If it was possible without harvest or fruit of the earth, or any such thing, to preserve the lives of the Israelites of old for forty years, much more will [Christ] be able to do this, having come for a greater purpose.
–St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John
When I was reading the story of the manna in the wilderness with my 7-year-old daughter, she made an astute observation: “this is like that time Jesus made the bread for the people”. She was referring, of course, to the feeding of the 5,000 and, boy howdy, is that a smart insight. Jesus’ miracle made enough of an impact that all four evangelists include it in their gospels, and I think that is because of the very thing that my daughter noticed. By providing bread to hungry people in the wilderness, Jesus was demonstrating His power of nature and His ability to provide food for God’s people. In other words, He was demonstrating that He is God. If we dig a little bit into Scripture, we find that manna is a surprising through-line all the way from Exodus to Revelation. The manna in the wilderness was not just for the Israelites in the wilderness — it is for us.
Exodus 16 and Numbers 11: The Manna Appears
Our story starts with a question. Despite being told by Moses and Aaron that the Lord would provide bread for them in the morning (Ex. 16:8,12), when the Israelites saw the flakes like frost on the ground they declared “what is it?” (Heb. mān hū, Ex. 16:15). Thus the word “manna” is itself indicative of the mystery and wonder of what God does for his people. In some ways, it is like any other bread. It is described in naturalistic terms as “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:31). The book of Numbers compares its appearance to bdellium and says that the Israelites learned to boil it and turn it into cakes (Num. 11:7-8). However, manna also did not act like normal bread. It would spoil after 24 hours, meaning it had to be eaten on the day it was collected. However, there was an exception made on the day before the Sabbath, as that manna lasted all the way through the Sabbath so that the Israelites would not have to collect bread on the holy day of rest (Ex. 16:22-26). Clearly, this wasn’t some kind of naturally-occurring phenomenon. We are meant to understand that this is more than just bread. Of course, the real lesson of Exodus and Numbers is how stubborn the Israelites are, even when given a miracle. Some people tried to store up bread, and it spoiled, while others tried to gather on the Sabbath only to find the ground barren. That first type of disobedience left Moses angry (Ex. 16:20), but the latter made the Lord angry (vv.28-29). Note that this was before the Law was given (in Exodus 20 and following), so the Sabbath proves to be a cornerstone of God’s command even before the revelation of the Law. Even in the midst of the wilderness, we must take time to rest and trust in God’s provision and presence.
Deuteronomy 8: The Manna’s Purpose
But as for the manna itself, we may still ask with the Israelites: “what is it?” In Deuteronomy, God reveals the first part of the answer. The Lord says twice in the book of Deuteronomy that neither the Israelites nor their fathers had known of such things as the manna (Deut. 8:3,16). He is reiterating that manna is more than just bread. According to those two verses, the purpose of the manna was to “humble and test” the Israelites. Remember that the manna was given in response to the grumbling of the people and their wish to return to slavery in Egypt (better the devil you know and all that). Instead, God wanted them to “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (v.3, NIV). The first lesson of the manna is that, in the midst of trials, we cannot return to our old ways, our old slavery to evil and sin. The bread of man does not satisfy, but only that which comes from God. Times of trial test whether we really trust that the Lord will provide for our needs. Do we instead store up grain for another day (cf. Luke 12:16-21) or try to outwork God by gathering when we should be resting? The second lesson of the manna is that the Lord wills “to do you good in the end” (Deut. 8:16). To truly trust God, we must believe that He desires our good, that He works all things for our benefit (Rom. 8:28). As the famous verse from Jeremiah puts it, His plans are “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11). His manna demonstrates His care for us, and we must trust that it will be there for us each day. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23).
Joshua 5: The Manna Ceases
I neglected to mention one other fact about the manna: it was placed into the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people (see Ex. 16:33; Heb. 9:4). Along with the stone tablets of the Law and Aaron’s miraculously budding staff, the manna was there when the Israelites crossed the Jordan river with Ark in front and the waters parted (Josh. 3). Just as the Lord had promised, the provision of the manna had lasted all the way until they arrived at the Promised Land. And just like that, at the moment that they ate their first Passover meal from the land of milk and honey, the manna stopped (Josh. 5:12). In days of abundance, God often takes away the special grace He gave us to get through the days of trial. This is not because God is a big meanie, but because He wants us to grow up and mature. And part of maturing is joining with God in the work he is doing. If we want to enjoy the fruit, we must work the land. As Paul says quite bluntly to the Thessalonians: “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10, NIV). We should not use the provision of God as an occasion for gluttony or sloth. If we do, we may find that the provision dries up very quickly. God is serious about the Sabbath, but He also intends for us to work the other six days. The effectiveness of the one depends upon the other.
Nehemiah 9: The Manna and the Spirit
After the high priest Ezra reads the Book of the Law to the returning Jewish exiles, they are cut to the quick. Repenting in sackcloth and ashes, they recount the many ways that God has been faithful to them (and they have been unfaithful in return). On the topic at hand, they prayed: “You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth” (Neh. 9:20). Thus the manna can be said to represent the Holy Spirit and His continual presence with the people of God. The manna is more than just bread — it is spiritual food for spiritual sustenance. It was a foretaste of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh that would be promised by the prophets (Joel 2:28) and fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. On the eve of Shabbat, faithful Jews put out two loaves. This represents the two-day provision for the Sabbath, but also they are said to represent the dual blessing of physical and spiritual rest. God provides not just for our physical hunger, but for our much more important spiritual hunger.
