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Manna in the Wilderness (plus the logistics of the Exodus) -- a study of Exodus 16

Updated: May 21

If God has a plan to rescue you, He has a plan to sustain you.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Exodus 16:1-20

This is a two-pronged lesson. (1) Even after all God had miraculously done, the Israelites did not trust Him to take care of their needs, and they didn’t appreciate what He did provide. Ever happen with you? (2) God gave them clear instructions which they flippantly disobeyed for selfish reasons. Ever happen with you?

 The entire Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. (16:2)

[This article started life as a printed supplement for teachers in my church. I have edited it for online publication.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About


If you have children or siblings, or if you know a human being, you have probably heard some really overdramatic whining. “I just stubbed my toe—I don’t think I can take out the garbage today. Or for the rest of the week.” “My shoes are scuffed—I can’t be seen in public ever again.” Ask your group to share some of their favorite overly dramatic reactions to things. Usually it will end up with a child saying something like “I’d be better off dead” or some other kind of ridiculously extreme statement.

[Let me throw out one word of caution (this week’s PSA): 99 times out of 100, those kinds of statements are irresponsible and meaningless. But every once in a while, and certainly for people who suffer from depression, that talk isn’t so idle. As the outside observer, we must walk the line between not indulging an obvious play for attention, but also not ignoring a cry for help. Mention that if you feel like your group is being too cavalier about statements like being better off dead.]

My second favorite Bible example of this is Jonah—when God sends the plant to give him shade and then kills it, and Jonah is so upset he could die. My first favorite example is anything to do with the Exodus, today’s passage included.

Bizarre Eats (also—how not to thank your host for a meal). 

There are a couple of other fun ways to get your group talking. Or gross—it depends. I googled “strange food” and wow did I get some strange results. Here’s your connection: God gave the Israelites manna from heaven. We have no idea what manna was. The word itself means “what is it?”

What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten? Or, have you ever eaten something that you didn’t know what it was? Maybe I have once or twice, but I’m very careful to ask what something is before I put it in my belly. If you went to Arts in the Heart of Augusta last weekend, perhaps you saw something odd?

But here’s another way you can take this idea—and this is something I have done both to my mom and my grandma (and who knows how many other times): they bring the food to the table and you ask, “What is that?” The question isn’t the problem, it’s the tone or the facial expression that goes with the question that’s the problem. Have you ever done that? Have you ever had that happen to you? How does that make you feel. Good thing God is self-confident—after all, they literally named the food He miraculously gave them for survival “What is that?”

If you have time, bring in a food on Sunday morning that will make your group say “what is that??”


This Week's Big Idea: The Logistics of the Exodus

According to Exodus 12:37, the Exodus out of Egypt involved 600,000 men, plus women and children, plus large herds of livestock, and many other people. That’s easily more than 2,000,000 people (maybe a lot more). Skeptics love to crash this number as a way of casting doubt on the entire Bible: “there’s no way this many people were in the Exodus; the Old Testament is untrustworthy propaganda”. You have to be very careful when you do internet research on the Exodus!

Here are some of the problems identified with this large population. These numbers would put the Ancient Near East as having more than 1/3 of the world’s population (in contrast, today they are ~6%). Egypt’s army was only about 20,000—how could the Israelites have been scared of them? A camp that would fit them all would have been more than 10 miles square—an unheard of size for those days (mighty Jericho was a few acres). They did not have the infrastructure to communicate quickly over such a wide area (not to mention all of the poop). I put a square on a map to indicate how huge their campsite would have been compared to the region they were in. And there are some other technical complaints.

Let’s be completely honest: the size of the Exodus stretches the imagination very, very far. I have a hard time comprehending the logistics. As a result, there are a number of Christian scholars who have tried to reinterpret the numbers into something smaller: maybe everything was inflated by a factor of 10 (an ancient convention we just don’t know about), or maybe the word for “thousand” should actually be translated “clan” (which is legitimate).

