What is ‘manna’ from heaven? Manna is the name given to the food the Israelites ate during the wilderness wanderings recounted in Exodus chapter 16, following the parting of the Red Sea after the Israelites’ escape out of Egypt, where they had been kept as slaves of the Egyptians.
But what precisely is manna? Let’s take a closer look at the relevant episode in the Bible. We’ll quote from the King James Bible and summarise the details as we go, before offering an analysis of the story’s meaning.
Manna from heaven: summary
We need to turn to chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus to find the fullest treatment of the ‘manna from heaven’ story.
16:8 And Moses said, This shall be, when the LORD shall give you in the evening flesh to eat, and in the morning bread to the full; for that the LORD heareth your murmurings which ye murmur against him: and what are we? your murmurings are not against us, but against the LORD.
16:9 And Moses spake unto Aaron, Say unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, Come near before the LORD: for he hath heard your murmurings.
The Israelites, having successfully made it across the Red Sea (or, as we’ve previously discussed, perhaps not the Red Sea but the ‘Reed Sea’ instead), once more find themselves in difficulty. They have no food, but Moses assures them that God will provide both meat and bread to keep them alive. Moses commands his elder brother, Aaron, to gather round.
16:10 And it came to pass, as Aaron spake unto the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and, behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
16:11 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 16:12 I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel: speak unto them, saying, At even ye shall eat flesh, and in the morning ye shall be filled with bread; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God.
16:13 And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.
God confirms his promise to provide for the children of Israel by telling Moses he will give them food, so they will know he is the Lord their God. Quails (the birds) flying up at evening around the Red Sea is a common phenomenon.
16:14 And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.
16:15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.
We discuss the literal meaning of ‘manna’ below. But here, it’s worth noting that the mysterious foodstuff falls on the ground and appears like ‘hoar frost’, so it’s almost like snow flakes falling from the sky.
16:16 This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded, Gather of it every man according to his eating, an omer for every man, according to the number of your persons; take ye every man for them which are in his tents.
An ‘omer’ is reckoned to be about four litres in modern metric measurements. In 16:36, the authors of Exodus later added a helpful (but, nowadays, not so helpful) gloss: ‘Now an omer is the tenth part of an ephah.’ But nobody’s quite sure how much an ephah was either. Four litres for an omer is a rough guess.
16:17 And the children of Israel did so, and gathered, some more, some less.
16:18 And when they did mete it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating.
16:19 And Moses said, Let no man leave of it till the morning.
16:20 Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank: and Moses was wroth with them.
16:21 And they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating: and when the sun waxed hot, it melted.
16:22 And it came to pass, that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for one man: and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses.
16:23 And he said unto them, This is that which the LORD hath said, To morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the LORD: bake that which ye will bake to day, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.
16:24 And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade: and it did not stink, neither was there any worm therein.
16:25 And Moses said, Eat that to day; for to day is a sabbath unto the LORD: to day ye shall not find it in the field.
This episode reminds the Israelites of the sanctity of the Sabbath (which, in Judaism, was more or less equivalent to Saturday rather than Sunday) as a designated day of rest, rather than gathering food in the fields. This is usually analysed in light of the Creation story: because God/Yahweh rested on the seventh day of Creation, so man should not toil on the Sabbath.
16:26 Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.
16:27 And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather, and they found none.
16:28 And the LORD said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws? 16:29 See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.
16:30 So the people rested on the seventh day.
16:31 And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.
16:32 And Moses said, This is the thing which the LORD commandeth, Fill an omer of it to be kept for your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I have fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.
16:33 And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the LORD, to be kept for your generations.
16:34 As the LORD commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept.
16:35 And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.
Because of this passage, manna was often interpreted by rabbis as the food of the age to come, rather than some temporary snack to keep the Israelites tided over during their years in the wilderness. In such an interpretation, manna is of even greater significance.
Manna from heaven: analysis
Nobody is entirely sure what the word ‘manna’ literally means, or how it should be translated. Nobody is sure what the food ‘manna’ described actually was, or, for that matter, how much an ‘omer’ of manna would be. In short, there are quite a few unknowns surrounding manna.
And fittingly, the leading theory concerning the etymology of the word ‘manna’ is that it actually means ‘what is it?’ The Israelites look up at the falling sustenance and ask what this blessed but mysterious foodstuff might be.
Nevertheless, the Bible does provide us with some clues as to the identity of manna. It’s a flaky substance resembling frost on the ground. It looked like white coriander seeds, and tasted like wafers with honey: sweet, in other words. Yet even these details haven’t provided sufficient for scholars to be able to identify what manna was meant to be.
One of the leading candidates is a kind of edible lichen, specifically Lecanora esculenta, although this species is not found in the Sinai region now (whether it would have been present three thousand or so years ago is anyone’s guess). So, was manna a lichen, or at least the globules produced by this particular lichen? Possible, but it’s not entirely convincing.
A more likely candidate which fits all of the details of the Exodus account is actually insect-related, as improbable as that sounds. Exodus is not the only book of the Bible which provides an account of manna from heaven. The Book of Numbers, too, adds some further details:
11:7 And the manna was as coriander seed, and the colour thereof as the colour of bdellium.
11:8 And the people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in a mortar, and baked it in pans, and made cakes of it: and the taste of it was as the taste of fresh oil.
Bdellium is a kind of gum resin which is not dissimilar to myrrh, which formed one of the three gifts the Magi brought to Jesus in the New Testament. The point is that bdellium is a resin or secretion, which means that it’s produced by something else. As the Dictionary of the Bible tells us, a leading theory is that manna is actually excreted by an insect which has sucked large quantities of tree sap (such as the bdellium resin, or at least something similar). The excess carbohydrates are then excreted as a sweet, sticky liquid which, in the air, would manifest itself as ‘drops of sticky honeydew, characteristic of many plant lice and animal insects’.
The appearance of manna as described by Exodus and Numbers, as well as its honeylike taste, support such a hypothesis. What’s more, we know such a resin would have been found in the Sinai peninsula at the time the exodus is supposed to have taken place.
Indeed, in modern times, this kind of honeydew is considered a delicacy in the Middle East; it’s also a good source of carbohydrates, which helps to explain how the Israelites could sustain themselves for forty years on such a slight-sounding food. Some scholars even think they have identified the particular species of insect responsible for providing manna: a scale insect that feeds on tamarisk, the Tamarisk manna scale (Trabutina mannipara).
There’s one final, linguistic detail which lends support to this thesis. The Hebrew Man is thought to be cognate with the Arabic term man, which means ‘plant lice’. So man hu, from which manna may have been derived, would mean not ‘what is it?’ but ‘this is plant lice!’ So, in this analysis of the story, when Exodus tells us that the Israelites ‘said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was’, they are saying (mistakenly) ‘it is plant lice’, because they are unfamiliar with this insect secretion and interpret it as a providence from God.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.