In Praise of Manna
In Deuteronomy, where Moses is giving some final exhortations to Israel before their entry into the promised land, he says:
All the commandment that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you shall eat food without scarcity, in which you shall not lack anything; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:1-10; NASV)
What does Moses mean here? Specifically, what does Moses mean by “And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord”? To answer this question, we must answer a prior question: What did God do so that the Israelites might come to understand that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord”? Did God teach them this lesson by feeding them with supernatural manna? Or did God teach it to them by humbling them, letting them be hungry, and only then feeding them with supernatural manna? I have always assumed that it was the former–i.e., that he fed them with manna so that they might come to understand that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” But recently it occurred to me that it makes even more sense to take it the other way: God sought to teach them that man does not live by bread alone by humbling them and letting them be hungry.
Before we take this discussion any further, we must rid our thinking of a potential distraction. When Moses says “man does not live by bread alone,” we need to understand that he means food generically. Both the Greek and Hebrew languages of the Bible use words which denote bread to refer to food generally. The lesson God wanted the Israelites to learn therefore is that man does not live merely by food.
How does God propose to teach this lesson? It is not by “feeding them with manna.” How could giving Israel food–even if through supernatural means–teach them that life does not come through food? No, rather, he teaches them to adjust their thinking about food by depriving them of food–he humbled them, made them go hungry, and then fed them with manna supernaturally.
To fully appreciate this point, we need to accurately understand manna. One might be inclined to think that supernaturally provided food would be delicious–simply divine!! But that was, in fact, not the case. The account tells us that the Israelites eventually grew tired of the manna and longed for the meat they had eaten in Egypt. Manna was not the kind of food that gave them pleasure and met their desires. It nourished them and sustained their lives, but it was an experience of deprivation. They were deprived of the culinary delights that others had (and that they had once had). They were forced to live at subsistence level. They were not even allowed to possess manna in abundance–to store it and keep some in reserve was forbidden. (God made sure that the manna rotted if they disobeyed Him and tried to store it.) They were allowed to eat what they needed each day; then they were entirely without until the next day.
God did not give them manna to satisfy their longing for taste, pleasure, and adventure, nor did he give it in an abundance to give them the security of knowing they would not starve. He gave them manna day-by-day to sustain their existence. But he did not intend to delight them; only to keep them from starving.
So how was depriving them of culinary delights a part of their training? The answer to this involves a very important truth: only when the delights of life disappoint and fail me do I allow myself to face squarely and honestly into the question of what my existence is all about. So long as I can pursue one marvelous delight after another and find some semblance of happiness and satisfaction, I so naturally assume that the point of my existence is to pursue happiness through the good and wonderful gifts which God has placed in his creation: marriage, intimacy, children, friendship, honor, beauty, pleasure, adventure. . . To enjoy all the gifts woven into God’s creation is the point of my existence. If I can seem to make my life full by filling it with all these things, then why would I ever consider that the true meaning and purpose of my existence is to find fulfillment elsewhere?
But that of course is the problem. A “full” life lies to me. It hides this truth from me: God created me for something bigger and better than anything this world could possibly give me. I was made to be made “full” with a fullness more profound than any earthly delight can ever produce. I was made for eternity. I was made to live fully forever. I was not made to have experiences of fullness, but to possess a fullness of soul, or character. I was made for another world, another creation. I was made to find the meaning of my existence in a whole different age of this cosmos.
A “full and happy” life prevents a human being from seeing any of this. If there is no pain and deprivation to prevent me from settling in to enjoy this world, I will do so. I will fall into a fatal stupor. I will sleep the sleep of death. For in my groggy, unthinking, unphilosophical state, I will never become enlightened to the reality that he who loves this world will perish with this world. Only he who has seen the relative worthlessness of this world and has forsaken it will stand to inherit the eternal one that is to come. But it is difficult, exceedingly difficult, to forsake a world and life that I experience as full and rewarding. If I do not see the emptiness of life, I will not wait for another. The “full and happy” life is a trap, a snare, a deadly illusion.