The problem—at least to me—is that those solutions eventually create problems of their own when you dig into other parts of the text. My proposal is that we take the Bible at face value and see what happens. Here’s what I found:

· God had blessed Israel. The Bible is very clear that Israel was fruitful in Egypt. After 400 years, they could have been far larger than 2,000,000. This would also help explain why Egypt was so concerned about them—a significant part of their slave labor force. As for their reluctance to rise up and conquer their captors, remember the psychological power of a “big stick”.

· It’s supposed to be a miracle, everyone. To everyone who says, “This isn’t possible”, I remind you that if we could comprehend it, it wouldn’t be very miraculous. If God could bring manna from heaven and water from a rock, why do we have a problem believing He could do that for millions? Clothing not wearing out—why does that bother us?

· There would be no archeological remains of the camp. To everyone who thinks there should be lots of evidence in the ground for us to discover of such a large civilization, I ask “why?” They left in a hurry; they carried everything they had; they only left behind dung. Why would we expect to find any evidence? They wouldn’t have left any possessions behind at all!

· Logistics become easy with God as leader. This is where I think the whole pillar of cloud thing is more important than we recognize. Yes, the camp was enormous—too large for normal means of communication. But God led them from the air, from someplace everybody could see all the time. In summary, I’m sticking with the 2,000,000 number for the Exodus.

The Context of Exodus

The whole context of this passage is chapters 15-18. The Israelites quickly went through the few supplies (water and bread) that they had taken with them from Egypt. So what do they do? Go to the logical conclusion that God has obviously miraculously delivered them from the most powerful nation in the world in order to kill them in the desert without witnesses. Of course! [Yikes.] But God miraculously provides clean water for them to drink. [Question: how long would it take for 2,000,000 people plus livestock to get water out of a natural spring? If it were a small spring, I calculate more than 10 years. That’s right, years. In other words, this is an absolutely miraculous provision of water just to get it to them before man and beast die of dehydration and exposure!] Then, after our passage about the manna and quail, God provides more water miraculously from a rock. Then there’s the battle in which Moses has to keep his arms raised for Joshua to lead the Israelites to victory over the Amalekites. This is a truly strange episode. On the plus, it’s when we are introduced to Joshua for the first time (as a military commander). We also learn that Israel faces opposition from the get-go. On the minus, we are introduced to the pattern that Israel is a complete failure unless God directly intervenes on their behalf. Seriously—they can’t do anything right on their own. And finally, we learn about wise Jethro who talks sense into stubborn Moses. We could do an entire lesson about delegation, trusting one another to help us with important tasks, and listening to advice. We could also do one on the need for mediators and arbitration even among brothers and sisters. But we don’t have time. This entire section of wandering is preparing us for Israel’s failure to trust God by conquering the Promised Land—and being send back into this wilderness they have hated so much walking through the first time.


One More Topic: Manna

To make a long story short, we don’t know what manna is. It is almost certainly not bread but grain (because it could be ground into a flour and made into cake). The word used for “bread” applies to a wide range of foods. The words used to describe it are very obscure. “Flake-like” is about right. It would melt in the sun and quickly bred worms. Num 11 says it was like coriander seed and tasted like oil.

Some scholars have tried to create a natural explanation for it: secretions left by insects on the tamarisk bushes feeding on the sap. That certainly explains the texture and smell (but not the melting bit). And if you believe there were 2,000,000 people in the Exodus, there’s no way to explain the amount needed. According to the numbers, there was enough manna every night to cover 30 basketball courts with a foot of manna. Insects? P-shaw.

The point of the biblical descriptions is that no people had ever seen or tasted anything like it before, and its inclusion in the ark implies that no one would ever see any since. It must be utterly miraculous in origin, being able to follow the people wherever they were in the wilderness and being doubled one day a week (and thus lasting for 2 days when it only lasted for one every other day of the week).

Note a common complaint raised about the Bible account. In Numbers 11, it is implied that God did not send quail for 2 years after He first sent the manna. My take on that is that God gave quail at the beginning of the manna but not after, and the people eventually moaned about not having it.


