuse Moses of trying to kill them all. And the whole nation of Israel is in on it!
So how can I call this prayer? There are no niceties here. No expressions of faith—“O Lord, You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living creature.” There is no please and thank you. There is only complaint, complaint, complaint.
And yet, v4, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you…’” God answers this nation of complainers as though they had prayed nicely, in faith. He gives them bread from heaven! So what is this?
It is God teaching Israel how to pray. Moses explains in v6, “So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, ‘At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because He has heard your grumbling against the Lord.’”
Because God has heard their grumbling against Him, He’s going to give them what they want? What is that teaching them, except to grumble some more whenever they want something?! Ah, well, indeed it takes Israel a long time to learn, but God is teaching them about prayer and about His mercy.
V11, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have heard the grumbling of the people of Israel. Say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”’”
Ah…but over in Numbers 11, two years and almost three months after they first camped at Mt. Sinai, Israel is on the move again. And after only three days on the road, guess what, they’re complaining.
Numbers 11:4, “Now the rabble that was among them [not the whole nation, mind you, just the perennial complainers who are always grumbling about something]…the rabble…had a strong craving.” They get the nation whipped up. “And the people of Israel also wept again and said, ‘Oh that we had meat to eat!’” And now their memory of slave food back in Egypt has grown very indulgent with the passing of time.
V5, “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing [well nothing, that is, except their enslavement], the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
Israel has been eating manna now every day for almost 3 years, since God first gave it back in Exodus 16. Three years of the same menu! Even bread from heaven gets old after a while.
Now, we’ll talk about this manna in a moment. But first, notice the outcome here. The people grumble for something to eat, just like in Exodus. And like Exodus, Numbers 11:31, “Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp.” V32, “And the people rose all that day and all night and all the next day, and gathered the quail.” God gives them lots of quail to eat!
But…down in v33, “While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague.” So back in Exodus they complain and God gives them food. Here in Numbers they complain, God gives them food, but then smites them dead because of their complaint? What on earth is He teaching them? He should have struck them dead the first time…maybe they wouldn’t have complained so much. Maybe they would have asked nicely. “Pretty please! Give us food, but don’t kill us!”
What is this? God is teaching Israel to pray. But between the lesson in Exodus 16 and the lesson in Numbers 11, between these two lessons stands Mt. Sinai. Between the lessons comes the Law of God in all of its deadly severity. “For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
In Exodus 16, Israel learns a great lesson in God’s mercy, His steadfast love to thousands. In Numbers 11 they learn a great lesson in God’s jealousy, as the iniquity of the fathers is visited on the children. Because Israel is slow to learn…slow to learn what that manna has been all about.
So what is it? This manna? Back in Exodus 16:13, “…in the morning dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.” Jump down to v31, “Now the house of Israel called its name manna.” Manna means “what is it?” That’s what Israel said that first morning. What is it? So that was its name for 40 years…manna. What is it? That’s right. Manna.
V31, “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Add some chopped nuts and it sounds to me like the Mediterranean treat, baklava. Sweet wafer-y layers with honey.
Israel calls it manna, “What is it?” They never really quite get it. V15, “Moses said to them ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’” So for two and a half years between Exodus 16 and Numbers 11 God gave Israel something to eat, bread from heaven, six mornings a week, with a double portion of the sixth day so they don’t have to work on the Sabbath. Thus their complaint in Numbers 11 is a lack of faith, whereas their complaint in Exodus 16 was a cry of need. God heard the first. He punished the second. Israel did not learn.
Now it would be easy to take away from this the lesson that we shouldn’t grumble too much or God will smite us. But if that’s all we take away from this, then we too haven’t learned either.
For standing between the Israelites and us is a very different mountain, Golgotha. Standing between their lessons and ours is not the severity of God’s Law against us, it is the gift of God’s Gospel in Christ for us. A better mountain. A better manna.
Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread [the living manna] that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”
Which means that as we trek through the wilderness of this life, God feeds us with Jesus, by His Gospel, by His Supper. God is teaching us to pray in a very different way—not by threats from His law, but by the gifts of His Christ to His sons and daughters.
So when God causes us to hunger in this life…and He most certainly does…while He continues to feed us with the manna of His crucified Son in Word and Sacrament…He is not teaching us to pray out of fear, “O my God!” He is teaching us to pray in faith, “Our Father,” as dear children come to their dear fathers.
When God causes us to hunger…in body or soul…us who eat the manna of Christ…when God causes us to hunger it is no longer a hunger by which He is smiting us with His Law. No, when He causes us to hunger, in His Son, it is to teach us about His mercy, to teach us about faith, to teach us the way of His gifts in Christ. That we may ask and receive. That we may seek and find. That we may knock and find the way open before us. That in our hungers we may eat again the true Manna, Him who comes down from heaven. And in eating, we may live forever.