Immediately after leaving Egypt, the Israelites began to murmur, to complain, first about the bitter water and now about the scarcity of meat and bread. From their very own words we find that the people preferred slavery with food and drink to freedom and human dignity. They would rather live enslaved by the Egyptians than live in a desert where they grew hungry and thirsty.
God intervenes. God supplies them with a bread like substance in the morning and the flesh of quails at night. When the people saw the flakes that remained after the sun dried up the dew like substance, they exclaimed, “What is it?” Thus they named this food “manna,” a word that is quite similar to the Hebrew words “man-hu,” which means “What is it?”
God’s response to their plight does not depend upon their labor. All they needed to do was to gather it, enough for the day’s sustenance and twice as much on the day before the Sabbath. One cannot even say that God does it because of their good will toward God – something that is evidently in short supply. If they tried to hoard it, it rotted in the pots in which they kept it. This is God’s doing, not theirs. God provides for them in spite of their complaining and in spite of their obvious lack of gratitude.
However, we must also remember that God did this for us as well as for the children of Israel. The gift of manna and quail are gifts that extend into our own day. The author of the Book of Wisdom looked upon the manna as a symbol of God’s wonderful gifts: You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven, ready at hand, untoiled-for, endowed with all delights and conforming to every taste. For this substance of yours revealed your sweetness toward your children, and serving the desire of whoever received it, was blended to whatever flavor each one wished (Wisdom 16:20-21).
God’s goodness reaches beyond our goodness and overcomes all of our human frailties.
Of course, the manna is also a proleptic symbol of the Eucharist that Jesus leaves before his passion, death and resurrection. Like the Israelites of old, we benefit from a bread for which we have not toiled. Let it not be said that we imitate their ingratitude.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator