[On Sabbath] Exodus 16: Secretive Manna

Bible opened to Exodus 16 with Theo orange 70 percent dark chocolate on white plate

Today’s ChocolateTheo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassageExodus 16

Today’s passage concerning the Sabbath is a familiar story. Having escaped from Egypt, the Hebrews complain that they’re starving out in the wilderness, and at least as slaves they had plenty of bread and meat. So God starts bringing them a boatload of quails every evening and the magical mystery bread known as “manna” every morning.

Manna takes its name from the Hebrew for “What is it?” which is what you’ll be asking after you read about it. The stuff comes down with the morning dew and forms a flaky white crust on the ground once the dew evaporates. Its bizarre properties include that after morning, if not stored in a cool place, “when the sun grew hot, it would melt” (21). Moreover, after twenty-four hours it “it bred worms and became foul” (20). But there’s an exception: on the sixth day, it doesn’t spoil after twenty-four hours. As the Hebrews discover, on the seventh day their stored mana from the previous day “did not become foul nor was there any worm in it” (24). It’s enough to make 17th century deists spin in their graves, but we risk getting far afield from our Sabbath study if we don’t reel it back in. What’s the significance of the manna’s physical properties?

If the substance seems almost engineered to encourage Sabbath-keeping, that’s because it is. Before providing food, God tells Moses, “The people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction” (4). SPOILER WARNING: They don’t. They score an F on the test. But the only consequence for those who go out to gather manna on the Sabbath is that they waste their time looking for food that isn’t there, and God reprimands them: “See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day” (29). God provides more than enough to cover the Hebrews’ needs on their rest day; because of his generosity, they can afford to keep the Sabbath. And when they refuse to keep it, he simply corrects them and forgives their disobedience.

Like all the other Sabbath-related passages we’ve considered to date, this incident precedes the first issue of the Sabbath commandment in Exodus 20. The manna initiates a kind of proto-Sabbath for the people of Israel. Tomorrow we’ll check out the actual commandment and dig into its details.

FUN FACT: The Hebrew word for seven, shibah (שֶׁ֫בַע), differs from shabath (שָׁבַת) by only one Hebrew letter. Opportunities for wordplay abound.

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