“You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst” (Neh 9:20).
Manna is referred to in many parts of Scripture, but what exactly was it? The Israelites had the same question, “for they did not know what it was.” In fact, the Hebrew name they gave it translates to “What is it?” The answer Moses gave them is the most comprehensive definition I have heard, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” (Exo 16:15). In just a few words Moses told them of its simple character, its divine origin and its unique purpose.
Its Simple Character
As a result of lockdown orders in many parts of the world, the art of sourdough bread-making has skyrocketed in popularity. The fad has spread to such a degree that in certain areas there is a scarcity of flour. Part of the appeal is the idea of “reconnecting” with the past, before “quick yeast” and mass-produced “bleached” loaves. But bread has always been ubiquitous. It has taken different forms in different cultures, but almost always remains an irreplaceable part of the diet. It also appears extensively in the Scriptures. We read of it symbolically to convey the idea of fellowship: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1Co 10:16). The symbol is even extended to an eschatological context when we read of “the hidden manna” which was promised “to the one who conquers” (Rev 2:17).
However, the most common idea is bread as sustenance. With the exception of Paul, who favours the symbolic sense, the NT writers highlight its sustaining effect. The mere existence of bread ought to remind us of our God who “has filled the hungry with good things” (Luk 1:53). Though it is made with human hands, there is no dough without grain, and no grain without the rain.
Its Divine Origin
The bread which Moses spoke of was different. Its appearance was “like coriander seed,” “like that of bdellium.” It was a white, fine, flake-like thing, “fine as the frost on the ground.” It tasted “like wafers made with honey,” or like “cakes baked with oil.” The little substance was easily gathered, ground or beaten, and even boiled to “make cakes of it,” and if left alone “it melted.” If that wasn’t enough sensory information, we are even told of its odour when gathered and left unused: “it bred worms and stank.”
There is another quality, however, which was most pertinent to their habitation in this inhospitable wasteland: it was abundant. The psalmist said the Lord “rained down on them manna … he sent them food in abundance” (Psa 78:24-25). As a foreshadowing of the “true bread from heaven,” there was enough and more for all. This particular wheat did not depend on seed time and harvest, for it was the “grain of heaven.” It arrived at first light, “when the dew fell upon the camp,” and it never failed until it was supposed to – “the day after they ate the produce of the land.” This bread was a gift, and like every “good gift and every perfect gift,” it was “from above.” The Father who fed Israel with manna is the same heavenly Father who sustains us today.
Despite the fact that both have a divine origin, there is a difference between their bread and ours. Of their bread it was written: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died” (Joh 6:49). But of ours it was said to come “down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (v50). Many make the mistake in thinking that this is exclusively a reference to life after death. However, eternal life starts the moment you are born again. The promise that you will “live forever” began its fulfillment when you believed. Just as the substance of their sustenance changed when they entered the land, so, too, will ours change when we meet the Lord in the air. At that event we will be completely conformed to His likeness. But in contrast to the Israelites, our diet will not change. We will continue to feed on the true bread of heaven as we do here below. Their manna sustained them until death. Our manna sustains us in time and will continue for all eternity.
Its Unique Purpose
“It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat.” The point is so simple that it is often overlooked. The point of bread is to eat it. It is currently popular to etch intricate designs into the surface of homemade bread. No doubt this is a fun hobby for some, but the point stands – the purpose of food is not aesthetic appeal; “He rained down on them manna to eat.” The true bread of heaven is no different: “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Since we have reckoned ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, our new diet consists of the “living bread,” the only nutrient that will sustain us in this depleted land. Its simplicity and divine origin are not an end in themselves; it must be eaten.
Its Necessary Complement
Not only did He give them manna for their hunger but also water for their thirst. On this journey they first encountered water as an enemy. This foe was calmly pushed to one side as the Lord displayed His complete control over the elements. However, a little further down the road, with dry throats and swollen tongues, they called out for water to slake their thirst. The dehydration revealed the hatred in their hearts as they accused Moses of bringing them into the wilderness “to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst” (Exo 17:3). The Lord, in His mercy, provided water from the most unlikely of fountainheads, a “flinty” rock. This event at Horeb sets the context for all future references to the Lord as a “rock” in Scripture. The clearest connection is made by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “And all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” For Paul, the entire storyline of the OT foreshadowed the Christ who was to come. Therefore, the lesson we are to draw from the reference is this: the Christ who sustained Israel during their pilgrimage is the same one who sustains us during ours.
“Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing” (Neh 9:21).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.