“What is this stuff”?
Loosely translated, that’s what the word MANNA means in Hebrew: what is it?
Described by the 16th chapter of Exodus as thin, frost-like, nourishing, with the appearance of coriander seed and the taste of a sweet crispbread, heaven-sent Manna plays an important role in the story of the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites.
At this point of the narrative, the people had passed through the Sea of Reeds and entered into the wilderness. They were clear of the threatening forces that had been pursuing them, but things were not good. Drinkable water was hard to find, and food was pretty much non-existent. At this point in their journey, the Israelites were starting to have grave doubts about their decision to leave Egypt, and that spilled over into doubts about Moses and Aaron, and doubts about God. Personal freedoms had been extremely limited in Egypt and the work heavy and endless, but at least there was water to drink and food to eat. I can’t imagine anyone in that situation being content, and the Bible story does not suggest any kind of rebuke for their complaining, in fact when God is informed about the situation, a solution is delivered: “4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will cause food to fall like rain from the sky for all of you. Every day the people must go out and gather what they need for that day. I want to see if the people will do what I teach them. 5 On the sixth day of each week, they are to gather twice as much as they gather on other days’.”
There was a problem – and a complaint – and a solution. That is one way that a healthy system works. Governments, Churches, schools, businesses, families won’t get everything right the first time, and it’s unreasonable to expect that they would. But so long as there is an open pathway for constructive criticism, or for stating complaints or injustices, along with a reasonable indication that these will be heard, taken seriously, and responded to in some way, all is well… and that’s pretty much what happens here. The people have a pathway for addressing their concerns, the concerns are passed along by Moses and Aaron, and God delivers a solution that not only solves the problem, but gives shape to setting aside the seventh day of the week as a holy day when no work is to be undertaken. Six days a week, manna was provided and on the 6th day there would be enough to gather a double portion, for that day and the Sabbath day that followed.
Now, lest this all sound too fanciful to pass the sniff test, there’s been some interesting work done on this passage by some folks who wonder aloud about a tale that speaks of a foodstuff that miraculously comes raining from the sky in six-day cycles. Vered Guttman is passionate about Palestinian and Israeli cooking, and in her food blog tells us about a 1968 expedition to the Sinai Desert by botany professor Avinoam Danin. She writes: “Danin and his colleagues noticed white drops on the green stem of a desert shrub. The plant, Haloxylon salicornicum, is found all over the Middle East. ‘[Danin and his group] asked a passing Bedouin: ‘What is this?’’ . The Bedouin responded: ‘This is mann-Rimth that you ate when you left Egypt.’ …Was this the answer, Danin wondered, to a thousands-years-old mystery about the miraculous food from heaven that sustained the people of Israel on their way to the promised land?”
Ms. Guttman continues: “The description of manna in the Bible matches what Danin found in the Sinai Desert. He soon discovered that the white drops on the shrub’s stems were the digestive by-product of insects that feed on the plant’s sap, known as honeydew. The secretion, formed at night, is loaded with sugar. The sweet liquid hardens to the form of white granules and is still collected from spring to early fall in many places in the Middle East today….”
While I don’t spend a lot of time looking for alternative explanations to Biblical accounts, this alternative take on manna helps illustrate the various ways that one can embrace a Biblical narrative and ask questions of it, and end up, not just with skepticism, but with an understanding of this story that includes a role played by the Divine in graciously addressing human need. And this ties in with the task before us on this second Sunday exploring the Examen, which is to “Give thanks; the day I have just lived is a gift from God.”
If we approach the narrative of Exodus as an effort by the Jewish people, looking back several hundred years to see where they had come from and how they would explain God’s role in their journey as a people, then the details of the story only hold importance insomuch as they contribute to the overall arc of the story and the way it speaks of a relationship with the presence and intention of God. When it comes to Manna, to me it hardly matters whether I see that as the people benefitting from snowflakes of honey-biscuit floating down from the sky, or the people arriving at that part of the Sinai that had and has this remarkable, fragile, honey-like substance that appears overnight as if by magic. Either way, the people need the most basic things of life – food, water, a safe place to shelter – they raise those needs into the presence of a caring, concerned God, and those needs are met, God and nature working together in a symbiosis that forms the foundation of life. I find it very cool, to think that there actually exists in the Sinai, something called manna… and I absolutely love the story as presented, without further explanation, of the Israelites turning to God for sustenance and receiving it, every day. I see no reason why those two approaches cannot live side by side, strengthening the God-connection that unites everything on earth.
In the 16th chapter of Exodus, the people were frustrated, angry, disappointed, thirsty, hungry, unsure of their goals and unsure of their guides, and through Moses and Aaron, express these concerns to God. While this process may look bureaucratic on one side and just plain cranky on the other side, in another way it is nothing short of prayer: naming to God our hopes for the way things could be, acknowledging the way things actually are, and standing in the gap between these two things – a gap named variously, “the catalytic gap” (Elly Bradley) or “the tragic gap” (Parker Palmer and Anna Greenwood-Lee). Neither ignoring that difficult gap, nor letting it defeat us, we offer our prayers, and, with God, figure out the way forward. Each time we pray, each time we hear the challenging experiences of another and take it to heart, each time we join with others in positive social action, we abide in that space between God’s intention, and the present reality. And while in that difficult space, we also bring our lament that the current state of affairs falls so far short of the mark, and offer our confession, for those places where our actions or our inaction have made things worse.
As we consider what it is to be truly thankful for each day, acknowledging the presence and participation of a loving God even amidst the problems that plague the world – we are also reminded of perhaps my favourite element of the manna story. Manna is offered, just the way that life is: one day at a time. If we were to read a bit further in the Bible story, we would learn that except on Sabbath days, if you tried to collect more than one day’s worth of manna – if you tried to hoard it for later, or took more than you could reasonably eat in a day – it would go wormy. Each day, trusting that there would be manna in the morning provided the Israelites and provides us an opportunity for faith, a belief that this day will have everything it needs. Twelve-step friends, with their motto, “One Day at a Time,” can attest to the importance of living life in chunks no longer than 24 hours and, in reality, the importance of being present to this very moment. And while it’s hard for me to be thankful for the pandemic, living in this time when our knowledge and best guidance changes on a daily basis, has made the importance of engaging each day as a free-standing, holy event very, very clear.
In this story of God, and nature; of grumbling, and asking; of needs met, each day; we are presented with a great metaphor for exploring our lives. How do I express my gratitude, for the beauty and diversity of nature, and all of life? Does my life express my highest hopes, for a world where all living beings have full access to health and wholeness? Do those trying gaps between the way things are and the way things could be, spur me to work with God and others, or just shut me down or lock me in frustration? In considering what I am thankful for, it’s not a bad thing to consider the letdowns, the gaps, the healthy hungers that can move my life in the direction that God is moving.
In the spirit of the Examen, and shaped by this season of creation, may the day you are living right now, be a time of fulfillment and health. In the name of God, the love that infuses all existence, we give thanks for a life lived in the presence of such love. Amen.
Ellison, H.L. The Daily Study Bible: Exodus. Edinburgh: St. Andrew’s Press, 1982. See p.50
Greenwood-Lee, Anna. “Two-Minute Sermon: The Tragic Gap”. https://vimeo.com/457300264
Guttman, Vered. https://momentmag.com/manna-is-real-and-not-so-heavenly/
Manney, Jim. “The Examen.” https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/examen-prayer-card/
West, James King. Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. NYC: Macmillan, 1981. See p.65.
© 2020 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.