Bread from Heaven


by Doug Ward

The book of Numbers covers a selected sequence of events from Israel's forty years in the wilderness, as the young nation prepared to enter the Promised Land. The book's attention is mainly focused on the beginning and end of this time period. The events described in chapters 1-14 apparently occurred in the second year of the Exodus (Num 1:1; 10:11; 14:34), while those covered in chapters 20-36 came from the fortieth year (compare Num 20:22-29 and 33:38). The only episodes mentioned from the intervening years are the execution of a Sabbath-breaker (15:32-36); the rebellion led by Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (chapter 16); and the budding of Aaron's rod (chapter 17).


Although we read of only a handful of major events from the wilderness years, the Bible does give us some clues about everyday life during this period. We know that God provided manna for the Israelites throughout the forty years, and that their clothing did not wear out (Deut 8:3-4). Moreover, God guided and protected them through a pillar of cloud in the daytime and a pillar of fire at night (Exod 13:21-22; Num 10:11-12). These were great privileges indeed. Throughout history, most people have had to struggle to obtain food, clothing, and shelter, the basics for survival. But for the Israelites in the wilderness, these things were readily available.


With necessities taken care of, the former slaves had the opportunity to get to know a new Master, a Master who loved them and whom they could trust. Later the prophets looked back fondly on these years, picturing them as a honeymoon period in Israel's relationship with God (Jer 2:2-3; Hosea 9:10; 13:4-5). For example, God says through the prophet Hosea, "I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them" (Hosea 11:4).


Manna the Wonder Food

Especially wonderful was the manna that constituted the staple of Israel's diet during the forty years. Arriving with the dew six mornings a week, it was unusually versatile. It tasted "like wafers made with honey" (Exod 16:31) and like "cakes baked with oil" (Num 11:8). It could be prepared in several different ways.


Manna was specially designed to teach the Israelites to walk with God and trust in his provision. There was always enough to satisfy their hunger (Exod 16:16-18) They could also rest without anxiety on the weekly Sabbath, because the extra manna they gathered on Friday would keep for a second day without spoiling (vv. 22-26).


There had never been another food like manna. Looking back at the Exodus, later writers marveled at this amazing divine gift. In Psalm 78:24-25, manna is celebrated as "the grain of heaven" and "the bread of angels." The Book of Wisdom (also known as Wisdom of Solomon), an intertestamental work from the first century B.C., describes it as "providing every pleasure and suited to every taste" (16:20). Manna was so versatile that "the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit everyone's liking" (v. 21).


The Israelites received the manna until they reached the Promised Land and celebrated their first Passover there (Joshua 5:10-12). Later a tradition arose that in some future Passover season, the Messiah would bring more manna.1 Manna would then be enjoyed again by the saints. For example, Second Baruch, an apocalyptic work from the late first century A.D., says that in the messianic age, "the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years" (2 Baruch 29:8).


Such a tradition may lie behind a passage in the book of Revelation. In Rev 2:17 the church at Pergamum is told, "To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna." Here the "hidden manna" could be manna currently hidden in heaven that will be enjoyed during the messianic age. Alan F. Johnson elaborates, "To those at Pergamum who refused the banquets of the pagan gods, Christ will give the manna of his great banquet of eternal life in the kingdom."2



The Bread of Life

In light of these manna traditions, we can better appreciate the meaning and impact of one of the great miracles of Jesus, the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15). During the time leading up to Passover (v. 4), Jesus fed a large and hungry crowd with just five barley loaves and two fish (v. 9). All were able to eat "as much as they wanted" (v. 11), and yet more bread remained at the end of the meal than had existed at the beginning (vv. 12-13). Here, then, was a seemingly inexhaustible supply of imperishable bread. Who could have brought such bread but the Messiah? It is no wonder that the crowd proclaimed him to be the "prophet like Moses" of Deut 18 and wanted to make him king right then and there (vv. 14-15).


The feeding of the five thousand was prefigured by other incidents in Israel's history besides the giving of manna in the wilderness. One such incident is Elisha's feeding of one hundred with just twenty loaves of barley bread from the spring harvest (2 Kings 4:42-44). In this case also there was bread left over. Jesus' miracle undoubtedly led many witnesses to conclude that they were in the presence of someone even greater than Elisha.


Another precursor of Jesus' miracle is found in Ruth 2:14. When Boaz gave Ruth grain from the spring harvest, "she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over," like the crowd in John 6. Rabbinic interpretation of this verse saw it as a prophecy of God's blessings to his people in three different ages: Ruth ate (in the present age), was satisfied (in the time of the Messiah), and had some left over (for the world to come).3


Jesus' synagogue teaching summarized in John 6:27-59 also deals with bread for three ages. First there is the manna, the miraculous bread of the Exodus. Second, we have the seemingly imperishable bread that fed the five thousand, provided by the Messiah. Third, Jesus emphasizes in the rest of this chapter that He Himself is an even greater kind of "bread." By accepting Christ's sacrifice, one can ingest this kind of bread and receive eternal life. It is to the good news of Jesus as Bread of Life that the manna in the wilderness ultimately directs us.


1See Bertil Gärtner, John 6 and the Jewish Passover, C.W.K. Gleerup, Lund, 1959, p. 19.


2Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1982.


3See Shabbat 113b in the Babylonian Talmud, cited by Gärtner, p. 21.

Issue 31


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On 23 Jun 2016, 17:41.