Exodus 16–17. Can God Spread a Table in the Wilderness?

These two chapters tell how Israel got bread and water in the wilderness. We will try to understand the beginning of nation-building under God’s direction, and a little of the daily life of people living on the edge—the edge of starvation, and the edge of faith;  on bread and water. These two vital parts of the diet contain vital images of concepts very important in the NT--the Bread of Life and the Water of Life.

16:1–3 Israel headed toward Sinai along the western coast of the Sinai Peninsula, where the land was flat and the walking was easy.  They were one month out of Egypt and had run out of food supplies.  They regretted that they did not die in Egypt; at least they weren’t hungry there with caldrons of meat and plenty of bread.  Moses and Aaron were intent on killing them, or so they thought.  

16:4–12 God told Moses that there would be meat and bread within 24 hours. The congregation was called to the tent of meeting where the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. God spoke to Moses promising meat in the evening and bread in he morning.

16:13–15 Flocks of quail flew into the camp in the evening. (Quail is a small wild game bird, a delicacy few of us have tasted.). In the morning. the ground was covered with what looked like hoar-frost. They did not know what it was. “What is it?” in Hebrew is “manna?”. It is a question, not a statement.   It was a fine flakey material, or like a small seed (1/8th inch) that tasted like a honey-sweetened cookie.  It must have fallen thick enough so that they could collect  without contaminating it with grit and dust.  It could be ground, beaten, baked or boiled. Sometimes it tasted like a pancake baked with oil. (Num.11:8). It melted in the sun and could not be kept overnight, as a rule. The manna was later referred to as “grain of heaven, bread of angels.” (Psa.78:25)

16:16–36 The Lord gave careful rules for eating the manna.

  1. A day’s ration for an adult was 2 quarts by volume. (16:17)
  2. It had to be collected in the early morning, before the sun got hot and it disappeared. (16:21)
  3. It was not to be kept overnight; it would spoil. (16:20)
  4. They were to collect twice as much on Friday, and cook it in advance of Sabbath (16:23). No manna fell on Sabbath and Friday’s manna did not spoil on Sabbath.
  5. One day’s ration of manna was to be kept at the Tent of Meeting as a memorial (15:13).

They tried to keep it overnight and it was spoiled by worms and bacteria (16:19)
They tried to gather it on Sabbath and found none. (16:27) 
So much for following instructions. 

The food rules made Sabbath observance compulsory and eventually automatic. Their diet and their week’s activities were forced into a pattern which held for at least 40 years.

“And He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”  (Deut.8:3). The immediate application of this truth is that the manna God gave them had to be eaten in the way God prescribed or they would die of starvation.  The bread alone was not enough. Bread without obedience was no bread at all. Jesus later quoted this verse when Satan tempted Him to  make bread from stones.

There have been attempts to make a natural explanation for the manna. The secretion of the tamarisk tree has been offered; it is sweet and melts in the sun. It cannot be the explanation. The manna fell six days a week, not seven.  It was sometimes flakey, sometimes seed-like. Two different tastes are described, oil and honey.  It lasted forty years and stopped the day Israel crossed Jordan. We cannot rationalize this miracle.

Three times the Israelites have cried out against Moses (and the Lord), wanting to go back to Egypt. (Ex.14:11; 16:2; 17:3). They will express their longing for  Egypt at least four more times. Their diet was limited. They had meat from their live-stock occasionally, with milk for the children, fresh yogurt and cheeses for the adults. They had manna as their cereal stock, with oil, leaven, salt and perhaps some spices as supplements. They had water and various ways of making wine. They might find dates and coconuts in the oases. They may have made dried fish from the Red Sea nearby. They lacked melons, leeks, garlic, onions, and fruit.  It was a nutritious but restricted diet.

There are other people-groups with traditionally restricted diets: the Asian diet with rice as a staple, a few vegetables and occasional fish; the Maasai diet of blood and milk and  the Kazakh diet of horse meat are other examples of limited diets. All of these are becoming liberalized as cultures interpenetrate. The western diet is fabulously diverse, with dozens of fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats and drinks. So the problem of Israel was not survival but pleasure. They have had to narrow their options noticeably and they looked back at Egypt with nostalgia.

Further, God took them to the edge and again and again.

“And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that He might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.” (Deut.8:2)

It proved easier to get the people out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of the people. Eventually, God would have to let an entire generation turn over (die in the wilderness) before they were ready for the next part of their journey.  It has been said that new ideas do not persuade people so much as they survive long enough for the opposition to die out.

Jesus adopted the image of the manna as a symbol of His own life-giving sacrifice. The great sermon on the Bread of Life was preached by Jesus after the feeding of the 5000. The people who had been fed wanted to make Jesus a king by force. (Jn.6:15). They wanted yet another sign from Him (Jn.6:30), perhaps feeding the entire nation. Jesus said they must feed on Him in order to receive eternal life. Jn.6:50, 53, 58.

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” (Jn.6:35)
“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood you have no life in you; he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him. ” (Jn.6:53–57)
This was a humiliation for Him. It was shocking to the people who heard it, and the metaphor is awful, and yet absolutely necessary.  He will literally die with His body torn so that humans might live.

“The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (I Cor. 10:16–17)

We are what we eat. If we incorporate the life of Christ into our lives, and He indwells us and becomes a part of us, we have eternal life. If we eat other stuff instead, we die of malnutrition.

Exodus 17:1–7 They went on to camp at Rephidim and now their water bottles were empty.  (People can tolerate starvation for weeks but thirst can drive them mad.) The people accused Moses of trying to kill them in the desert; they should have been left alone in Egypt. Moses was angry because the people said “Is the Lord with us or not?” (17:7). They were demanding that God prove His presence, perhaps His existence, again.

Moses cried to God: what am I to do with these people? They are ready to kill me.

God created a ceremony. Moses and some elders of Israel were to march past the people, to the great rock at Mt. Horeb. Moses was to strike the rock with the rod he had used in previous miracles. The Lord Himself would stand before them.  Water flowed. They were relieved. Moses called that place Massah (proof) and Meribah (contention) because they contended with Moses and demanded proof of God’s presence.


Israel would be reminded of Massah and Meribah repeatedly (Deut.6:16; 9:22; 38:8; Psa.81:7). We think it is all right to challenge God, and complain and moan, but Israel’s experience says we should be cautious. Later, Moses lost his composure when Israel complained once too often and disobeyed the Lord (Num.20:1–13) with serious consequences.

Jesus is the source of the water of life. Paul said,
“They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (ICor.10:4)

The Rock was struck with the rod when Christ was crucified on Hill Golgotha.  The water which flowed is also from Christ: it is the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst again; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. “(Jn.4:13–14)
 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed: ‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  (Jn.7:37–39) 

On the Day of Pentecost, this prophecy was fulfilled and the Church had its beginning.  How the Water of Life has sprinkled many nations!

It comes as a surprise that the manna from Heaven and water from the Rock are so close together in the history of Israel. They are both key figures of Christ. As the manna is a type / metaphor of the Bread of Life, so the rock at Sinai is a type of Christ. the Water of Life. They also follow one after the other logically.

The Bread of Life is available to all who ask for it. No human being is a source of this Bread. But the Water that is then given to human beings enables them to  become sources of the Holy Spirit that can flow into other people’s lives.