After two and a half months of walking through the wilderness, the Hebrews start griping some more. There’s no food, so they complain that they would have preferred to just die in Egypt with their bellies full.

Gathering Manna by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c.1464-1468

Gathering Manna by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c.1464-1468

God hears the complaints and decides to send them quail in the evenings and manna in the mornings, although everyone seems to forget about the quail after the first couple deliveries.

The rules

The manna isn’t a free meal, there are rules for the Hebrews to follow. Each morning, they are only allowed to collect enough for that day. This is so that God “may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Exod. 16:4).

In other words, the Hebrews have to prove to God that they trust him to keep providing from day to day by not putting anything aside or making provisions for the future. Interpreted literally, God is using a classic abuse tactic. Read as a “lesson,” this seems dangerously imprudent.

Honouring the Sabbath

In the middle of this, we get a little insertion reminding the reader to properly honour the Sabbath and giving a bit more information about what that entails.

For five days, the Hebrews are given enough manna to last them that day. On the sixth day, they are given double, so that they can cook it up and leave some for the seventh so that they wouldn’t have to either gather or cook it on the Sabbath.

Interestingly, those who try to gather a bit extra during the first five days find that by the next morning it had “bred worms and become foul” (Exod. 16:20).

Of course, since the naughtiness of the Hebrews is the theme of Exodus, some try to gather manna on the Sabbath only to find that there’s none around.

What is manna?

Although the words “manna” and “bread” are used interchangeably in my version of the Bible, we’re told that the Hebrews themselves don’t recognize it as such.

According to Porter, “the Bible derives the word manna from the question “Man hu?” (Hebrew for “What is it?”), which the Israelites are said to have asked when they first saw [it]. The true origin of the word, like the identity of the substance itself, is not known for certain” (Illustrated Companion to the Bible, p. 61).

Here are some of the ways that manna is described:

  • “A fine-flake-like thing, fine as hoar frost on the ground” (Exod. 16:14).
  • “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exod. 16:31).
  • “When the sun grew hot, it melted” (Exod. 16:21) – although this may be a continuation on the lesson against storing for the future rather than a description of manna’s properties.

It seems that the Ancient Hebrews may have mistaken a natural phenomenon for a gift from God. Apparently, these descriptions fit rather closely with the excretions of certain kinds of insects:

All scale insects feed by sucking up plant juices, and most feed directly on the phloem sap of long-lived trees and hushes. Phloem sap is typically rich in sugar, and most scale insects ingest far more sugar than they can use: they simply defecate the excess. The sugary excrement, called honeydew, is often consumed by ants. Sometimes it is even consumed by people, particularly in and regions where evaporation of dripping honeydew can leave a solid sugary residue called manna. The manna referred to in the Bible, in Exodus 16:14, seems to have been the dried excrement of Trabutina mannipara, a scale insect that feeds on tamarisk trees.

So yeah, the Hebrews spent forty years eating bug poop.