THE CLOSING VERSES OF Exodus 15 are a harbinger of things to come. Despite the miraculous interventions by God that characterized their escape from Egypt, the people do not really trust him; the first bit of hardship turns to whining and complaining. Exodus 16 carries the story further, and shows that this muttering is linked, at several levels, to overt defiance of the living God.
We need not imagine that the Israelites were not hungry; of course they were. The question is what they did about it. They might have turned to God in prayer and asked him to supply all their needs. As he had effected their rescue so dramatically, would he not also provide for them? But instead they sarcastically romanticize their experience of slavery (!) in Egypt (16:3), and grumble against Moses and Aaron (16:2).
Moses might have felt miffed at the sheer ingratitude of the people. Wisely, he recognizes its real focus and evil. Although they grumble against Moses and Aaron, their real complaint is against God himself (16:7-8): “You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD.”
In all this, the Lord is still forbearing. As he turned the bitter waters of Marah into sweetness (15:22-26), so he now provides them with meat in the form of quail, and with manna. This frankly miraculous provision not only meets their need, but is granted so that they “will see the glory of the LORD” (16:7). “Then you will know that I am the LORD your God” (16:12). Further, the Lord says, “I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (16:4).
Unfortunately, not a few in the community fail the test miserably. They try to hoard manna when they are told not to; they try to gather manna when, on the Sabbath, none is provided. Moses is frankly angry with them (16:20); the Lord himself challenges this chronic disobedience (16:28).
Why should people who have witnessed so spectacular a display of the grace and power of God slip so easily into muttering and complaining and slide so gracelessly into listless disobedience? The answer lies in the fact that many of them see God as existing to serve them. He served them in the Exodus; he served them when he provided clean water. Now he must serve not only their needs but their appetites. Otherwise they are entirely prepared to abandon him. While Moses has been insisting to Pharaoh that the people needed to retreat into the desert in order to serve and worship God, the people themselves think God exists to serve them.
The fundamental question is, “Who is the real God?” New covenant believers face the same choice (1 Cor. 10:10).