I Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
According to the Tetrateuch man/manna (MT mān; TO, TPsJ, TFrag, and TNeof manna [status emphaticus]; LXX μαν or μάννα; NT μάννα) is a nourishment granted by God for the Israelites starving in the desert. Exodus 16:15 explains its name by the question of the Israelites: “What is it?” (Heb. mān hû; cf. Ant. 3.32; MekhY 16:15). Although mān is a primary noun (“Primärnomen”; Gesenius18), it is traditionally derived from the Hebrew root m–n–h (qal “divide in parts,” “count”), cf. Wis 16:20; Philo, Legat. 3, 166; MekhY on Exod 16:5. In addition, modern authors have tried to derive Heb. mān from the roots m–n–n (divide, mesure), or m–y–n (split, secrete).
The earliest manna account is Exod 16:1–3, 6–7, 9–15, 21, 31, 35a (Priestly source), extended by vv. 22–26 (cf. Maiberger). A secondary Priestly layer in vv. 16–20 and 4–5 describes how the Israelites introduced the Sabbath. This account is continued in vv. 27–30 in a late dtr addition. According to vv. 32–34, a sample of one ʿômer which will not decay has to be deposited in the tabernacle next to the ark (Rashi: an anachronistic passage as the tabernacle did not exist at the time.) cf. 1 Kgs 8:9; Heb 9:4.
It is God who explicitly grants the manna (Exod 16:4, 15, 29, 32; Deut 8:3, 16; Neh 9:20; Josephus, Ant. 3.26; John 6:32) and determines the amount for the individuals (Exod 16:4, 16–18, 22, 29) in their time in the desert (Exod 16:35; Josh 5:10–12). It is called “bread” (MT leḥem) in Exod 16:4, 8, 12, 15, 22, 29, 32; Ps 78:24 (“grain of heaven”). It descends from heaven (Ps 105:40; Wis 16:20) like rain (Exod 16:4; Ps 78:24) or with the dew (Exod 16:13–14; Num 11:9) Ps 78:26 (within vv. 23–25) stresses its heavenly origin by calling it “bread of angels” (cf. LXX; Wis 16:20).
Consequently, the Israelites find it in the early morning (Exod 16:8, 12, 21). It is compared with “fine hoarfrost” (Exod 16:14) or with “coriander seed, white” (Exod 16:31; Num 11:7). The Israelites “ground it in mills or beat it in mortars” (Num 11:8). Although it melts at noon (Exod 16:21), it can be cooked or baked (Exod 16:23; Num 11:8); but in Wis 16:20 it is “ready to eat.” It looks white (Exod 16:31) or has a yellowish “appearance like that of bdellium” (Num 11:7; LXX: “crystal”) or like gold (MekhY 16:5). It tastes “like wafers made with honey” (Exod 16:31). Cake made of manna tastes “like … cakes baked with oil” (Num 11:8). In Wis 16:20 it provides every pleasure and is “suited to every taste.” According to Josephus, Ant. 3.30–31 the manna substitutes for any other kind of food (cf. the opposite in Num 21:5). Within one day it breeds worms and becomes foul (Exod 16:20, 24; Josephus, Ant. 3.30: bitter). Some scholars identify the honeydew, a product of the leaf louse of the tamarisk (tamarix mannifera) in the Western and Southern Sinai peninsula, with the Heb. mān (cf. Josephus, Ant. 3.41; Maiberger).
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II New Testament
The NT mentions manna explicitly in four instances. Most prominently, manna appears within the bread of life discourse of John 6:22–59 (see John 6:31, 49), alongside the expressions “bread from heaven” (vv. 31–33, 41–42, 50, 58), “bread of God” (v. 33), “bread of life” (vv. 35, 48), and “living bread” (v. 51). In this passage, the Johannine Jesus builds a binary opposition between the manna that the ancestors ate in the wilderness but which did not overcome death, and the true bread from heaven that gives eternal life. Here, the manna no longer appears as a substance of the past but is something currently available in Jesus. Jesus depicts himself as the bread of the manna story (John 6:35). Thus, manna is not only food and nourishment but is described as a person and used as a metaphor to present Jesus’ salvific function.
