Exodus 16:1-21: In the Wilderness

October 10, 2021
Joanna Harader

*You can hear a preached version of this sermon here.

This morning we’ve heard two stories of miraculous feedings—appropriate for communion Sunday, I think. When I hear the story of Jesus feeding the crowd, I’m struck by the fact that the disciples don’t understand that Jesus can provide enough food. Most recently, Jesus has calmed a storm, cast demons out of a man into pigs, healed a woman who had been hemorrhaging for years, and brought a dead girl back to life! The disciples have born witness to all of this, and still they insist that they do not have enough food for the vast crowd.

Likewise, the Israelites have seen the power of God in the plagues of Egypt. They have been led out of slavery by God. They have stood on dry ground on the sea bed with walls of Reed Sea water on either side of them. And now they think God is going to let them starve in the wilderness? After all that God has done, they freak out the second their tummies start to rumble?

It’s easy to be critical of the Israelites here. They turn on Moses and Aaron, who have risked their lives to lead them to freedom. They don’t trust God, who has proven trustworthy time and time again. They seem ungrateful for their new-found freedom—even suggesting they would prefer to be back in slavery!

But this time around. Reading the story of the hungry Israelites in the wilderness this year, I find I actually have a lot of compassion for them.

That line about how they wished God had killed them when they sat by the fleshpots and ate their fill of bread . . . it’s heartbreaking. We had one foster son, for a time, who desperately wanted to go back to his birth family. And I could not understand that because he was terribly abused in that household.

I mentioned this to a friend who said, “Oh. When you started talking about foster care, I thought you were going to say something about food insecurity.” Because that’s a thing, too. If children have not been fed consistently, when they move into a more stable home it can take a very long time for them to understand that they will always have food available. Some children will over-eat; they will hoard food; they will eat really fast. They act as if they might never have food again, because as far as they’re concerned they might not.

So here’s what I think. I don’t think the Israelites are irritating whiners. I don’t think they are ungrateful brats. I don’t think they are selfish people with weak faith.

I think they are traumatized.

I think the Israelites—on individual and collective levels—are working through immense amounts of trauma and probably some legitimate PTSD. Now I’m not a mental health professional, so I don’t want to step too far out of my lane here: but I think it is safe to say that enslavement is a traumatic experience; genocide—remember when Pharaoh ordered all the Hebrew boy babies to be killed?—is a traumatic experience. Fleeing the only home you’ve ever known and ending up in the wilderness is a traumatic experience.  

It is 100% understandable that the Israelites would have heightened anxiety, that they would struggle to trust leaders—and God—that they would be hyper-focused on immediate needs and unable to look at the “bigger picture.” They have experienced—they ARE experiencing—collective trauma.

I notice something else reading the story this time around: the only person who gets angry with the Israelites here is Moses. In last week’s reading, God got angry with Moses when he kept trying to get out of going to Pharaoh. But here, Moses is the one who gets angry. The text doesn’t say anything about God being angry.

It does say that God heard the people. It does say that God fed them. It does say that when they disobeyed the command to not leave any for the next morning, God didn’t smite them; God didn’t refuse to feed them that day; it’s just that the extra food was no good in the morning.

The mere fact that God provides food for the Israelites shows a deep Divine compassion. The way in which God provides food is particularly redemptive for these people at this time.

In the past, when I’ve read this story, I’ve always understood that some of the Israelites took more than their share of manna, and that’s why there were leftovers that “bred worms and became foul.” But looking at it closely, it doesn’t seem like that’s what happens at all. They all seem to obey the command to take an omer for each person in their household: “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”

The instruction the people fail to follow is Moses’ insistence to “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” If everyone gathered as much as they needed and some people left some of the food over until morning, that doesn’t mean they took more than their fair share; it means that they deprived themselves, they ate less than they needed because they wanted to make sure they had some food for the next day. They acted out of anxiety, not greed.

A colleague in my Narrative Lectionary Facebook group (SiriAnna Strommen) pointed out that this daily structure God creates here is just what is needed to help the people move through their trauma: consistency, gentleness, appropriate limits—this is all advice a therapist would give a parent struggling to help a traumatized child. And it is the parenting God provides to God’s traumatized children in the wilderness. The daily manna that cannot be saved overnight is a miraculous and gentle reminder to the people that they will be taken care of, that they do not have to deprive themselves or worry about whether they will have food from day to day.

And God’s response goes beyond the needs of the traumatized individuals to address the system in which they live. On our Narrative Lectionary journey this year, we skipped from Jacob to Moses; but in between those two comes the very important story of Jacob’s son, Joseph—which is the story that leads to the enslavement of the Hebrew people.

Maybe you remember that Joseph’s brothers sell him to some Egyptians, and then in Egypt Joseph manages to rise through the political ranks by giving good counsel and interpreting dreams. It is Joseph’s wisdom that persuades the leaders of Egypt to store grain in preparation for a coming drought. And having the extra grain turns out to be a good thing on the one hand, because many people are saved from starvation. But, the Egyptian leaders make sure they receive ample payment for the grain—which is in such high demand. When people run out of money and other assets with which to buy grain, the Egyptians are happy to take people as payment. In the end, it is Egypt’s hoarding of food that creates the system of slavery the Israelites flee in Exodus.

In the wilderness, God rejects this oppressive and traumatic economic system. In fact, God makes it impossible for people to store up food. Everyone is on equal footing. Everyone has what they need without becoming indebted to others. Not only has God led the people out of slavery in Egypt, but God is working to make sure that the Israelites do not, now, create their own enslaving, traumatizing systems.

So it turns out that the Israelites were not just a bunch of whiney brats—that they were people dealing with incredible amounts of personal and communal and generational trauma. And it turns out that God gets it. That God provides—to use popular lingo—trauma-informed care: listening well, responding gently, providing a consistent, loving presence even in the face of emotional outbursts. And working toward a system that will inflict less trauma in the future.

And it turns out that this is a really important story for us to hear right now. Or at least for me. I won’t speak for you, but maybe you’re feeling some of what I’m feeling these days: tired for no good reason; irritated too easily; whiny (at least in my head) about having to do all the things that are only the basic, reasonable things I’ve always had to do.

Now let me be clear: the COVID pandemic is not equal to enslavement and genocide. And some of us—certainly myself included—have managed these past 19 months pretty well, all things considered.

But it also turns out that having more compassion for the Israelites in the wilderness is giving me more compassion for myself.

So let me also be clear: suffering is not a competitive sport. My weariness is not morally wrong because other people have more reason to be tired than I do. My trauma responses are not invalid because I haven’t had it as bad as someone else, because my experience during the pandemic hasn’t been “really real trauma.”

And it turns out that the God who so lovingly cared for the traumatized Israelites in the wilderness is the God who still responds to traumatized people—which is probably all of right now, to some extent–with compassion and grace.

A God who still hears our cries.

A God who still provides food–and hope, peace, direction, encouragement, rest, even joy–when it seems those things are in short supply.

A God who still says: “Here is what you need for today; don’t worry about tomorrow.”

Thanks be to God.