Manna: What Was the Mysterious Substance that Fed the Israelites for 40 Years?

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Manna: What Was the Mysterious Substance that Fed the Israelites for 40 Years?

Are you wondering what exactly “manna” is? Well, you are not alone. It may be something of a familiar word, but what it originally was is a bit of a m

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Are you wondering what exactly “manna” is? Well, you are not alone. It may be something of a familiar word, but what it originally was is a bit of a mystery.

According to the Bible, manna refers to the edible substance that God provided to the people of Israel following the Exodus, when they were traveling from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. God provided this food for 40 years, where it sustained the Israelites in the desert.

So, what was it, how did Moses find it, and how did the Israelites spend 40 years in the wilderness subsisting on it?

Let My People Go!

First, a little biblical context. The people of Israel had been taken as slaves to Egypt and been held there in servitude for more than four hundred years. These were tough times for the Israelites, so the Bible tells us.

However, God had pity on them and decided to save them, free them from slavery and deliver them to the land of Canaan that He had promised their forefathers. God chose Moses to free His people from the bondage of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

When Moses appeared before the Pharoah, his heart was hardened by the Lord, and he did not agree to free the people of Israel. In response, God sent ten plagues to the land of Egypt in order to change the mind and will of King Pharoah.

Moses led his people out of bondage, across the Red Sea and into the Sinai wilderness ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock)

With the tenth plague, when all the first-born sons were killed in Egypt, Pharoah’s resistance finally broke. He urged the people of Israel to leave Egypt as soon as possible before any more people died in the land.

Moses, along with the people of Israel, had to leave Egypt in much haste and did not have time to carry sufficient food for themselves for the journey to the promised land. 

Starvation And Miraculous Manna

After traveling through the wilderness for some days, the food that the people of Israel carried with them became exhausted and they started to starve. In the Book of Exodus, it is mentioned that the Israelites came to Moses and started complaining.

They asked Moses, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt? Have you brought us into the wilderness only to die out of hunger? Will our children and we perish in this wilderness out of hunger? Wasn’t living in slavery better than dying in hunger?” They even started to prefer slavery, recalling the delicious meals that they used to have in Egypt while in the palace of the Pharoah. 

Moses took these complaints to the Lord. God addressed the concerns of the people of Israel and told Moses that He would rain bread from heaven, upon which the people would feed on and survive. That evening, the area where the Israelites had camped was covered with quails.

The Israelites capture the quails (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain)

The Israelites capture the quails (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain )

The people collected the birds according to the requirements of their individual families, killed them, and ate the meat. And the very next day, people were surprised to see that the face of the land in the wilderness was covered with a white substance, which they later called as manna. 

Yes But What Is It?

In the Bible, manna is referenced in a number of books of the Old Testament such as Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Nehemiah, and Psalms. What is manna exactly? Well, according to the Bible manna refers to a bread-like substance, white in color and tasting like honey.

The word itself is no help, either. Manna is believed to have been derived from the Hebrew question, “man hu,” which means “what is it?” So it seems the ancient Israelites (or maybe the later editors) may not have known what the substance was. 

However, it is this manna, as provided in chapter 16 of Exodus, on which all people of Israel and Moses fed on, allowing them to survive the 40 long years in the wilderness. There are other clues: in Numbers, for example, it is also described what the people exactly did with the manna that fell from heaven.

They used to collect the white substance, and ground it into flour, make it into cakes, and finally boil it. The cakes, when baked using olive oil, tasted like pastries. However, some others believe that manna tasted like wafers made with honey. 

According to the texts, manna is also referred to as the “bread of the angels.” It was believed so as it looked like snow and fell from heaven. The manna in the Bible is also seen as an indication that God cared for the requirements of the people of Israel while they traveled in the wilderness.

Classical and Renaissance artists have depicted the manna as literally falling from heaven (Giovanni Battista Naldini / Public Domain)

Classical and Renaissance artists have depicted the manna as literally falling from heaven (Giovanni Battista Naldini / Public Domain )

However, by contrast the term manna does not appear in the New Testament of the Bible. In the New Testament, more emphasis is given to bread instead of manna. Some people believe that the bread of life mentioned in the New Testament may also be the manna of the Old Testament.

Gathering, Processing, And Storage

According to the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel gathered the manna on a daily basis. In case anyone collected too little or too much of the manna, it was said that they would suffer consequences.

They were prescribed a particular portion of manna that they had to gather on a daily basis. As ordered by Moses, this was one “omer” of manna per family member.  According to the researchers, one omer was nearly 3.64 liters, a significant weight to feed a single person for a day.