Numerous hypotheses have been proposed concerning the origin of the citation in John 6:31, with a majority advocating for Exod 16:4, 15. Other suggestions include Num 11:6–9; Deut 8:3, 16; Josh 5:12; Neh 9:15, 20; Pss 78:24; 105:40; Prov 9:5; Sap 16:20 (LXX); the Johannine community; or a merged polyvalent quotation (Rytel-Andrianik: 85). Some have suggested that John 6:31–58 draws exclusively on extra-biblical aggadic manna traditions (Richter: 208–51, 262–71) or that it combines aggadic fragments with biblical sources (Borgen: 1, 20–27). In terms of its form, the passage has been considered as itself a Midrash – i.e., a new interpretation of the scriptural manna in the light of Jesus – and as a homily (Borgen: 1, 28–98; Malina: 102–6).
Aside from the Johannine references, manna appears explicitly in Heb 9:4 and Rev 2:17. According to Heb 9:4, manna is stored in a golden jar within the ark of the covenant, along with the tablets of the covenant and Aaron’s rod. Revelation 2:17 mentions the hidden manna as a gift from Christ, thereby adopting the idea of manna as heavenly nourishment.
Indirect references to the manna tradition include 1 Cor 10:3–4 where, significantly, Paul depicts the manna as a spiritual food in light of, and in analogy to, the bread of the last supper; and 2 Cor 8:15, which refers to the adequate amount of collected manna in the Exodus account.
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A Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism
The main story of the miraculous food in the desert, called man in the MT and LXX, is found in Exod 16. There were multiple lines of speculation about this food among Second Temple Jewish writers. First, there are explications of what manna was like, based on Exod 16:31: “The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (NRSV). Josephus agrees that the manna was the size of a coriander seed and like honey but adds the detail that it was sticky and the rationalizing note that manna still appears in Arabia (Ant. 3.1.6). Artapanus (3:37) and Philo (Mos. 1.200) agree with each other that it is like millet rather than coriander (there being little difference in size), perhaps indicating a lack of familiarity with the underlying Hebrew term (gad).
Philo adds details about how the manna was prepared, into cakes like “honey cheesecakes” (Mos. 1.208; Sacr. 86; cf. Det. 118) providing part of a luxurious meal, along with the quails and the water from the rock. Together, these provisions prove the divinity of the Sinai laws (Decal. 16). Pseudo-Philo draws together the same three miracles as evidence of God’s beneficent care (L.A.B. 10:7).
Both Philo and Josephus emphasize the report at Exod 16:17–18 that no matter how much manna a family gathered, they had neither shortage nor excess. Philo likens the gathering to distributions of common meals in associations, all in proper proportion (Mos. 1:206). This proportionality, for Philo, passes for equality within the hierarchical associations (Her. 191). Josephus introduces the theme of justice: those who gathered too much were doing so at the expense of weaker members of the community, and their excess is transformed to worms in punishment (Ant. 3.1.6). Fourth Ezra uses manna as a reminder of divine justice, accusing the audience of having forgotten eating such food in the desert (1:19).
At Ps 105:40, the manna is called “food of heaven” (leḥem šāmayim; cf. Neh 9:15, leḥem mišāmayim), a term Josephus repeats (Ant. 3.5.3). Fourth Ezra calls it the bread of angels (1:19; cf. Ps 78:25). In late literature, the idea appears that manna will be the future food of the messianic age (2 Bar 29:8; Hist. Rech. 13:2; Sib. Or. 7:146–49). In Jos. Asen., an angel gives Aseneth a honeycomb to eat and she is told that it was produced in paradise and is the food of angels and the elect (16:14). Some scholars maintain that this honeycomb is to be identified with the manna. The frequent references to honey in describing manna could encourage this identification, but the persistent image of manna as seed-like militates against the idea. It is probable that manna, perhaps in a form like that of Philo’s cakes, is partially the source of Aseneth’s honeycomb, but it does not fully explain the image.
