Manna and Quail (16:1–36)
1–3 One of the main characteristics of the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness was their grumbling: whenever things went wrong, they grumbled (verse 2). This grumbling was basically rebellion against God; when they grumbled they were really accusing God of mistreating them, betraying them. “We’d have been better off staying in Egypt,” they said. Their memories were short!
The Israelites had grumbled about not having water at Marah (Exodus 15:23–24); now they grumbled about not having food. They had been in the desert a month, and they had used up whatever food they had brought from Egypt. Again they found it easiest to grumble against their leaders, Moses and Aaron; they forgot that it was God who had made Moses and Aaron their leaders in the first place. Most of us do the same thing: we don’t like to admit to rebelling against God, but we are quick to complain about the Christian leaders God puts over us. To God, there is no difference.
4–8 But instead of punishing the grumbling Israelites, God gave them what they asked for: food. He was patient with them; He was continuing to test them to see if they would obey His instructions concerning the gathering of the food.
The food was bread from heaven (verse 4), which fell every morning like dew (verses 13–14). The people called it manna (verse 31), which means “What is it?” (verse 15); they had never eaten such food before.
God then gave precise instructions for gathering the manna each day. They were to gather only enough for their own family (verse 4); they were not to horde it. On the sixth day of the week they were to gather twice the daily amount so that they would not have to gather any on the seventh day, the Sabbath46 (verses 21–23). By following these instructions exactly, the Israelites would learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4).
God wanted the people to know that the food was coming from Him, that just as it was He who had brought them out of Egypt so it was He who was now continuing to provide for them. This is why He fed them with supernatural food. Yet their faith was so weak! As long as their desires were being met, they acknowledged God’s goodness; but the moment their desires were not met, they began to grumble again.
Jesus likened Himself to the manna; He called Himself the true bread from heaven (John 6:32–33). He said, “I am the bread of life . . . the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:35,51). In the Old Testament, God provided bread for the people’s bodies; in the New Testament, God provides bread for people’s souls.
The manna in the Old Testament was real food; it nourished two million Israelites for forty years. But manna is also a symbol of “spiritual food”—the Word of God, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 10:3). Just as we need physical food every day, so we need spiritual food likewise. Jesus (His word) is our spiritual food (see Exodus 12:8–11 and comment). We must gather it (verse 4)—not just have it “spoon fed” to us. Do we gather into our soul the word of Christ each day? Our life depends on it (John 6:57–58).
9–12 As Aaron was giving God’s instructions to the people, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud above the Israelites’ camp (verse 10). The exact nature of the GLORY is not described, but the people experienced the awesome presence of God with them.47
13–18 God had promised meat as well as bread (verse 12), so that evening quail flew in from across the Red Sea and fell exhausted to the ground. But the arrival of the quail was a one-time event, not a daily provision. Later on, God would provide quail once more, but under different circumstances (Numbers 11:31–34).
The manna, however, would be the Israelites main food for the next forty years (verse 35). They were told to gather no more than they needed for each day: an omer48 per person (verse 16). By this they would learn the principle of equality that the Apostle Paul later taught in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 8:13–15): everyone should receive what he or she needs—not more, not less.
19–30 Most of the Israelites followed the Lord’s instructions, but some did not. Some Israelites gathered extra manna beyond their needs for one day; they lacked the faith that the Lord would provide for their daily needs. And of course, by the Lord’s design, the stored-up manna was spoiled by the next day (verse 20).
But the double portion of manna gathered on the sixth day did not spoil, and could be eaten on the Sabbath as well (verse 24). Nevertheless, some Israelites didn’t plan ahead or just didn’t obey, and they tried to gather manna on the Sabbath. The Lord was displeased: “How long will you (Israelites) refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?” (verse 28).
31–36 The Lord commanded that a portion of manna be preserved, so that later generations of Israelites could see for themselves how God provided for their ancestors in the wilderness. Aaron subsequently put the portion of manna in front of the Testimony (verse 34)—that is, in the ark of the Testimony, which later would be constructed and placed within the tabernacle (Exodus 25:22; Hebrews 9:4). The Testimony itself referred to the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were soon to be inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).