“The Gathering of the Manna” ~ James Tissot

Last week, we talked about the miracles God performed for Israel, miracles that were too quickly forgotten once new circumstances and impossible odds were staring them down again. But God wasn’t only in the business of life-altering, death-defying miracles when it came to his people. They also needed to eat, and even though manna might have seemed miraculous when it first rained down from heaven, eventually the people saw it just as what’s for dinner. Every single day.

I’ve always thought it was funny that the word manna sounds like the Hebrew word for “what is it?” because that’s what the Israelites asked each other the first day they saw the thin flakes of frost on the ground all around them. It was the morning after they found their camp covered in quail, also God’s provision for their hunger. It was the day after they had grumbled against the Lord, complaining that they were going to starve in the desert. God heard, God answered, and the people were happy. Right?

Well, not exactly. From the beginning, God’s provision of food was about more than filling the Israelite stomachs. God could have done that in any number of ways. But the manna was more than physical food. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul calls it spiritual food. Because manna was food with a promise that required faith to truly be nourished by it. See, when God sent manna, he sent it with rules. For one, each person was to gather only as much as they needed for one day. It wouldn’t keep overnight. Except for the sixth day. Then, each person was to gather as much as they needed for two days, because the manna wouldn’t fall on the sabbath.

It took only one day for some of the Israelites to defy the rules by trying to keep the manna overnight. The next morning, what they kept was full of maggots. But new manna had fallen. In the same way, just days later on the sabbath, some went out to collect the manna, but it wasn’t there. Just as Moses had told them.

For 40 years Israel ate the manna. Forty years of going out to collect one day’s worth, except for the sixth day of the week. Forty years of receiving their daily bread from the hand of God, with nothing they could do for themselves except obey.

So our fifth question for Lent is this: how is God providing for me? It’s not easy for us to understand God’s provision in the same way the Israelites did during their time in the wilderness. In fact, at no other time in God’s recorded history did he provide for his people in quite the same way. Just like many other aspects of Israel’s story, God offered manna not only as a provision at the time but a picture for all time of the reality of how he cares for us. Today, we might not think of the job we go to and the home we live in and the car we drive and the clothes we wear and the food we eat as God’s provision to support and sustain us. Afterall, we do the work, we pay the bills, we do the shopping. But even though most of us on most days feel like we’ve “got it” when it comes to supporting our own needs, when we lay our heads down on the pillow at night, too often the things we worry most about all come down to the basics: how will we provide for ourselves and our families.

It was certainly no less true in Jesus’ day. In fact, Jesus often talked about money, and he dedicated a large part of his famous sermon on the mount to worries over eating, drinking, and clothing. “Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Jesus asked the crowds (Matthew 6:25). He then showed them how God cares for the birds, which “do not sow or reap or store away in barns,” and for the lilies, which “do not labor or spin,” making the point that if God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies, will he not take care of us all the more?

What God established in the fertile garden of Eden and continued in the barren desert of Sin, He promises in every time and place since: He will provide for his people. But along that same path of provision has been God’s ongoing invitation to trust that he will. And whether we have too little or have too much or even have just the right amount to see us through the day, the example of the Israelites is that it will never be enough if God himself is not enough for us first.

That’s why Jesus, during his own desert experience, told Satan that “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It’s also why he told the crowds in Capernaum that “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Because if we don’t see the provision we have in Jesus, we can eat and drink to our heart’s content, but never truly be contented.

I’m not saying it would be easy to eat the same thing every day for 40 years. My favorite thing to eat for breakfast is buttered toast with jam, but after a few days straight, I’m ready for an egg or some oatmeal. But God’s hope for the Israelites, and for us, is that we’ll worry less about the bread and more about the daily when it comes to trusting Him as our provider. If we do that, we’ll never be hungry a day in our lives.

Interested in going deeper this Lent? Subscribers to my mailing list will receive the Desert Wonderings devotions in their inbox each week, along with an audio version and a printable daily reading and discussion guide. Sign up to start receiving yours today.

Artwork by James Tissot, public domain.