One allegation often levelled at the credibility of the Exodus story related to getting the Hebrew slaves through the journey from the Egypt to Canaan is that of a supply of water and food. Exodus 12:37–38 tells us the Israelites numbered “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children”, plus many non-Israelites and livestock. Numbers 1:46 gives a more precise total of 603,550 men aged 20 and upward. Judging by normal demographics we are likely talking about a population of around 2 million people plus the livestock.
Health authorities recommend a minimum of 2 litres per day per person. On the trail or in hard times human beings can get by on less but not for long. It is clear that the Israelites took supplies from the Egyptians (Ex 12:36) and took with them bread made without yeast which they carried with them (Ex 12:39). Josephus tells us that the people took with them water for the journey (Antiquities 3/1:1). This water was likely kept in water bags made from sheep skin and slung over the livestock. The estimate of the total number of people involved at Rephidim vary from 1.5 million to 3 million. Rick Renner’s estimate of the water need for this group is in the order of 100,000,000 gallons a day. (1 US gallon = 3.78 litres). You are beginning to understand the magnitude of the problem they were facing.
After the water they carried ran out (Ex 15:22) they would have had to find water from wells, springs or any other source of water they could. Water is a precious commodity in the wilderness. The minimum daily need of two million people is four million litres per day. No wonder by the time the Israelites got to Marah they were desperate to find water. But the water at the well at Marah was too bitter to drink. However, at God’s command, Moses took a piece of wood and threw it into the water and made the water drinkable. You can bet the people would have filled their water bags again in preparation for the journey ahead.
After Marah they came to Elim another oasis with twelve springs and seventy palm trees. You can bet they would have stripped the trees of dates and any other food available to stock up supplies. Now comes the crunch a month after leaving Egypt when the food supplies they carry has dwindled and they begin to complain about the lack of food. It is at this time that God gives to them a supply of food that didn’t run out. Manna! What is it? Manna! Yes, but what is manna? That’s right, “Manna?” Manna is a Hebrew word meaning “what is it?” When they saw these strange flakes they asked what it was. Mixed with dates from the palms at Elim, was it likely to make a good trail mix? Hardly. It takes an awful lot of dates to make trail mix for 2,000,000 people. But by God’s supernatural power they had something to sustain them daily.
It is remarkable that manna perished or went bad if kept for more than twenty-four hours. But on the seventh day the double portion of manna gathered the day before lasted 48 hours. Clearly this was a special supernatural provision by God for this hoard of people. Knowing God, we would expect that. When the Israelites grumbled about having manna all the time. How many ways can you prepare manna? Boiled manna, poached manna, stir-fried manna, roast manna, manna toasted sandwiches, manna burgers, manna fingers, Uncle Mose’s Manna Meusli and of course raw manna flakes. But after all these servings of the same food they grew bored and demanded meat and condiments, so the Lord answered again with quail up to their eyeballs.
Before God sent the quail, He told Moses to gather the seventy leaders and tell them:
“But give this command to the people: ‘You are to consecrate yourselves, because tomorrow you’re going to eat meat, since you’ve complained where the LORD can hear it, “Who can give us meat to eat? After all, life was better with us in Egypt.”‘ Therefore, the LORD is going to give you meat and you’ll eat— not only for a day, or for two days, or for five days, or for ten days, or for 20 days, but for a whole month—until it comes out your nostrils and makes you vomit. This is because you’ve despised the LORD, who is among you, and you cried out in his presence, complaining, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?'”
Moses responded, “I’m with 600,000 people on foot and you’re saying I am to give them enough meat to eat for a whole month? What if we were to slaughter our entire inventory of flocks and herds for them? Would that be enough? What if we could gather all the fish in the sea in nets for them? Would that be enough, either?”Numbers 11:18-22
Some have estimated enough quail fell on the camp that first day to give each person two whole quail each. They would have gorged themselves on quail and it seems they did exactly that. As we read in the Nugget Found at Sarbut Al-Khadem: “The people strip the flesh from the bone, mangling it. Replete with food, they are obstreperous. Surfeited, they cram themselves; clamoring they vomit.”
“Congregating on all sides to ensnare them, the people voraciously devour the quails. Eagerly and enormously eating the half raw flesh, the pilgrims become plague-stricken.”
After Kibroth Hattaavah, the biblical text doesn’t indicate the people asked for meat or a change in diet ever again. In fact, Exodus 16:35 indicates they ate manna daily for forty years until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.
This leaves us with the question of what they had to drink throughout the journey? They would not have sufficient water if the provision of water was from oasis to oasis. Or based on the water they filled their water bags with from oasis to oasis. To source and carry sufficient water for two million people is mind boggling. The weight of the water they had to carry from place to place would have been immobilizing. On the first part of the journey to the point where they longed for water at Marah would have been bearable. But when the insatiable thirst of two million people continued day after day with the only water available being what was available from oasis to oasis that would have been a major problem.
Settlements grow up around oases or more importantly around water rights. It happens all over the world. Stop and ponder for a moment those cowboy tales of the Wild West where wars were fought over water rights. Do you think it was any different in the Middle East? Hardly. Especially if two million people were stopping by to fill up their water bags.
Next Nugget we will look at Rephidim.