Philo, characteristically, transforms the trope of heavenly food. For him, the manna represents the logos (Fug. 137–39; Her. 79; Leg. 86), the word of God, or prophecy (Sacr. 86). As such it is the “the food of contemplation” (Her. 79), transforming the late biblical language. Even more abstractly, he explains the etymology of the term as derived from the word “what?” (τί), which signifies “the most universal,” which is first, God, and derivatively, the logos (Leg. 75). The luxuriousness with which he describes the manna-cakes (Mos. 1:208) provides an interesting illustration of the pleasures of contemplation he seeks to inculcate. This contrasts with Philo’s usual negative understanding of pleasure (e.g., Leg. 2:71), symbolized by the serpent in the garden.
There are no references to manna in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, the alimentary focus is on the actual pure food of the community, which, being unlike manna, discouraged such speculations.
B Rabbinic Judaism
Although manna is only mentioned once in the Mishnah and three times in the Jerusalem Talmud, it appears more often in the Tosefta (ca. eight passages) and its qualities are discussed extensively in tannaitic midrashim, various later midrashic collections, and the Babylonian Talmud. The sages consider manna as a real food that indicates God’s benefaction toward Israel and as a supernatural substance. It is counted among the ten (or more) extraordinary items, such as the postdiluvian rainbow and Aaron’s staff, that were formed at twilight on the eve of Shabbat at the close of Creation (mAv 5:6; MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 5 = Lauterbach, 1:248; SifDev 355; bYom 54a). Certain rabbinic texts equate manna with mother’s milk, for it cannot cause harm: just as an infant may suckle excessively without ill effect, so the Israelites may safely consume manna with no negative consequences (but cf. MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 4 = Lauterbach 1:242). Much as the breast is the primary focus for a baby, with everything else being secondary, manna was central to Israel. Akin to babies who grieve when denied access to the breast, the Israelites were at a loss when manna was no longer provided. Manna was thought to taste like whatever food one craved, with some texts naming possibilities (SifBem 89; tSot 4:3; bYom 75a–b). Unlike any known sustenance, manna was fully integrated into the body, without need for defecation (SifBem 88; cf. bYom 75b). For women, manna also provided an adornment, like spices or perfume (SifBem 89; bYom 75a). According to the Babylonian Talmud, precious stones accompanied manna, as well as special ingredients for cooked dishes (bYom 75a). This unique substance could also reveal hidden truths, especially if a litigant in a dispute were lying (MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 5 = Lauterbach 1:247; bYom 75a). No other nation could partake of manna since Israelites alone were able to collect this ephemeral nutrient; therefore, it became a source of envy (MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 3 = Lauterbach 1:241). Beyond these exceptional features, Moses had a singular link to manna: some sources view this divine gift as a result of Moses’ merit, which ceased with his death (tSot 11:2, 5, 8; MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 5 = Lauterbach 1:249–50). A passage of the Grace after Meals is attributed to Moses as a grateful response to manna (bBer 48b).
