And when they measured it with an omer, one who had gathered much had no surplus and one
who had gathered little had no lack.
One of our students read the story of the manna for a chapel service this past week. Her
basic message was one of trust in providence to give us the strength we need on a daily
basis, which is a message we can scarcely hear too often. We are remarkably slow to learn
that the past and the future are out of our reach, that what we really need are the
resources to cope with the challenges of the present.
What struck me for the first time, though, was the oddity of the verse that is our text.
People who diligently gathered a lot, perhaps to make sure they had enough, would get home
and find that they had exactly what they needed and no more. People who shirked the task,
perhaps because they felt rushed, or lazy, or perhaps because they wanted to get even for
something that had happened yesterday, would get home and find that they had all they
needed. It is as though we could count on opening the refrigerator and finding what we
needed for our next meal, whether we had shopped thoughtfully or not. It is also as though
there would never be anything there we did not need.
Obviously, physical life is not like that; and whenever we find this kind of "unrealism"
in the Bible, we must suspect that it is pointing to one or another of the ways in which
our spiritual life is different from our physical life. We do not run into many miracles
in the world as we experience it, but miraculous changes to take place within us. To
borrow from Nicodemus, we cannot reenter the physical womb and be born again as to our
bodies, but we are becoming new people in a deeper and more abiding sense.
Is there, then, something about our spiritual lives that answers to this strange
characteristic of the manna? Is there something of which we always have enough but never a
These questions raise one immediate caution flag. In the Biblical story, once the
Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered on the conquest of the promised land, the manna
stopped. This means that it is presented as a particular provision for particular
circumstances and does not come with a lifetime guarantee. Far from it, it comes with an
To be specific, it is presented as a kind of adjustment to wilderness living, the
wilderness being the barren territory between the fertile land of bondage and the fertile
land of Canaan. The whole mood of this period in Israel's history is grim. The God who has
freed them from Egypt has inundated them with laws. They have given absolute power to
Moses, and he is an inflexible leader. They are discontented and rebellious, and
especially in the book of Numbers we read of incidents in which they "test the limits," in
every case discovering that the limits are for real and that the consequences of rebellion
If we look at the whole sweep of the Biblical story as an image of our own lifelong
spiritual journey, the wilderness period in both position and mood answers persuasively to
the time of early adolescence. There are the sense of bondage and yearning for freedom
that we find in the Israelites in Egypt. There is the venture toward maturity and the
discovery of a world that is nowhere near as gentle and supportive as the world of our
childhood. There is the discovery that this world is full of rules and of consequences.
There is the testing of limits, and there is the sense of "wandering"--of a lot of effort
and motion, but no perceptible progress.
In the Biblical story, this period ends when the Israelites cross the Jordan and enter the
promised land. Our theology interprets this as a shift of focus from outward issues to
inner ones, a kind of beginning to set our own house in order. Before this, we are almost
compulsively focused on behavior, on how others respond to us. Our sense of identity
depends to a frightening extent on what other people think of us, and that tends to make
us acutely conscious of what we look like, how we dress and talk and walk.
As the inner conquest proceeds, though, we become less and less dependent on what other
people think of us. We begin to discover who we are in a new sense. There is growth in
both self-reliance and self-control. At the end of the conquest story there is the
marvelous scene in which Joshua gathers the people and asks them to decide whether they
are going to serve the Lord or not. They are absolutely sure they will, and he sounds
equally sure that they will not be up to the task. It is as telling an image as we could
ask for of those times when we need to believe in ourselves, but when there is one single
significant voice telling us that we are kidding ourselves.
All this may serve to bracket the period of the manna. We may see it most vividly in early
adolescence, but times like that recur. These are times when we struggle with harsh
demands and don't seem to be getting anywhere. They are times when the focus of our
attention is not on understanding ourselves or taking care of ourselves but simply on
doing things that have to be done whether we like it or not. They are times when our
"liberation from bondage" turns out to involve not a sense of freedom but a burden of
responsibility. These are the times, it would seem, when the Lord provides us with this
manna that follows its own rules of supply and demand.
Swedenborg makes several references to manna, and one of them I find particularly
. . . when (the delight of outward pleasures) is removed, the Lord instills spiritual
delight and good in its place. It is this good which is meant by the manna, while the
former is meant by the flesh and bread in the land of Egypt (Arcana Coelestia ¶ 84132).
