Why would God deliberately take his people for a wander in the wilderness after setting them free from Egypt instead of travelling up a road straight to Canaan? Well, it is quite clear what God was doing. God was testing His people. Exodus 16:4 says “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” (See also 15:25). God testing his people? Doesn’t that sound a bit rough? I mean, what sort of tests are these, starving people and making them parched with thirst in the desert? A pretty tough test, isn’t it?
Well, we mustn’t get the idea here that this is sort of a like a test to see if the Israelites made the grade – and if they didn’t they were going to get punished by God. These tests were rather primarily designed to teach the Israelites, not to fail the Israelites. Remember what James says- “My brothers, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” God was teaching the Israelites important lessons – that is why God did not respond to the Israelites complaints here with judgement but rather with a gracious provision for their needs.
It’s like what we’ve got in Exodus 20:20, where Moses says, “God has come to test you, that the fear of Him might be before you, that you may not sin”. Why was God testing? What was He trying to teach the Israelites? Firstly, He was teaching them to obey God’s word. The Israelites, and us today as well, have a stubborn habit of assuming that we know better than God and don’t need to follow His instructions. Secondly, He was teaching them to rely on God’s provision- the Israelites needed to learn that God was their provider and could be relied on. Thirdly, He was teaching them that God’s way was the good way- the manna tasted great! We need to trust that ultimately, God’s way is the best way to live, although the pathway sometimes can be challenging in the short term.