Psalm 78: The Manna as the Bread of Angels
Psalm 78 is an epic recounting of God’s faithful acts and Israel’s disobedience. About a third of the way through the psalm we read these words: “Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven, and he rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance” (vv. 23-25). Here we finally get an answer to the question “what is it?” Manna is literally the grain of heaven and the bread of angels. Jesus compares heaven to a wedding feast (Matt. 22) or a great banquet (Luke 14), and portrays the inhabitants of heaven as feasting “sumptuously” (Luke 16:19). So perhaps we should view the manna as something like that bread which you get before the meal at a restaurant. It is a foretaste of the feast to come. While it sustained the people of Israel in their desert wanderings, it also whetted their appetite for the Promised Land. The grace we receive in this life is only a shadow of the abundance that we shall one day know in the presence of God. That is why the angel in Revelation says, “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).
John 6: The Manna and the Bread of Life
It is in this chapter that Our Lord gives us the full revelation of what the manna entails. After the aforementioned feeding of the 5,000 (vv.1-15), Jesus walks across the sea of Galilee (vv. 16-21), but the crowd catches up to Him. He knows that they are just like the Israelites of old, only thinking with their stomachs. He warns them, “do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (v. 27). The people are skeptical and ask for a sign. After all, they say, “our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (v. 31). Of course, Jesus had just fed them with miraculous bread, but their obtuse stubbornness is even worse than a lack of gratitude (or observational skill). They correctly judge that the manna was “bread from heaven”, but don’t realize the spiritual significance of the verses that we have just been looking at. Jesus gently corrects the people that it was God, not Moses, who gave their forefathers the manna. Then He gets to the point: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (v. 35). The manna, like the entirety of the Hebrew Bible, points to Jesus. The manna was a temporary fix for a temporary problem; Jesus is a permanent solution to our ultimate problem: separation from the Father. As Jesus says, “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v. 40). The response of the crowd to this salvation was the same as the response of their forefathers to salvation from the Egyptians: grumbling. How could this guy, who was just a man, say that he came from heaven? Give me a break!
But Jesus just doubles down: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (vv.48-51). Despite being the “bread of angels”, the manna was still ultimately just bread. But Jesus offers a very different kind of bread: His own flesh. Needless to say, this causes something of a commotion in the crowd. But Jesus was in a doubling-down kind of mood and gives us this remarkable discourse, worth quoting in full:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.John 6:53-58
So if we want to live eternally, we have to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. If we do that, we will be reunited with God, reversing the effects of the Fall. But how do we get this new manna; how do we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ? I think you already know….
1 Corinthians 10&11: The Manna and the Eucharist
In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul equates the crossing of the Red Sea with baptism (v. 2) and then says that the Israelites ate “spiritual food” and drank “spiritual drink” from the rock, which was Christ (vv.3-4, see Ex. 17:1-7). So clearly the food also represents Christ and is equated with a sacrament. In chapter 11, Paul passes on the teaching that he had received: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (vv. 23-24). Of course, it is the disciples who had taught Paul what the Lord had taught them at the Last Supper, namely, that the bread and wine of the Passover had been transformed into the very body and blood of Christ (see, e.g., Luke 22:16-20). We eat the manna just as the ancient Israelites did each time we partake of the Holy Eucharist. But we receive something much greater than manna; we receive Christ Himself, the Bread of Life who came down from heaven. By partaking of the Eucharist, we take the very life of Jesus into our bodies. In so doing, we prepare ourselves, body and soul, for the final resurrection and the wedding supper of the Lamb. The ultimate answer to the question “what is it?” is Jesus. The manna is the grace of God found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Revelation 2: The Secret Manna
But that is not the final word on manna in Holy Scripture. In the letter the church at Pergamum in Revelation chapter 2, we find these mysterious words: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (v. 17). Note that the church at Pergamum had a problem with eating food sacrificed to idols (v. 14), so God is offering them food that will endure. But what are we to make of this secret manna and the secret name? In the Jewish tradition, the Ark of the Covenant and the contents therein, including the manna, would be restored in the messianic age. St. John indeed has a vision of the Ark in God’s heavenly temple, not hidden behind a curtain as the original Ark had been, but on display, resplendent with lightning, thunder, and hail (Rev. 11:19). So the manna has been transformed, but into what? Early Church theologian Tyconius (c.330-390) puts it succinctly: “This manna is the invisible Bread which came down from heaven, which indeed was made man” (Commentary on the Apocalypse, 2.17). In other words, the secret manna is Christ. And it is Christ who gives us our new name inscribed on the white stone. The symbolism of the white stone is debated: it may have to do with an admission token for public assemblies or events, or the white stone used by jurors to vote for acquittal, or even as a contrast to the black stone that symbolizes the false Mother Goddess of Phrygia. I’d like to think it’s all of those things. The white stone gains us admission to heaven and proclaims our acquittal of all sins thanks to the Blood of the Lamb (cf. Rev. 7:14), saving us from all false idols to which we have committed ourselves. By partaking of the secret manna of Christ, we are made into new creations (2 Cor. 5:17) and given a new name (see Is. 56:5; 62:2). For we are the Bride and we are marrying the Bridegroom and taking on His name as our own. So let us with joy partake of the wedding feast, of the secret manna of Christ’s Body and Blood, that we like the Israelites may be sustained in our times of trial and arrive at last in the Promised Land.