Studies in Exodus 16:1-6


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Exodus 16:1-6

Israel has begun her passage through the wilderness. It is a large company of people and animals and an obvious question that would have occurred to everyone was where in the desert was food to be found for so many.

Text Comment

v.1       After some days at Elim enjoying pasture and clean, clear water, the company set out once again.  If, at the oasis, they had begun to think that life in the wilderness wouldn’t be so difficult after all, the Desert of Sin was a rude awakening.

The fifteenth day of the second month meant that they had left Egypt one month before (cf. 12:6).  In that amount of time they would likely have used up much if not most of the food they had brought with them.

v.3       This tale of pots of meat in Egypt is no doubt an exaggeration as is common among complaining people.  They idealized their former situation and forgot all about its crushing burdens. The situation before was much better; this one much worse.  Exaggeration is the language both of the whiner and the boaster.  In any case, the Israelites had livestock, but obviously didn’t want to make serious inroads into their own supply of meat because their flocks represented much of their wealth.

v.4       The spirit of the people was faithless, but the need was genuine enough and the Lord indicates that he had foreseen their need and was ready with provision.  But that provision had been devised in such a way that the faith and obedience of the Israelites would be put to the test.  They would have to secure their food in a way that demonstrated their obedience to the Lord. “Bread” can mean bread specifically, or it can mean food in general.  In that latter case both the quail and the manna were bread.

v.5       God’s provision will test Israel’s loyalty to the Sabbath day.

v.10     As we have already seen, the cloud and pillar of fire was the visible symbol of God’s presence.  It moved with and before the people.

v.13     Here is another of those demonstrations of the Lord’s power over nature and his controlling natural phenomena to provide for his people.  The Sinai peninsula lies on the quail’s annual migration path.  But the Lord controlled their movement so as to bring them in large numbers to land in the camp.

v.15     The provision of manna is of a different kind altogether from that of the quail.  You may be aware that there is an excretion of desert aphids who live on the branches of the tamarisk tree – a common desert shrub – that resembles in some ways the biblical description of manna. The Bedouin of that area actually call that substance mann.  Josephus mentions it in his Antiquities.  It is composed of natural sugars and pectin and appears after the spring rains. But the account of the manna here in Exodus 16 is very different.  The Bedouin’s mann is found only in the summer and only in some areas of Sinai.  It does not melt as the temperature rises, as we read the manna did in v. 21.  It does not breed maggots if left over as manna did, as we will read in v. 20.  What is more, it would not be present six days of the week and not on the Sabbath.  No one can say for sure, but it does not appear that there is any natural basis for manna as it is described in Exodus.  Everyone knew what quail were.  No one knew what manna was as their question indicates.  In Hebrew “What is it?” sounds like “Manna.”  One commentator suggests that “Manna” amounts to a name like “The Whatzit.”  [Durham, 225]

v.16     Think of an omer as about two quarts of dry measure.

v.18     Beyond the provision of the manna itself, the Lord so governed its collection that every day’s amount was testimony to the Lord’s provision of his people’s daily bread.  Not too much; not too little.  Paul uses this text as a recommendation of generosity to one another in the church in 2 Cor. 8:13-15.  He may mean that what is meant here is simply that the people pooled the manna collected and found that everyone had just what he needed.

v.20     A second feature of the Lord’s provision, and another part of the test inherent in it, was that sufficient to the day was the supply.  If one sought to hoard it, the manna went bad.  They had to rely on the Lord each day for their daily bread.  But that was not true on the Sabbath as we will read shortly.

v.21     Further, they had to collect the manna in the morning before the sun grew hot.

v.28     As with those who attempted to store the manna, as we read in v. 20, those who ignored the command not to collect on the Sabbath found that they were unable to manipulate the Lord’s provision.  It was had on his terms or not at all.

v.31     Manna looked like frost on the ground in the morning, as we read in v. 14.  Its appearance was like coriander seeds.  The only description of such seeds I found was this:  they are “small, globular, grayish, aromatic seeds with ridges.”  [IBD in Durham, 226] Now you know just what manna looked like. In any case we are given this description in part because the Israelites who read this narrative later would not have known what manna looked like.

