In Exodus 16, we find the Hebrew nation entering what was called the Wilderness of Sin. Most Biblical scholars agree that the name of that particular desert was not a reference to moral failing, but rather to the Assyrian moon god Su’en/Sin. Whether the term is a literary coincidence or God has a sneaky sense of humor is another matter. Either way, in the month or so since their escape from Egypt, they had experienced an adventure that included the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea as well as having pillars of cloud and fire acting as their personal vanguards. The Hebrews went without water as they crossed through the desert Shur. Once in Sin, they found themselves running out of food. And so they grumbled. It is interesting to me that the Hebrew word used here for “grumble” can also mean “to murmur” or “to dwell.” Perhaps that’s a clever turn of phrase, painting the image of thousands of people – a nation that common sense would suggest should be living in a state of wonder and gratitude – pitching their tents with poles made of whining and tent cloths of snivel.
To be fair, with three thousand years of history between us and the unequaled comfort and excess of American wealth, it’s easy for me to say that they should have had the faith and foresight that God would provide. I have never faced starvation, or even really anything more than mild hunger. And it’s worth noting that, for all their bellyaching, the Israelites weren’t questioning God, but Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
Either way, God heard their grumbling and intervened, sending a flock of quail into their camp that night (quail are notoriously easy to catch, even without nets, after they have exhausted themselves from flight) and arranging for white, honey-flavored flecks of bread to hitch a ride with the morning dew. That manna was only good for one day is a nice, but subtle, reminder that we must collect God’s provision daily: we cannot “store” it for later use. “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”
When the disciples encountered a hungry assembly, it was not the people who were grumbling but the disciples themselves. Crowds had followed them to Bethsaida (literally, “the house of fish”), a town along the Upper Jordan River, near the Sea of Galilee. Luke says that Jesus welcomed the crowd, speaking of the Kingdom of God and healing everyone who needed healing – that is, He addressed both the spiritual and physical needs of those who came to Him. But in the late afternoon, the twelve apparently needed a break, so they asked Jesus to disperse the crowd. “We are in a desert place. Send them away so they can get food and lodging.”
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus replied. Charles Spurgeon found this to be noteworthy. Commenting on the parallel account in John 6, he asked, “How often does Christ seem to ask us riddles, and places us in difficulties, so that we begin to say, ‘What will come of this? How shall we escape from this temptation; or how shall we stand under this trial?” In that moment, Jesus already had a plan, though it was not yet clear to His disciples.
“All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.” Perhaps I cannot escape our current strain of cultural irreverence, but one can almost hear the sarcasm in their voices: “Unless we are to go and buy food for all of them.”
Jesus instructed the disciples to have the assembled mass sit in groups of about fifty each. Then, from five loaves and two fish, Jesus pulled enough bread and meat to feed five thousand, with twelve baskets leftover.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus immediately follows the feeding of the five thousand with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” This did not happen by accident. This question should have been the hermeneutical equivalent of an uncontested layup. “All right guys, I just miraculously fed a multitude in the desert. Who am I?” To his credit, Simon Peter gets the answer right. “You are the Christ of God.”
That He even asked the question fascinates me. To this point, they have seen Jesus fill their nets with fish, heal all varieties of dreadful ailments, calm a storm with a verbal command, cast out demons, and display the authority to forgive sins. And now He has miraculously fed a multitude in a desert with meat and bread. Haven’t you figured this out yet? It is in perfect parallel to the Jews in Exodus. “You’ve seen all this. Here’s one more thing. Now you know that I am God.”
But again, the point, I think, isn’t to look back in condescension on the disciples for being a little slow. The point is to illustrate a truth to us: that we have a cheat sheet, and we get it wrong all the time. Daily, even hourly, we reveal our practical atheism as we live as though we believe that Jesus is not the Christ of God. We can see the majestic expanse of the universe, from the unthinkable complexity of the simplest cells to jaw-dropping majesty of distant cosmos, and we still turn away and do in secret what we’d be ashamed for others to know. To borrow a line from Batman, when the Lord of all creation nudges us and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” it is not what we say, but what we do that reveals our answer.