When the Children of Israel escaped Egypt, they did it all at once.  They didn’t sneak out into the desert one family at a time, but went in a huge body – a literal herd of people.  We know there were more than six hundred thousand men alone (just the ones who were twenty years old or older!) in the massive group.  Some estimate that when you add the women and children, as many as two million persons  may have been traveling together.  A group that size would have been hard to ignore. 

People may wonder why the Lord had to do something so drastic as to kill the Egyptians who were trying to track down the Israelites and take them back into Egypt, but the simple fact is that when that many people have walked in any direction, it’s going to be pretty easy to follow the trail.  Killing the Egyptians was something that had to be done to keep the people from being captured – or worse – by their former masters.

As you continue imagining this large group, it is easy to visualize that the people who were at the head of the group no doubt stripped the land as they passed.  If there was a piece of vegetation that could be eaten or used in some other way – and these finds would have been extremely scarce once the Children of Israel had crossed the Nile Valley – it would have been plucked and taken or trampled by the feet of the escaping Israelites or the animals they took with them.  There weren’t any porta-potties to keep the trail clean, either.  Once the two millionth person had passed where the leaders had led the way, there wouldn’t have been anything that even the most resourceful survivalist could scavenge in order to maintain life.

The Lord had no intention of saving the Israelites from their captors, only to let them starve to death on their journey.  When the Israelites whined (and let’s be fair – we might have whined too) because there was no food for them to eat, God sent them something they had never seen.  He didn’t just send the food as a surprise.  On the contrary, he told Moses exactly what to expect.  He told them that the “bread” they would be given:

  • Would rain down from heaven;
  • Could be harvested in order to sustain daily needs, but not cached away to use tomorrow – unless “tomorrow” happened to be the Sabbath;
  • Must not be harvested on the Sabbath, so that on the sixth day – and only on the sixth day – the Israelites must gather a double portion of it to tide them over until after the Sabbath.

He also told Moses to collect a measure of this “bread” and keep it in the Ark of the Covenant, so that future generations of Israelites could see the evidence of this miracle. 

We no longer have the Ark of the Covenant or its contents to give us proof of things that happened in the Old Testament, but we do have the reaction of the Israelites as recorded in the books of Exodus and Numbers.  When they saw the white substance on the ground, their first question was probably the same as our first question would have been:  “What is it?”  In fact, the term What is it? – or manna – became the name of this bread from God.

What was Manna?

Nobody now knows what manna was.  Exodus tells us that it consisted of white flakes or grains that covered the ground and looked like hoarfrost (frozen dew). According to scripture, it tasted like “flour with honey.” 

Although we don’t know the chemical composition of manna, we know something that is far more important.  Somehow manna was such a complete food that it could sustain life for the Israelites indefinitely, and without supplementation by any other food.

Think how much of a miracle that is!  Human beings have vastly differing nutritional requirements.  Children need different nutrients from adults.  Adult men need different nutrients from pregnant women.  People who are aging need different nutrients as well.  Most of the people whose ancestors came from Asia or Africa are intolerant of milk – which is often described as the perfect food.  Equally significant, our bodies are so individual that one family member’s body may thrive best on carbohydrates, even as another family member doesn’t tolerate carbohydrates and thrives on meat. 

There is no scientist on the planet who could find a substance that would be sufficient to sustain life for every individual in a group of ten thousand souls, much less two million.  But the Lord was able to give the Israelites a substance that was exactly what every age group and what every individual person needed to sustain life.  This is a first great lesson from the miracle of manna, and it’s a no-brainer: 

As much as we may want to be self-sufficient, God is able to give us things that are not only beyond human capabilities, but even beyond our imagination.

The Lord does this time and time again throughout the scriptures.  Water was turned into wine.  Lepers were healed in the blink of an eye.  Bodies long dead were brought back to life.  People who live in our age are used to seeing technology work “miracles,” but there is only so much that we human beings can do on our own.  Eventually we reach a point where we turn to God or we live in despair.

God’s Celestial Clock

The Lord didn’t send manna to the Israelites when they were still in Egypt.  If he had done that, they would have had to pack the manna and take it with them.  And in fact, when the manna started coming it came every day (except on the Sabbath, when they already had manna to tide them over).  The Children of Israel awoke hungry in the morning, and there was the food they needed.  You could say it came in the nick of time.

There is a lesson here, and it is a second great lesson of manna:

God gives us blessings precisely when we need them.

This is a lesson I am only beginning to learn, and many people go through life without ever learning it at all.  We may not like the way we look, or the status of our health, or any other condition of our life, but the moment we need something in order to fulfill the Lord’s purposes, he will give it to us.

The important thing here is that he will provide things when they are needed to fulfill his purposes – not ours.  You may suffer years of bad health, only to have the condition clear up shortly before you are called on a mission.

What I am learning is that if a long-held dream finally comes true, or if a long-term problem clears itself up almost miraculously, or if I get a windfall that was beyond my wildest imagination, there’s a reason for it.  If I ask what the Lord wants me to do with this gift, I will soon get my answer.