Something does keep us going through these strenuous passages. They are outwardly
unrewarding. We feel as though everything has been laid on our shoulders and that there is
no relief. But if we attend to it, there is another feeling as well, a feeling that comes
"in the morning"--when our energies are freshest--and sustains us.
Essentially, I think, this is simply the feeling that there is something right about all
this. Reflect for a moment on what we feel like when we do not meet those
responsibilities, the feeling that we want to run away and hide from the world, the
feeling that we are fraudulent and worthless. When that feeling is not present because we
are in fact in there trying, it does not leave a vacuum. There is some awareness of the
part of us that does want to serve the Lord and is therefore, strange as it may sound, at
Disciplines of prayer and meditation or of study and reflection are of help to us in our
daily living to the extent that they bring us into touch with that part of our being, into
the place within where we experience ourselves as the Lord's children, as treasured. One
thing the story of the manna may be telling us is that the amount of time we spend in such
disciplines--how much we try to collect--is not really all that critical. If we are
getting through the day, we are getting enough; and in the bleaker times of our lives,
that is all we can realistically expect.
Some effort on our part seems to be required, though. The manna did not just appear in the
Israelites' tents at mealtimes; they had to go out in the morning and gather it. To me,
this says that especially during bleak times I need to pay attention to the good things
that happen. It is all too easy to block out the fact that it is a beautiful day or that
someone has just been particularly thoughtful or that I do seem to have an adequate supply
of energy. There is a certain appeal to wallowing in self-pity or manufacturing a martyr
complex, but in order to do a good job of it one has to screen out or explain away all the
things that are actually making life worth living. When we find ourselves feeling that our
lives are unbearable, we might think of Bosnia or Somalia and ask how bad off we really
are, how much of our depression is really due to causes outside ourselves.
Our circumstances do make a difference. It is just that they do not make all the
difference. We are not left powerless. If we do compare our circumstances with those of
people in truly dire situations, it is awfully clear that we can be quite fortunate and
quite depressed at the same time. This is the reverse side of the manna in the wilderness,
in a way, and it takes us to the wider application of the manna principle of supply and
demand. Just as people can survive circumstances that appall us, can retain their sense of
humanity and care, so people can find something to complain about at the very best of
times. It might be worth noting that we are talking about people like ourselves. There is
every likelihood that if we were ever subjected to such dire circumstances, we too would
find ways to cope. It is just that we are not supplied now with what we would need then.
The key to the wider application of the manna principle is in the word, "delight."
Genuine happiness, true "spiritual delight" is a gift. If we demand it, it is not
supplied. If we try to grasp it, it eludes us. If instead we focus on thoughtful living,
it is supplied. There is no such thing as a surplus, and it is not something we can store
up for a darker day. In fact, nothing is more futile than trying to cheer ourselves up by
recreating how we felt yesterday--this is like the day-old manna, wormy and smelly.
We need delight if we are to survive. This is an important issue. There are pages and
pages of references to it in the concordance to Swedenborg's writings. There is one
charming passage where he describes the life process as one of being led by our
delights--how the delights of infancy lead us into childhood, the delights of childhood
into adolescence, and so on. Whether we intend it or not, apparently, there is some sense
in which we do follow our bliss.
Fundamentally, then, we are dead wrong about the Lord's will for us if we do not realize
that we are designed and intended to be happy. All the things that are forbidden by the
Lord's laws are things that destroy happiness. A completely miserable life is not worth
living. Suppose the doctor tells me that I can have one week of doing what I love to do,
but it will kill me. I could survive for a whole year, though, if I were hooked up to the
machines and cut off from ninety-nine percent of what makes my life worthwhile. Is a year
of futility better than a week of activity? Most people would say that a week of futility
is better than a year of futility, and certainly that a week of activity is better than a
week of futility.
If manna is a symbol of spiritual delight, of contentment of the soul, then we can be very
sure that the Lord is constantly offering us manna or its equivalent. In the bleaker times
of life, it may be just enough to keep us going. But the wilderness was in fact the path
to the promised land, the land that flowed with milk and honey. The little gifts of
delight we are granted when we feel most burdened are foretastes of what the Lord has in
mind for us, no more than hints of what life is like in heavenly community. The Lord went
through more than we can imagine, and at the close of his life told his disciples why--not
for the sake of suffering, not because there was some special virtue in pain and struggle,
but so that his joy might be in them, and their joy be full. Perhaps we can begin by
wishing this for each other, and through our efforts to make those wishes come true,
discover that it is intended for us as well.