|Published by Louise Adey Huish on Mon, 27 Apr 2020 13:58|
Exodus 16 tells the story of how God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, after Moses had led them out of slavery in Egypt. They had been wandering round for quite a while, and hunger and hopelessness were getting the better of them. About a month and a half in – the Bible is very precise – their discontent comes to a head: ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
God’s response is immediate, and very practical: he promises to ‘rain bread from heaven for you’, and this is what he does. The bread is called ‘manna’: ‘it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey’ (v.31). The rules on collecting the manna were very strict: each person could only gather enough for a single day (if they tried to store it for longer it went mouldy), except on the eve of the Sabbath, when they could gather enough for two days. In that way they could keep the Sabbath as a day of rest. Apparently manna then kept the Israelites going for forty years, until they arrived in the Promised Land.
A word that was once in common usage, ‘manna’ is not a very familiar concept nowadays (certainly my own children didn’t recognise the word when I asked them). Perhaps the most likely place for people to have come across the idea of manna is in that rousing Welsh hymn ‘Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer’, with its chorus ‘Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more…’. The hymn is written in the voice of someone who describes himself as ‘pilgrim through this barren land’, transposing the Israelites’ experience in the wilderness to the realities of contemporary living. Its author, William Williams of Pantacelyn (1717-94), was ordained into the Anglican church but became an itinerant preacher in the Welsh Methodist connection (and thus famously committed to the cause of the poor and struggling).
You may wonder why I have chosen to write about this today. Well, there is another version of the manna story in the Book of Numbers, where manna doesn’t get anything like such a good press. In this alternative version, we again hear the Israelites sighing for their old life in Egypt: ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and d the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’ (Num. 11: 5-6) Clearly the manna had been part of their provisions for a while – again we’re told that it appears at dewfall, and that it was like coriander seed, but the description is a lot less glowing here: ‘Its colour was like the colour of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil.’ (v.8)
The whole story is told with a different slant: it is the ‘rabble among them’ who have the temerity to complain, and the episode is presented as an example of the Israelites rebelling against God’s providence and the authority of their leaders. In the end, God loses his temper and sends them meat to eat, in the form of quail; but in a rather unedifying outburst, God declares that they will eat meat ‘until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you – because you have rejected the Lord who is among you’. The Israelites eat their fill of quail, but become infected with a ‘plague’ from which many of them die – and this is just the beginning of a whole series of misfortunes and leadership quarrels that follow.
We have now been in a state of lockdown for well over a month, and I sense that tempers are beginning to fray (and not just in my own household!). Those who are living in isolation have been on their own for weeks, and those who are living too close for comfort are in some cases reaping the whirlwind: the number of cases of domestic violence has spiralled. Of course, there is still an immense spirit of goodwill and community, but after a month it is inevitably becoming a little more routine, a little less exuberant. People are tired, and craving the normality of their old lives. As the unexpected period of sunshine comes to an end, so does the sense of novelty. We too would quite like to be back in Egypt, and enjoying the melons and the leeks!
The difficulties are exacerbated by the sense that no-one quite knows how lockdown is to come to an end. Our Prime Minister has been ill and off the scene, we have a new, energetic leader of the Opposition determined to make his mark, and there doesn’t seem to be quite the clear party line there once was. Rumours and misinformation abound, speculation is rife, and everyone is sick to death of ‘Coronavirus updates’.
This is the point – it seems to me – when we must avoid complaining, ‘Not manna again!’ While it’s hard to avoid the tedium of the ‘same old same old’, the lost story of Numbers reminds us that our dissatisfaction is likely to lead to disintegration -- infection, leadership quarrels, and bad tempers all round. While nobody necessarily wants to eat cake all day, every day, the ‘positive’ version of the story in Exodus does at least promise us our daily bread, until we reach the river Jordan, and can glimpse the Promised Land.