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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 16

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



(1.) Route from Elim to Sinai. Before deciding upon this route it is, of course, necessary to settle the location of Elim and Sinai. We have already presented reasons for the conclusion, in which travellers are now almost unanimously agreed, that Elim was the Wady Gharandel; and there is now, also, an equally general conviction among biblical scholars who have visited the locality, (Lepsius being the only important exception,) that the Mount Sinai of Exodus was the peak Ras Sufsafeh (or Sassafeh) at Jebel Musa, the reasons of which identification will be hereafter given, but are assumed as valid for the present. After leaving Elim, the itinerary of Numbers xxxiii gives us an encampment “by the Red Sea,” which, as already shown, (note on Exodus 15:27,) could only have been in the plain at the mouth of the Wady Taiyebeh . From this station there were three routes through the labyrinth of wadies and mountain passes to Mount Sinai, which, from the geographical features of the country, must be the same now as then: (1,) a lower route, through the desert plain el Ka’a, (or el Ga’ah,) by the coast station Tur, (or Tor,) through the steep and winding Wady Hebran; (2,) an upper route, by Wady Hamer, through the great sandstone belt of the peninsula, past the mysterious Egyptian monuments of Sarabit el Khadim, among the low hills, and into the broad sandy plain of Debbet er Ramleh, (or el Karabeh;) thence along the white southern escarpment of the Tih plateau into Wady es Sheikh, the route followed and so thoroughly described by Robinson; and (3,) an intermediate route through Wady Feiran, whose springs, palm groves, flowers, and bulbuls make it the principal thoroughfare and most delightful spot in the whole peninsula. It is only by a careful study of thorough maps, like those of Kiepert and the British Ordnance Survey, that these alternatives can be apprehended. The lower route may be ruled out at once, from the fact that the steep, rough, narrow Hebran is wholly impracticable for such a miscellaneous host, with women, children, and wagons, not to mention the many days’ march through the vast waterless plain of el Ka’a, of which there is no trace in the record, since there is no mention of the lack of water till Israel came to Rephidim, near Mount Sinai. The upper route is ably defended by Knobel, who plausibly identifies Debbet er Ramleh, the great sandy plain along the Jebel et Tih, with the “Desert of Sin.” Exodus 16:1. But it is very probable that there was at this time an Egyptian mining colony and military station directly in this route, which would be a strong reason for avoiding it; and we have no account of any collision between Israel and Egyptian troops in the desert; and, besides, Palmer says, that the “rugged passes and narrow valleys would have presented insuperable difficulties to a large caravan, encumbered by heavy baggage;” and certainly these wadies would have been impassable to wagons, which from Numbers 7:3. etc . , we see that the Israelites had with them . The middle route, Wady Feiran, could have been entered directly from the coast plain, el Murkha, or indirectly through the Wady Shellal and Wady Mukatteh, the famous valley of the inscribed sandstone tablets, past the beautiful bas-reliefs and turquoise and copper mines of Magharah, down a steep, narrow pass . The objections just made to the upper route would hold good, though with less force, to this indirect entrance to Wady Feiran, and hence the travellers of the “Sinai Survey Expedition” decided for the Wady Feiran, entered directly from the plain of el Murkha. (Palmer’s Desert of the Exodus, vol. i, chap. 14.) As this is the unanimous verdict of the only company of intelligent travellers who have examined all the routes to Sinai, it must have, henceforth, decisive weight with all interpreters of Exodus. Kurtz, Keil, and Murphy, who advocate the upper route, were not at the time of writing aware of these objections, nor of the direct entrance to Wady Feiran.

It is not, however, to be supposed that the whole body of the Israelites moved along this single valley, but rather, that in this were the headquarters and main body of the host. Large detachments, who acted as soldiers, and could thus march with celerity through rough and steep places, probably took the Mukatteh route, and thus acted as a guard on the left flank against the Egyptian troops who may have been posted in Magharah. It is probable, also, that the Israelites entered the great plain of el Raheh, at the base of Sinai, from the northwest, through Wady Solaf, over the pass Nagb Hawa, and from the northeast through the Wady es Sheikh.

