The food miraculously sent to the Israelites during their forty years' sojourn in the desert
Manna (Heb. MN, Gr. man, manna; Lat. man, manna) the food miraculously sent to the Israelites during their forty years’ sojourn in the desert (Ex., xvi; Num., xi, 6-9). It fell during the night in small white flakes or grains which covered the ground and presented the appearance of hoar frost. These grains are described as resembling coriander seed and bdellium, with a taste like “flour with honey”, or “bread tempered with oil” (Ex., xvi, 31; Num., xi, 7-8).
The manna fell for the first time while the Israelites were in the desert of Sin, six weeks after their departure from Egypt, in answer to their murmurs over the privations of desert life (Ex., xvi, 1 sq.) and thenceforth fell daily, except on the Sabbath, till they arrived at Galgal in the plain of Jericho (Jos., v, 12). During these years the manna was their chief but not their only article of diet. Their herds furnished them some milk and meat; they had oil and flour, at least in small quantities, and at times purchased pr-visions from neighboring peoples (Lev., ii, sq.; xvii, 1 sq.; Deut., ii, 6 28). The manna had to be gathered in the morning, as the heat of the sun melted it. The quantity to be collected was limited to a gomor Comer, between six and seven pints) per person; but on the eve of the Sabbath a double portion was gathered. When kept over night it putrefied and bred worms, except the portion which was reserved for the Sabbath.
Though it was probably eatable in the natural state, it was usually ground in a mill or beaten in a mortar and then boiled and made into cakes. As a reminder to future generations, a vessel filled with manna was placed near the Ark of the Covenant. The name is connected with the exclamation “Man hu”, which the Israelites uttered on first seeing it. This expression since the time of the Septuagint is generally translated “What is this?”, though it should more probably be translated “Is this manna?”, or “It is manna”. A substance named mannu was known in Egypt at that time, and the resemblance of the newly fallen food to this substance would naturally call forth the exclamation and suggest the name.
Many scholars have identified the Biblical manna with the juice exuded by a variety of Tamarix gallica (Tamarix mannifera) when it is pricked by an insect (Coccus manniparus), and known to the Arabs as mann es-sama, “gift of heaven” or “heavenly manna”. But although manna in several respects answers the description of the manna of the Bible, it lacks some of its distinctive qualities. It cannot be ground or beaten in a mortar, nor can it be boiled and made into cakes. It does not decay and breed worms, but keeps indefinitely after it is collected. Besides, being almost pure sugar, it could hardly form the chief nourishment of a people for forty years. But even if the identity were certain, the phenomenon of its fall, as recorded in Exodus, could not be explained except by a miracle. For, although the tamarisk was probably more plentiful in the days of the Exodus than it is now, it could not have furnished the large quantity of manna daily required by the Israelites. Moreover, the tamarisk manna exudes only at a certain season, whereas the Biblical manna fell throughout the year; it exudes every day during its season, while the Biblical manna did not fall on the Sabbath. Most of these objections apply also to the juice exuded by the Camel’s Thorn (Alhagi Camelorum), which is sometimes considered identical with Biblical manna.
Others think they have found the true manna in a lichen, Lenora esculenta (also known as Sphaerothallia esculenta), met with in Western Asia and North Africa. It easily scales off, and being carried away by the wind sometimes falls in the form of a rain. In times of famine it is ground and mixed with other substances to make a kind of bread. But this lichen is dry and insipid, and possesses little nutritive value. The regular fall in this case, too, would be miraculous. The manna may, indeed, have been a natural substance, but we must admit a miracle at least in the manner in which it was supplied. For not only does the phenomenon resist all natural explanation, but the account of Exodus, as well as the designation “bread from heaven”, “bread of angels”, i.e. sent by the ministry of angels (Ps. lxxvii, 24, 25; Wisd., xvi, 20), plainly represents it as miraculous.
Christ uses the manna as the type and symbol of the Eucharistic food, which is true “bread from heaven”, and “bread of life”, i.e. life-giving bread, in a far higher sense than the manna of old (John, vi). St. Paul in calling the manna “spiritual food” (I Cor., x, 3), alludes to its symbolical significance with regard to the Eucharist as much as to its miraculous character. Hence the manna has always been a common Eucharistic symbol in Christian art and liturgy. In Apoc., ii, 17, the manna stands as the symbol of the happiness of heaven.