v.32     Once again the ordinary spoiling of the manna after a day is suspended in this case.  This is the jar of manna that would eventually go into the Ark of the Covenant as a memorial of the Lord’s faithful provision for his people along with the two tablets of the law and Aaron’s rod.  That was done, but by the time of Solomon, as we read in 1 Kings 8:9, the jar of manna had disappeared from the Ark.

v.34     It is not clear what “the Testimony” refers to.  Neither the ark nor the tabernacle had yet been built.

v.36     Two summary statements conclude this section.  Manna was Israel’s food as long as she lived in the wilderness and the size of an omer is specified.  An ephah was the basic OT dry measure and amounted to approximately half a bushel.  The size of a particular measure is a question that was important then as now.

In verses 6 and 8 the theme, the application of this text is stated plainly:  the provision of the quail and, especially, the manna proved, as so many things before had proved, that it was Yahweh who had delivered his people and who was caring for them in the wilderness.  It was another summons to Israel to trust in the Lord.  God’s people will see his glory, as we read in v. 7, when they find the manna because they will see with their own eyes the evidence of his power and his faithfulness.  God’s provisions are always to have this effect on us:  renewing our confidence in the Lord, his love, his Word, and his promises.  Every feature of this provision – its coming every day, its having to be gathered every day, but its being gathered for two days on Friday – points to its divine origin.  This is God’s miraculous doing.  Over against God’s gracious and mighty provision is set the naturalistic and unbelieving attitude of the Israelites who try to store it and try to gather it on the Sabbath.  That they don’t succeed only underscores that Israel’s hope rests in Yahweh’s powerful presence with her and his promised provision of all that his people need as they make their way to the Promised Land. There is an important lesson for every believer’s everyday life.  It is quite possible that the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “give us this day our daily bread,” harks back to the way in which bread was provided to Israel in the wilderness.  Every day we are to look to God for our needs.

But this text is important for an entirely different reason.  It plays a very important role in the polemics concerning the Sabbath and keeping the Sabbath day holy.  You know that there is a long-standing argument among Christian theologians and churches as to whether Christians today have an obligation to keep one day holy to God.  As you may not know, Exodus 16:23 is the first instance of the use of the term Sabbath in the Bible. In that fact hangs a tale!  In Gen. 2:2-3 we read:

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy; because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.”

We read there of God making the seventh day holy, but it is not called the Sabbath day, the day of rest (for that is what Sabbath means).  Here in Exodus 16 we have the first mention of the seventh day as the Sabbath.  And, clearly, the keeping of the Sabbath day is a matter of some significance in this chapter.  The commandment not to gather manna on the Sabbath – which is to say not to work on the Sabbath – is made a specific and emphatic part of the regulations for gathering manna.  Keeping the Sabbath will be a test of Israel’s fidelity to God.  A point is made in v. 29 of the fact that the Lord gave the Sabbath to his people.  It is evidence of his kindness and of their blessedness.  Will they be a good steward of this blessing?  That is the question.

Now there has long been a school of thinking – and in this school there have been a number of Reformed and Presbyterian theologians and biblical scholars – that has argued that, as a matter of fact, there never was a Sabbath day, never an obligation to keep the seventh day holy, never this rhythm of rest and work in a seven day week until Exodus 16.  This chapter that we have read this evening, it is argued, is the origin of the Sabbath day.  The rest of God’s people on the Sabbath day may have been patterned after God’s rest at creation, but God never commanded his people to keep one day of the week holy until he gave them these regulations for the gathering of manna.

In fact, it is argued by these men that the reference to the Lord making the seventh day holy in Gen 2:2-3 is a prolepsis.  That is, it is mentioned there in Gen. 2 but only in anticipation of a law that will not be enacted until much later.  We should read Gen. 2 as if it said, “Now God sanctified the seventh day and that is why later on he told the Israelites to keep the seventh day holy to him.”  It was not a law for Noah or for Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob; it only became a law for Israel in the wilderness.