(2.) Manna. There is a substance called manna by the Bedouins of the desert now produced in the peninsula of Sinai, and gathered from the twigs of the tamarisk or tarfa tree, which has been supposed by many, as Lepsius, Ritter, etc., after Josephus, to be the same as the manna which was to Israel “bread from heaven.” This substance exudes in transparent drops from the outermost tender twigs of the tamarisk, and soon hardens into a reddish-yellow gum, or waxy substance, which the Bedouins use and sell for a condiment with bread. It often falls upon the ground, and is gathered both from the tree and from the earth. It melts in the sun, but may be kept in a cool place for an indefinite time. It has the flavour of honey, and chemical analysis shows that it is wholly saccharine in composition. Ehrenberg assigned its production to the puncture of an insect, a kind of wood-louse, but this origin is doubted by Lepsius. It is found from the last of May until August in wet seasons only, and Burckhardt calculates that the whole peninsula might, in a favourable season, yield five to six hundred pounds. From this description it will be seen, that while there are some points of resemblance there are many more of irreconcilable diversity between this substance and the manna of the Israelites. From this chapter, and from Numbers 11:7-9, we find that the manna of Israel fell with the dew, and was found on the surface of the open wilderness after “the dew had gone up,” not on and under the branches of the tamarisk . It had the nutritious properties of bread, while the tamarisk manna is a mere condiment. It could be ground in mills; pounded or bruised in mortars, like grain; cooked by baking and boiling; all of which are impossible processes for the tamarisk manna, as much as for gum or wax. It was found all through the wilderness, in regions where, now at least, the tamarisk does not and cannot grow, while the tamarisk manna is confined to a small district of the Sinai wilderness; and even if it were the same substance, the whole peninsula does not now produce enough to sustain a single man. It was produced through the whole year, while the tamarisk manna exudes only in the summer; and, most decisive of all, there was a double supply of this manna on the sixth day and none at all on the seventh. It is certain, then, that the inspired author intends to describe the supernatural production of daily bread for the Hebrew host. It strongly resembled in appearance the substance now known in the same desert as manna, produced from the tamarisk or tarfa tree, and then known by the same or a similar name, (Hebrew, man; Arabic, mennu; Egyptian, menna and mannuhut;) and hence the name given it by the Israelites, who were struck with this resemblance. Exodus 16:15. (Robinson, Bib. Researches, 1: 115; Kurtz, History of Old Covenant, 3: 27; Stowe, in Smith’s Dictionary.)

Verse 1


1. The wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai That is, between them by the route which a caravan of this kind would naturally take, not between them as a bird would fly . If Elim be Gharandel, as we think to be certain, there is no other way for such a host as this to have reached Sinai than by the Wady Taiyebeh, which leads to the seashore and the great maritime plain of el Murkha . See Introduction, (1 . ) The “wilderness of Sin” seems, then, to be this flat seacoast strip of desert, which, further south, broadens into el Ka’a (or el Ga’ah) stretching down to Ras (Cape) Mohammed. This is a vast, flat waste of sand and black flints, without shade, or water, or life, except in the lower ends of the few wadies which lead up from it into the Sinai mountains, and is, perhaps, the most desolate tract in all Arabia. How natural that in this thirsty, featureless wilderness they should remember all the good things of the fat Nile-land whose far-off mountains they had seen so clearly as they descended into the plain, and probably now saw dimly sketched against the western horizon. Probably they brought water upon their cattle and in their wagons from the Wady Taiyebeh, and encamped at the mouths of several wadies which led down into the plain.

All the congregation Implying a rallying of all the scattered parties from the slopes and valleys of Mount Hammam into the plain, in order to make a “new departure,” and turn into the mountains of Sinai. Fifteenth day of the second month of the year of the Exode; just a month after they left Rameses.

