Manna from Heaven
A Sermon by Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
Labor Day Sunday, August 31, 2014
The Background: The Exodus
Most of us are probably familiar with the Old Testament Story of the Exodus, although I suspect our impressions of it probably have more to do with the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner than actual study of the scriptural text itself.
In the Bible it is implied that the Israelites had migrated to Egypt and sold themselves into slavery to escape famine. After a time, scripture claims that God commanded the Israelites to depart Egypt where they had been enslaved and to make an exodus to find the Promised Land. The Land of Milk and Honey.
And so Moses, an Israelite patriarch went to Pharaoh and announced that God demanded Pharaoh set the Hebrew slaves free and permit them to leave Egypt. Pharaoh refused, and God sent plagues upon Egypt until Pharaoh changed his mind.
There were ten plagues said to have been unleashed by God. Water was changed into blood, then plagues of frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, firestorms, locusts, darkness and last but not least, the death of all first born Egyptian children. Not exactly a good time.
There are actually naturalistic explanations for these plagues. In fact, they are really only exaggerations of naturally occurring changes in the Egyptian ecosystem.
Red algae would have turned the Nile red.
The blighted water would have caused the frogs to leave the river and come onto the land and die.
The death of frogs would have allowed insect populations to increase geometrically, including flies which carry anthrax.
Cattle afflicted with anthrax would have died in the fields polluting them, people infected would break out in boils.
Severe hail can appear as fire when it falls through sunlight, and would have crushed the crops. The barren fields would turn in dustbowls, and sandstorms would darken the skies.
When the darkness passed, Egyptian custom would have been given firstborn children priority for food, and they would have been given food from the polluted fields where the sick cattle had died.
So it all makes a sort of sense if you allow for the historical lens of exaggeration.
And so Pharaoh let the Israelites go.
Scholars today do not really think the Exodus happened in the way the Old Testament describes in the 2nd or 3rd millennia BCE. Exodus is really just the Greek word for the concept of “going out” and there isn’t a scrap of archeological evidence that it ever happened.
According to the story in Exodus Chapter 12, the Israelites numbered 600,000 men, plus women and children, plus retainers and livestock. The Book of Numbers gives an exact count of 603,550 men over the age of twenty, plus wives, children, elderly and retainers. If you do the math that something like two million people.
At the time, scholars estimate the entire Egyptian population was not more than 3.5 million people. So if the Exodus happened, then more than half of the population of Egypt would have been involved. As ancient Egypt was a slave economy, the departure of that many slaves would have resulted in economic collapse, and no such collapse is recorded in the written Egyptian histories of the time.
Also, the numbers are completely improbable. That many people, marching ten abreast, would have formed a line 150 miles long, without even counting the livestock. There is simply no way the logistics existed to support such a procession, nor could the Sinai desert have supported such a host of people. The exodus is a fable.
But something happened. The leader of the Israelites was said to have been a man named Moses, and that is an Egyptian name. One of the plagues was of frogs, and there are no frogs in Israel, only in Egypt. Probably there was an procession of a small group of people who gradually gained strength and size in the desert as other nomadic tribes attached themselves. Each adopting the story of the Exodus as their cultural narrative. And that brings us to the manna.
The Story of the Manna
The story of the manna occurs in two Old Testament Books, Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. The accounts differ but basically the people were hungry. God heard their need and offered to provide a miraculous food.
One morning the people found spread out on the ground a white particle that was edible and good tasting. They said “what is it?” and the name “manna” is an Aramaic translation of the exact question.
The people could gather the manna every morning and it sustained them. But no matter how much they gathered, they could not store the manna. If they tried it would go bad overnight. So each day they gathered the food they found and it sustained them for that day. They had to trust there would be more tomorrow.
There are more than one kind of manna described in the story. The first kind was said to look like the spice coriander and tasted like wafers baked with honey. The second, recounted in the Book of Numbers was different. It was said to look like “bdellium,” a dark sap that had to be ground and fashioned into loaves. It tasted like cakes made with olive oil.
The story of the manna occurs in the Quran too, and early Islamic scholars wrote “Truffles are part of the ‘manna’ which Allah, sent to the people of Israel through Moses, and its juice is a medicine for the eye” (6th Hadath of the Sahih Muslim).
The different accounts of what manna was I think gives us a clue that it really was not one thing. This has led some scholars to think that the word “manna” was actually a cognate of the word “mennu,” the Egyptian word for food. Manna simply designates the naturally occurring food sources of the desert.
