Starving in Sin

The Hebrews leave their lives of slavery, flee Pharaoh’s soldiers, then cross the Red Sea into freedom. After extended stops in Marah and Elim, they head towards the mountains. Upon entering the Wilderness of Sin, they run out of food.

Sinai. Caravan in the heart of the desert of el-Ka’a (Wilderness of Sin). G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. Between 1898 and 1914.

Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt.

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

Exodus 16: 1-3

Perhaps this is sounding familiar. Something bad happens and a number of travelers kvetch and moan to Moses and Aaron about it, telling them how Egypt was so much better. Bread and meat, that’s all they want. To some, these two things are more important than freedom.

Most of us know that God’s response to this was to give the people an unusual form of bread which they called manna. It appeared every morning, except on the Sabbath.

Israelites gathering Manna. Hendrick de Clerck.  1620s.  National Museum in Warsaw.

What a lot of us don’t remember, is that God also gave the Hebrews meat. Quail in the evening. And all of us was done as a test. To hammer in the Sabbath laws they’d learned at Marah.

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion—that I may thus test them, to see whether they will follow My instructions or not.

But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather each day.”

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “By evening you shall know it was the LORD who brought you out from the land of Egypt;

and in the morning you shall behold the Presence of the LORD, because He has heard your grumblings against the LORD. For who are we that you should grumble against us?

Since it is the LORD,” Moses continued, “who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because the LORD has heard the grumblings you utter against Him, what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against the LORD!”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole Israelite community: Advance toward the LORD, for He has heard your grumbling.”

And as Aaron spoke to the whole Israelite community, they turned toward the wilderness, and there, in a cloud, appeared the Presence of the LORD.

The LORD spoke to Moses:

“I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the LORD am your God.”

In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp.

When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and 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. And Moses said to them, “That is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat.

Exodus 16: 4-15
Psalter, The Bread of Angels; The Gathering of Quails; The Gathering of Manna, Walters Manuscript W.733, fol. 40r, by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts

For more on manna, see Manna—What Is It?

For more on quail, see The Evening Quail

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