In the office of readings today we encounter the people if Israel as Moses and Aaron lead them into the desert, after their escape through the Red Sea.
Setting out from Elim, the whole community of Israelites entered the desert of Sin, lying between Elim and Sinai — on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt. And the whole community of Israelites began complaining about Moses and Aaron in the desert and said to them, ‘Why did we not die at Yahweh’s hand in Egypt, where we used to sit round the flesh pots and could eat to our heart’s content! As it is, you have led us into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death!’
Yahweh then said to Moses, ‘Look, I shall rain down bread for you from the heavens. Each day the people must go out and collect their ration for the day; I propose to test them in this way to see whether they will follow my law or not. On the sixth day, however, when they prepare what they have brought in, this must be twice as much as they collect on ordinary days.’
Moses and Aaron then said to the whole community of Israelites, ‘This evening you will know that it was Yahweh who brought you out of Egypt, and tomorrow morning you will see the glory of Yahweh, for Yahweh has heard your complaints about him. What are we, that your complaint should be against us?’ Moses then said, ‘This evening Yahweh will give you meat to eat, and tomorrow morning bread to your heart’s content, for Yahweh has heard your complaints about him. What do we count for? Your complaints are not against us, but against Yahweh.’ Moses then said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole community of Israelites, “Approach Yahweh’s presence, for he has heard your complaints.” ‘
As Aaron was speaking to the whole community of Israelites, they turned towards the desert, and there the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud. Yahweh then spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the Israelites’ complaints. Speak to them as follows, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will have bread to your heart’s content, and then you will know that I am Yahweh your God.” ‘
That evening, quails flew in and covered the camp, and next morning there was a layer of dew all round the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the desert was something fine and granular, as fine as hoarfrost on the ground. As soon as the Israelites saw this, they said to one another, ‘What is that ?’ not knowing what it was. ‘That’, Moses told them, ‘is the food which Yahweh has given you to eat. These are Yahweh’s orders: Each of you must collect as much as he needs to eat — a homer per head for each person in his tent.’
The Israelites did this. They collected it, some more, some less. When they measured out what they had collected by the homer, no one who had collected more had too much, no one who had collected less had too little. Each had collected as much as he needed to eat.
The Israelites ate manna for forty years, up to the time they reached inhabited country: they ate manna up to the time they reached the frontiers of Canaan.
Aren’t the complaints of the Israelites from the first paragraph eminently recognisable to us all? We follow someone’s advice and things only seem to get worse. It happens in our faith life as well: we pray and ask God to help us in some difficult situation, only for things to not improve at all. Wasn’t God listening? Doesn’t He care at all? Maybe we’re better off going our own way and ignore the direction that God points us in.
Or maybe not. In the case of the Israelites, the Lord has given them Moses and Aaron to lead them, and they answer their complaints with a promise: wait until tomorrow, and you will see that things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe we’ve all had some bad days, but bad times do not last forever. God makes sure of that by providing the people with meat and bread from heaven. He sustains them in their hardship.
God still sustains people in their hardship. Bread doesn’t rain from heaven on a daily basis, but the fact that we can struggle through and even overcome our own hardships is evidence of God sustaining us. And like the people of Israel discovered years later, as the arrived at the “frontiers of Canaan”, their difficult desert journey had a purpose; their new life in the promised land is infinitely better than the life of slavery in Egypt, even with the flesh pots they had there.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata is said to have said once, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.” But God does trust us to be able to handle hardships. But while we can handle things ourselves, He never leaves us, is always ready to help, even (most of the time, in fact) when we don’t realise it. God doesn’t give us more than we can handle and exactly what we need.
Art credit: “Miracle of the Manna”, by Tintoretto (1577)