When the Israelites were first feed with manna they were in the Desert of Sin, located on the western side of the Sinai Peninsula. The Israelites left Egypt about one month earlier and were traveling 10 – 15 miles per day. In the desert of Sin the “whole community” grumbled against Moses and Aaron because there was not enough food to eat. The grumbling included (Exodus 16:3): 1) If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt; 2) In Egypt we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted; and 3) You have brought us out into this desert to starve the entire assembly to death.
Clearly, the Israelites were romanticizing their time as slave laborers in Egypt. The primary foods for slaves were grain, beer, and vegetables such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, and melons. The poor and slaves were permitted to eat fish caught from the Nile River. Rarely, if ever, did Egyptians give meat, e.g., beef or lamb, to slaves. Meat was reserved for very wealthy Egyptians.
The Lord heard the grumbling and told Moses that he would provide bread from heaven (manna) for the Israelites so they could see God’s glory. Characteristics of manna along with specific instructions for gathering it are outlined in Sidebar 3. When God provided the manna to the Israelites, he planned to test them to determine if they followed his instructions for gathering the bread. Moses told the Israelites that when they grumbled, they were grumbling against God not against him for it was God who brought them out of Egypt.
When the Israelites first saw the bread on the desert floor, the wondered what it was. The word manna is derived from Hebrew words, mân hû’ meaning “what is it.” The bread or manna that God provided was white like coriander seed and looked like bdellium. The bdellium plant was described in Chapter 1, Creation and Plants. The coriander plant and seed will be described as part of the discussion on manna.
Before moving to a description of the coriander plant, the question needs to be answered on whether or not manna was provided directly from heaven or was it derived from an earthly plant or substance. Some scholars suggested that the Biblical manna was exuded from a tamarisk tree (Tamarix gallica or Tamarix mannifera) after it was pricked by an insect (Coccus manniparus). Others have identified the manna of Exodus 16 as an alga called Nostoc and the manna of Numbers 11 as lichen from the Lecanora genus. The challenge is that these options do not meet the criteria associated with God’s provision of manna to Israel. Manna fell 40 years wherever the Israelites traveled, e.g., on the Sinai Peninsula and for a short time on the Jordan plain in Canaan. Manna never fell on the Sabbath, the day God set aside for Israel’s rest. Nomads who lived on the Sinai or traders who crossed the Peninsula in the same 40 year period never reported seeing manna. None of these arguments adequately override the Biblical account that manna was bread from heaven provided by God.
The Coriander Plant
The botanical name of the plant that produces the coriander seed is the Coriandrum sativum; it is a member of the parsley family of plants and sometimes called Chinese parsley. Its origins is most likely the Eastern Mediterranean or Asia Minor. In ancient times coriander plants grew wild in Egypt and Israel. Coriander has been used to enhance the taste of food for more than 5000 years ago. Today, in the Middle East coriander seeds are used to flavor bread as apparently God used it to flavor the desert manna. Plants are annuals and should be planted each year. They prefer all day sun; but will grow in partial shade. Coriander grows best in dry climates and suffers during humid, rainy weather. The coriander is delicately branched and can reach a height of 2 – 3 feet with a 1 – 2 foot spread. Over time stems fall to the ground and send up new shoots. Today’s coriander plant produces brown seeds; however, in Numbers11:7 manna was described as white like bdellium. Perhaps in ancient times, coriander seeds were white. Coriander seeds grow in round, yellowish-brown pods. Seeds can be ground into a powder using a pepper mill, or home electric or hand grinder. Ground coriander has a pleasant, aromatic smell.
A number of authors have proposed the symbolism of manna. Suggestions included a) revealing Israel’s need for healing; b) foreshadowing the coming Messiah and Christ, the bread of heaven. and c) the institution of the Lord’s Supper and a type of Eucharistic bread. All of these suggestions are excellent; however, MacDonald’s (1995) proposal that manna symbolized sufficiency seemed particularly appropriate in the Israelite situation. God supplied hungry Israelites with coriander-like manna. This unique substance was sufficient – necessary, desirable, and enough – to take care of their hunger. God wanted to demonstrate to the Israelites that he was capable of meeting their need for food and by extension all of their needs. Essentially, God was saying to them – my food is sufficient for you and I am sufficient for you. At the same time, God tested the Israelites to see if they would follow his instructions for gathering the manna he provided. Some Israelites followed God’s instructions while others did not. Those who disobeyed God suffered the consequences, e.g., food with maggots and no manna to eat on the Sabbath.
The manna symbolized Christ’s sufficiency to meet every need of his people. St. Paul would agree that Christ is able to meet all our needs. Paul had a thorn in his flesh that tormented him (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Three times Paul asked Christ to take away the cause of his torment. Christ answered Paul saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9. Christ gave Paul grace to deal with his torment, a better solution than removing its cause. Human weakness provides an opportunity for God to display his divine power.
Having never lived in servitude, most of us have difficulty understanding the behavior of the Israelites in the manna story. Possibly they felt a sense of entitlement because God brought them out of Egypt into the desert. Perhaps they were weary being a dependent people and did not want to rely on anyone even God. Maybe they grabbed the manna when it appeared each morning not trusting that it would be there the next day. Whatever their thoughts, we can contrast them with Paul’s response in accepting God’s grace to deal with his torment. Paul accepted his situation and trusted that God’s grace was sufficient for him (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Reflection. Have you ever thought about God’s sufficiency? Do you live as if you believe God is sufficient (ample, plenty) to meet your needs in any and all situations?
Sidebar 3 Characteristics of Manna
|Characteristic||Description and Reference|
|Where did it come from?||When the dew settled on the camp at night, the manna also came down (Numbers 11:9). When dew was gone, manna was there (Exodus16:14).As sun grew hot, manna melted away (Exodus16:21).|
|What did Israelites say when flakes appeared on ground?||When Israelites saw substance on ground, they said, “What is it?” (Exodus16:15).|
|Appearance of manna||Thin flakes like frost on the desert floor (Exodus16:14). It was white like coriander seed (Exodus16:31, Numbers11:7). Looked like resin (bdellium) (Numbers11:7).|
|How was it gathered?||Gathered by hand in the morning (Exodus16:21). Day 1 – 5, gather 1 omer*/person (Exodus16:16, 21). If retained overnight on Days 1 – 5, became full of maggots and began to smell (Exodus16:20). Day 6 gathered 2 omer/person; 1 omer for day 6 and 1 omer for day 7 (Exodus 16:22-23, 29). Manna could be retained overnight on Day 6 (Exodus16:17). No manna provided on Sabbath (day 7) (Exodus16:25-26).|
|Preparation for cooking||Ground in a hand mill; or crushed in a mortar with pestle (Numbers11:8).|
|Preparation for eating||Cooked in a pot –possibly gruel (Numbers11:8). Made into cakes – probably baked or even fried in olive oil.|
|Taste of manna||Tasted like wafers made with honey (Exodus16:31). Tasted like something made with olive oil (Numbers11:8).|
|Aroma or odor||No information provided.|
|How long was manna provided to Israelites?||Manna stared: 16th day of 2nd month after Israelites came out of Egypt. Israelites were camped in Desert of Sinai, Sinai Peninsula (Exodus16:1, 13). Manna ended: 16th day of the 14th month after leaving Egypt. Israelites were camped at Israelites were camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, Canaan (Exodus16:35; Joshua 5:10-12). How long was manna provided: 40 years (Exodus16:35).|
*An omer is equivalent to about two quarts, dry measure.
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright September 16, 2011; carolyn a. roth