It turns out there are a lot of them, which is why the deserts in the Middle East support human settlements and nomadic cultures to this day. The foods available would have included various kind of plant saps that are released by the activity of scale insects. These crystalized saps would indeed have resembled coriander in some cases and are a good carbohydate source. It would also have included the tougher bdellium, which would have to be ground and fashioned into cakes in order to be digestible.
The indigenous foodstuffs of desert ecology would also have included various sorts of fungi which would also spring up overnight and would appear like bread on the ground. The fact that the Quran refers to manna as “truffles,” a kind of fungi, supports this.
Now, this is where I’m going to get myself in trouble.
The speculation that the manna, the naturally occurring food sources of the desert may have included fungi, has led some anthropologists to wonder if some of that fungi included Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms or something similar. These mushrooms do not grow in the Sinai desert now, but may have millennia ago, and still exist as close as India.
These mushrooms are notorious breeding grounds for insects, including the scale insects that would cause plants to weep sap. The mushrooms also contain a mild hallucinogenic (psilocybin) that has as a side effect decreasing appetite which would have been useful to desert nomads.
Scholars have also proposed that as fungi of this family are hallucinogens, perhaps some of the miracles described in the Old Testament stories might have a biochemical explanation rather than a supernatural explanation.
If you don’t believe me on this one spend a few minutes with Google or Bing and look up the word “manna” and you will find a surprising amount of literature has been published about this and the idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Now...Don’t Get Me Wrong
Now, don't’ get me wrong. I maintain a radical reading of the scripture as the basis for my Unitarian Universalism and always have. I claim scholarly accuracy for my position, but acknowledge that I pay little attention to traditional explanations of the story. Instead, I employ a philosophical discipline called “phenomenology” where I read the scripture with as few presuppositions as possible, then ask what light archeology, psychology, philosophy, comparative religion and medicine might have to shed on a new understanding.
This sometimes gets me in trouble because people, especially very conventional people who were raised not to question what they were taught, can be shocked by the new reading I suggest.
I can hear it now. Someone says, “My minister thinks the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years where they were fed daily by the divine Hand of God with a miraculous bread.”
Then someone in this congregation says “Well, one of the ministers at my church thinks the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert whacked out on magic mushrooms, and that’s where we got all this stuff.”
If you do that it might cause a bit of conflict. So please exercise restraint.
What I am saying is that the word “manna” may come from the Egyptian work for food, “mennu” and that the Aramaic derivation of the word was added later.
I am saying that the legend of the manna probably refers to the naturally occurring foodstuffs of the desert ecology that are consumed there to this day. That would include crystallized plant sap released by scale insects and fungi of various sorts. And the the scriptural text of both the Islamic and Hebrew religious text have some support for this.
I am also saying that among the fungi that occur in this area are hallucinogenic fungi, which have often been used in religious ceremonies in those cultures where they exist. It is therefore possible, that such hallucinations may have played a part in some of the religious imagery that has been passed down to us from Old Testament times.
I’d appreciate if you’d not quote me out of context. Tar and feathers do not look good given my fair complexion.
Why I Care
Apart from these really interesting speculations, as I read the story of the manna I am struck with how the writer presents the tale. It wasn’t as if God led the people into the desert and then said “Hey, gather around let me explain how I’m going to take care of you…” God was silent. The waters of the Red Sea closed and there was nothing but four decades of desert life ahead.
They found themselves in the desert with nothing beyond what they could carry and they didn’t have centuries of fieldcraft knowledge in how to survive there. They would have had to gather what wisdom the elders had, learn from any indigenous people they found, figure the rest out by trial and error.
They were worried. If we were in that position we’d be worried too, and wondering where to find food.
Worry is an emotion about anticipated negative events. It’s what you feel when you realize there may be challenges ahead, and you that you do not have the skills to meet them. Worry comes when you feel inadequate to deal with what might come.
Some things we worry about one can fix. You can learn new skills. You can take precautions. If you are worried about a car accident you can check the tires and make sure you put on seat belts. There is something you can do.
But an awful lot of things we worry about we can’t do anything to fix. We are all going to die. We all get sick. Bad things happen to good people. The world isn’t fair, and on and on. There is little we can do to prepare for them and at some point they will overwhelm us and we will die. None of us get out of this alive.
You have two choices, you can “Keep Calm and Carry On” as the poster from Britain of the Second World War proposes, or you can over-focus on your worry and keep in your mind. That’s toxic worry. You fill your head with thoughts about things you can’t do anything about.
