There was no little French bakery up in heaven throwing down baguettes and brioche and leaving the desert blanketed with just-barely-crispy-on-the-outside-but-chewy-on-the-inside, gluten-tastic good stuff. That is how it should have been – you lug yourself out of your tent, half-awake, and wipe the sleep from your eyes and make a groggy grab for the cranberry-almond-manna, or, how about the asiago-cheese manna today, or, this morning, maybe would you prefer the manna with the teeny olive pieces baked in on top? That is how it should have been. I mean, if there is going to be a miracle, God should make it a good one! Give us this day our daily … artisanal rosemary-olive-oil bread, no? But alas. God’s gift to the starving Israelites was bug juice. Seriously, it was bug juice. As it happens, there is a pesky species of plant lice that gorges itself on the fruit of tamarisk trees native to Sinai; theses little guys go so nuts with the nectar that they end up secreting out the lot of it in the form of a sweet goo that crystallizes in the cool of the night and dissolves in the heat of the day. Evidently, the local ant population is enamored of the stuff and gobbles it up before it has a chance to spoil. So that now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t sheath of sugary angel dust was nothing so romantic as it might seem at first blush. Manna – the very word itself, from the Hebrew ‘man hu’ – it means something like ‘What is it?’ … which is exactly what every Israelite three-year-old probably did ask in disgusted protest when a heaping portion of digestive by-product was plopped onto their plate. God gave the people ‘What is it?’ to eat, and in this case, the old adage holds: if you have to ask, you don’t want to know.
God provides for the people, not with Michelin-starred blessings on a silver platter, but with bug juice. Some miracle! Actually, should this even count as a miracle? If it is not God per se who preparest a picnic table before them, but they themselves, scraping by, living off the land, scavenging what little resources there may be – should this even count as a miracle, if it is not God per se, but the Israelites themselves (and I guess those glorious bugs!) who see to their survival? Is there less of a wow-factor to God’s faithfulness if the people were fed on meager fare? And is it right to credit God at all, if in fact the manna did not materialize out of thin air, but was instead a naturally occurring, fortuitous crud, brought to the people courtesy of a parasite evolutionarily well-suited to the particular ecosystem that they happened to wander through?
To step back: in the book of Exodus, God acts in partnership with the created order. The plagues that come upon Egypt because Pharaoh will not let the people go, the plagues are described as the doing of God, as divine punishments, yes, but there is also a loosely quasi-naturalistic logic to their unfolding. The Bible portrays the booming Egyptian economy as being powered by exploitative labor practices – think: the Hebrew slaves; and the Bible portrays the Egyptians’ greed and pursuit of prosperity at any price as pushing the region to the point of environmental collapse. Of course, this will be difficult for more enlightened, modern people like us to imagine, but the Egyptians’ lust for more, more, more wreaks havoc on the earth and precipitates disaster. What is the plague of water-turned-to-blood, really, if not a toxic algae bloom – which drives frogs from their habitats, leaving them to starve and rot in the city streets? This then brings about a mushrooming further down the food chain, as the gnats and flies the frogs would have fed on now multiply and swarm unchecked, and, in turn spread disease to the livestock, and so on and so forth. So did God bring down these calamities upon the Egyptians, or did they bring them down upon themselves? Or both? Later, when Moses parts the Red Sea, famously lifting up his hands, Charlton-Heston-style, and holding the waves at bay, the scripture is careful to add this little gloss: “that [it was] the Lord [who] drove the sea back by a strong east wind, all night.” Was it God’s power coursing through Moses which parted the waters, or was it the weather? Or both?
And so, similarly, is manna bread from heaven, or bug juice? Or both? The manna’s own does-it-or-does-it-not-count-as-a-miracle quality is driven home in the fact that it only falls from heaven six out of seven days, and that on the sixth day it does not spoil. On the one hand, I suppose it could be the case that God is taking preventative measures here, is withholding manna, is making sure the people observe the Sabbath by making it impossible for them not to, and so, that this is reverse divine intervention, through and through. But on the other, I think a richer, more imaginative reading would be that in the story-world of the scriptures, the creation is understood as resting on the seventh day, and that this is natural and good and right: that the creation simply does not offer itself up for human sustenance on the Sabbath, that the fruit of the tamarisk trees do not do their work of falling to the desert floor, and the plant lice that feed on them do not do their work of, you know, nectar in, nectar out, and the quail do not do their work of carrying the pests hither and yon to distribute their droppings, and the ants or the worms or whatever do not do their work of stealing away with whatever remains – not on the Sabbath, none of this on the Sabbath. But rather, on the Sabbath, all creation joins God in some good, sweet R and R. On the Sabbath, God and the cosmos rest together, in communion. And so it is less that God is gumming up the bread-works in the otherworld, but that this world and all that is in it, is depicted literarily as doing what is in its DNA to do every seventh day – not a darn thing.
And so, again, is manna bread from heaven, or bug juice? Or both? Should or should not this count as a miracle? The book of Exodus just will not force the choice. In fact, the scripture seems to reject the assumptions behind the question. At one and the same time, the manna is both from heaven and of the earth. The people harvest the manna that just plain was already (and still is!) there to be had, and without missing a beat, they believe that behind the manna is the hand of God. That is what this bug juice doubling as bread from heaven would have us see: miracles are pretty much everything, upon close enough inspection. A miracle – like God providing for the people – is not the sort of thing that happens only every now and again, mainly when you are in a pinch; miracles, like God providing for the people, and for us, are the whole story, every second of every day, all there is. Miracles do not punctuate life. Miracles permeate life. Miracles are life. Our lives are miracles. To put that another way: things are always more holy than they seem. Things – even unspectacular things, even gross things – are full of more God than you could ever guess. Which is not to say that gross things are not gross. Manna is not much, but it is both what there was, and what was given. And that was good enough. God’s blessings may be more bug juice than the best thing since sliced bread, but they are blessings all the same, and as such, call for at least a grit-your-teeth, grin-and-bear-it-gratitude.
And because seeing and naming God’s blessings as such is by no means always intuitive or easy, because the world dishes up crud, because, from the midst of struggle, to the Israelites or to you or to me, God’s faithfulness may seem like meager fare, because when it feels like we have precious little, it is difficult to dwell on the myriad ways in which we do have quite a lot, because it is hard to see that heaven is all around while going through hell, because to claim and to celebrate the miraculous-ness of the everyday is a hard discipline – this scripture sets before us, too, the Sabbath, a time set apart from all time, a time when we get by with a little less, just leftover bug juice, freezer-burned bug juice, day-old bug juice with a bit of white fuzz on it … that will make tomorrow’s bug juice look all the more appetizing. This scripture sets before us the Sabbath, a day when our lives are stripped down barer still, a day when we do without, when we do nothing, a day when our utter dependency on God is so fully and palpably felt that we cannot but remember to remember that truly, in all things, we have tasted and seen how good God is.