#227. Was there only manna to eat OR not? (Ex 16:35; Num 11:6 vs Ex 12:38, 17:3, 24:5, 34:3; Lev 1-27; Num 7, 9:1-14, 28-29)

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Numbers 11—a story about the people’s complaining to Moses that they have no meat to eat, only manna—is part of the murmuring traditions, some of which we have already looked at (#125, #126, #127) and even seen use contradictorily by other biblical scribes (#124).

To a large extent the quail story of Numbers 11, where Yahweh responds to the Israelite’s complaining that they have had no meat to eat only manna by sending them quails just before he strikes them down anyway, has already been dealt with in contradiction #126 (see also #125). Here I’ve worded the contradiction differently in order to expand upon #126 in more detail.

The tradition now preserved at Exodus 16, from the Priestly source, claims that the people have not eaten meat since their departure from Egypt. However, where this story presently sits in the wilderness narrative is already problematic since according to the later Priestly redactor the event recorded in Exodus 16 occurs exactly, only, 1 month from the Exodus (16:1). And we are to remember that on the eve of (or the morning after; see #115) the Exodus, the Israelites enjoy their first Passover meal—a roasted lamb per household (Ex 12:3). So the complaint of not having meat to eat only 1 month after having eaten a nice lamb dinner is ill-conceived in the narrative as it has been redacted.

Although Exodus 16:13 is a one-verse Priestly version of the quail story, the real focus of Exodus 16 is the manna tradition. Here we learn that “the children of Israel ate the manna 40 years until they came to the settled land. They ate the manna until they came to the edge of the land of Canaan” (Ex 16:35). The tradition implies that all they eat for the duration of the 40-year wilderness period is manna! Thus Numbers 11:6:

“There isn’t anything to eat, except the manna before our eyes.”

This is not in fact the case! And as I’ve mentioned in other entries, the present wilderness narrative is rather a collection of once separate traditions, random legislation, and stories. The biblical texts themselves bear this out. For we are informed of many instances where the Israelites eat meat, that is where they eat more than just manna. In fact, manna is curiously absent from these variant traditions:

  1. First, contrary to this manna/quail tradition or story the Exodus tradition itself claims that the Israelites left with a large number of livestock: “sheep and oxen, a very heavy livestock” (Ex 12:38). The Israelites’ possession of cattle and livestock is reiterated in Ex 17:3 (just after they had complained of no meat to eat in Exodus 16!?), Ex 34:3; Lev 17:3, 22:19, 23, 27:9; and Num 7, 32:1.
  2. The Jethro tradition now preserved in Exodus 18 claims that Moses, Aaron and Israel’s elders ate bread (not unleavened manna!) with Jethro, and presumably meat too since sacrifices were performed (18:12).
  3. Exodus 24:5 records a covenant tradition where (some of) the people eat meat—peace-offerings (the peace-offering was the sacrifice performed on consumable meat; see Lev 3, 7:11-21, 19:5-8). This “occurs” less than a month after the quail story, according to the chronology imposed on the narrative by the later Priestly redactor (see Ex 19:1).
  4. The Golden Calf story now at Exodus 32 states that all the people “sat down to eat and drink” (32:6)—that is meat; peace-offerings were made, as well as whole burnt-offerings to Yahweh.
  5. The eternal law of presenting daily Yahweh’s show bread in the Tent of Meeting assumes that there is grain to make, and eat, bread (Ex 25:30; Num 4:7)—reinforced throughout the book of Leviticus.
  6. Lev 1-7 is a priestly manual instructing the Aaronid priesthood about how to perform the various sacrifices, especially when an impure contamination happens or a sin is committed. The sacrifices, each of which requires livestock and assumes the Israelites have numerous livestock (see especially #9 below), are to be performed during the wilderness period in order to maintain the camp’s and the people’s holiness—a reoccurring theme throughout all of Leviticus! So the eating of meat is a constant and regular happening in the Priestly source!
  7. In Aaron’s consecration ceremony, both Moses and Aaron and sons eat meat (Lev 8-9)
  8. Leviticus 23 records the mandatory observance of “Yahweh’s appointed times” all of which entailed the sacrifice of animals, and some of which entailed the eating of those animals (see: Festive Calendars).
  9. The dedication ceremony recorded in Numbers 7 records the festive slaughtering of, excluding Yahweh’s burnt-offerings, 36 bulls, 72 rams, 60 goats, and 72 lambs for consumption as meat! This happens on 1/1/2 according to Priestly reckoning (see also #221).
  10. In Numbers 9 we are informed that in the second year of the Exodus, on 1/14/2, the Israelites kept the Passover—that is ate a lamb per household! And ditto for the remaining 38 years!

And now, in Numbers 11, just 1 month after the Passover celebration in Numbers 9 (see Num 10:11), are we to assume that the Israelites had no meat to eat, and only manna!? Obviously there are conflating traditions here.

