After leaving Elim, the “sons [or people] of Israel” came to the “wilderness of Sin,” situated “between Elim and Sinai [Ailim and Sina (LXX)].” The exact location of this wilderness is not known, but it must have been in the southwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula. One conjecture places the wilderness in the region located east of the approximate midway point of the Gulf of Suez. It was then the fifteenth day of the second month (Iyar [mid-April to mid-May]), about a month after the Israelites had departed from Egypt. (16:1)
The entire community of Israel began to murmur against Moses and Aaron, complaining that there circumstances were so bad that it would have been better for them to have died in Egypt by YHWH’s “hand” or by his power directed against them. They maintained that they had sufficient bread to eat in Egypt and also sat there by pots of meat for their meals. Their complaint was that Moses and Aaron had brought them into the wilderness so that they might die from hunger. (16:2, 3; see the Notes section.) According to Josephus,the Israelites had become so angry at Moses that they contemplated picking up stones and hurling them at him. (Antiquities, III, i, 5)
Faced with the grumbling of the people, Moses (according to Josephus [Antiquities, III, i, 5]) ascended an eminence in the area and prayed to God. He requested that God might deliver the people from the want they were experiencing, “because in him, and in him alone, was their hope of deliverance.” Moses also expressed the desire that God would forgive the people for what their lack of food had forced them to do, “since such was the nature of mankind, hard to please and very complaining under adversities.”
YHWH (evidently through his representative angel) informed Moses that he would cause it to rain “bread from the heavens.” This was to be a daily portion that the people were to gather each day for six days, with the sixth day being the one for them to collect twice as much. The directive for them to gather a double portion on the sixth day and not to set out to collect this “bread from the heavens” on the seventh day was to serve as a test to the Israelites as to whether they would either “walk” or conduct themselves in YHWH’s law or not. Moses and Aaron told the people that, when he, in the evening, provided food for them, they would “know,” or be made to recognize, that YHWH had brought them out of Egypt. In the morning, the people were to witness the “glory of YHWH.” He had heard their murmurings against him. With reference to Moses and Aaron, the question to the people was, “For what are we that you should murmur against us?” Their complaint had really been directed against YHWH, for only he could supply their needs and they, in effect, murmured that he had failed to care for them. Personally, Moses and Aaron could not provide essential food. They also experienced hunger and had to rely on what YHWH would do for them. (16:4-7)
Since it would be YHWH who would be giving them meat to eat in the evening and bread in the morning because he had heard their murmuring, Moses said to the people that their complaining was against YHWH. As had been revealed to him about the “glory of YHWH,” Moses told Aaron to say to the “sons [or people] of Israel” to come near before (literally, “before the face of”) YHWH, for he had heard their murmuring. While Aaron was still speaking, the people saw the “glory of YHWH” when looking in the direction of the wilderness. This “glory” was revealed in a cloud that may have glowed brilliantly. Possibly their seeing the “glory of YHWH” also included their receiving meat in the evening and bread (or food) in the morning. Evidently through his representative angel, YHWH told Moses that the people would be eating meat in the evening and their fill of “bread” in the morning. This would reveal to the people that YHWH was indeed their God, the One who cared and provided for them. (16:8-12)
As had been made known to Moses, a supply of meat became available in the evening. Quail came into and covered the camp of Israel. (16:13) Josephus, in his Antiquities (III, i, 5), described what happened. Quail in great numbers hovered over the people, until “wearied from their laborious flight, and, indeed, as usual, flying very near to the earth, they fell down upon the Hebrews, who caught them and satisfied their hunger with them, and supposed that this was the method whereby God meant to supply them with food.” (See the Notes section.)