Manna is also viewed as an educational instrument for Israel in the wilderness. The need to gather it daily reinforced their dependence on God and cultivated their attachment and faith (SifBem 88; bYom 76a). The Mekhilta presents this daily ration as an ideal model for Torah study: God supplies all physical necessities, thereby freeing the Israelites from practical concerns and enabling full attention to Torah. This source also suggests that manna facilitated the physical absorption of Torah in the Israelites’ bodies. Elsewhere in this midrash, the prophet Jeremiah engages counterparts who claim that they cannot study Torah due to their need to earn a living. Jeremiah tries to convince them otherwise by displaying a jar of manna and promising that they – like their ancestors who studied Torah in the wilderness – will be supported by God; thus, in this midrash, manna is used to encourage Torah study (MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 6 = Lauterbach 1:248–49). The notion that a jar of manna was preserved in the First Temple, and was later hidden or disappeared with the Holy Ark, appears in several texts (tKip 2:15; tSot 13:1; yMSh 1:1, 53c). Other sources state that Elijah will ultimately restore manna at the time of Israel’s deliverance (MekhY, Di-Wayassa‘ Beshallaḥ 6 = Lauterbach 1:249) and that it will nourish the righteous in the world to come (bHag 12b).
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C Medieval Judaism
1. Meaning of the Word Manna
Most exegetes don’t address the etymological question, apparently, because the Torah already explains that they called it “man” because they did not know “what it was” (man hu; Exod 16:15). David Qimḥi (1160–1235) derived it from m–n–h, meaning “gift.” Because they did not know what it was they called it “a gift” from God (Qimḥi: 196).
2. Physical Properties of Manna
Both Exod 16:31 and Num 11:7 describe the manna as resembling the seed of a plant called gad. Most exegetes identify gad as coriander (Rashi, Ibn Ezra), though there are some who say it is mustard (Saadia Gaon [882–942]). Rashbam puts it in the legume family. Its shape was round like a coriander seed (Rashi) and it was white in color. According to Num 11:7, it resembled something called bedolaḥ (bedellium, or gum resin). According to Rashi, this was a precious stone, called crystal, while Rashbam, recalling the preceding verse, says it was hard and dry and therefore the people felt dried out by it.
3. The Human Experience of Manna
According to Rashi (1040–1105), the manna tasted like dough fried in honey. He also comments that its taste changed depending on whether it was ground, crushed, or cooked (at Num 11:8). Rashbam (ca. 1085–ca. 1158) notes the seeming contradiction between Exod 16:31 and Num 11:8 with regard to the taste of manna – according to the former it tasted like a wafer (tsapiḥit) in honey when eaten whole, but when it was ground, it tasted like a nut butter (more oily). Similarly, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1164) noted that when it was raw it tasted like a wafer and when it was cooked it tasted like the finest of oil (leshad ha-shemen).
Ps 78:25 calls manna, the bread of abbirim (angels, NRS; the mighty, ASV, JPS). On this, Rashi, following rabbinic sources (e.g., MekhY Di-Wayassa 3) comments, that abbirim should be read as evarim, limbs (same consonants in Heb.), intimating that the manna was absorbed completely into the body and those who ate it had no need to defecate (Rashi, ad loc.). According to Ḥizquni (13th cent.), this was a problem for some, presumably, those of little faith, who feared that their bellies would swell and kill them (ad Num 11:6).
God gave the manna to the Israelites to see whether they would fulfill the commandments connected to it (Rashi). They would be tested by being totally dependent on God every day for their sustenance (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra).
According to the Ephraim of Luntshits (1550–1619), author of the commentary Keli yeqar, the manna freed people from all worldly concerns, since their sustenance was provided for, which allowed them to devote their time to Torah study (similarly, Ḥizquni).
4. The Miraculous Nature of Manna
Medieval Jewish scholars are unanimous in seeing the manna as a great miracle. Saadia Gaon saw the miracle of the manna as the greatest of all the miracles God performed on behalf of the Israelites, “since something that is continuous is more wondrous than something that is not continuous, for one could never imagine a trick that would allow for the sustaining of close to two million people for forty years from nothing but the food that the creator created for them every day out of thin air” (BO, Introd. 6).
