I’m reading a fascinating article in Harper’s, “Guardians of Memory: the quest to save ancient manuscripts,” by Fred Bahnson. The central figure is a Benedictine monk, Father Columba Stewart, whose life has been dedicated to “preserving ancient religious manuscripts around the world, especially those threatened by war.”
Bahnson accompanied Father Columba to a dangerous area in Mali where he learned repeatedly that security was shaky. At the beginning of their travels, Bahnson was invited by Father Columba to attend Mass with him.
Columba had passed me his prayer book and asked me to read Psalm 78. The lines echoed the Exodus story, how the Lord saved the Israelites in the desert by sending them quail and manna from heaven. Though the passage portrayed God’s provision in a time of hunger, those words now carried a note of foreboding. I remembered a particular line: “He rained flesh upon them like dust.”
Bahnson may have focused on “He rained flesh upon them like dust,” but I was thinking, “Wait a minute. God send quail along with the manna?”
I didn’t know that. True, I know very little about the bible, but even I know the expression, “manna from heaven.” Never heard about the quail.
So out came my bible. Before quoting the manna business, I give you a summary of what happened pre-manna: the people keep forgetting what god had done for them, all the marvels. So god, instead of punishing them for their crazy short-term memory (among other things, they forgot he parted the Red Sea for them!), keeps trying to prove himself. He clave the rocks and brought streams down so they could drink. Still, they kvetched: “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” “…can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?”
They think God is Top Chef, good grief.
God got wroth, for sure. Yet, he sulketh not. He “had rained down manna upon them to eat, and had given them of the corn of heaven. Man did eat angels’ food: he sent them meat to the full…He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea. And he let it fall in the midst of their camp, round about their habitations. So they did eat, and were well filled: for he gave them their own desire…”
It’s a bit confusing. Did god give them all the stuff before they kvetched, during and/or after?
But that’s not the point. The point is…what is manna anyway? First, it’s an edible substance. It might also be:
Manna was almost certainly trehalose, a white crystalline carbohydrate made of two glucose molecules joined together. It is one of very few naturally occurring molecules that taste sweet, although it is only half as sweet as sugar.
“…almost certainly”? No citation is given for that. Nor this one:
In ancient Hebrew, it can be rendered man-hu, a likely derivation of what this food has come to be called, manna. The Bible describes it as being “like coriander seed,” and “white, and its taste was like wafers with honey.”
More confusion. Coriander seed is not white and I would not describe its taste that way, not at all.
But what about those quails raining from heaven, along with the manna?
…He rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea…”
Doesn’t say “quail,” not in my bible. Chickens, maybe, although it doesn’t say that, either.
I could go on to question whether raining chickens “like as the sand of the sea,” i.e., a sandstorm, is the best delivery system for feathered fowls. Maybe the bible is suggesting god was irritated. Putting myself in the role of the people, I wouldn’t like feathers and chickens hitting me in the head like a sandstorm.
Maybe I need to get another bible.