The crowd who had been given a free meal the day before had followed Jesus across the lake. Wouldn’t you? If he had done it once, maybe he would do it again. Perhaps this time Jesus would add some fruits, vegetables, and hummus — not impossible for someone who fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.
Upon finding Jesus, this conversation ensues:
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” 28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” 30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” – John 6:26-31
I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly had manna, though there is a Manna Bakery and Deli not far from my house. Although I’ve been there a few times, I’ve never seen actual manna on the menu.
My mom had a few dishes that I still remember. The one I remember best is mostly because of its name: goulash. Even as a forty-seven year-old its still fun to say. Try it and see. Goo-lahh-shhh.
But I doubt that hundreds of years from now my distant relatives will be telling stories about my mom’s goulash. While it was good, it certainly wasn’t miraculous.
Manna, on the other hand, is a different story.
The writer of Exodus gives us a description of what it was like: “It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). Lest you think this was the beginnings of Nabisco, it would be helpful to take a detour back to Exodus 16 for a moment.
The Israelites, led by Moses, are only six weeks removed from leaving Egypt in dramatic fashion. Two chapters earlier, they had crossed the Red Sea and watched as God delivered them from the approaching Egyptian army.
Six weeks doesn’t sound like a long time, but let’s not forget that they are in the middle of a desert — not at a coastal, all-inclusive resort. After six weeks in the desert, they had become convinced they were better off back in Egypt:
2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lordʼs hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” — Exodus 16:2-3
After six weeks in the desert, these former slaves were reminiscing for the “good old days” back in Egypt. It was Golden Corral every day!
Not quite, but that’s what six weeks in the desert can do to you.
Without any prompting from Moses, God hears their grumbling and provides a solution.
13 That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread the Lord has given you to eat. — Exodus 16:13-15
Quail in the evenings and frosted flakes in the morning. Quail they had seen before; the flakes were new. The people decided to call the bread “manna.” Why manna? It sounded like the Hebrew word for “What is it?”
Every morning as they gathered their omer of manna, they would be picking up a basket of “what is it?”
Since God provided a familiar quail, why didn’t he provide a familiar bread? Why not drop from heaven a loaf of matzo or challah for each family?
Instead, God gave them something new. Every morning. For forty years.
I’ll admit, I’ve had at least one cup of coffee almost every day for forty years. But I’ve not had the same thing for breakfast every single day. Maybe bacon about 75% of the time … but not every single day.
Over in Numbers 11, we find the Israelites saying this to Moses: “we never see anything but this manna!”
It didn’t take long for “what is it?” to become “this again?”
The miracle had become familiar, like matzo and challah — only tasting like honey!
To make matters worse (from the Israelites perspective), they had to collect the manna every morning, collecting a double amount on Friday before the Sabbath. Unlike other types of bread, the manna would spoil if they didn’t eat it within the day. At what point did they stop expecting anything new?
For that generation of Israelites, the miraculous sign of the manna was lost in the monotony of repetition. They weren’t looking to the future but to their next meal.
They missed how powerful this simple act of provision from God really was. They didn’t have to plant or tend to the grains. No mixing or stirring. No baking involved. The manna literally showed up for them, delivered from heaven.
Maybe that’s why later in John 6, Jesus will tell his Jewish audience this truth about the manna: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died” (John 6:49).
They died two kinds of death:
- A physical death
- A spiritual death
The physical death was the most obvious — the Exodus had happened over a thousands years earlier.
As is the case, spiritual death is harder to detect. Without the regenerating power of God, each of us are spiritually dead. In the case of the Israelites, spiritual death began setting in the moment they stopped looking to God as their provider and source. At some point, familiarity began breeding contempt.
What they failed to recognize was that it really wasn’t the manna that was keeping them alive — it was God.
The same is true in our day, although manna doesn’t magically appear with the morning dew. Whenever we begin to forget the true source of life, spiritual death creeps in.
Don’t get me wrong. We need our daily bread (and coffee). But the daily bread God provides should direct our eyes and hearts to the Bread of Life — to Jesus.
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. — John 6:48-50