Now that is a very consequential argument.  As you know, the real question concerning the Sabbath day is whether Christians today, you and I, are still obliged to keep it; whether remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy has continued as an obligation into the new epoch.  Those who argue that the Sabbath was not instituted until Exodus 16 do so as part of their argument that the Sabbath of the Mosaic law does not continue into the new age and Christians today are not obliged to keep it.  By arguing that the Sabbath did not begin to be observed until Exodus 16 they effectively undermine the most important arguments for the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath or Lord’s Day.  It does so in this way.

The standard Reformed argument is and has long been that the Sabbath was sanctified, that is, was made holy – which means set apart to sacred use – in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.   The Sabbath, in other words, began not in Exodus 16 but in Eden.  The Sabbath is what Reformed theology calls a creation ordinance.  It belongs with those other fundamental institutions of human society that are established at the headwaters of human life in the world:  work, marriage, and family, all of which, like the Sabbath are mentioned in Genesis 1 and 2.  If the Sabbath, if the keeping holy of one day out of the week, if the setting apart of one day for holy purposes is a creation ordinance, intended for the life of all mankind, intended to be part of human life even if there had been no Fall, then it becomes exceedingly hard to believe that the Sabbath just fell away in the new epoch established by Christ and his apostles.  After all, work continues to be a holy obligation laid upon mankind; marriage continues to be the foundational institution for human society; so does the family.

What is more, if the Sabbath as a weekly day of holy rest, is a creation ordinance and was instituted before the Fall, it is almost impossible to hold that it is not a moral law, that is an obligation that stems from the very nature of human life as God has made it.  That too is an ancient argument for the perpetual obligation of the Sabbath keeping:  moral laws don’t change; they are forever.  And the Sabbath is a moral law, an expression of the very fabric of human life as it ought to be.  After all, the fourth commandment of the ten commandments, the commandment that begins “Remember the Sabbath day…” does not only command a day of rest, but also six days of work.  The obligation to work doesn’t disappear in the new epoch.  Why should we think the obligation of spiritual rest should disappear?

However, if the Sabbath was not instituted in Eden and is not a creation ordinance, then it is far easier to argue that it is not part of God’s permanent moral code for human life. It is Jewish not generally human; peculiar to the Old Testament not trans-temporal. Rather we should see the Sabbath as part of the ceremonial law, the law of Israel’s worship and life.  Like the laws governing sacrifices or clean and unclean foods or ritual purity, the law concerning Sabbath observance passed away when Christ ascended to heaven and the church was no longer bound to Sabbath observance for it is only one of the specifically Jewish regulations of the law. All of that hinges to some considerable extent on the argument that the Sabbath begins in Exodus 16 and was not observed by God’s people between Genesis 2 and Exodus 16.

There are very good reasons, however, not to think that Exodus 16 is the origin of the obligation to keep the Sabbath holy.  I want to mention some of them to you.  But before I do let me say that I am certainly not suggesting that the Israelites scrupulously kept the Sabbath day holy and observed it as a day of spiritual and physical rest.  During their long period of slavery in Egypt it would have been difficult to do so even if they had cared to do so.  Slave owners, all the more in Egypt in the 2nd millennium B.C., hardly cared about the religious scruples of their slaves.  The Israelites would not have been free to refuse to work on the seventh day.  What is more, the impression we are given of Israel’s spiritual condition before, leading up to, through, and after the exodus does not suggest that they would have been people very likely faithfully to keep the Sabbath day. There were other times in Israel’s history when she was not faithful at keeping the Sabbath.  The Sabbath may very well have fallen into neglect for a long time before we come to Exodus 16.

But, there are powerful arguments that the Sabbath was, in fact, an obligation of life long before Exodus 16.

