Bread from Heaven, I:
Trusting in Man Hu
Eternal God, you promised never to break your covenant with us. Amid all the words spoken, promises made and broken in our generation, speak your eternal Word that endures. Open our hearts and minds through these words of scripture to trust. Guide us to respond to your gifts of grace with faithful and obedient lives. Amen.
Earlier this year the Hebrew scholar Robert Alter published his life-long work of translating all of the Hebrew Bible. Reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and religious and scholarly circles praised this fresh presentation.
Alter claims that despite the availability of many competent translations most exhibit “a shaky sense of Hebrew.”
He sought to “do justice to the literary beauty of the Hebrew.” Time and again, he reproduces the look, sound, and feel of the Hebrew text: its cadences, rhythms, word play, imagery, and interconnections between passages.
Our sacred texts were written to be heard. When words are repeated and repeated and repeated, they are remembered. When phrases sound jagged, they command our attention to stop and notice.
This week and next I will rely upon Alter’s translation and notes as we hear stories of the miraculous encounters the ancient Israelites have with bread.
Today, notice the rapid arguments and frequency of the word “and.” It is as if the storyteller is throwing us forward.
A bit of context:
The Israelites we will encounter today had just fled slavery in Egypt. They could recall stories of God appearing at their ancestor Abraham’s tent, wresting with Jacob in the desert, and engaging in intimate ways as told in the Book of Genesis.
But now it seems God cannot be grasped. Shrouded in smoke and fire, distant, God seems unknowable. Even God’s name is an obtuse “I am.” Moses was the messenger who led them out of Pharaoh’s chains but he fails miserably as a communicator.
Come with me into this ancient story to join the Israelites who are in the wilderness.
Selected verses of Exodus 16
And they journey onward…on the fifteenth day of the second month of their going out from Egypt. And all the congregation of Israelites murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. And the Israelites said to them, “Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.”
And the Lord said to Moses, “Look, I am about to rain down bread for you from the heavens, and the people shall go out and gather each day’s share on that day…. And it will happen on the sixth day, that they will prepare what they bring in, and it will be double what they gather every other day.”
And Moses and Aaron with the Lord said to the Israelites (on behalf of the Lord), “At evening, you shall know that I was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And in the morning you shall see the Lord’s glory as the Lord hears your murmurings.
And it happened as Aaron was speaking to all the community of Israelites, that they turned toward the wilderness, and, look, the Lord’s glory appeared in the cloud.
And the Lord said to Moses, saying, “I have heard the murmurings of the Israelites. Speak to them saying ‘At twilight you shall eat meat and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
And it happened in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. And the layer of dew lifted, and look on the surface of the wilderness—stuff fine, flaky, fine as frost on the ground. And the Israelites saw, and they said to each other, “Man hu, What is it?” For they did not know what it was.
Although the Israelites raced from Egypt with little notice, at forty-five days into their freedom, they should not have been starving. They had fled with herds and provisions.
The past had been an unlivable certainty and now it was uncertainty that plagued them. Forty-five days of wandering without routines and plans for how they would grow or harvest food provoked their anxiety into all out fear.
A perceived food crisis mounted into a faith crisis.
Searching for an object to hurl their murmured anger against, Moses became their target.
We heard their accusations against him—“We had fleshpots and ate our fill of bread in Egypt. Because of you we will die of famine.”
God gets agitated that the people would so soon forget all the miraculous ways God had carried them out of Egypt: the frogs, and lice, and flies, and thunder, and hail to name a few, and then the parting of the Red Sea.
God hears their murmurings. And God promises something ordinary…daily bread in the morning and meat in the evening…just like the pattern of creation…morning and evening. On the sixth day the provisions God provides would be double so they could gather enough for the Sabbath and therefore rest on that day. Just like the pattern of creation. Morning and evening, day after day, morning and evening for six days, work, and then rest on the seventh. God sought their trust in the same reliable pattern of creation.
When the man hu, meaning literally “what is it,” appears the Israelites are dumbfounded. They had never seen anything like it but found it was sweet, satisfying, and sufficient for everyone.
“What is it” was a strange substance, yet entomologists offer solid explanations for how this rich in carbohydrate nutrition could appear and become the central ingredient in bread. It was magical, kind of like Don Farnsworth’s experience of sourdough starters that go from fermented goo into mouthwatering, delicious bread.
Each person was to gather enough for one day’s consumption, nothing more, and nothing less.
At first the Israelites’ anxiety prevailed, inciting greed. Ignoring God’s promise that each day they would receive what is needed, some people hoarded extra rations. The next day those who lived in an ethos of “gotta look out for yourself” found their stash was rotting with worms. Greed does not work in God’s realm.
Every day God provided ordinary bread.
During that first week the “what is it” substance appeared on the five days. And as promised, a double portion on the sixth day would remain fresh so they could rest on the Sabbath.
And the next week, the “what is it” appeared, just as promised.