Recognizing Manna when We See It

God is not always flashy when he gives us the things we need.  More often than performing spectacular “walk on water” miracles, he does something so subtle that we may not catch it.

  Instead of thunder and earthquakes, he often gets our attention with the still, small voice.  We have to be listening for that still, small voice or we’ll miss it.

I had a friend once who was in dire financial straits.  She prayed long and hard to get money to buy food and to pay her gas bill.  She was very specific in her prayers.  She told the Lord what she wanted – money – and why she wanted it.  She wanted to put food in the refrigerator, and she wanted to heat her house for the winter.

Not only did she fail to get the money she wanted, but she ran into a string of bad luck.  First she hit and killed a deer on the way home from work.  Her vehicle was a pickup truck, and she just happened to have the equipment in her truck that allowed her to dress the deer and take it home.  The process took hours, and she was tired and miserable and covered with deer guts by the end of the day.  It was not a pleasant experience.

Her muscles had not even healed from the exertion of butchering a deer when a snowstorm came and knocked over a tree so that it blocked the road that led to her cabin.  A single woman in an isolated area, Victoria didn’t have a husband in the house or neighbors next door to get the tree out of the way.  So she got out the chain saw, cut the tree into logs, and took the logs home.

The next time she prayed for money to fill her refrigerator and pay her gas bill, she was interrupted in mid-prayer by the Voice we all hear from time to time.  “This prayer has already been answered,” the Voice said.  “I filled your freezer, and you’ll be warm all winter.”

Victoria’s failing was that she only thought of one answer she could get for her prayer.  But the Lord could see a bigger picture.  He always does.

And this leads us to a third great lesson of manna:

Sometimes the trials we suffer
are blessings in disguise.

At some time or another, most of us are like Victoria.  Manna is falling all around us, but we might think of it only as dandruff.

Learning to Use Manna

If the Children of Israel had never seen manna, they certainly didn’t know what to do with it.  Just as with any new ingredient, the Israelites had to accustom themselves to manna through the process of trial and error. 

They obviously tried it in its natural state, or we wouldn’t have a description of manna’s taste.  But you can imagine the conversations among the Israelites – especially the women – as they tried to decide what to do with this new ingredient.

Eventually manna was usually ground into meal and made into some sort of bread, or it was seethed, which is another word for cooked.  Bible scholars theorize that manna possibly had the consistency of cornmeal – and it was used the way modern cooks use cornmeal or oats.  But manna did not come down from heaven with a cookbook.  There was probably a lot of experimentation around the cook fire as women first learned to use this perfect food. 

There are instances where the Lord tells people exactly how to do something, because it absolutely has to be done right the first time.  Nephi was told how to construct a ship, as was Noah.  Solomon and Joseph Smith were told precisely how to build their temples. 

But many times, the heavens can seem silent as we learn how to walk, or how to choose a career, or even how to be a good husband or wife.  We were put on this earth to learn from our experiences – to decide what is wrong and what is right, and to choose the better part.  It is probably hard for God to watch us fall without removing the obstacles from out paths, but he loves us enough to let us stumble.

And thus we learn a fourth great lesson of manna:

God gives us the raw materials,
but we have to learn how to use them.

Indeed, learning how to work with the tools we have been given is one of the major reasons we are here.

Learning what Not to Do with Manna

Manna, a gift from God, came with a list of restrictions.  First, the Children of Israel were told not to take more than they needed.  The directed amount was an omer a day per person, which is six to seven pints of food.  That’s a generous amount of food for anybody to eat!

The Israelites were also told not to hoard manna.  They were to take only what they could use during the course of a single day.  They needed to have the faith that if God filled their needs today, He would do so again tomorrow.

Of course, the Israelites were not content to take the Lord at his word.  We know they disobeyed him because Exodus tells us that when they kept it over from one day to the next it rotted and became wormy.  The smell alone was probably enough to keep people who kept an extra supply of manna on hand from ever doing so again.    

The gift of manna is similar to other gifts that are given to us by God.  We are not to hoard our gifts.  Nor are we to let them lie unused.  Whether our gift is a talent for singing or even a car that is large enough to haul an entire Scout troop and their equipment, it was given to us for a reason.  The Parable of the Talents gives us a clue to a next big truth we learn from manna: 

God gives us our talents and our other blessings to be used.
If we use them unwisely – or not at all – we will lose them.
If we magnify our talents and our gifts, more talents and gifts will be given us.

Appetite Fatigue Sets In

Shortly after I got married, something happened to me that has undoubtedly happened to every parent.  One night I tried to serve fish sticks to my husband for dinner, only to be met with a look of absolute horror.  Clark informed me that as a child he had liked fish sticks so much that his parents decided to let him eat them at every meal.  I have no idea how many days in a row Clark ate them – he says he lasted about a week, but it might have been longer than that.  Nevertheless, the time came when some inner mechanism told him he had eaten his life’s quota of fish sticks.  Never again has a fish stick passed his lips.