Ibn Ezra (at Exod 16:5) lists ten miraculous aspects to the manna phenomenon: (1) its descent from heaven; (2) its restriction to the area of the Israelites encampment; (3) its movement along with them from one encampment to the next; (4) that only the ungathered portion would melt away, not what was gathered; (5) that each person gathered exactly enough for themselves; (6) the double portion on the sixth day; (7) that it did not rot, day or night; (8) that it did not fall on the sabbath; (9) that it had two tastes; and (10) that it lasted for generations without rotting.
God chose to rain down “bread from heaven” (Exod 16:4) so that the Israelites would be totally dependent on him (Bekhor Shor; 13th cent.) and to magnify the miracle (Abraham ben Moses Maimonides; 13th cent.).
5. Attitude to Israelites’ Negative Reception of Manna
Nevertheless, despite its miraculous qualities, the people complained about the manna and craved real food (Num 11:4–6). Rashi seems sympathetic, commenting on Num 11:6, “nothing but this manna to look to”: “manna in the morning, manna in the evening,” suggesting soul-crushing monotony. The Italian Obadiah Sforno (16th cent.), also could understand how they might miss fresh fruit and freshly baked bread (ad Num 11:7). Abraham Saba (15th–16th cent.) cites a story about R. Meshullam, physician to an Arabian king; the latter accused the Israelites of being ungrateful for complaining about the manna. R. Meshullam ordered the king’s servants not to serve him garlic for one meal, which upset him greatly. When he complained, Meshullam said to him: “See, you are complaining after being deprived of garlic for one day. My ancestors were deprived of everything but manna for forty years” (Saba, Tseror ha-mor, ad Num 11:6).
Joseph Ibn Kaspi (14th cent.), on the other hand, has no sympathy for the Israelites who complained about the monotony of the manna, even though it was perfect in every way: “Their lust was like that of sick people who crave after coal or dirt” (ad Num 11:6). Gersonides (1288–1344) also called the Israelites inferior, for rejecting the manna which was perfect in every way, and presented in a clean, hygienic fashion on top of a layer of dew (ad Num 11:7).
6. Philosophy and Kabbalah
Maimonides saw the trial of the manna as a way of proving to the nations that devotion to God’s service is sufficient to guarantee humankind’s sustenance, i.e., by the provision of food in an uncommon way (Guide .3.24).
The Zohar describes the descent of the manna from heaven as follows:
For Israel in the desert – that manna came from dew on high, descending from the Ancient One, concealed of all concealed. As it descended, its light illumined all worlds, and the Apple Orchard and celestial angels were nourished by it. When it descended below, and was dominated by the world’s atmosphere, it congealed and its radiance changed, and its radiance was only as is written: “The manna was like coriander seed … [Num 11:7], nothing more” (Zohar 3:208a; Matt: 9:458–59).
The Zohar further distinguishes between matsah, the unleavened bread which the Israelites ate when they left Egypt, and the temple offering of two loaves of leavened bread on Shavuot (Lev 23:16–20), which corresponds to the manna. In this context, manna and matsah symbolize the sefirot Tifʾeret (corresponding to the giving of the Torah) and Malkhut, the Shekhinah, or Divine Presence (Zohar 2:183a; Matt: 6:28; Hecker 2005: 82–115).
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D Modern Judaism
On discovering the manna, the Israelites exclaim (Exod 16:15), “man hu,” which is commonly translated either as “what is it?” or as “it is manna.” Those two translations well characterize modern Jewish thought on this subject. In the first instance, scholars and commentators attempt to understand what were the physical properties of manna. In the second instance, the concern is the metaphoric/symbolic message of manna.