Part 1: Questioning the Future (16:1-3)

The entire Israelite community departed from Elim and came to the Wilderness of Sin, . . . The entire Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat and ate all the bread we wanted. . . .

Yes, this is really embarrassing. It’s been a month since the Israelites had left Egypt; this map shows the traditional locations, but they are debated. It is impossible to know if the Israelites were grumbling specifically against Moses—thinking he was messing up God’s instructions—or realized they were grumbling against God. My guess is the latter. The thing to point out here is the bizarre decision to remember only the positives about Egypt, not the fact that they were slaves and being abused. We all tend to go one way or another with our memories—the “good old days” or the “bad old days” when the reality is somewhere in between ("selective memory"). Our lesson is to make sure we have a balanced and realistic perspective on our history. The Jews did not, leading them to question God.


Part 2: Questioning Their Obedience (16:4-12)

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. This way I will test them to see whether or not they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” . . . “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them: At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will eat bread until you are full. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”

The person on trial here was not God but every Israelite, and that’s why I like this structure for the lesson. The people are questioning God about everything, but they’re the ones at fault. See the aside about “manna”; note that in Numbers 11, it seems like God did not send quail until 2 years after He first sent manna. I take these to be two different one-time events. This is a very specific demand for obedience. There were millions of people in the wilderness—no possible way they could be sustained through natural sources. So God was going to “invent” a food for them to eat. It would be nutritionally balanced (my guess is it actually tasted like chicken). It would last for one day and one day only (except two days before a Sabbath). Note that God hadn’t given them any laws yet; these commands foreshadow what is to come. Not just about the Sabbath, but also their failure to obey simple rules and complain about everything.

Ask your group if their kids ever behaved like this with respect to food. I would have taken the “You’re going to eat it, and you’re going to like it!” approach. God was incredibly patient. I think it would be fun to speculate about “how” God spoke with Moses, but don’t get sidetracked too long on an unknown answer.


Aside: Names of God

There are many different names for God in the first two books of the Bible, and each was critical for helping the Hebrews understand who their God really was. We talked at length about “Yahweh/YHWH”, God’s formal covenant name. Here are others:

In Genesis, the names for God start with “El” (a generic Hebrew word for god) because they didn’t know Him by another name. So we have El-Elyon (the Most High God), El-Roi (the God of Sight), El-Shaddai (Almighty God), and El-Olam (Everlasting God).

In Exodus, those names begin with “Yahweh” (for obvious reasons). Yahweh-Jireh (God will Provide—you probably recognize as Jehovah Jireh). Yahweh-Rapha (the God who Heals). Yahweh-Nissi (God my Victory). Yahweh-MaKaddesh (God who Sanctifies).

The more figurative names for God (Rock, Light, Refuge, Shield, etc.) come from later in the Bible when they have more of a history with Him. In Exodus, God introduces Himself by what He does, rooted in the one name that describes who He is (Yahweh). That should make a lot of sense, and it’s something we can do more of today. Not that calling Jesus “Friend” and “Brother” isn’t right and good, we would do very well to also call Him “Savior” and “Healer” and “Redeemer” and “Mediator” because those are things He is currently doing for us. Our relationship with Him can be abstract, but it should also be concrete. He’s not just “out there”—He’s with us, and for us.


Part 3: Questioning the Provision

So at evening quail came and covered the camp. In the morning there was a layer of dew all around the camp. When the layer of dew evaporated, there were fine flakes on the desert surface, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they asked one another, “What is it?” because they didn’t know what it was. Moses told them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. . . .

There’s a lot of repetition in these verses. That will make it harder for you to estimate your teaching outline! These verses simply describe what god had already said would happen. The word for “quail” is rare in the Bible. It probably refers to the same small birds that still migrate from Arabia to Turkey today. In the past, they would have migrated in flocks of millions. They are weak flyers, so when they crossed a body of water, they would have been tired and easy to catch. I give you info about manna and the units of measure in the sidebars. Verses 16-18 are odd; it sounds like God has told everyone how much to gather, and when they gathered as much as they thought they needed, they found out it was as much as God told them to get. I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that the point clearly is that everyone had enough, and no one was allowed to take too much. That sounds responsible. Make sure your group understands the difference between an honest question (“What is it?”) an a rude question (“What is it?!”). In Luke, it is the difference between how Mary and Zechariah responded to the angel. How do we respond to God’s blessing? Ungratefully?


