“What Is It?”

Exodus 16:13-18

When evening comes, and quails fly into the hunger-stricken Israelite camp, it must have been something like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There is quail meat for everyone.

The next morning, when the people come out of their tents, they see a white substance covering the ground. “What is it?” they say (v. 15). This is how traditional scholarship translates the Hebrew man hu, from which we get the word manna. I like this translation for the power of the story it evokes. I like to think of the people coming out of their tents like children on Christmas morning, looking at the ground in wonder and saying, “What is it?”

There are many speculations as to what the stuff really was, from some kind of lichen to insect residue. It’s interesting that the subjects of all of these postulations are edible, high in nutrients, and have a sweet taste. By most accounts, this was a substance that appeared naturally in the desert. So we can imagine that the gift was there before the people of Israel arrived; they just hadn’t seen it before.

In the next few verses in this chapter, we’re going to learn that some of the Israelites do not pay attention to God’s instructions, and we are going to see how that works out for them. But for now, dwell on the mental image of people gathering the food, tentatively tasting it and discovering its sweetness, then looking at each other with goofy grins on their faces.


“What is it?” Will you greet the gifts of God today with this sense of wonder?


God of manna, we pray that you would open our eyes to the gifts around us. Make us more aware of your abundant care for us. Awaken in us a new sense of trust and joy. Amen.

This post originally appeared in Volume 31.1 of Reflections.

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