One of my favorite comedians has a bit in which he imagines that the delicious foods we describe as “heavenly” aren’t actually allowed in heaven. I think of this joke whenever I read about manna, the mysterious substance that was showered upon the Israelites by God after they complained of hunger during their journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 11). While “manna” is sometimes used as shorthand for something that is miraculous or otherworldly in its goodness, the Israelites would not have characterized the food God gave them in their time of need as being “like heaven.” But manna was indeed precious, nurturing them in ways just as important as the physical—showing God’s care and character.
“What is it?”
The Israelites called the celestial bread “manna,” meaning “What is it?” because that’s exactly what they asked when the thin flakes appeared like morning frost covering the desert. In Exodus, manna is described as being like coriander seeds—small, round, and white (16:31)—although it is also described as having the appearance of bdellium, a semi-transparent resin produced by trees (Numbers 11:7). It tasted like wafers made with honey or sweet olive oil (11:8), a flavor the Israelites were familiar with. Moses told the Israelites to only take as much manna as they needed for the day, and when some disobeyed and kept their supply overnight, it developed a foul smell and sprouted worms.
It’s safe to say that the people did not view manna as a delicacy. When you’re relying on one item of food as your only source of nourishment, you’re going to tire of it fast—especially if it looks like resin and has the ability to breed worms overnight.
We Do Not Live on Bread Alone
Just as they’d complained about their hunger, the Israelites eventually complained about manna. They even went so far as to fantasize about all the fish, fruits, and vegetables they had eaten in Egypt—when they were slaves (Numbers 11:4-6). At this point, you might think that God needed to add some variety to this miraculous provision. But the purpose of manna was not that the Israelites would give it a five-star rating. Moses later tells Israel that it was meant to humble them, test their faith, and teach them that “you must not depend on bread alone to sustain you, but on everything that the Lord says” (Deuteronomy 8:3, 16 GNT). Manna was spiritually forming them to be God’s people.
For forty years, God gave the Israelites precisely what they needed to survive—they could not gorge themselves on it, store up a week’s worth, or distract themselves with the taste. Their only true satisfaction would come from recognizing the goodness of God’s provision, listening to God’s direction, and trusting that God would take care of them day by day.
The Bread of Life
Although they complained, the provision of manna became a testament of God’s provision in Israel’s history. Shortly after Jesus miraculously fed five thousand at Lake Galilee, the people asked him if he would perform another miracle for them, like how God had provided the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. But Jesus told them, “The bread that God gives is the one who came down from heaven to give life to the world.” When they pleaded for this bread, he answered: “I am the bread that gives life! No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who has faith in me will ever be thirsty” (John 6:30-36). Like his Father, Jesus had provided physical nourishment, but he was much more concerned with the people realizing they needed him. Jesus offered them a new kind of life, eternal life.
Realizing Our Hunger
The Israelites lost sight of how God had delivered them from slavery and hunger. The people of Galilee had no idea what a precious answer Jesus was to their desperate need for salvation. We may see this as foolish, but this is our story too. We can easily get caught up in looking towards earthly things for a fleeting taste of “heaven,” taking for granted that we have everything we need in Jesus. Manna, in both the Old and New Testament, reminds us how perfectly God recognizes our needs and how only God can satisfy them.
The next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer— “Give us this our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11)—or take communion, reflect on what the bread symbolizes. What does it mean to be truly hungry, both physically and spiritually? What are we lacking that God is offering us, so that we do not waste away, but thrive? It’s only when we recognize how empty we are without Christ that we can begin to appreciate being filled by God’s gracious provision.
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