1.  First, there is the statement in Gen. 2:2-3.  In the 17th century, at the time of the great debate over whether Sabbath sanctification was a perpetual obligation for God’s people, both defenders and detractors of Christian Sabbath sanctification spun out a number of arguments in defense of their view of the origin of the Sabbath because it seemed generally to be recognized that if one accepts that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, a divinely ordained pattern for human life established already in Eden, a pattern like those of labor, marriage, and family, the case for its perpetual moral obligation is closed.  If the Sabbath began in Gen. 2 we must keep it today.

In his great work on that controversy, the Dutch historian of theology H.B. Visser points out that almost everyone who defended the “morality” of the Sabbath commandment, that is its place in the permanent, unchanging divine rule of holiness, also argued that the Sabbath’s origin was in Paradise, and that such an origin was clear evidence of the timeless obligation of Sabbath sanctification.

Here is, for example, Wilhelmus a Brakel [Redelijke Godsdienst, vol. 2, p. 123]:

“If the Sabbath was given to Adam before the fall, it belongs thus to the unalterable rule of holiness, as the other commandments of the moral law, and binds all men of all times, and belongs not to the ceremonial law; and is in Christ not fulfilled as a shadow and thus abolished…”

A simple reading of Gen. 2:3 certainly seems to furnish evidence that the Sabbath day originated in Eden.  As I said, those who denied that it did ordinarily held that the statement of Genesis 2:3 should be taken as a prolepsis or anticipation of the institution of the Sabbath much later in history, indeed in Exodus 16.  In this interpretation the words do refer to the sanctification of the Sabbath day there in Eden, but as an explanation ahead of time.  The day of rest as an obligation of life was not, in fact, revealed until Exodus 16 in connection with the regulations governing the gathering of manna. Here are some reasons for not taking the prolepsis view but reading Gen. 2:2-3 in the simplest sense, viz. that God then and there instituted the Sabbath day for the life of all mankind.

  1. Though God did not, in so many words, command Adam not to work on the Sabbath day – a point often made by those who argue that Exodus 16 is the origin of the Sabbath – it is said explicitly that God sanctified  the day or made it holy.  That is, he set it apart for a special use.  It would be pointless to say that if, in fact, the day was not given a special use. The prolepsis interpretation, in my view, violates the natural sense of Gen. 2:3 and requires that the obligation of the Sabbath day, a matter of such immense importance in the covenant, was revealed by the way in the rules governing the gathering of manna as they are given in Exodus 16 — a most unlikely proposition, particularly as the fourth commandment itself roots the practice of Sabbath keeping in the pattern the Lord established by his resting after the creation.  The implication seems clearly to be that men should rest from work because God rested from his, establishing thereby a pattern for human life.  After all, in Gen. 2:3 we are told that the Lord rested the seventh day.  Had he intended only rest for himself, we would have expected simply to hear that he rested.  But he rested the seventh day and hallowed that day.  The natural implication of both the institution and its repetition in the fourth commandment certainly seems to be that the imitation of God’s working six days and resting a seventh is universally binding in all times and upon all people.  It seems to me wholly congenial to the Bible’s whole teaching of human life that God should have established already in Eden a rhythm of work and rest for the life of mankind.   He is the God both of fruitful work and of holidays!
  2. There is abundant and striking evidence that a seven day week was known and observed in the primeval and then patriarchal world and this is all the more important because there is no astronomical reason to divide time into periods of seven days.
    1. The Lord told Noah that the rain would begin to fall “in seven days.” [Gen. 7:4]
    2. After sending the dove out of the ark the first time, Noah waited a week before sending it out again.  [8:10]  And another week before sending it out the third time.
    3. A Hebrew boy was to be circumcised precisely one week after he was born.  [17:12]  That, by the way, reminds me to say that we cannot put too much weight on silence.  It is true that there is no mention of the Sabbath being observed in Genesis, a point often made by those who argue it didn’t exist until Exodus 16.  But there is no mention of circumcision in the historical books of the OT after Joshua.  That is no proof that circumcision wasn’t practiced.  For that matter, there is no mention of the Sabbath between Deuteronomy and 2 Kings, but that is after its lengthy explanation in the Law of Moses.  Some things were so fundamental that they did not need to be mentioned.  But we do find weeks in Genesis, period of 7 days, quite often in fact.
    4. Joseph observed a week of mourning for his father Jacob after his death.  [50:10]
    5. Even in the earlier chapters of Exodus we find the seven day week.  A week passed between the turning of the Nile to blood and the Lord’s next instructions to Moses.  And the instructions laid down in chapter 12 for the Feast of Unleavened Bread stipulate that it is to last seven days.

