Following the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites continued to travel south in the desert of the Arabian peninsula. As they moved further away from Egypt, they simultaneously moved further away from civilization. They became more and more hungry because there were few plants and animals for them to eat. This is the situation when Exodus 16 picks up.
In verses 1-3, we discover that the Israelites have been in the wilderness for over a month, and they are grumbling about their situation. They complain to Aaron and Moses that they were better off in Egypt than they are now. At least in Egypt, they were eating. Douglas Stuart notes in his Exodus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (New American Commentary), “This was the first time the Israelites made the ‘if only we had died in Egypt argument,’ but it would not be the last (see Num 11:4, 18; 14:2; cf. 20:3; Josh 7:7).”
God decides to test the faith of the Israelites by offering them a very unconventional food source, “bread from heaven.” The test is simple. The people of Israel are to gather food provided by God each morning, but only enough for that day. On Friday, the sixth day, they are to gather enough food for two days.
Stuart explains: “Moreover, God was teaching them a concept: that he was their ultimate provider, the one who from heaven gave them not necessarily what they expected but what they really needed. Thus his satisfying them with the bread of heaven becomes a theme of Scripture that not only refers to the manna described in this account (cf. Ps 105:40; Neh 9:15) but to the ultimate provision of eternal sustenance, Christ himself (John 6:31–58).”
In verses 6-11, Moses and Aaron remind the people that it is actually God they are grumbling against, not Moses and Aaron. But, they assure the people that God has heard their complaints and is going to provide meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Once they gather around the pillar of cloud, which is God’s presence among them, God reiterates what Moses and Aaron told them. What is the purpose of God miraculously providing this food? “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”
Douglas Stuart elaborates on God’s plans for the Israelites: “God was testing his people throughout the exodus events: leading them in odd directions without fully explaining why (14:1–4), surprising them with potentially destructive enemy attacks even after they had left Egypt (14:10ff.; cf. 17:8ff.), requiring them to walk into and through deep ocean water (14:15ff.), and taking them to locations that lacked the necessities of life (as in 15:23ff. and 16:2ff.). All of these challenges were part of a plan to develop a people’s willingness to trust him. Explaining everything in advance would have run counter to that plan. It was necessary for Israel to learn faith while confused, while afraid, while desperate—not just in theory but under pressure of actual conditions where survival was uncertain and faith was tested to the limit.”
The meat appears that very evening in the form of quail, and in the morning a bread-like substance appears which the Israelites have never seen before. They actually name the substance “What is it?” This translates into English as manna. Once the manna appeared, the Israelites gathered it as instructed, only gathering one omer per person. An omer is equal to about 2 quarts.
Moses gave an additional command, however. Nobody was to save the manna overnight. It must be eaten the same day it was collected. Why would God command this? To force the Israelites to rely on him daily for their food. Some Israelites, thinking they could hoard the manna, saved it overnight, but the next morning it was “full of maggots and began to smell.”
Recall that on the 6th day, each person was to gather 2 omers, or twice as much as the other days. Why is this? God explains in verse 23. “‘Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.” Every seventh day was to be a day of rest, so God did not want the people of Israel gathering food and cooking it on the day of rest, the Sabbath.
The daily giving of the manna was so important to God and the Israelites that God commanded them to set aside a single omer of manna and keep it as a reminder of God’s daily provision of food for the 40 years they spent in the wilderness. It wasn’t until they entered the Promised Land that the manna ceased to appear each morning.