Imagine a young Israelite couple who had fled with an infant, after two weeks might have had confidence that man hu would be there in the morning. Their immediate fear of famine might begin to fade.
Forty days later the man hu had appeared unfailingly. This couple had a routine and slept easier at night.
Anxiety began to fade.
Forty weeks later they had been able to settle as a community, not in a particular place, but as a people who belonged to God.
By the time Israelite couple’s kids had grown into teenagers, it was their job to gather than man hu, just like my dad gathered eggs on the family farm each morning. The man hu, or “what is it” was no longer questioned, it was what God provided.
As their lives were formed around God’s consistent presence, trust was engrained in their being.
Recall the story Sue Smart offered about her grandmother’s faithful gift? Each week she baked. Possibly her grandmother had been inspired by her mother’s baking, and her mother’s baking, each generation teaching the next. The small loaf each grandchild received taught them they were loved.
For the Israelites, after forty years and several generations, the patient, ever-present God, continued to provide for the entire nation, the thing they called “what is it.”
The ethereal unnamed God, who only appeared in clouds of smoke, was as intimate to them as the food in their bellies. As sure as the sun rose, each day they received the grace to start again in the form of ordinary bread, an unmerited gift.
I doubt there are many people sitting here who go to bed wondering when they wake in the morning if there is anything in the freezer, ‘fridge, or pantry to feed their family. If any of these are empty or missing exactly what is desired, Whole Foods delivers in less than two hours.
We may not know food scarcity or physical hunger given the abundance in which we live. But the times in which we live might feel like a threatening wilderness with daily verbal assaults and the ongoing corruption of systems we thought measured fairness for all.
As the frequency of racist statements escalates, the divide seems to widen between those who seek to overcome racism and those who attempt to normalize racism. All around what should be paradise of abundance is made to appear scarce, hostile.
Over time we are being habituated to hearing such consistent and toxic rhetoric.
Repeated confrontations are causing us to either respond in kind or retreat into self-constructed safety-zones. Trust in governments and institutions are at an all-time low, particularly among younger generations and eroding the trust we have in one another. No wonder we are anxious.
Last night I had to edit these words I’d written earlier this week to specify “verbal” assaults we all endure. We all hear words of hate so casually slung around in all forms of media. These words and thoughts of hatred festered into a deadly assault for the 20 people merely shopping at Wal-Mart in El Paso yesterday to fulfil racist ideals expressed in a hate-filled manifesto. Early this morning nine more people were killed in Dayton, Ohio in another mass shooting.
At times like these, well-intentioned people will offer thoughts and prayers after gun violence. We’ve prayed. Let’s focus on the thoughts.
When the Israelites began to wander in the wilderness they had decided God was too distant and uninvolved in daily survival. In the wilderness of our uncertainty, I wonder if we have forgotten how intimate and sovereign God is.
How often do you think about God?
What do you think about God? Is God distant, uninvolved? Is God intimate?
Knowing God is not an intellectual exercise or occasional action. Feelings and beliefs begin in the gut.
Tomorrow, what is the first thing you will taste? Coffee? Cereal? Toast? Juice? Think about it.
Commit that you will stop and notice the “whatever it is”. Commit to notice too the sun will be shining. A beautiful day will open. Think of God.
The next morning, Tuesday, August 6 do the same thing. In the morning, as your taste buds wake, notice “whatever it is,” and the sunlight, and realize you had nothing to do with the gift of a new day. It is only from God.
Again on Wednesday and every day, all the way to Sunday. If I don’t see you on Sunday, repeat this again next week. Think of God again and again.
Let your body remind you that you are not alone but part of a great network of people that work in harmony to get the bagel toasted or the smoothie blended.
Create a habit to recognize you are receiving a gift from God you did not earn but is graciously given to you.
With the consistent, visceral experience of God’s care, you will become resilient. Trust that you are a beloved child of God. Learn to trust and demand trust from others.
Over the weeks and months of thinking about God as you wake, let your thinking expand to trust the wide network of people and communities upon whom you rely, and appreciate God also cares about others.
Over time, you will want to mend the torn relationships. Build bridges.
God does not want us to be stuck in this wildness of violence and deceptions and racism and greed.
We may want someone else to author a spectacular miracle to give us a secure future. More likely it will be the daily miracle of turning our thoughts toward God. With practice our thoughts will be humbler. Day-by-day we will be moved to speak up for the lost and the least. One day we will embody the miracles as thoughts become actions to protect and defend. The word became flesh to dwell among us. May the word dwell in you.
from your providing hand even the dissatisfied and grumbling
receive what they need for their lives.
Teach us to trust in you
and practice your generosity,
so that we may live a life worthy of the gospel
make known through your son Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.
 Robert Alter The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary, (New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 2019).
 Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 171–187.
 Lee Raine, “Trust and Distrust In America,” Pew Research Center, https://www.people-press.org/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america, accessed July 23, 2019.