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What is Manna in the Bible? Verse References and Meaning

And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited; they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan. ~ Exodus 16:35 KJV

"Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat." ~ John 6:31

Manna in the Bible

Manna is the miraculous "bread of heaven" (Psalm 78:24) that God provided for the Israelites while he led them through the Red Sea on dry ground and into the Wilderness of Sin (Exod. 16). This "small round substance" may have been produced by insects that punctured the fruit of the tamarisk tree. However, it was consistently regarded in the Bible as a miraculous gift from God rather than as a product of nature. It was certainly miraculous in terms of its timing and quantity.

Manna looked like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31). When the Israelites saw it, they asked each other, "What is it?" (Heb. man hu [aWh'm]). This led to the name "manna." It came each morning, except on the Sabbath day. It could be collected each day for that day alone, and only as much as could be eaten in one day. If a person tried to collect more than needed or to store the manna for future needs, it would grow wormy and foul (v. 20). In this way, it was impossible for the Israelites to evade total dependence on God or to use the manna greedily for personal gain. Miraculously, the manna could be preserved on the sixth day and eaten on the Sabbath, and it was not to be found on the Sabbath morning (vv. 22-29).

Purpose of Manna in the Bible

The purpose of the manna was to test Israel's faith, to humble them, and to teach them that one "does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 8:3, 8:16). A hungry Jesus used this quote to refuse Satan's suggestion that he turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:4).

The people in Jesus' day misunderstood the significance of the manna. They longed for a physical miracle, like the manna, which would prove to them that Jesus' words were true (John 6:31). But Jesus wanted his disciples to seek for the bread of heaven that gives life to the world instead of physical bread to satisfy their appetites. When they asked, "From now on give us this bread, " he answered, "I am the bread of life" (vv. 6:32-35). To the church in Pergamos, Jesus encouraged faithfulness by promising that true believers would receive "hidden manna" to eat (Revelation 2:17). Just as Moses' manna brought with it a physical blessing, this heavenly reward will bring eternal life. (Excerpt from Baker's Evangelical Dictionary)

Old Testament "Manna" References:

This substance is 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). 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; Leviticus 8:2, Numbers 7:13, etc.) that 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" (Psalms 78:24); as "bread of heaven" (Psalms 105:40); and as "angels' bread" (Wisdom of Solomon 16:20).

New Testament "Manna" References:

In John 6:31-63, our Lord frequently refers to "the manna" or "bread from heaven" as representing 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 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).

Natural Explanations of Manna:

No substance is known that, to any degree, satisfies all the requirements of the Scriptural references. Still, several travelers in the wilderness have reported phenomena that 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-sama, "heavenly manna"; it is white at first but turns yellow; in the early morning, it is of wax consistency, 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 times of need for making bread. It is quite a reasonable form of nourishment in the desert, especially when eaten with the sugary manna from the trees. (Excerpt from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

Bible Verses about Manna

Exodus 16:15 KJV ~ And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the LORD hath given you to eat.

Exodus 16:31 KJV ~ And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.

Deuteronomy 8:3 KJV ~ And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.

John 6:58 KJV ~ This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever.

Revelation 2:17 KJV ~ He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.

Photo credit: Getty/daniel50

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