Aside: Units of Measure in Exodus

An omer (“as much as one person needs per day”) is about 2 quarts or 2 liters. My box of family size Cinnamon Toast Crunch is about 3 3/8 quarts. So in other words, the Israelites ate a little more than a giant box of cereal in 2 days. One box of such cereal contains 2400 calories, so the volume is more than reasonable.

“Omer” only shows up here, meaning it was not used later in Jewish history. It is called 1/10 of an ephah, which is the unit of measure used most often in Leviticus and Numbers (grain offerings were given as 1/20 or 2/10 of an ephah). An ephah was about 3/5 of a bushel (a bushel is a little more than 9 gallons).


Part 4: Questioning the Next Meal (16:19-20)

Moses said to them, “No one is to let any of it remain until morning.” But they didn’t listen to Moses; some people left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank. Therefore Moses was angry with them.

This section follows the obvious end. Some people doubted God’s faithfulness, and so they tried to take matters into their own hand. It didn’t work. We have questions like that in our lives today! When it comes to the church budget, for example, I struggle with how much we should save and how much we should spend. I think—based on this passage—the answer is related to our motive: are we being responsible and prudent, or are we simply not trusting God? Humorously, the word “stank” is the same word when the Hebrews said Moses made them “stink” to the Egyptian slavemasters.

I think your final application and discussion is both easy and hard. It’s easy in that when we fail to trust in God, it makes God upset! And for good reason: He alone can truly take care of our needs. Have your group read what Jesus said in Matthew 6! But it’s hard in that the Hebrews had a very clear, black-and-white rule to obey, so it was equally obvious when they had failed to obey. It’s not always so clear for us. Some Christians think trusting God means not using human medicine. Not participating in any government programs. Not ever taking out a loan. And so on. They are very passionate about those convictions, and I respect that. But I am not convinced that the Bible says any of those things, and so it could not be a hard-and-fast rule for all Christians in all times. Ask your group if they have ever thought about the balance between preparing for the future and doubting God. Conversely, have they ever thought about the line between a “great” faith in God and simply being reckless? This is what Jesus was talking about when He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” What exactly does that mean in Thomson GA today? What are ways in which we need to trust God this week? What “need” (not “want”) are you doubting that God can provide for you? And (2) just as importantly, when are we gathering more for ourselves than we need? I think that’s just as big a problem in my life as doubting God! Even when you have enough, do you still want more? Do you focus more on what you don’t have than what you have?


Closing Thoughts: Complaints and Ingratitude

Let’s make one thing clear: it was okay for the Israelites to be concerned about their basic needs. They had children to feed—where was that food going to come from? Asking that question would have been okay for them, and it is okay for you today. This is the problem: they weren’t just asking that question. They were accusing God of being unable to provide for them. This is what James 1 says:

Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord, being double-minded and unstable in all his ways.

This is why doubting God is unacceptable for a Christian: how can we say we trust God for our salvation (our biggest need) but then not trust God for some smaller need? Our understanding of God is fundamentally flawed (and this would really make me question what you believe about your salvation). 

There’s another side to questions and doubts. When we question someone’s provision for us, we are essentially forgetting everything else that person has done for us. Kids do that to parents all the time; it’s very ungrateful. In the case of Christianity, our salvation alone is a priceless gift. We could be like Job—lose everything—and the very fact of our salvation would mean that we still owe an eternity of gratitude to God. That’s how valuable our salvation is. But we have so many more blessings to go along with that! Clean air, a beautiful sky, a strong church home, people who care about us, the freedoms of America, and on and on. If we ever catch ourselves in a complaining mode, just remember this!


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