Of uncertain origin, in Exodus 16.15 the word “manna” is given a popular etymology by Israelites who asked, when they saw it, “What is it?” (Hebr. mān hûʾ). This was the miraculous food supplied by the Lord to the Israelites during the forty years of their wandering in the wilderness from Egypt to Canaan. Manna is also called, poetically, “bread of the mighty ones [NRSV: angels]” (Ps. 78.25) and “food of angels” (Wisd. of Sol. 16.20).

Early in their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites came to the wilderness of Sin. There the whole congregation accused Moses and Aaron of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them with hunger. In response the Lord promised to rain down bread for them from heaven (Exod. 16.4). Manna came six days a week. Only one day's portion was to be gathered except on the sixth day; a double portion gathered that day permitted Israel to keep the Sabbath rest. Each morning when the dew had vanished, “there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as 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). Its appearance was like “gum resin” (Num. 11.7). The people “ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil” (Num. 11.8). An urn containing a quantity of manna was kept in or in front of the ark of the covenant as a reminder of this divine provision (Exod. 16.32–34; Heb. 9.11).

From ancient to modern times, manna has been linked with natural phenomena in the Sinai region. The traditional identification has been with a granular type of sweet substance thought to be secreted in early summer by the tamarisk bush. More recent investigations suggest that this “manna” is produced by the excretion of two kinds of scale insects that feed on the sap of the tamarisk. Because the sap is poor in nitrogen, the insects must ingest large amounts of carbohydrate‐rich sap in order to consume enough nitrogen. The excess carbohydrate is then excreted as honeydew rich in three basic sugars and pectin. The amount of the substance thus produced would, of course, fall far short of Israel's need for bread; in any case, to give a natural explanation for what the Bible describes as miraculous is perhaps to miss the point.

According to the gospel of John, when Jesus was challenged to validate his ministry with a sign comparable to that of manna, he identified himself as the “true bread from heaven,” come down to give life to the world (John 6.32–35).

James I. Cook