Manna, the “Bread” from Heaven
What is it? Well, it’s probably not bread as you know it.
Manna from Exodus 16 has its claim to fame from its apparent divine origin and complex nature as both a gift and a test from God. This “fine, flake-like” food laid on the ground, yet it wasn’t readily identified as such by the hungry Israelites. They had not seen anything of this nature before in either ancient Egyptian or Israeli cuisine. It was “like coriander seed, white,” and it tasted like “wafers made with honey.” Eaten both baked and boiled, manna was likely highly perishable as its leftovers “stank and bred worms” whenever they were kept for longer for longer than a day or two.
The word “manna” comes from the question man hu? ([?מן הוא]), which translates to “What is it?” and from the word man ([מ]) meaning “portion”, “dose”, or “ration”. It seems that people have not stopped asking this question, especially since manna appears elsewhere in the Bible. Numbers 11 describes manna as being “like coriander seed” and looking like bdellium, a type of resin from trees that grew in Arabia, India, Media, and Babylonia. The ancient Israelites valued bdellium as a type of precious stone. Since bdellium is neither white nor flake-like, one must wonder why the two books described such vastly different variations of manna.
Botanists Harold and Alma Moldenke wrote that the manna that the Israelites ate may have been a type of algal growth of the genus Nostoc in Plants of the Bible. The growth patterns of this algae mirror the cycle of growing in the night when dew coated the ground, but withering away and stinking when daylight came. They also suspected that manna was a group of Lecanora (L. affinus, L. esculenta, and L. fruticulosa) lichens, symbiotic organisms made of algae and fungi, that curled up, broke loose from the ground, and were carried great distances. The Moldenkes also wrote that nomadic tribesmen have made bread from these lichens. The algal growths, however, were not characterized as edible in their book. However, various Nostoc algae have been confirmed as edible as they are widely sold and consumed in China.
The flake-like manna of Exodus likely refers to the Lecanora lichens while the manna in Numbers likely refers to one of many Nostoc species. The fact that these two variations on manna…