Plenty of Mumblin’ Words - Reflections on Exodus 16:2-15

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, September 18, 2023

Plenty of Mumblin’ Words

Exodus 16:2-15

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          As the old spiritual said of Jesus during his final trial and death, “he never said a mumblin’ word.” On the contrary, the newly freed slaves from Egypt are just full of mumblin’, more traditionally “murmuring” or “grumbling,” words, as they find themselves facing the terrifying and unyielding deserts of the Sinai. They are barely a few days escaped from the near-death experiences at the Sea of Reeds, from the miraculous movement of waters, from the astonishing drowning of their Egyptian pursuers, from the wild victory celebrations on the east bank of the sea, yet their complaining begins in earnest. “Would that we had died by YHWH’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this gathering” (Ex.16:3). Not only do the people now claim to have wanted death in Egypt, where at least they say that their bellies were full, but they also imply that Moses, and his God, YHWH, have determined to kill them in the wilderness, without bread and meat. 

          Their complaint is frankly absurd. YHWH and Moses, far from desiring their death in Egypt, acted miraculously to save them. And their memory of having full bellies there is hyperbolic at best; where were those full bellies while they were forced to make bricks without straw? Plainly, these free people are finding freedom, not all it was cracked up to be. On the one hand, they are right to voice their displeasure; a blasted wilderness is a far cry from a well-provisioned Egypt, however restricted their lives may have been there. Now, they face endless sand, and no obvious sources of water and food, confronted with a vague promise of a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

          Freedom has long had its painful costs. The celebration of Juneteenth (June 19), only a federal holiday in the USA for a few years, reminds all of us that in 1865, federal troops, following the end of the Civil War, appeared in Galveston, TX and announced to the slaves living there that they were in fact now free people. However, freedom was no easy thing for people who had known only slavery, the consistency of forced labor, the supplied living quarters, however, mean, the continuous demands of the masters, expected and certain, however monstrous and cruel. Freedom may have for a time removed all that, but at the same time cast the newly-freed into a wilderness of seeking work and shelter and food, faced always with those who hated them, those not believing they should ever be free, those imagining that they could in no way be equal to their former owners. Freedom was immediately and stubbornly painful and hard. Shortly, the former owners acted in as many ways as they could to make the lives of the now-freed men and women as horrible and terrible as they could, with Jim Crow laws making certain that the former slaves would always know that they were just that—slaves in reality, second-class citizens, unworthy of full and equal lives. And, monstrously, 158 years later, the upshot of all that so-called freedom still is apparent in the USA, where people of color remain too often unequal citizens in the supposed “ land of the free.” And just as their Israelite forbears, these free people are given to mumblin’ and complaining about their lack of real freedom, and that complaining is all too understandable. Freedom is a prized thing, but it is a hard-won thing when the powerful always stand in the way of its fuller realization.

          Moses and YHWH reply to the grumbling mob by providing, again miraculously, meat (quail) in the evening and manna (“What is it?”) in the morning. Much ink has been spilled trying to suggest the real history behind these two divine provisions. It is true that quail do make migratory flights across the deserts of the Sinai, but they hardly do so “every evening.” And it may be true, although rather less certain, that certain desert aphids do secrete a sugar-like substance to be found on certain trees, thus “explaining” the manna, but they hardly do this every morning throughout the year. One need not attempt to explain miracles; if you want a miracle, go ahead and have one! Biological explanations are hardly called for. 

          Besides, the gift of manna is far more than desert sustenance; it is also a test of the willingness of the Israelite mob to follow the commands of YHWH. Given their grumbling spirit, it is no surprise that they will inevitably fail the test! They are to gather manna each day, but twice as much on the final day of the week, since the first day is the sabbath when no work is to be done. As the narrative plays itself out, many of them do not act at YHWH’s demand and attempt to hoard the manna, gathering far more than they need, or going out in search of some on the sabbath and finding none. So, it might be said that the grumblers get their comeuppance at the hands of YHWH, but their grumbling, even then, does not cease (see Ex.17:2). 

          Still, these complaining Israelites are our ancestors in the faith. Like them, we want what we want, when we want it, and like them when God does not deliver our wants, we are quick to blame God, or to doubt God, or to reject God altogether. More than a few sanctuaries are replete with the complaining folk who would rather have another preacher, another set of hymns, another more congenial parishioner in our pew. And, I would suggest, that no amount of manna or quail will stop our mouths from all complaining. Oh, yes, we know these wilderness Israelites all too well. We have met them, and they are we.  

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