What Is It?

Shortly after passing through the Red Sea on dry ground, the children of Israel became hungry and worried aloud that they would starve to death. In response, God promised Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16:4).

The following day, as they emerged from their tents, they discovered scattered across the ground “a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14). It looked like coriander seed, except it was white (or possibly reddish and semi-transparent). They could grind it in mills, form it into cakes, and bake or boil it. It tasted like honey (or perhaps like fresh oil). (See the contrasting descriptions in Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7-8.)

When the people saw it, they said to each other, “Man hu” (מן הוא), because they didn’t know what it was (Exodus 16:15). The Hebrew word for “what” is mah (מָה), and hu (הוּא) means either “he” or “it.” Taking the context into account, man hu sounds similar to mah hu (“What is it?”), and that’s how most English translations render it:

The Israelites were puzzled when they saw it. “What is it?” they asked each other. They had no idea what it was.

Exodus 16:15, New Living Translation

The King James translators decided to render the word man as manna, so the phrase becomes a statement instead of a question: “And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was.

Either way, we learn later in the chapter that the name stuck: “And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna” (Exodus 16:31).

I wonder if there were any budding scientists among them who wanted to know what manna was made of? They ate it for forty years, after all, so long that they got sick of it (Numbers 11:6). But they apparently never knew much about it except that it was always there—six mornings a week, like clockwork—and that it operated according to the rules that Moses had taught them: good for one day, except Fridays, when it would last for two. (See Exodus 16:16-26.)

Lehi and his family had a similar experience, not with food but with navigation. The morning after God commanded them to leave their camp by the Red Sea and begin their journey into the wilderness, Lehi “went forth to the tent door, [and] to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 16:10). We never learn what the other spindle did, but we do learn that the two pointers worked “according to the faith and diligence and heed” which the family gave to them (1 Nephi 16:28).

The family never understood how the device worked, and they never learned where it came from. But they did learn how to use it to receive guidance from God, and they definitely knew when it wasn’t working. (See 1 Nephi 18:12.)

I guess a lack of complete understanding is a prerequisite to faith. If we fully understood how everything works and why, we would not learn how to trust God, because we would have no need to trust Him.

Today, I will be grateful for God’s gifts, even the gifts that I don’t fully understand. I will strive to use my gifts according to His guidance, believing that He has a deeper knowledge of those gifts than I, and that He can teach me how to use them effectively.

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