Verse 2

2. The whole congregation… murmured The stores that they had brought from Egypt were now exhausted, although they obtained much sustenance from their herds and flocks; but they saw nothing to eat in this barren waste, and looked forward with terror to the long journey that was yet before them . A month’s experience of the desert had broken the courage of the whole host, and there was a general disaffection and rebellion, though there were doubtless individual instances of patience and of faith . The present suffering blotted out of remembrance the wonderful experiences of the Red Sea and of Marah . So short was their memory of God’s goodness!

Verse 3

3. Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord, in the plagues that destroyed the Egyptians . In the infatuation of their impatience and unbelief they envied the lot of their slain oppressors! Such ingratitude and forgetfulness of God’s grace and strength seem incredible till we look within our own hearts.

When we sat by the flesh pots The abundant beef and poultry and fish of Egypt came up in vivid remembrance, and also the juicy cucumbers and luscious melons of the field of Zoan, (Numbers 11:4-5,) as they hungered and thirsted in the bare, blazing desert .

The opposite cut shows an Egyptian kitchen of the time of Rameses III, and reveals precisely the scenes that rose in the imaginations of the hungry Israelites.

Click image for full-size version

Ye have brought us forth As if their devoted and self-sacrificing leaders were the cause of all their sufferings! So unreasonable, selfish, and cruel is unbelief.

Verses 4-5


4, 5. Bread from heaven A miraculous provision . See Introduction, (2 . ) Without a miracle this great host of two millions could never have subsisted in the desert for forty years . Yet they were not entirely dependent upon the manna . They got milk from their flocks and herds, probably traded the products of their cattle with the desert tribes, and perhaps, in this forty years’ sojourn, some halted long enough in some of the fertile wadies to lay them under cultivation. They shifted their camping grounds with the seasons, as do the Bedouins to-day, in order to find the best pasturage for their cattle. Yet this manna supply was an important part of the national education of Israel for their great mission to mankind. The national history and poetry, as found in the Psalms and Prophets especially, show how deeply this event stamped itself upon the soul of Israel.

That I may prove them Israel was to learn that God gives daily bread, and the sixth day’s provision was especially to test their obedience.

Verses 6-8

6-8. Moses and Aaron repeat God’s promises to Israel, foretell his providing mercy, and rebuke their faithless and rebellious complaints .

Verses 9-12

9-12. Moses directs Aaron to gather the people before the cloudy pillar from which flashed the Divine glory .

Ye shall know that I am the Lord (JEHOVAH) your God This was the grand and worthy object of this wondrous miracle, as all its successive steps reveal; while at the same time Moses and Aaron, against whom they had murmured, were to be vindicated . First the people were made to deeply feel their want; then the Lord reveals his purpose to Moses, who had himself been so sorely tried by their distrust and rebellion; then Moses communicates it to Aaron, who gathers the people in solemn assembly before the Lord; and then Jehovah reveals himself in the mysterious Shekinah to Moses, and finally fulfils his promise by sending, first, quails in the evening, and then manna in the morning .

Verse 13

QUAILS AND MANNA GIVEN, Exodus 16:13-21.

13. The quails came up, (from the south, across the Red Sea,) and covered the camp Fell down among the tents . The bird here mentioned is undoubtedly the common quail, the word שׂלו being derived from a root signifying “fat,” from the round, plump, fat body of the quail . (Gesen . )

The same bird is spoken of in Numbers xi as coming to the camp in vast numbers just a year from this time an immense flock, which passed over the encampment at a height of two cubits from the ground, and spread a day’s journey on both sides. It was now the last of April, when countless flocks of these birds migrate northward from the Upper Nile country, crossing the Red Sea and the Sinai wilderness, and appearing in immense numbers in the Mediterranean coasts and islands. They begin to return southward in September, when they are caught in great numbers with nets, and even with the hand, at their roosting places, in the neighbourhood of Constantinople and on the AEgean Islands; and they pass over Alexandria in November. Ancient and modern naturalists and travellers give us most marvellous accounts of the numbers of these birds, and of the great quantities that are captured at the migrating seasons. All the Archipelago islands are at these times covered with them. At Capri, near Naples, they were once taken in such numbers as to afford the bishop there a large part of his revenue, who was hence called “bishop of quails.” Varro and Pliny relate that in their time they arrived on the Italian shores in such numbers, and settled by night on the sails and rigging of coasting vessels in such masses, as to overturn them! (Plin., Hist. Nat., 10: 33.)

