What’s for Dinner?

Read: Exodus 16

I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God’” (Exodus 16:12, NRSV).

“What’s for dinner?”

Can you imagine never having to ask—or field—that question? Yet, when God’s people were wandering around the wilderness, the answer to that question was always the same: “Manna, manna, and more manna.”

It was better than nothing, of course. And Exodus 16 testifies to the regular addition of quail as a protein source. Still, forty years of manna is a lot to take in—both literally and figuratively. Another version of this story quotes certain members of the community weeping at the memory of the culinary diversity they enjoyed back in Egypt. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at” (Numbers 11:4b-7).

Not to say that the Hebrew cooks couldn’t get creative. One imagines a cookbook called, “1001 Ways to Prepare Manna!” Maybe it featured manna crêpes, manna tortillas, and manna pot pies (a great way to use up all that quail!). Whether or not there was a cookbook, there is a legend that this mysterious manna had the capacity to take on whatever taste the people eating it craved the most. Now, that would be a trick.

It’s easy to get distracted by the miraculous. Indeed, since the moment it showed up people have been asking, “What is it?” (That’s the literal translation of the Hebrew words, ma-na.) Still, there’s a sense in which all such speculations are red herrings. (Yum—creamed herring over manna biscuits….) They distract us from what is really on the menu in these stories…namely trust—with a generous helping of contentment on the side.

In the introduction to the story, God comes right out and says that the manna is a test—a test of whether the covenant people will be obedient to the instructions that come with it (see Exodus 16:4). When we read the story, it’s clear that some people do better on this test that others. The ones who try to save some until morning discover their breakfast has bred worms. And when God extends the manna’s expiration date so that the people won’t have to gather it on the Sabbath day, some people sneak out to gather it anyway. Both forms of disobedience show a lack of trust and a tendency to be less than content with the goodness that God provides.

Would you have passed the test?

I think passing this test is harder than it seems, especially in our consumeristic culture. My colleague, Travis West, recently called attention to a sign in a local restaurant that said, “The gap between more and enough never closes.” I can’t decide if this slogan is an example of our culture’s insatiable appetite, or a cautionary proverb meant to alert us to the futility of the same. If it’s the latter, then we would do well to “mind the gap.”

Celebrating Sabbath is one way we can “mind the gap.” It’s one way can cultivate contentment. It’s an exercise in trust. It’s a wonderfully counter-cultural way to say, “Enough is enough.” And as ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, observed, “The one who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.”

Ponder: “Enough is as good as a feast.”  This proverb goes all the way back to Euripides, but Mary Poppins taught it to the 20th century. How does it relate to the manna story? To your life?

Pray: Teach us to close the gap between more and enough, O God. Teach us to be more content with the goodness you provide.