Irrespective of the efforts put into gathering the manna, the people were to gather only the said amount. They did not have to gather more for the next day as new manna fell from heaven every morning. While some people were diligent enough to go out of their tents and gather the manna, others were quite lazy and never left their tents, simply allowing the manna to fall into their outstretched hands. 

Manna used to appear for six days continuously. While Moses had instructed the people of Israel to collect one omer of manna every day, they were asked to gather double portions on Fridays. This is because the next day was Sabbath, and manna did not fell from heaven on the Sabbath day.

When people tried collecting extra manna for the next day, it used to get spoiled and wormy. However, when they gathered extra manna on Fridays and saved it for the Sabbath day, it did not spoil. People were quite surprised by such occurrences. 

According to the Book of Exodus, manna started appearing from the “fifteenth day of the second month” when Israelites began their journey from Egypt towards Canaan. Moses, along with all the people of Israel, consumed and survived on manna for forty years. However, the heavenly manna stopped appearing when the people of Israel crossed the Canaan border and entered the promised land , and was never seen again. 

God asked Moses to save a jar full of manna in order to show the future generations how the Lord cares for His people and has provided them with heavenly food even in the desert. Moses delegated the task to Aaron. Aaron, the brother of Moses, had filled one jar of manna as per the commandments of the Lord.

A jar of manna was kept with the ark of the covenant (pamela_d_mcadams / Adobe Stock)

A jar of manna was kept with the ark of the covenant ( pamela_d_mcadams / Adobe Stock)

It was considered a treasure of the Jewish Temple, placed in the Ark of Covenant and put in front of the tablet containing the Ten Commandments. 

Still A Mystery?

The Bible looks no further in its explanation than noting that manna was sent by God for the Israelites so they would not starve in the wilderness. God provided them with manna as their daily food and showed them that He was concerned about their physical needs, and even in the direst situations, He was there to help them.

In this way, it seems that what manna physically was, is less important that the lesson it teaches in the Bible. God would provide for his people, and in turn he wanted them to practice obedience and trust. He wanted to teach the people to rely on Him completely, taking only what they needed each day.

If the people had got fresh grains nearby, they would not have really cared or value the provisions offered by God. As they had no other option in the wilderness, they had to rely and trust on God for all their needs. It helped them learn and believe that God will continue to provide them with food every day, and they do not have to worry. 

This may be why the descriptions of manna in the Bible are so vague. It was unimportant to the original authors (and apparently thoroughly mysterious to later compilers) because, in this semi-mythical area of the Bible, the lesson was what was important. What is manna? Nothing – it is what is taught about the Jewish God that matters.

Scholarly Debate

But this has not stopped researchers. A number of scholars have attempted to identify what manna might be in the natural world. Some believe that it could be a product or resin of the tamarisk tree.

During the 20th century, Arab merchants living in the Sinai Peninsula used to sell the resin of the tamarisk tree, calling it man es-simma, which means “heavenly manna.” It was believed that there were a number of tamarisk trees in the southern Sinai region and the resins from the tree looked like wax. When the sun fell on the resins, it used to melt.

Could manna have been resin? (Thomas / Adobe Stock)

Could manna have been resin? ( Thomas / Adobe Stock)

Moreover, it has an aromatic smell and tasted like honey. this is a close match to the Biblical characteristics of heavenly manna. As a result, the scholars believed the resins of the tamarisk tree could be the manna.

However, something that needs to be noted is that the resins are mainly made up of sugar, and that was not enough to provide the people of Israel with sufficient nutrition to survive for forty long years. The resins are also quite difficult to convert into cakes.

Moreover, the natural substance of the tamarisk tree is said to appear only in the months of June and July, and it does not rot when stored overnight. As a result, the hypothesis was discarded. 

Some other researchers believe that the heavenly manna provided to the people of Israel was a kind of lichen. In the Bible, there are indeed some accounts of the falling of lichen. This made the researchers believe that manna was indeed lichen. However, the characteristics of lichen also do not match that of the heavenly manna.  

Nothing so far fits the description, and all that can be said is that the only people who have tried it are the Old Testament Israelites. It was God’s provision and fell from heaven in order to meet the physical needs of Moses and the Israelites.

The heavenly manna indeed provided Moses and all the people of Israel with the strength and energy to survive and complete the journey of forty years to the promised land of Canaan. 

Top Image: Biblical illustration showing manna falling from heaven. Source: University of Edinburgh / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 .

By Bipin Dimri 

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