A Provident God
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5 On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” 6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7 and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” 8 And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”
9 Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. 11 The Lord spoke to Moses and said, 12 “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
What is the half life of gratitude?
As the Exodus story unfolds it is increasingly obvious that the Israelites have a collective problem with short term memory. No matter how dramatic or gracious God is towards his people, they forget and they complain. “What have you done for me lately?”
Just three days after their miraculous escape from Pharaoh, they are thirsty and start complaining. “ And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 5:24) God responds, makes the water sweet and leads the people to “ Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.” Then, less than two weeks later, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3 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 and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Somehow slavery had become the ‘good old days’.
Historically, I have viewed such behavior as ungrateful and entitled. But now I think my attitude is harsh, if not self righteous and judgmental. The passage vividly describes a basic human dilemma. In real life it is very difficult to rely upon God for our safety. We want to. We can often see, in retrospect, how God has been with us—but as soon as we feel threatened, as soon as we are hungry or thirsty, we get anxious. We not only want assurances, we want what we want and we want a guarantee. Living in the knowledge that everything we hold dear—including our lives—can suddenly collapse is more than we can bear.
We will complain and blame. We will rant and rave. Sometimes such behavior is self indulgent but it is just as likely a counter intuitive act of faith. We are creatures and creatures react viscerally and even violently to threat. And if that is where we are, that is what we bring to God. To do otherwise is to attempt to manage God. When we assume God loves ‘good’ people, grateful people and stoic people, belonging to God is a function of our good behavior, not God’s grace. It takes far more faith to come to God with our transparent, limited selves and trust his love for us. In real life, relationships expand and deepen as we allow ourselves to be known. The same is true with God.
The good news is God’s steadfast love does not waver. God knows our frame and remembers we are dust. Rather than view the Israelites as prime examples of bad behavior, I think it helpful to realize they express feelings and attitudes that are active today. They are us. The story is about God’s presence, faithfulness and care— far more than it is about our ability to be grateful or faithful when we are threatened. It is a story about God’s sufficiency. It is not a story about what we ‘should’ be. We too will grumble and complain and I promise you the Lord is not the least bit surprised. Read the text. Over and over and over again, it reads,’The Lord heard …and the Lord responded.’
And finally, it is a bit of a warning. If you wish to be loving and generous, be assured that a common reaction to generosity will be for recipients to ask for more. Gratitude for your gift may not last 24 hours. We get angry with people who keep wanting—especially if we feel like we have already given. We don’t like being confronted with the never ending decisions around ‘how much is enough’—-as well as having to determine our own personal limits around how much to give. The problem lies with us not the people—family, friends, neighbors or panhandlers—who are asking. We decide how much to give. We do not get to arbitrate what people want. The Israelites always wanted more—and we should not be surprised nor judgmental.
How much is enough?
How much is enough money? How much is enough food? Is enough when we’ve eaten so much we can’t eat more? Is enough when we have food stored for our natural lives? How do we balance present sufficiency and future need? The Lord tells the Israelites: “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs,….and later added the command: “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But surprise, surprise, “they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul.”
In real life there is always a tension between ‘waiting for the Lord’ and our responsibility to do what we can with the resources we have been given. Waiting for magic is just as false as thinking our planning can protect us from disasters. Real life is lived between the two and this passage really only addresses the ‘wait for Lord’ side of the equation.
I almost always been self employed and especially early in my career was extremely pleased to have saved one month of expenses to help if my income dipped. The financial advisers who suggested a six month cushion lived in a different reality than the one I lived in. But as time went on, I started to treat my ‘cushion’, which was specifically for emergencies, as inviolate. When I began saving, one month was an accomplishment, but after a few years, a 3-4 cushion was not enough. Stockpiling reserves became more important than creating memories. Though well rationalized and fiscally defensible, I was trying to manage the future by sacrificing my present.
The Israelites were doing the same thing. They were literally living day to day. They had enough for the day but only had a promise for tomorrow. Anyone who is retired and on a fixed income knows the Israelite’s dilemma. How long do you delay spending what you have because you might need it later. Unfortunately, we also run the risk that our strategy will backfire. Our health will decline to the point we can not enjoy a trip that we finally feel we can afford. Our money might as well be infested with worms.
Living in the present is nearly impossible.
When the manna first appeared, the Israelites asked “What is it?” They could not see God’s providence. We may not recognize God’s sufficiency in our lives but our deepest faith is that God is with us. It is tempting to live in the past and tempting to try to manage the future. But both interfere with living real life in the present.
The gift of manna requires that we live in the present. We have enough for today. And that is all we know. We may hate our present but at the end of the day, we must decide how we will live our lives unemployed or with a life threatening disease or deeply grieving. We do not get to choose our present. We don’t have to like it. We can complain bitterly to our God. We can fear for our future and wish for the past but the life we have is today. In real life our present may include unemployment. It may include cancer. It may include terrible loss.
We live with the promise that God will be with us. That is the promise of the Exodus story. That is the faith Jesus held onto—even unto a cross. Ours is not an easy faith but when fear grips your heart, and it will, remember the Israelites in slavery, remember them in the wilderness. Remember them complaining. They have walked where we must walk—and God was with them. We need that faith to direct us and sustain us.
Trust in God’s providence even when you are beset, lost and terrified. Let it be so.