All of our lives we have been hearing the story of the Israelites being fed with bread from heaven while they spent forty years making that hundred mile journey from Egypt to the Holy Land. We wonder about it. We ask ourselves two questions. First, is there any truth to it? Second, what meaning has it for us?
We can’t say that it is all true, but it does fit in some with the facts as we know them.
Chapter Thirteen of Exodus says they spent four hundred and thirty years in Egypt, and that fits in with Egyptian history. For those four hundred years a Semitic tribe like the Israelites ruled Egypt, and would have welcomed them. In 1320 an Egyptian general named Ramses took over. He would have been the Chapter One’s Pharaoh who “didn’t know Joseph.” His son, Ramses II was the Pharaoh who had the Israelites doing slave labor building the supply cities of Pithom and Raamses.
As for the story’s meaning for us, the answer is that it blends fact and fiction into a metaphor for our lives. The fleshpots, the manna and the quail are real, but Exodus gives them symbolic standing.
The fleshpots were cauldrons of boiled grain and greens, with each pot serving twelve Israelite slaves who reached in to them with their fists. The fleshpots are metaphors for lazy years when people manage to eat without applying themselves.
The manna and the quail are real things. Bedouins in the Sinai still have manna. It is a white honey-like excretion of aphids. Like the manna of Exlodus, it must be gathered before the desert sun melts it into the sand. Then too, Bedouins still gather quail that fall exhausted after flights across the Mediterranean from which some of their flock dont make it across. The manna and the quail might stand for nothing more than the hundreds of ways in which the heavenly Father naturally brings forth food on earth for his children.
As for the meaning of the Exodus story, in the Bible forty years stand for a life span. We begin as slaves to the eating and sleeping functions of our bodies. With God’s help we get on the road to growth in mind and spirit, staying true to God until after our “forty years” he are accepted into his Promised Land.
Interestingly for us Christians, St. John used the plot line of Exodus to show how Jesus elevated the incidents of Exodus, making each of them a metaphor for a help he supplies. He pitched his tent with us, he feeds us bread fro heaven. He is the light leading us on through the dark. He gives us to drink of the water of his Spirit. On his cross, suspended midway across the Jordan River of death he bids us pass by him into the Promised Land.