The main food of the Israelites during their 40-year trek in the wilderness. (Ex 16:35) Manna was first provided by Jehovah in the Wilderness of Sin during the last half of the second month after Israel’s coming out of Egypt in 1513 B.C.E. (Ex 16:1-4) It served as food for them until they entered Canaan in 1473 B.C.E. and partook of the produce of the Promised Land.—Jos 5:10-12.
Manna appeared on the ground with the evaporation of a layer of dew that developed in the morning, so that “upon the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flaky thing, fine like hoarfrost upon the earth.” When the Israelites first saw it, they said, “What is it?” or, literally, “man huʼ?” (Ex 16:13-15; Nu 11:9) This is the probable origin of the name, the Israelites themselves beginning to call this food “manna.”—Ex 16:31.
Description. Manna was “white like coriander seed” and had the “look” of bdellium gum, a waxlike and transparent substance having a form that resembles a pearl. Its taste was comparable to “that of flat cakes with honey” or “an oiled sweet cake.” After being ground in a hand mill or pounded in a mortar, manna was boiled or made into cakes and baked.—Ex 16:23, 31; Nu 11:7, 8.
No natural substance known today fits the Biblical description of manna in every respect, and so there is little basis for identifying it with a known product. This is especially so because miraculous aspects were involved in Jehovah’s providing manna for the Israelites. The availability of manna did not depend on the time of year or a particular wilderness location. Although the manna would breed worms and begin to stink on all the other days if kept overnight, the additional omer of manna gathered on the sixth day, to be used as food on the Sabbath, did not spoil. No manna could be found on the Sabbath, this serving to enforce Sabbath observance on the Israelites.—Ex 16:19-30.
The family head either gathered or supervised the gathering of manna for the entire household. Since the manna melted when the sun got hot, he doubtless quickly gathered the approximate supply needed for the household and afterward measured it. Whether little or much was gathered, depending upon the size of the household, the amount collected always proved to be one omer (2.2 L; 2 dry qt) per person. (Ex 16:16-18) The apostle Paul alluded to this when encouraging the Christians at Corinth to use their material surplus to offset the material deficiency of their brothers.—2Co 8:13-15.
Purpose. Jehovah let the Israelites go hungry in the wilderness and then furnished manna to teach them “that not by bread alone does man live but by every expression of Jehovah’s mouth does man live.” Jehovah did this ‘in order to humble them and put them to the test so as to do them good in their afterdays.’ (De 8:3, 16) When the Israelites tired of manna and began calling it “contemptible bread,” Jehovah punished their rebellion by sending poisonous serpents among them, causing the death of many.—Nu 21:5, 6.
The psalmist referred to manna as “the grain of heaven” (Ps 78:24), “bread from heaven” (Ps 105:40), and “the very bread of powerful ones” (Ps 78:25). Angels are described as being “mighty in power” (Ps 103:20) and therefore could be called “powerful ones.” This, however, would not mean that angels actually eat manna but that God may have used angelic means in providing it for the Israelites. (Compare Gal 3:19.) Or, since heaven is the dwelling place of the “powerful ones,” the expression “bread of powerful ones” may simply point to its heavenly source.
So that future generations might see manna, Aaron was to deposit before Jehovah a jar containing an omer (2.2 L; 2 dry qt) of manna. After the golden ark of the covenant was completed, a “golden jar” of manna was put inside this sacred chest. (Ex 16:32-34; Heb 9:4) About five centuries later, however, when the Ark was transferred from the tent that David had erected for it to the temple that Solomon had built, the golden jar was missing. (2Sa 6:17; 1Ki 8:9; 2Ch 5:10) It had served its purpose.
Symbolic Use. Although the manna was a divine provision (Ne 9:20), it did not sustain the lives of the Israelites forever. Christ Jesus made a point of this, and then he added: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and, for a fact, the bread that I shall give is my flesh in behalf of the life of the world.” (Joh 6:30-33, 48-51, 58) Christ’s faithful followers avail themselves of this heavenly manna, or “bread of life.” They do so in a figurative manner by exercising faith in the redeeming power of Jesus’ flesh and blood laid down in sacrifice. Their doing so opens up to them the prospect of living forever, whether in the heavens with Christ or in the earthly Paradise.
Christ also used the jar of manna symbolically when he assured his spirit-anointed followers that those who prove to be conquerors would receive “the hidden manna,” an imperishable food supply or that which results from such a supply, in their case, immortality and incorruptibility in heaven.—Re 2:17; 1Co 15:53.