Manna and Sabbath: A Literary-Theological Reading of Exodus 16

Article excerpt

A literary-theological study of the Sabbath in Exodus 16 reveals two main biblical traditions, covenantal and priestly. In the covenantal tradition, the Sabbath provides a means of testing Israel's faith and readiness for a covenantal relationship with God. The priestly tradition presents the Sabbath as the completion of God's creation of the world. God's provision of the manna in the wilderness and the Sabbath points to a new understanding of holiness and time.

There is no scholarly consensus on the historical origin of the institution of the Sabbath.1 Although some maintain it was a post-exilic invention, most scholars, while conceding that the Sabbath rose to prominence in that period as a special sign of loyalty to the covenant, regard it as a pre-exilic practice. In the prophets, as well as the few references in narratives outside the Pentateuch, it is sometimes mentioned with the new moon.2 This led some scholars to identify the biblical Sabbath with the similar sounding Mesopotamian sab/pattu, the fifteenth of the lunar month, a day of ill omen. But this identification has more recently seemed less likely. Moreover, scholarship has not yet produced a generally convincing hypothesis for the relationship of the biblical Sabbath to the concept of a seven-day week, which also seems to be biblical in origin. If the Sabbath was indeed a weekly practice before the exile, it is a striking fact that it is very infrequently mentioned in narratives of that period. For example, it is never said that David or Solomon or Gideon or Elijah, or anyone ever piously ceased any activity because of the approach of the Sabbath.

Discussion of the Sabbath institution must be based primarily on literary texts that reflect the work of the several Deuteronomic and priestly writers of the seventh to fifth centuries B.C.E. The few texts referring to the Sabbath that most scholars regard as pre-exilic are far from clear in the evidence they provide. For example, a legal text many regard as among the most ancient, the so-called Cultic Decalogue in Exod 34, seems to place the injunction to stop (sabat) work in the context of the seventh day of the festival of Unleavened Bread, with no hint of a weekly Sabbath. In sum, discussion of the historical origin of the Sabbath, as well as of its meaning to pre-exilic Israel, is text-bound and literary in nature. Accordingly, the present essay will examine the language, imagery, and themes of a key biblical narrative, Exod 16, which introduces readers of the Pentateuch to weekly observance of the Sabbath.


In the following retelling of Exod 16, note especially the transliterated Hebrew terms, which, because they echo or evoke the term "Sabbath," may be regarded as "leading words" essential to the overall meaning of the passage.

The escaped Israelite slaves, newly rescued at the Reed Sea, travel into the desert of Sin where they begin to complain bitterly to Moses and Aaron: "Would that God had killed us in Egypt when at least we still sat [besibtenû] by the meat pot and ate bread till we were full [la'soba]! You have brought us out to kill us with hunger!" God replies, "I shall rain down bread from heaven and the people will go out and gather each day's supply, so that I may test whether they will keep my instruction or not." God is apparently leery of confiding his revealed laws to a people that, despite having witnessed a tremendous series of miracles in Egypt and at the Sea, is so quick to complain and to doubt divine providence. The content of the test is cryptic and unexplained: "On the sixth day let them prepare what they bring in, for it will be double the normal day's supply."

Moses and Aaron say to the people: "Why do you complain against us? As his response to your complaints, God will provide meat in the evening, and in the morning you will see his Presence when he provides you with bread." Moses then tells Aaron to command the people to approach God. …