Now, as I’m a Consulting Hypnotist this is all very good for business as I make my living helping people get over their worries. But toxic worry is a very bad thing.
Dr. Herbert Benson the author of the popular book The Relaxation Response calls worry of this sort the “hidden plague.” Stress related illness are epidemic in our society. The illness that have a stress related component are also increasing. Our mental health is fragile, antidepressants outsell aspirin, and everywhere we see signs of people cracking under the strain. We are worrying ourselves into sickness with an over-focus on things we cannot control.
That is a mistake. If you fill your mind with fear and worry, it takes you over. The human nervous system can process only one impulse at a time. Only one. Let me prove that to you.
Cross one leg over the other. Rotate your foot in a clockwise direction. Now, with your finger in the air sketch out the integer zero. Great. Keep your foot moving clockwise and now with your finger sketch out the number six. Is your foot still moving clockwise? No?
You foot changed its clockwise direction because your hand started moving in a counterclockwise direction. As you were focused on the hand, the foot automatically shifted too. The human nervous system can entertain only one impulse at a time.
That’s true of the part of your nervous system called your brain too. It can process one idea at a time. If you experience worry and do nothing about it, that impulse--worry--takes up the channel and it is all your mind can focus on.
You can do it intermittently, and most of us do. We’re worried, then we think about something else, then we worry again, then we do something else, then we worry. All the gaps. All the spaces in our minds that might have been use for creative thinking, imagination, problem solving are taken up by the mental constipation we inflict upon ourselves.
The way out is to do what the Israelites did. In a vision (of some sort; I am NOT saying what sort of vision) Moses realizes that there is food in the desert if you know how to look for it, and he then shows the Israelites how to gather and prepare it.
The key thing to get is that you couldn't store manna. You gathered and ate it the same day or it went bad. Later editors adjusted the story to allow for a sabbath day but most scholars think that was added later.
You can’t save up the manna for a rainy day, or any other kind of day. You are given food now and you just have to trust that there will be more tomorrow. You can’t hoard it because you are worried about tomorrow. You have to live as if tomorrow will be okay.
Self-Talk is Powerful
There is a story recounted in Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s great little book, What’s in a Phrase. During a spiritual exercise she was challenged to “write her spiritual autobiography in six words.” what she came up with was “Eat the Manna. More will come.”
This phrase came to her in a vision when she remembered her mother who lived close to poverty. Things were tight, but her mother also realized that quality of life mattered and you can’t deprive yourself of everything. So she was willing to spend on things that mattered to her heart.
She was confident she’d find a way to afford it somehow. “Eat the Manna. More will come.” You can’t hoard everything because you are worried. Sometimes you have to trust that you will be adequate to meet future challenges, even if you’re not exactly sure how.
You’ve heard me say before that as a Consulting Hypnotist I believe that what we tell ourselves in the privacy of our minds has a tremendous power to affect what happens to us. Not total power, but a lot of power.
The legend of the manna is the answer. The ancient Israelites simply decided that they would live as if there would always be enough to sustain them. That is the meaning of the story of the manna.
They didn’t know where it came from. They couldn’t store it up for a future time. They could only eat it now and be satisfied, trusting that their would be more later. They could have worried, but the scripture says they choose not to.
The human ability to choose to do one thing rather than another is a great power. If your mind is filled with worry you can choose to change the channel by deciding the worry is pointless and thinking instead about other things. “Eat the manna. More will come.” If you are going to tell yourself a story, that’s a good one.
Winston Churchill is said to have quipped “I’ve had lots of worries in my day, mostly about things that never happened. Therefore, obviously, worrying helps.” That’s funny because it is so obviously wrong. Worrying about things doesn’t change things, it just changes our brains and not in a good way. But there is something more, and I close with that reflection.
If we allow ourselves to live worried lives, we hurt other people. Because if you do not release the things you worry about, you will transmit them. Children take seriously what their parents and other adult authority figures do. If they see you fretting, they will decide that is appropriate behavior and will do the same thing.
Employees need to have confidence in the enterprise they work for to give their best work. If they see their managers and executives stressed and unsettled, their own productivity will plummet.
Spouses need to be confident in each other, and if they observe one partner anxious and bedeviled, they find they cannot relax into the relationship either.
If you cannot release your worry, you transmit it. You owe it to the people you love to do what the Israelites did--eat the manna trusting that somehow more will come. By that I mean being willing to believe that you will be adequate to the challenges of the future.
Or at least it’s way more likely that you will be if you keep your mind clear of a worried noise.
And that’s my sermon.