They reach the coasts by night, wearied with their long flight, and are then very easily taken, being knocked down with sticks, or even caught in the hand. (See many quotations in Knobel.) One of these vast flocks, on their annual northward migration from Upper Egypt or Nubia, was providentially directed to the Israelitish encampment, and, coming across the sea, arrived exhausted in the evening, and dropped among and around the tents in the desert of Murkha.

Verse 14

14. A small round thing, as small as the hoar frost Rather, A thing fine, and in fine scales, fine as the hoar frost . It was in small and white grains . The tamarisk manna is white when it drops upon the clean rocks .

Verse 15

15. It is manna: for they wist not what it was More literally, They said, each to his brother, This is man, (is it not?) For they knew not what it (was) . They called it man, because it so exactly resembled the tamarisk or tarpi man with which they were familiar . They are here represented as talking to each other in a conversational, inquiring way, and the author adds, they knew not what it was; that is, they knew not what other name to give it . They used the Egyptian word for the tamarisk manna . Brugsch, in his Hieroglyphic Dictionary, says, “ Mannu, identical with the Hebrew man, Arabic mann . The tamarisk manna is found represented at the Egyptian city of Apollinopolis, presented to a deity in a basket of oblations. The resemblance, however, was only superficial, (see Introduction, 2,) for the manna of Israel was a farinaceous substance that could be made into bread, while the tamarisk manna is wholly saccharine. The Hebrew will not bear the marginal translation, “What is this?” (See Kurtz and Knobel; but Keil and Ewald make מן early Shemitic for מה . ) This is the bread which the Lord hath given you The dew was made the natural basis or vehicle of this miracle, as the water was the vehicle of the miracle of Cana, and the five loaves of that of Bethesda . The manna was deposited from the dew according to laws unknown, and probably undiscoverable, by us, yet to the Author of Nature the process was as regular and as orderly as that by which the grain is formed in the ear . We know of only one series of natural processes, one chain of secondary causes, by which the grain can be gathered up from its manifold elements, in earth, and water, and air; but God knows of many others, which are hidden from our sense and reason . To assume that the way which we know is the only way, and to call all other ways unnatural and absurd, is to make our ignorance the measure of God. It is true that we can conceive of no other way, but our power of conception is not the gauge of the universe. The water which, as liquid and vapour circulates through the veins of nature, gathers up the elements, and bears them along the sap vessels to form the farinaceous atom in the seed by processes which we can trace; but the same water could gather up the same elements and deposit this substance in the seed or on the ground by processes which we cannot trace, known only to God. This is a miracle. Of course this will not be admitted by those who do not look through nature, or within nature, and see God to be the only real cause.

Verses 16-21

16-21. An omer for every man The amount of the omer at this time is one of the unsettled questions, which may be found fully discussed in Smith’s Dictionary, Art . Weights and Measures . The Rabbins estimate it at three pints and a half, while Josephus, as we judge inconsistently, makes it about twice as much. The Rabbinic estimate is more likely to be correct. See on Exodus 16:36.

Each man was to gather for himself and his family at the rate of an omer per head; and not to attempt to lay it up for future use, but to trust to-morrow’s supply to meet to-morrow’s want. We do not understand that any supernatural equalization was promised. Each man gathered according to his eating That is, when they fulfilled the directions given each gathered according to the number of his family, at the rate of an omer apiece, so that he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; and when, through selfishness or unbelief, any attempted to get more than their share, their purpose was frustrated, for it could not be kept over a day. THE SIXTH DAY’S MANNA, 22-31.

Verse 22

22. They gathered twice as much bread That is, they found a double supply on the sixth day, which astonished the people, who had not been told to expect this extraordinary provision for the Sabbath . Hence all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses, in order to obtain from him an explanation .

