What is manna?
Manna was the substance described as occurring in flakes or small round grains, literally, "hoax frost"; it fell with the dew (Numbers 11:9 ) and appeared when the dew left the ground (Exodus 16:14 ); "It was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey" (Exodus 16:31 ).
1. Old Testament References:
In Numbers 11:8 , its taste is described "as the taste of fresh oil," margin "cakes baked with oil." "And the children of Israel did eat the manna forty years, until they came ... unto the borders of the land of Canaan" (Exodus 16:35 ). It ceased the day after they ate the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain, in the plains of Jericho (Joshua 5:10-12 ). Although an important article of diet, it was by no means the sole one as seems implied in Numbers 21:15 ; there are plenty of references (e.g. Exodus 17:3 ; Exodus 24:5 ; Exodus 34:3 ; Leviticus 8:2 , Leviticus 8:26 , Leviticus 8:31 ; Leviticus 9:4 ; Leviticus 10:12 ; Leviticus 24:5 ; Numbers 7:13 , Numbers 7:19 f, etc.) which show that they had other food besides.
The food was gathered every morning, "every man according to his eating: and when the sun waxed hot, it melted" ( Exodus 16:21 ); a portion of the previous day's gathering bred worms and stank if kept (Exodus 16:20 ); on the 6th day a double amount was gathered, the Sabbath portion being miraculously preserved (Exodus 16:22-27 ). A pot - a golden one (Hebrews 9:4 ) - with an omer of manna was "laid up before Yahweh" in the tabernacle (Exodus 16:33 ). Manna is referred to in Nehemiah 9:20 . It is described poetically as "food from heaven" and "bread of the mighty" (Psalm 78:24 f); as "bread of heaven" ( Psalm 105:40 ); and as "angels' bread" (2 Esdras 1:19; The Wisdom of Solomon 16:20).
2. New Testament References:
In John 6:31-63 , our Lord frequently refers to "the manna" or "bread from heaven" as typical of Himself. Paul (1 Corinthians 10:3 ) refers to it as "spiritual food," and in Revelation 2:17 we read, "To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna."
Manna, as might be expected, figures largely in rabbinical literature. It was, it is said, adapted to the taste of each individual who could by wishing taste in the manna anything he desired (compare The Wisdom of Song of Solomon 16:21 ). Manna is reserved as the future food of the righteous (compare Revelation 2:17 ), for which purpose it is ground in a mill situated in the third heaven (Chag 12b; Tan. Beshallach 22).
3. Natural Explanations:
No substance is known which in any degree satisfies all the requirements of the Scriptural references, but several travelers in the wilderness have reported phenomena which suggest some of the features of the miraculous manna.
(1) In the Peninsula of Sinai, on the route of the children of Israel, a species of tamarisk, named in consequence by Ebers Tammaris mannifera , is found to exude a sweet, honey-like substance where its bark is pierced by an insect, Gossyparia mannifera . It collects upon the twigs and falls to the ground. The Arabs who gather it to sell to pilgrims call it mann - es - samā , "heavenly manna"; it is white at first but turns yellow; in the early morning it is of the consistency of wax but when the sun is hot it disappears. This substance occurs only after mid-summer and for a month or two at most.
(2) A second proposal is to identify manna with a lichen - Lecanora esculenta and allied species - which grows in the Arabian and other deserts upon the limestone. The older masses become detached and are rolled about by the wind. When swept together by sudden rain storms in the rainy season they may collect in large heaps. This lichen has been used by the Arabs in time of need for making bread. It is a quite reasonable form of nourishment in the desert, especially when eaten with the sugary manna from the trees.
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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).