In the morning all around the camp, the Israelites, after the dew lifted, saw a substance on the ground that they had never seen before. The substance was flaky and fine like hoarfrost. The Israelites are quoted as saying, man hu’ (“what is this” [LXX])? Josephus (Antiquities, III, i, 6) wrote that this question was the basis for calling the substance “manna.” “Now the Hebrews call this food manna; for the particle man, in our language, is the asking of a question, What is this?” Moses explained to the people that the substance was the “bread” YHWH had provided for them to eat. Based on the number of persons in the household, every “man” was to gather enough so that each of the members of the household had one omer (2 dry quarts [2.2 liters]) or the tenth part of an ephah as their food for the day. (16:36; see the Notes section.) The head of the household either collected the manna or supervised the gathering. According to the Septuagint, the ones dwelling in each tent were to share in collecting the manna. (16:13-16)
Likely the people gathered the manna without delay, for it melted when subjected to the heat of the sun as the day progressed. Once the approximate supply for the entire household had been collected, it was measured. Regardless of how much had been gathered, the amount always equaled one omer for every person in the household. Commenting regarding this, Josephus (Antiquities, III, i, 6) wrote: “They [the Hebrews] were enjoined to gather it equally; the measure of an omer for each one every day, because this food should not come in too small a quantity, lest the weaker might not be able to get their share by reason of the overbearing of the strong in collecting it. However, these strong men, when they had gathered more than the measure appointed for them, had no more than others, but only tired themselves more in gathering it, for they found no more than an omer apiece.” Although Moses told them not to leave any of the manna until the morning of the next day, some of the people did not listen. Worms came to be in the manna, and it began to stink. Therefore, Moses became angry at the disobedient ones. (16:17-21)
On the sixth day of the week, the people were to gather two omers of manna for every member of the household, and none was to be collected on the seventh day. Moses made known to the assembled leaders of the people that YHWH had commanded observing the seventh day as a day of rest, a “holy sabbath.” Accordingly, on the sixth day, the Israelites were to bake or boil what they wanted and to keep the extra amount of manna until the next morning for use as their food on that day. On the seventh day, the manna did not become infested with worms nor did it begin to stink. Although Moses had told them that there would be no provision of manna on the seventh day, some of the people disregarded what he said. They left their tents to look for manna but did not find any. Moses directed YHWH’s words of reproof against them, “How long will you refuse to observe my commandments and my laws?” So that the people could observe the seventh day as a day of rest and not leave their tents, YHWH had provided them with a two-day supply of manna. (16:22-30)
The food that the Israelites called manna is described as being white like coriander seed and tasting like wafers made with honey. Regarding manna, Josephus (Antiquities, III, i, 6) wrote that “it was like honey in sweetness,” and in “greatness” or size “equal to coriander seed.” Coriander seed can be grayish-white in color and between 3 and 5 millimeters in size (c. 0.12 and c. 0.2 inches). According to Numbers 11:7, manna was like coriander seed and had an appearance like that of bdellium (a resinous gum). (16:31)
To provide tangible evidence regarding what the Israelites ate in the wilderness, YHWH commanded that one omer of manna be kept in a (gold [LXX]) container for generations to come. After the “ark of the covenant” (or the “ark of the testimony”) had been constructed, this container was to be placed inside it before (literally, before the face of) YHWH. As YHWH had commanded Moses, Aaron stored the container filled with one omer of manna “before the testimony” (probably meaning before the two stone tablets on which the “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments” were written and which tablets had been placed inside the ark of the covenant). (16:32-34)
For some 40 years during their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites ate manna, but the provision of manna ended when they came into the land of Canaan. (16:35; Joshua 5:10-12)
The complaint of the people that they had been brought into the wilderness to die of hunger suggests that whatever food supply they had brought with them had been exhausted in about a month after they had left Egypt. This may explain why Josephus wrote that, for “thirty days,” the Israelites made use of the unleavened dough they had brought from Egypt. (Antiquities, II, xv, 1)
According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (Histories, II, 77), the Egyptians salted and ate quail raw. Whether this is what the Israelites did is not indicated in the account. Pliny the Elder (Natural History, X, 33) wrote that quail are light and have limited strength. In their long migratory flight, they rely on a breeze to assist them. He also indicated that it often happened that at night, exhausted quail would settle on the sails of a ship in such great numbers as to cause the vessel to sink.
In verse 36, the Septuagint refers to the gomor (omer) as consisting of three measures. This is apparently based on the then-current understanding that three seah measures equaled one ephah.