What Was the “Manna” in the Wilderness of Sinai?

By Wayne Jackson

“The Interpreter’s Bible (a popular commentary set), in commenting on the ‘manna’ that fell when the children of Israel were in the wilderness of Sinai, suggests that this ‘manna’ substance was merely a sweet, natural material from certain trees of that region (e.g., the tamarisk tree), and that there was nothing miraculous about this food. Would you comment on this?”

The foregoing theory is common to religious modernists who ever seek to extract all elements of the supernatural from the biblical documents. Let us look at the facts.

When Israel came into the wilderness of Sinai, the Lord provided them with “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4ff; cf. John 6:31ff). It appeared as a “small round thing, as small as the frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14). It could be gathered up, ground in mills, or beat in mortars. It was made into cakes or boiled in pots. It was white like coriander seed, and tasted similar to cakes baked with oil and honey (Exodus 16:31; Numbers 11:8 ASVfn).

There are two common skeptical theories regarding the nature of this “manna.” Some identify the “manna” as either a “secretion” from the tamarisk tree. Others believe it was the result of the “excretions” from two species of insects in the Sinai region, that are deposited on the tree (G.L. Carr, “Manna,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised, G.E. Bromiley, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986, Vol. 3, pp. 239-240).

Rationalistic theories that attempt to view this Old Testament provision in merely a naturalistic light are dismal failures indeed. Consider the following points.

  1. Based upon census figures provided in the book of Numbers (cf. 1:45-46), it is estimated that the whole congregation of Israel consisted of some two million people. [Note: For a response to objections relative to a number of this magnitude, see: John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968, pp. 58ff.] There is no way that secretions of the tamarisk trees in the desert region of Sinai (or insect excrement) could have sustained two million people.

    Especially is this true since the tamarisk material appears in the region of Sinai only from about the middle of May to the end of July (in the rainy season), and in small amounts. Alfred Edersheim estimated that the whole Sinai Peninsula could scarcely produce more than about 700 pounds of tamarisk substance in the entire season — which would not have sustained Israel for a single day (The Bible History — Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprint from an 1890 edition, Vol. II, p. 97). On the other hand, the “manna” from heaven fell all year long, and was sufficient for everyone’s need — even two million souls.
  2. The God-sent manna fell only six days in the week (not on the Sabbath — Exodus 16:22). Moreover, twice as much fell on Friday (to accommodate the Sabbath). No tamarisk tree is known to have a six-day-per-week, double-amount-on-Friday production cycle!
  3. Tamarisk substance can be kept in a cool place for several days, but the true manna spoiled after a single day (Exodus 16:20). Yet, supernaturally, a pot of manna was preserved in the Ark of the Covenant to remind the children of Israel of Jehovah’s care for them during those wandering-in-the-wilderness years (Exodus 16:32-34; Hebrews 9:4).
  4. The manna from heaven could be used for baking; the tamarisk material cannot be.
  5. The heavenly manna was granular in nature, hence could be ground up, etc. (Numbers 11:8). Tamarisk secretion/excretion cannot be.
  6. The true manna ceased after the forty-year wandering period; the tamarisk “manna” continues even today.
  7. The genuine manna came down from heaven, and so typified Christ as the “bread out of heaven” (John 6:32ff). The excretions of insects hardly fit this typical picture.
  8. The fact that the “manna” gathered by the Israelites conformed precisely to each individual’s need, whether the amount gathered was too much, or too little (Exodus 16:18), demonstrates that the manna from heaven was miraculous — not natural.

There is no way the children of Israel ever would have confused this “manna” from heaven with a minute amount of natural material normally found in the wilderness of Sinai.

When naturalistic theories are concocted to relieve the Bible of an alleged “embarrassment,” because of scripture’s endorsement of the miraculous, the “critical” tales are more difficult to swallow than belief in the all-powerful God!

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.