No matter what your favorite food is, you probably know somebody who loathes that food, and who wouldn’t eat it on pain of death.  By the same token, we all have foods that we’d be just as happy never to have to eat again.  And that’s exactly what happened with manna.  Yes, manna was a food more perfect than mankind had ever seen.  Yes, manna was a gift from God.

  But when you start thinking of eating the same food – any food – as the mainstay of your diet every day for forty years, you can start to appreciate the situation the Israelites found themselves in.

Eventually the time came when they wanted more.  They remembered the variety of foods they had enjoyed during their captivity in Egypt, and they longed for it.  They remembered the tastes, the smells – all the things that were withheld from them now.

They longed for meat.  They demanded meat.  Even the grown men stood in the doorways of their tents and cried. 

The Israelites had been given everything they needed, but it wasn’t enough. So God sent them quail, and their gluttony in devouring the quail made them sick.  They were probably sorry they had ever rocked the boat.

Did the Israelites need quail in order to survive?  No – it had already been demonstrated that manna would keep all of them in perfect health.  They wanted the quail for no other reason than that they wanted it.  They knew what the people in Egypt were eating, and they coveted that food.  They compared themselves to others and found themselves falling short.

We all find ourselves wanting things that the Lord hasn’t seen fit to give us, and that leads us to a next great lesson taught by manna:

God gives us what we need,
Rather (sometimes) than what we want.

Let’s get back to my friend Victoria the Deerslayer.  All she wanted was some money to pay her gas bill and fill her refrigerator.  That was not an unrighteous request.  But you can probably guess that she would have been a lot happier with a large check than she was with a dead deer and a fallen tree.  For one thing, it’s a lot more convenient to turn up the furnace than it is to keep logs on a fire.  For another thing, a diet of deer meat is a tedious diet.  Victoria no doubt dreamed of ice cream and frozen orange juice sitting in her freezer next to the meat, and if the Lord had given her a check she no doubt would have purchased a variety of foods.

But the Lord took Victoria at her word when she prayed for money to buy what she needed.  He gave her exactly what she needed.  It was only afterwards that she realized she wanted more than that. 

How often are we given all we need – or even everything we’ve asked for – but we still want more?   Envy is a hard temptation to conquer, because there is always someone who is smarter or prettier or richer than we are.  There is always something new and better being introduced to the market, and some people seem to get everything that is shiny and new.  It is human nature to compare ourselves to others, but we usually compare ourselves to the people who seem to have more. That will always lead to discontent. 

Instead we would be better off to compare ourselves with people who don’t have the blessings we do.  I may not be pretty, but there are people whose bodies don’t work at all, and who would gladly trade places with me.  I may not have money for new furniture, but there are people who don’t have money for food or shelter.  I may be frustrated in my church calling, but there are people who don’t have the gospel in their lives – and who would give anything they had for the peace of mind that is mine as a church member. 

Our challenge is to be able to say, with the Apostle Paul, “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

Unanswered Prayers

There is an extension to this lesson of manna, because if the Lord gives us what we need, we can now understand why some of our fervent prayers aren’t answered.  Here is that extension:

If the Lord doesn’t give us what we ask for (assuming we ask in faith),
it’s because we aren’t supposed to have it.

No matter how much I may want a particular blessing, the very fact that I don’t get it should tell me that I just don’t need that particular blessing to fulfill the Lord’s purposes for me.  If my health isn’t good despite my best efforts, it’s because the Lord’s purpose for me doesn’t require good health – or, more likely, that my poor health will give me experiences I need to become a better person or to help others.  If I am childless in this life, it may be the Lord’s purpose for me to adopt – or his purpose for me to defer raising children in this life in order to do a work that I would not have been able to do otherwise.

If we persist in crying over things we cannot have, we miss the opportunity of using our situation to do what the Lord would have us do.  And in the long run, the Lord always knows better than we do what we should be doing in order to achieve our personal exaltation.

The Manna of Life

The appetite fatigue suffered by the Children of Israel is understandable only as long as you don’t think of manna in its purest form.  John 6 tells us what the true manna is, when the apostles say to Jesus:

Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.

For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst (John 6:31-35).

Later in the same chapter, the Savior added:

I am that bread of life.

Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.

This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world (John 48-51).

Sometimes, like the children of Israel, we can be surrounded by the blessings of the gospel – and yet we want more.  We are blinded by the success of the world, and we want a taste of it for ourselves.  We are drawn to forbidden things.  We are seduced by the easiness of the lives of people who don’t have to do their home teaching or fulfill church callings, and who can do whatever they want with their Sundays.

In short, we turn our backs on the life-giving manna in favor of the poisonous quail.

But as we do this, we will learn – as did the Israelites – that although the trappings of the world may give us pleasure, that pleasure is short-lived.

  The quail do not sustain life; they only give an illusion of sustenance.

In giving us manna, the Lord has given us everything we need.  Who are we to ask for more?