Verse 23

23. To-morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath This passage shows that the sabbath was known and observed among the Hebrews before the fourth commandment was given at Sinai . The division of the days into weeks seems to have been known among all the Shemitic nations from the earliest historic period, and this cannot fairly be accounted for except by a wide-spread tradition of the sacredness of the number seven, descending from the very origin of the race . Wilkinson shows that the seven-day division was known to the Egyptians, as proved by the seven days’ fete of Apis, the four times seven years of Osiris, the ten times seven days’ mourning for the dead, and the six times seven days of mortification imposed upon the priests . The Pythagoreans borrowed the week from Egypt, and the Roman world adopted it early in the second century . (Rawlinson’s Herod . , 2: 282 . ) It is probable that the week division and the sanctity of the sabbath were known to the Hebrews from their very origin as a people . We find that a week was the period of duration of the wedding feast in the time of Jacob . Genesis 29:27. Here, as in the creative week, God observes the sabbath as an example to man .

Verse 25

25. To-day is a sabbath In three ways the sanctity of the sabbath was marked in this miracle . There was a double quantity on the sixth day, there was none on the seventh day, and that gathered on the sixth did not putrefy on the seventh.

Verse 31

31. Like coriander seed It lay on the ground in small seed-like, pearl-coloured grains . Though called bread it is not to be imagined as a loaf, but as like a grain or seed .

Verses 32-36


32-36. This passage is valuable as giving us an insight into the manner in which the book was written . It is plain that this account of the manna laid… up before the Testimony was composed after the ark of Testimony was made and the tabernacle set up; and the thirty-fifth verse was written after the forty years’ sojourn was ended . While Moses doubtless wrote down the events of the desert life, especially the Divine commands, at the time of their occurrence, he also, at the end of his long career in the plains of Moab, wove these events into a regular treatise, with comments and connecting paragraphs . At the end of this chapter, wherein the manna is first mentioned and fully described, was the appropriate place to finish the account of it, and hence he here adds the command for its preservation and the time of its continuance.

Verse 34

34. Before the Testimony The two stone tablets of the law, afterwards particularly described, (Exodus 34:1, etc . ,) which were kept in the sacred ark, covered by the mercy-seat . This law was called a Testimony against the sins of Israel .

Verse 35

35. Until they came to a land inhabited Till they left the desert with its nomad inhabitants, and reached a country of settled population on the borders of the land of Canaan, in the plains of Moab . Deuteronomy 34:1. It does not necessarily follow that the manna had ceased at the time of writing this, hut the statement is, that this supernatural supply had continued through the desert life. According to Joshua 5:11-12, it continued after the Israelites had passed the Jordan and encamped in Gilgal, till “the morrow after the passover” of that year . If, as some suppose, a subsequent writer, living after the death of Moses, had written this verse, he would not have left the statement in this shape, conveying, as it does, the implication, though not making the direct statement, that they ate no manna after reaching Canaan. Such subsequent writer must have known of the above quoted account in Joshua. Thus here is a noteworthy touch of genuineness.

Verse 36

36. An omer The reason for here specially mentioning the capacity of the omer seems to be that given by Michaelis and Hengstenberg . Literally, the word omer signifies a sheaf of wheat, but in this chapter it denotes a measure, and it is never used with this meaning afterwards . When subsequently the same measure is spoken of it is called the tenth part of an ephah, as in Numbers 5:15; Numbers 28:15. According to these commentators the word here really means the little earthen vessel or cup which the Israelites used for drinking purposes in the desert, and the author here means to say that this cup usually held a tenth of an ephah, the ephah being then a well known measure. In arranging the book into regular form for the use of coming generations it was proper and appropriate thus to describe the capacity of the vessel in which the Israelites measured the daily allowance of manna. Afterwards the name of the vessel came naturally to be used to designate the measure of the vessel as our word “cup” has both meanings, the vessel and the measure. Omer is to be distinguished from homer, which was ten ephahs, or a hundred omers.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Exodus 16". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/exodus-16.html. 1874-1909.
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