Point of fact is that the wilderness tradition as we now have it is a composite of various, and contradictory, once separate stories. The Bible itself tells us this, and moreover that its stories are not to be taken literally, nor historically for that matter (see How we know that the biblical scribes were not writing history). Rather they are stories with powerful theological punchlines—don’t test Yahweh, or else!

6 thoughts on “#227. Was there only manna to eat OR not? (Ex 16:35; Num 11:6 vs Ex 12:38, 17:3, 24:5, 34:3; Lev 1-27; Num 7, 9:1-14, 28-29)

  1. I too was initially shocked when I started looking closely at the material how often the manna tradition was not picked up in other traditions/stories, such as the one about obtaining food from Edom as you mention above (Deut 2:1-6; Num 2014-21).

    And of course even these narratives contradict each other regarding how the Edomites reacted toward the Israelites. I wrote about this in 2002: http://www.tinyurl.com/edomgreetem. But this is another contradiction for another day.

    If this is the case, he then created this anachronism by placing the Priestly version of the story in Exodus 16, and the Elohist in Numbers 11! The same thing happens with the Sabbath, which is also an anachronism mentioned in the Priestly text of Exodus 16—it assumes it had already been given!

    All of the anachronisms disappear if Exodus 16 is moved after the tabernacle, ark, ten commandments, spy incident (to account for the 40-years reference), etc. Where it would have originally stood is limited by one factor: it must precede Aaron’s death.

  2. Deuteronomy 2 seems unaware that Yahweh provided manna every day:

    Deuteronomy 2:1-6
    1we journeyed back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea, as Yahweh had told me, and skirted Mount Seir for many days. 2Then Yahweh said to me: 3‘You have been skirting this hill country long enough. Head north, 4and charge the people as follows: You are about to pass through the territory of your kindred, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, so be very careful 5not to engage in battle with them, for I will not give you even so much as a foot’s length of their land, since I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6You shall purchase food from them for money, so that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them for money, so that you may drink.

    This seems at odds with Exodus 16:35:

    35The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.

  3. There’s also an interesting anachronism regarding the manna. Exodus 16:34-35 reads:

    33And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before Yahweh, to be kept throughout your generations.’ 34As Yahweh commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the covenant, for safe-keeping.

    How could Aaron have placed the jar of manna “before the covenant” when neither the commandments nor the ark of the covenant in which they were housed existed? It might be argued that a later editor added this detail or that it’s a look-ahead by the author, who knew what eventually happened. However, I think it is more likely an anachronism, since v:33 says that Aaron should place the jar “before Yahweh,” a phrase that is also anachronistic since the tabernacle had also not yet been built. And this isn’t the only time that this phrase occurs in Exodus 16. Consider the verses below:

    Exodus 16:1-2, 3b
    The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’

    These verses make it abundantly clear that on 2/15/1, the Israelites were in the wilderness. The anachronism follows in vv. 9-10:

    9 Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to Yahweh/b>, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ 10And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of Yahweh appeared in the cloud.

    Verse 9 literally says “near before Yahweh,” an impossibility since to go “before Yahweh” means to be before the tabernacle. A couple of examples suffice:

    Exodus 27:21
    21In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that is before the covenant, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before Yahweh.

    Leviticus 9:5
    5They brought what Moses commanded to the front of the tent of meeting; and the whole congregation drew near and stood before Yahweh.

    Notice, though, that v:10 says that the congregation “looked towards the wilderness.” How could it look toward the wilderness when, as I mention above, they were already in the wilderness. It appears that an editor or later writer realized that in a time before the tabernacle had been built, it would be impossible to appear “before Yahweh,” so he inserted the nonsensical-sounding claim that a people already in the wilderness could look toward the wilderness as a way of appearing “before Yahweh.”

    1. John,

      Thanks for your additions. I too was initially shocked when I started looking closely at the material how often the manna tradition was not picked up in other traditions/stories, such as the one about obtaining food from Edom as you mention above (Deut 2:1-6; Num 2014-21). It almost seems like each story had an individual purpose; the manna tradition’s message is more theological in nature—Yahweh sustained the wilderness generation. I’m not sure if there’s an etiological purpose behind the story. Reading Exodus 16:34-35 makes me think that there is here: Aaron placing the manna before the covenant serves to explain why, later, the Aaronids place daily the showbread before Yahweh.

      I like your astuteness in observing the anachronism here. As I mused earlier (#218), I’m inclined to think that the manna tradition (quail tradition also) was originally a story told after the Sinai event. But since the redactor was faced with having 2 versions of the manna/quail tradition (E and P) he opted to place one version before Sinai (Ex 16) and one after (Num 11). If this is the case, he then created this anachronism by placing the Priestly version of the story in Exodus 16, and the Elohist in Numbers 11! The same thing happens with the Sabbath, which is also an anachronism mentioned in the Priestly text of Exodus 16—it assumes it had already been given!

  4. I’ve always wondered about this account. ’40 years’ with no meat! it just don’t add up. It makes much more sense
    that whoever or whomever’s wrote this was much later on.
    Thanks for the post…

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