Manna—What Is It?

There is lots of speculation about the manna that God sent to the Hebrews every morning for 40 years. Was it a substance that exists in our world already? Was it like bread or something else? Let’s first look at the Exodus verses that describe it.

In the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. (Exodus 16: 13-14)

When the sun grew hot, it would melt. (Exodus 16: 21)

The house of Israel named it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and it tasted like wafers in honey. (Exodus 16: 31)

This implies that the manna was eaten raw, with no processing, probably for breakfast. But the account of this time in Numbers talks about cooking it.

Now the manna was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium.

The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream.

When the dew fell on the camp at night, the manna would fall upon it.

Numbers 11: 7-9

If the heat of the sun melts it, it is not unreasonable to heat it in a pot instead, if you want to make a drink or soup. But how exactly is something so fragile able not only to be pounded but also ground in a millstone?

Some form critics posit conflicting descriptions of manna as derived from different lore, with the description in Numbers being from the Jahwist tradition, and the description in Exodus being from the later Priestly tradition. The Babylonian Talmud states that the differences in description were due to the taste varying depending on who ate it, with it tasting like honey for small children, like bread for youths, and like oil for the elderly. Similarly, classical rabbinical literature rectifies the question of whether manna came before or after dew, by holding that the manna was sandwiched between two layers of dew, one falling before the manna, and the other after.

Manna. Wikipedia.

Some claim that manna is really kefir grains.

Milk kefir grains, A. Kniesel, 2005.

Others say it must be a type of algae.

Algae on Langland Bay coast. 2018. Tiia Monto.

Or perhaps lichen.

Flavoparmelia caperata (lichen), Hesse, Germany. 2011. Norbert Nagel.

A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship. Lichens have properties different from those of their component organisms. Lichens come in many colors, sizes, and forms and are sometimes plant-like, but lichens are not plants. Lichens may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose), flat leaf-like structures (foliose), flakes that lie on the surface like peeling paint (crustose), a powder-like appearance (leprose), or other growth forms.

Lichen. Wikipedia.

And let’s not forget various forms of “honeydew” from insects and also from trees (though manna was found on the ground, not in trees).

In Numbers we’re told the manna is brown. “In color it was like bdellium.” If it means bdellium being the resin of various African trees.

Bdellium resin. 2013.

Or whitish-green. If it means bdellium the fruit aka Commiphora wightii.

Commiphora wightii. 2013.

My view is that the purpose of manna wasn’t just to feed the Hebrews but to free them from the work of finding, cultivating, harvesting, and preparing food. Despite the passages about cooking the manna, which seem to be unnecessary work, it appears that manna is something one can gather and eat as is.

Each person gathers his or her own manna. “So they gathered it every morning, each as much as he needed to eat.” (Exodus 16:21) So aside perhaps from people helping children or others who could not do it themselves, this is a simple task that does not take much time.

Those who worked in the brickyards and fields back in Egypt (mostly men) were now free. The addition of manna freed those who toiled all day in the gardens and kitchens (mostly women).

My image of manna is something easy to gather and store. Something that does not require additional preparation (though people who wanted to cook with it could do so).

It could be any of the above choices. But somehow, in my head, I imagine it looks a lot like water kefir grains (water kefir is related to, but not interchangeable with, milk kefir).

Water kefir “grains”. 2017.



  1. Michael Norwitz

    February 27, 2021 at 10:06 am

    I assume that while manna is a near-perfect food, it’s rather monotonous, and they started cooking it because they became desperate for change. “Let’s deep-fry it! Maybe in a soup … can you make a sandwich out of it?”

  2. Starving in Sin – Out of Egypt

    February 27, 2021 at 9:25 pm

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    May 22, 2021 at 2:17 pm

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