A Word for Today: Manna (Hb. Mannah)

TAGS:

Mana (Deny, keep, withhold)
Manah (Portion, part)
Manammim (Dainties)

The third line of the first verse of William Williams Pantycelyn’s most famous hymn ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ refers to the ‘bread of heaven’, which the hymnist subsequently desires to be fed with ‘now and evermore’. The imagery of the hymn is taken from Israel’s wilderness experience as they journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the reference to the ‘bread of heaven’ comes from Exodus chapter 16 verse 4. When Israel grumbled in the wilderness about the lack of food, God provided them with manna as their staple diet and daily portion of bread, v. 15, until they entered the Promised Land when it ‘stopped the day after they ate this food from the land’, Josh. 5. 12 NIV. When they first saw the manna, they questioned what it was, as they had never encountered it before. The name ‘manna’ is, in fact, derived from the question posed by them in (probably) Aramaic, ‘man-hu’ meaning ‘What is it?’, cp. Exod. 16. 31. This was not natural manna that came from the juice of the tamarisk fruit, as many modern scholars argue, but, as W. E. Vine states, this ‘was of an entirely different nature’.1 Since it is also described as ‘angels’ food’, its origin is undoubtedly from heaven, Ps. 78. 25.

In the narrative of Numbers chapter 11, manna arrived with the dew during the night, and had to be collected before it was melted by the sun, Exod. 16. 21. God also instructed Moses as to how much manna had to be collected per working day, with a double portion being collected on the sixth day to ensure that there was no collection on the sabbath day, vv. 16-30. Manna is also described in this passage as ‘a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground’, v. 14 TANAKH translation, and Tike coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey’, v. 31 TANAKH translation. To remind future generations about God’s largesse to His people during their wilderness experience, a day’s portion of manna was put in a jar and placed before the Lord in front of the ark of the covenant, vv. 32-34. The writer to the Hebrews interprets this verse as meaning that the (golden) pot of manna was lodged within the ark of the covenant, Heb. 9. 4.2 Israel soon, though, became weary of their diet of manna to the extent of loathing it, Num. 21. 5, and this resulted in God punishing the nation, v. 6.

In the Septuagint (LXX) manah is translated by the Greek word manna. In Deuteronomy chapter 8 verses 3 and 16, Moses explains to the nation that God’s purposes for leading them through the wilderness for forty years was to test them so that they would learn to keep His commandments. Additionally, that the provision of manna was an object lesson to teach them ‘that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’, NIV, cp. Matt. 4. 4; Luke 4. 4. By eating manna daily, the Israelites showed that they trusted God to provide them with more manna the following day. This was not only a test of their faith in God, but their acceptance of His providential care over them. Sadly, the history of Israel reflects just how far short they fell of these ideals.

The same Greek word manna is used in the New Testament four other times, excluding Hebrews chapter 9 verse 4. Israel’s wilderness experience is referred to by our Lord in John chapter 6, where the word manna occurs three times, vv. 31, 49, 58. The discourse is directly related to the earlier miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The people who had witnessed this miraculous sign completely misunderstood its meaning and sought an even more spectacular one from the Lord when they asked the question ‘What will you do?’ v. 30 NIV. Since the discussion centred around food that perished, and food that produced eternal life, v. 27, there was almost a seamless movement by the Lord to reflect upon the manna that had been provided by God for Israel in the wilderness. This showed the temporary nature of the provision even though it did come from heaven, because men ultimately died. By contrast, however, the true bread that came down from heaven was our Lord Himself who gives eternal life to all those who receive Him, John 1. 12. Finally, in Revelation chapter 2 verse 17, the church at Pergamos is promised a reward of hidden manna that would remind them of God’s daily provision for Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, Exod. 16. 14-26. The hidden manna was linked to the pot of manna placed in the ark of the covenant, Heb. 9. 4, and only visible to God. What this meant was that God would sustain them through Christ, despite the external opposition, and, ultimately, they would (as did Israel) reach their promised destination. Are we daily feeding on Christ, the true bread from heaven?

For further reading/study

Introductory

‘MANNA’ in W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, Revell, pp. 86, 87.

Advanced

Manna in VERLYN D. VERBRUGGE (ed.), The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words, Zondervan, 2003, pp. 791, 792.

Endnotes

1

W. E. VINE, Expository Dictionary of Old Testament Words, Revell, pg. 86. In support of his argument, VINE gives seven distinct reasons why this was supernatural manna, q.v. See also f.3.

2

In Rabbinic tradition neither the pot of manna nor Aaron’s rod were included in the ark but stood alongside it, which is what the biblical text suggests. It may be that these items were subsequently placed within the ark for safe keeping. Later, however, when Solomon brought the ark into the temple the pot was missing, i.e., ‘There was nothing in the ark save the two tables of stone’, 1 Kgs. 8. 9.

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