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Alli and I love being foster parents. Over the last four years, seven precious children have arrived at our doorstep as the result of some unspeakable hardships they’ve faced.

Two years ago, on a freezing cold Sunday morning in January, a phone call woke me up at 3:30 AM. An almost-3-year-old boy, Sammy, needed a safe place to go. An hour later, a caseworker pulled up in front of our home in a Chevy Suburban. Sammy laid on the backseat, asleep, and I carried him into our home. He stayed asleep until after 9:00 AM the next morning.

At the time, the only thing we knew about Sammy was his name and age. He arrived with only the clothes on his back and a blanket and pillow. We did not even know what language he spoke. When he came out to the kitchen that morning, he had no idea who we were. He experienced the heartache of being ripped away from everything he knew and was waking up in a place completely foreign to him. Sammy was hungry, isolated, and scared. I’ve never known that level of fear. I’ve never felt the things that sweet boy felt. As he scanned the kitchen, we did the only thing we thought might help: We pulled out a chair and dished him up some pancakes.

Photo: Sammy

Both here and across the world, Sammy’s experience is mirrored by so many. For people experiencing these levels of desperation and fear, no amount of job training or long-term development strategies will be all that helpful. There are times in all our lives when we simply need a plate of hot pancakes and a warm bed.

I wonder if this desperation is what Israel felt when God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Yes, life in Egypt was terribly hard. But life in the wilderness was terrifying. Like Sammy and many of our neighbors, God’s people in the wilderness felt instability and hunger and they were isolated and scared. As the Jewish people escape generations of captivity in Egypt, they escape their chain not into the Promised Land, but into the barren wilderness.

Even though God performed miracle after miracle, the people of Israel did what humans do: They forgot. They forgot God’s provision and complain that though they are no longer slaves, they will die of thirst. So God provides water for them to drink. Then, hunger sets in. 

“Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3)

Now, it’s easy to beat Israel up for their tone. From my vantage point, their persistent fearfulness is equal parts maddening and confounding. Hadn’t God just deployed legions of frogs and locusts, turned river water into blood, and turned daytime to night? You don’t think he can keep you fed?

But if we see them compassionately, as God absolutely did, our perspective changes. These freed slaves were desperately afraid. They were isolated and homeless. Like Sammy arriving in our home, Israel faced a scary new world. But God responds in love, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you… and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD.” (Exodus 16:4,6)

As always, God comes through on his promise. God does something miraculous and rains bread from heaven. “And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14)

Manna was unexplainable to those who first tasted it—and even more mysterious to read about today. But one thing we do know is this provision of manna was not dependent upon the attitudes or beliefs of the recipients. Manna was a daily reminder of God’s unconditional love. No matter how little they trusted, no matter how far their hearts wandered, no matter what… the manna kept showing up. Every morning, for decades, God demonstrated no-strings-attached generosity. Until recently, though, I never considered why it stopped. I never really thought about what caused God’s daily provision of bread to stay in heaven. 

It wasn’t an imprecise day.

“The people of Israel ate the manna forty years,” we read, “till they came to a habitable land. They ate the manna till they came to the border of the land of Canaan.” (Exodus 16:35) 

“And the manna ceased the day after they ate of the produce of the land. And there was no longer manna for the people of Israel, but they ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.” (Joshua 5:12)

It wasn’t like there was a weaning period where God provided half manna distributions. It was there each morning until it wasn’t. After providing manna for 14,600 consecutive weeks, the manna dried up. Theologian Jen Wilkin writes, “God provided manna supernaturally until the day they no longer needed it.”

God’s compassion did not stop when the manna dried up, but it did look different than it did before. For a specific time, God did give his people manna. God also gave His people land, and with the land, an invitation to put their hands to work and cultivate it, to provide for what their families needed. This, not the manna, was what God’s people longed for and prayed for—to have a place and a livelihood to call their own. And God invites us to do the same, showing us how we should care for each other.

God’s people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land enjoyed the dignity of participating in God’s good provision. As they harvested manna and later harvested the bounty of their fields, they worked and tasted the gifts of their Creator. And God called them to extend that same provision to their neighbors. In their lives and ours, sometimes that generosity looks like manna–unmerited, no-strings-attached, warm pancakes compassion to those who find themselves in the wilderness and in need of help. At other times, that generosity looks like the gift of the Promised Land–opportunity and investment availed to those ready to provide for themselves and their families.