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Protest and Provision in the Wilderness

The Israelites Gathering Manna" by Ercole de' Roberti, circa 1490 (The National Gallery via Wikimedia)

Exodus 16:2-15

2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The 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." 4Then 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. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days." 6So 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, 7and 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?" 8And 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. 9Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.' “ 10And 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. 11The 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.’“

13In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When 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.

Currently, the world is in the middle of a crises – health and economic. We are told that the country's GDP shrank by 12.2% between April and June as the lockdown and border closures hit. New Zealand has entered first recession since the global financial crisis and its worst since 1987.

It will be a challenging time for a lot of people in our country and around the world. We know that crisis can change the way people respond to the other and transform the most robust community into something less than adequate. Suffering alters people’s perceptions. It has a potential to change people’s behaviour. And ignoring it only leads to further chaos and confusion.

Our Bible reading for today informs us that the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are finally released from the oppressive rule of Pharaoh. But it seems that the worse is not over yet. The challenge they now experience in the wilderness makes Egypt seems luxurious by comparison. At least they were not deprived of the fundamental sustenance for their daily survival. This is a pivotal point because it underpins the whole narrative, enabling us to understand with some clarity what happens in people’s experience. When faced with crises in the wilderness, the people protested to Moses and Aaron. They didn’t only protest about the lack of food, but also and in their minds, they are thinking of the plentiful they enjoyed in Egypt.

There is some truth to their nostalgia. Scholars inform us that Egyptian slaves were quite well looked after. No wonder why their protest was articulated as such, “The Israelites said to them [Moses and Aaron], “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.” (Exodus 16:3).

All is not well. They cannot see the promised land yet, but Egypt, the land of slavery, is greatly missed. While hindsight can be helpful, it often amplifies the pain of the present. The life of these folks will never be the same again. The hardship of present life in the wilderness produces nostalgia for life in Egypt. Suddenly, captivity seems like a luxury. We can well understand it, though. In Egypt, they had food, water, and shelter. In the desert, these basic benefits appeared to prevail over the disadvantages of slavery. Now they are free, but they have the hardship of a different kind, and this new reality is hard to come to terms with.

I wonder how Moses and Aaron felt when the crowd confronted him. I wonder if Moses was scared and angry and frustrated. Perhaps he would have liked that the people learned quickly how to handle the lack of food and their challenging environment, rather than complaining continually. However, in the lack of the desert, God responds to his people in their time of need with manna. But the manna was not given unconditionally. It could not be kept until the following day.

This is tricky. These people are hungry. It runs against their instinct to take only what is needed for the day and resist the temptation to store up. Remember the first lockdown in March and the mad rush to the supermarkets? Fueled with fear and uncertainty people started stockpiling. The Israelites are told no to hoarding, no to building larger barns, no to any self-serving acts and no to worrying about what to eat or what to drink or what to wear. Instead they are to trust God, and no one else, for their survival. We are constantly challenged throughout scripture to trust more in God. To learn to rely on God not only for the overall vision of hope for our lives, but equally as much in the smaller scale

In our times of uncertainty, with doubts and fears rampant in many realms of life, our own complaining is not unfamiliar to us. Just as the Israelites were tested then, we are all tested now in different ways. Each of us has our own wilderness to face and to journey through. But our story of faith reminds us that we are a community of God who is with us in the wilderness.

In this story we note a very human tendency to protest and complain. We read that God is not dismissive of it, instead the protest is taken seriously . As a result their misery is transformed by the compassion of God who provides at their very point of need.

And so, what shall we do in response to God’s compassionate provision?

I think we should continue to extend God's generosity to others. Or to quote John Wesley, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

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