Nahum M. Sarna (89) notes that the physical description of manna in Exod 16:14 is supplemented by information in Num 11:7 so that while it was “fine and flaky, as fine as frost” it also was like coriander seed, the color of bdellium, and tasted, when prepared, like rich cream. Sarna concedes, however, that “[no] natural phenomenon in the Sinai region entirely matches these details.” Nonetheless, he then goes on to write of the “white honeylike substance excreted from the tamarisk bush and called manna to this day by the Bedouin who collect it and eat it.” Sarna does concede that the Bedouin experience is seasonal and limited, while in the Bible, “the biblical manna nourished the entire Israelite population throughout the forty years of the wilderness wandering.” Everett Fox (347) posits that manna “possibly refers to insect secretions found on the branches of certain Sinai plants,” but notes that the amount would be insufficient to feed a large population of people. See also Cassuto: 195–98; Plaut/Stein: 453–54; Hertz: 276–77.
Ellen Frankel considers the metaphorical/symbolic message of manna. She labels it a “miracle food,” and explains that “over the centuries Jews have developed a number of customs associated with manna, most of them centering around the Shabbat table … for instance, hallah, the braided egg bread we eat on Shabbat and festivals” (114).
In the early 20th century, Benno Jacob addressed the matter of “Manna and Its Meaning” (467–75). He wrote that “Manna was the greatest, most far reaching miracle ever reported [for Exodus 16 presents a picture of] … divine nourishment and its detailed description” (469–70, emphasis in original). “The narrative of the manna represents the ennoblement of the desert as the Paradise of Israel’s youth” (475).
There is some debate over the proper blessing to say over manna (Cooper). See similarly in the on-line Chabadpedia, which also compares manna to the Torah. Chaim Cohen explains that Exod 16 and Num 11 provide physical details of manna, “but several of the technical terms are themselves enigmatic, since they occur hardly anywhere else in the Bible” (440–41). He notes that the descriptions as “food from heaven” (Exod 16:4) and as “heavenly grain” (in Ps 78:24) are metaphorical, only figurative and expressive. The sure identity of manna was and will remain elusive. As the ArtScroll (Stone) translation of the Bible reads (Exod 16:15), when the Israelites saw the manna they said to each other, “‘It is food’– for they did not know what it was.”
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A Patristics to Modern Christianity
Christian reception reflects the different dimensions of the Bible’s manna motif, where it is associated with both bread/food (leḥem; Exod 16; Num 11:6–9) and the word of God (Exod 16:15–16 [MT and LXX]; Deut 8:3 [cf. Matt 4:4]). Appropriating the motif christologically by way of John 6 (vv. 31–35, 41, 48–51) Christians have correlated manna with the Eucharist and the word of God while paying attention to the care of the body connoted by the bread.
In view of 1 Cor 10:3, Eucharistic interpretation has been common to catechesis and artistic devotion (Danielou: 148; Buschhausen: 44–47). Taking manna, “the bread of angels” (Ps 78:25), as itself a sacramental fare, Ambrose and Augustine understood a prefiguring of the holy supper (1963: 20–23; 1988: 269). Typical of Christian hymnody, Aquinas’ “Lauda Sion Salvatorem,” a sequence for the Feast of Corpus Christi, praises manna as a figure pointing to the Eucharist (v. 22). The Hidden Manna can serve as a title for a Theology of the Eucharist (O’Connor; cf. Rev 2:17).
Following Philo’s identification of manna with the Logos or wisdom of God, which provided for each according to his need (cf. Wis 16:20–21, 25), Origen declared, “Our manna is the Word of God,” which preached fulfills all desires of the heart (2009: 9; 1982: 311–15). In addition to “corporeal manna” and the body of the virgin’s Son, there is “a spiritual manna, the dew of spiritual wisdom” (Ambrose 1954: 432). Holy Scripture is such sweet provision for enduring the desert of human life (Augustine 1990: 190). Regarding Matt 4:4 and Deut 8:3, Aquinas noted that the inscriptured word of God must be eaten, for it is the food of the soul (1842: 123). For John Donne and Milton manna served as a metaphor for prayer (Tsentourou).
Christians have also sought to reflect God’s fundamental interest in equal (cf. 2 Cor 8:13–15) care for human life through bread/food, as evidenced today by Christian humanitarian organizations Brot für die Welt (Germany) and Bread for the World (USA).