What about the life that–due to limitation, pain, deprivation, and failure–is hollow, bitter, sorrowful, and wearying? There are two ways to respond to a life sustained by bland, uninteresting, tedious manna. We can grow bitter, angry, and resentful–complaining that others feast on scrumptious steak while we nibble on a handful of tasteless crackers day after day. Or, we can grow wise. We can ask ourselves the most important of all questions: What, after all, do I want from my existence? Do I want it to consist of pleasant tastes whenever I want, with no unpleasant tastes to spoil my fun? Taste is a delight; but is it really life? Can it provide my existence with the meaning and purpose I really want and need? Can it–in a fulfilling and meaningful way–define who I am? Or does my heart really long for something more–for something with more substance than that? I never stop to ask myself that question until the everyday joys of life bitterly disappoint me. Not all become philosophical. Some complain; some get drunk and the questions stop. But a few do become philosophers. They wonder about the purpose of their existence, and they find the truth–namely, that the purpose of this existence is to know and love God and to find one’s true and ultimate fulfillment in the hope of being transformed into a new creature who shares in the moral purity of God Himself.
This is why God reduced Israel to living at subsistence level in the wilderness of the Sinai and stripped them of so many of the joys of worldly existence–in order that perhaps they might become enlightened. Perhaps they might come to see the meaning of this existence and to know where true life is to be found.
In Hebrews, it says:
. . . you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline [i.e., training] of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines [trains], and He scourges every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline [training] that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline [train]? But if you are without discipline [training], of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline [train] us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined [trained] us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines [trains] us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline [training] for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:5-13; NASV)
There are two kinds of people in the world, the children of God and the children of the devil. The children of God are those whom God will train in wisdom. As Hebrews says, “. . .what son is there whom his father does not discipline [train]? But if you are without discipline [training], of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” His primary goal in their lives is to bring them to an understanding of the true nature and purpose of their existence–namely, that man does not and cannot find life in the joys and delights of present earthly existence, but rather, that man finds life in that destiny implicit in every promise that has proceeded out of God’s mouth.
And how does God carry out this training? Through suffering. If we are children of God, we must and will be trained in wisdom, and this inevitably involves suffering and deprivation. What is suffering? I would suppose that suffering is relative. What might be experienced as failure, disappointment, and lack by a very wealthy American might be beyond the wildest hopes of an impoverished peasant from Bangladesh. The point is this: whatever we experience as bitter disappointment, failure, lack, or limitation–these are the sufferings that every true child of God will inevitably experience. For in these we learn wisdom.
We live in a culture that readily assumes that the blessing of God will come in the form of success, riches, and prosperity of one form or another. But the reverse is actually the case. The blessing of God normally comes in the form of failure, lack, disappointment, pain, and suffering. Through poverty of “stuff” and opportunity and through an abundance of suffering we can become “poor in spirit” and thereby qualified to inherit the Kingdom of God, whose worth is beyond measure.
The rich man, not the poor man, must be the quicker to concern himself with the meaning of his economic status. The rich man, not the poor man, is at a disadvantage. The rich man’s life is full of snares; he will enter into the Kingdom of God only by means of an unusual and remarkable miracle. The rich man’s entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven is harder to come by than a camel’s slipping through the eye of a needle.
Solomon tells us that in the midst of his prosperity and debauchery, his wisdom remained with him:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. . . . when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless [empty], a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11, NIV)
Solomon had the unusual and remarkable ability–i.e., wisdom–to “see through” the attractive façade of earthly delights to the emptiness and hollowness within. But most rich people lose their wisdom among their many treasures, and their eyes are blinded by the flashing brilliance of the jewels to which they cling.
The average rich man has his reward now–in full. There ain’t no more; no eternal reward awaits him. To the poor man, God is being particularly merciful. Not every poor man will enter the Kingdom of God; most won’t. But it will not be for lack of opportunity. On the billboard of his own suffering, disappointment, limitations, and humiliation, God has inscribed the truth about human existence in large, bold letters: LIFE IN THIS WORLD IS EMPTINESS! YOU WERE MADE FOR SOMETHING BETTER. SEEK IT.
When you look around and see everyone else eating gourmet ice cream while you munch dutifully on manna, remember why. God “humbles you” and “makes you go hungry” and strips your existence of its many potential delights. He wants you to know that man does not live by earthly delights, but he lives by the promises that proceed from the mouth of God. The delight of eternal life will far surpass anything this present existence can offer. We do well to set our heart on that delight to come and not get distracted by the delights of this age. If we look too fondly upon the delights of this age, we may find that we have become disqualified for the delight that is to come.
Copyright May 1995 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.