Bread from Heaven (Exodus 15:22 – 16:36)
All the people in this painting are elegantly clothed, without a single sign of hardship! No desert far and wide! Instead, we see a pleasant landscape with meadows set off against a golden horizon. It is all too clear: the artist had something else in mind than literally illustrating the miracle of manna! But what was his intention? If you look at our painting, you will quickly find out that the manna looks like the Bread of the Eucharist given out at Communion in Christian churches. The man kneeling in a red gown has his hands folded, as if he were about to serve the Holy Bread. Again, we can see the artist at work who inscribes his Christian view of the story onto the painting: the miracle of manna as a model for the Holy Eucharist. By the way, Moses is seen standing to the right. Does anything strike you as odd? Be sure to look closely, especially at his head! I will talk about this peculiarity extensively at the very end…
Dieric Bouts (1410/20–1475), The Gathering of the Manna. 38.63 cm x 52.98 cm. Basel, Kunstmuseum
Then Moses led Israel into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. So the people grumbled against Moses. Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the LORD said, “If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.” The whole Israelite community came to the Desert of Sin. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread.” That evening quail came and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” Moses said to them, “It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. Each one is to gather as much as he needs.” The Israelites did as they were told. On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much. Moses said to them, “Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD.” So the people rested on the seventh day. The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they reached the border of Canaan.
People have tried to find a natural explanation for the miracle of manna: The fine and flaky substance could be the sweet, edible honeydew found in parts of the Sinai in June and July. Plant lice ingest the sap of tamarisk trees and excrete it onto the branches, from which it crystallizes and falls to the ground as sticky solids. The Israelites didn’t know what it was and asked man-hu = what is it? Thus, the term manna developed for the heavenly bread. However, even if this was manna, it does not explain the miraculous occurrence that it arrived just when the Israelites needed it. Enough was produced to feed the entire people so that it doubled on the sixth day and did not appear on the Sabbath. Contrary to its natural pattern, it appeared year-round. The main intention of the narrators is to show God’s wonderful providence for his people and to prepare for the divine revelation on Mount Sinai. The miracle of manna reverberates what will later be expounded by the laws on Sinai, namely that there is a hidden order in time in which the seventh day is something special. It is essential to keep this day holy. Christian tradition has seen in the Feeding of the Five Thousand by Jesus (Mk 6:30–44) a counterpart to the miracle of manna. Manna became the Christian model for the Eucharist, the spiritual food of the Church during its journey on earth.
Photo: Hans Hinz – ARTOTHEK
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