During their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites faced difficulties in meeting basic human needs and typically responded by groaning against their leadership. One such need was that of food and in the face of the limited supplies they cited longing for the wonderful cuisine they ate while enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 16:1-3). God met their need for sustenance through a mysterious substance known as manna (Exodus 16:4).
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will 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 or not they will walk in My instruction. (Exodus 16:4 NASB)In the Old Testament worldview, dew descended from heaven (Deuteronomy 33:28; Haggai 1:10). As such, manna emerged “from heaven” with the morning dew (Exodus 16:13-14).
Manna was a mystery food, its name literally means “What is it?”. Its modern equivalent might be “whatchamacallit”. As is common when describing divine things, the Biblical writers were left to analogies to describe manna as there was no exact correlate. Manna is characterized as “a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14 NASB) and “like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31 NASB). Manna was a wonder bread with frosted flakes.
Honey was one of the resources that made the promised land so appealing (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3) and manna can be seen as a foretaste of the Promised Land. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) explains that “describing the manna as ‘like wafers made with honey’ was tantamount to saying that it ‘was the most delicious food imaginable’ (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 384).” The bread from heaven was given to replace the distorted nostalgic view the Israelites had of their Egyptian nourishment (Exodus 16:3).
Some have seen a natural explanation for manna in that sap from a tamarisk tree native to the region that interacts with a lice plant creates a similar product. Though scientific explanations have been supplied, manna possessed the supernatural qualities of always producing the exact amount needed (Exodus 16:17-18) and having twice that amount only on the day before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5, 22). Its name also signifies that the substance was previously unknown.
The gift of manna did come with some responsibility - God capped the manna intake. God was explicit that the Israelites gather only enough for one day with the exception of the day prior to the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5, 16-19). The prohibition was clearly stated and easy to comply with yet it was given in one verse and violated the next (Exodus 16:19-20). The unnamed violators quickly learned the hard way that manna did not have a long shelf life - “it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20 NASB).
What modern products have minuscule shelf lives? Was the prohibition against hoarding manna due to the perishable nature of the item or was the food’s character created for the prohibition? Why did God limit the amount of manna one could collect? Why did the people violate this law? Are the answers to the last two questions different?
Some have speculated that one of the reasons for the mandate was to spare the people from the food’s quick degeneration. In this way, it fits with similar food consumption laws (Exodus 12:10, 29:34; Deuteronomy 16:34). As God selected the food, it could have just as easily been a nonperishable item. The fact that manna miraculously endured two days when necessary (Exodus 16:5) indicates that quick decay was not one of manna’s intrinsic properties.
Others have suggested that manna taught the Israelites not to waste or hoard and to be content with subsistence. Others have reminded that the way that God supplied manna required the Israelites to work six days a week and in doing so, no one could eat without working (II Thessalonians 3:10).
Before bestowing manna, God acknowledged that the food would provide a test for the Israelites (Exodus 16:4). In providing manna on a daily basis the Israelites had to trust God for their daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) comments, “Israel was taught that this bread came ‘morning by morning’, in God’s time, according to his plan. It could not be stored ‘just in case...’ If one came too late, it had vanished with the heat of the rising sun (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 289).”
As such, for the Israelites, food and faith were intimately related.
Do you trust God to provide your daily bread? Do you recognize that when you eat, God has provided the meal no less directly than for the Israelites in the wilderness?
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” - Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)