After the water at Marah was made sweet for the Israelites to drink, God said, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you” (15:26). Just as He healed the water, you see, He’s going to heal them.
“I am the LORD who heals you” gives us a new name for God: Jehovah Rapha. This is what we would call a progressive or growing revelation. First of all they learned that God is Jehovah, that is, the great I AM, the powerful God who was going to conquer the Egyptians and bring His people out of Egypt. And now that they are in the wilderness, they have to learn that this powerful and delivering God is also the God of healing, the God who is going to take care of them each step of the way in the wilderness.
After this incident at Marah, they came to a place called Elim, which was about a day’s journey further on into the Sinai. The commentator Charles Erdman wisely writes that this part of the story involving Elim is there to remind us that the Christian life is not entirely a desert journey and that it often leads through green pastures and beside the still waters.1 Elim is not yet Canaan. They’re not yet in the Promised Land. There are going to be a lot of hard times to come. But nevertheless it is an oasis along the way and it is a way of saying that God does provide these arbors on the hill of difficulty, these oases of refreshment in the parched surroundings in which we live. Haven’t you found that to be true? You go through a hard time and then there’s an oasis that God gives you, and it’s meant to refresh your spirit and help you along the way.
The second major incident occupies all of chapter 16, which is the provision of the manna and quail. Its importance is seen, not only in the fact that it is told in detail in one whole chapter, but it’s mentioned again and again throughout the Bible (Num. 11; Deut. 8; Josh. 5; Neh. 9; and in the Psalms; also in the New Testament, John 6; Heb. 9; and Revelation).
Now this chapter begins with a very interesting time reference. It tells us in verse 1 that they camped at this place in the desert on the fifteenth day of the second month after they’d come out of Egypt. That’s meaningful because you will recall that they had left Egypt on the fifteenth day of the first month, exactly one month later. The month before they had this miraculous deliverance, and now one month later they’d forgotten all about it. They’d had victory over the Egyptians who were going to kill them. Now they are hungry and they’re complaining again.
There are lessons about grumbling here for us. One is that when the people are grumbling against Moses and Aaron it’s not really against them, but against the Lord. When we grumble, we are grumbling against God. As Christians, we know this is not good. So what we do is grumble about our circumstances. We somehow think that we are safe in doing that, forgetting that it really is against God because it is God who gives the circumstances. What we find again and again is that when these hard times come into our lives, God is giving these circumstances in order to test and train us.
God did provide for them in two ways when they were hungry. He provided quail, which are little birds, and He provided manna, which is this bread-like substance that they found on the ground in the morning. The manna was an utter miracle. There’s nothing that can explain that. The quail, on the other hand, are a natural phenomenon. People who know this area of the world say that great flocks of these birds come down from the Mediterranean into Africa in the winter, and in the spring they make their way back up north. As these quail fly these long distances, they become so exhausted that people can almost pick them off the ground. Apparently that’s what happened. The wind, which was of God, blew them over in the direction of the Israelites in the spring.
The arrival of the manna was very different. The Bibles tells us that it was white, like coriander seed, tasted like a wafer with honey. The Israelites didn’t know what it was; they had never seen anything like it. Some commentators have tried to explain it naturally, suggesting that it came from an insect that secretes a honey-like substance, or perhaps it was a kind of lichen that grows on rocks about the size of a pea. I don’t find these or any other natural explanation convincing. The people had this manna wherever they went during their wilderness wandering; it appeared on the ground every morning except the Sabbath for those the forty years. It had to be a miracle from God! The people saw this thing, and they had never seen anything like that before. They saw it and asked in Hebrew, Man hu, meaning, “What is it?” That’s where they got the word manna.