All of this is very hard to explain if time had not been divided into seven day periods from the beginning.  There are, by the way, in the customs of the ancient world, some residue of the seven day week.  It is not the weekly Sabbath to be sure; but then that is what we would expect in pagan lands.  Only the echo of the true law of God.  In the same way, for example, we find many ancient flood stories that are an ancient echo of the real history of Genesis 6-9.

  1. There was certainly need for a Sabbath in Eden, for even then man had to serve God with rites of worship and had need for and was capable of enjoying special occasions of communion with God.  The Sabbath, as the other creation patterns for human life, has to do with the very nature of human life as God created it and not merely with its condition in sin, still less with a particular epoch of Israel’s history.

I could go on at length.  That is enough to make the point that the argument that the Sabbath originated in Exodus 16 is not without punishing difficulties. I offer my own opinion that the prolepsis interpretation of Genesis 2:3 is an interpretation that no one would take unless absolutely driven to it.  Indeed, it seems to me that men contrived this interpretation precisely because they were driven to it.  Their championing of this somewhat unlikely exegesis was their own admission that if one admits that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance and if one has a Reformed view of Holy Scripture, one must then accept that the Sabbath as defined in the fourth commandment is a permanent and universal obligation.  Even here in Exodus 16 it does not appear that the Sabbath itself is an innovation but something the people would have already understood.  Umberto Cassuto, the Jewish commentator on Exodus, takes it as a matter of course that the narrative reads in such a ways as to indicate that the Sabbath in Exodus 16 was an institution with which Israel was already thoroughly familiar.  Take note:  we have here in Exodus 16 no explanation of the Sabbath, no instruction in what is to be done with the day, no preparation for its observance.  All we are given is a regulation regarding the gathering of manna that takes into account the Sabbath day.

Now what is important about all of this is just this:  if Exodus 16 is not the origin of the Sabbath then the Sabbath day is a creation ordinance and it is part of the unchanging moral law of God.  And if that is so, as I’m sure it is, it continues to be your obligation and mine to keep the Sabbath holy, to observe the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, worship, Christian fellowship and good works.  I am aware of the arguments that people have raised from some statements of Paul in the New Testament.  Let me simply say that what Paul says in those places is precisely what he says about other sacred Jewish practices and laws (even circumcision and Passover):  the substance comes over into the new epoch even if the outward forms are changed.  Circumcision becomes baptism; the Passover the Lord’s Supper; the Saturday Sabbath the Sunday Lord’s Day. The forms change, the substance remains the same.

As we have often said, many well-intentioned Christians have misunderstood what it means to keep the Sabbath holy.  They have thought that it meant that Laura Ingalls Wilder really should sit in a straight-backed chair in the family living room and spend her day memorizing the Bible and the catechism and never go to walk or play outside.  But the Bible never says this.  The Sabbath, our Savior famously said, was made for man not man for the Sabbath.  It is a holiday.  It is to be our blessing; the best day of the week.  It is a day for every good thing.  It is a day for worship, for the refreshment of our faith in the company of God’s people, it is supremely a day for rest from work and for good works that bless others and ourselves.

But let us be clear about this:  we are to keep the Sabbath day holy.  If you aren’t sure precisely what that means, by all means find out.  But let us be clear that keeping the Lord’s Day holy, this one day in seven, is part of what it means to live a godly life, part of what it means to obey the commandments of God, part of what it means to trust God for his blessing upon our lives, part of how we pass the test that God has set for us to see whether we would trust and obey him.  An important part!