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B New Christian Movements
Since manna is described as “bread from heaven” (John 6:31), the name has been used by many Christians to mean “spiritual food,” typically in the form of inspiring thoughts or quotations for private devotional use. Daily Heavenly Manna for the Household of Faith (often referred to as “Daily Manna”) was published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society in 1905, and consisted of a biblical text for each day of the year, with comment by founder-leader Charles Taze Russell, and a reference to a recommended article in Zion’s Watch Tower. A similar publication appeared in 1921 by James Gilchrist Lawson (1874–1946), a prolific mainstream Christian author and compiler. Entitled Daily Manna, it consisted of two Bible verses for each day, interspersed with a verse of a hymn. More recently a somewhat controversial Nigerian pastor, Chris Kwakpovwe, leads an organization called Our Daily Manna. It originated with a two-page daily prayer guide for his congregation and their friends, and developed into a larger organization, which publishes Our Daily Manna quarterly in paperback form, as well as a children’s version. The name Manna continues to be used commercially, mainly – although not exclusively – for retail outlets connected with food. Some of these are secular rather than religious.
This article focuses on the motif of “manna” in the Metaphysical poetry of 17th-century English Literature, and in two prominent examples of 20th-century German Literature. In 17th-century English Literature “manna” can be found in poems of the Metaphysical poets John Donne (1572–1631) and Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). Donne’s cryptic poem under the expanded heading “The Primrose being at Montgomery Castle, upon the Hill on which it is Situate” (1613) is part of his Love-Lyrics (Robbin: 123–283; Haskin: 180–205). Focusing on a flower symbolizing metaphorically female human beings or even the idea of the feminine, “The Primrose” displays the poet’s concept to grasp the idea of human love by comparing it to the order of nature, to the universe, and to the metaphysical world. “Manna” is mentioned in the first of three rhymed stanzas (lines 1–4):
Upon this primrose hill
Where, if heav’n would distil
A shower of rain, each sev’ral drop might go
To his own primrose, and grow manna so. (Robbin: 235)
The biblical motif of generating manna by rain or dew (Exod 16:4: “Then the LORD said to Moses: ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven’”; Num 11:9: “When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it”; all biblical quotes hereafter are from NRSV) is transformed into the poetical image of each individual raindrop creating manna/bread from heaven in each individual primrose/woman. The poem is spoken by a male ‘lyrical ego’ walking on a hill covered with primroses which “Make a terrestrial Galaxy, / As the small stars do in the sky” (lines 6–7; Robbin: 235). Under these star-like flowers/women the speaker is looking “to find a true-love” (line 8; Robbin: 235). Finding a truly beloved woman means for him getting life-giving “manna.”
In Marvell’s English lyrics “manna” occurs four times (Guffey: 305). In one of his best-known English poems, titled “On a Drop of Dew” (presumably written after 1642), “manna” is being received under the biblical aspect of dew (Exod 16:13: “and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp”; cf. Num 11:9) and its melting in the sun (Exod 16:17: “but when the sun grew hot, it melted”). The poem metaphorically compares the human soul, created by God in heaven, to a physical drop of natural dew, generated in the sky. The naturally proceedings of dew’s distilling, congealing on earth, and evaporating are analogized to the soul’s supernatural birth, its living in the human world and yearning for returning to God. In the last lines of the poem this circle is explicitly compared to the biblical manna (lines 37–40):
Such did the Manna’s sacred Dew destil;
White, and intire, though congeal’d and chill.
Congeal’d on Earth: but does, dissolving, run
Into the Glories of th’ Almighty Sun. (Margoliouth: 13)
To “On a Drop of Dew” there is a counterpart among Marvell’s Latin poems under the title “Ros,” which it probably preceded (McQueen: 12).
Like in the English poem the allusion to “manna” is to be found in the last four lines (lines 43–47):
Not otherwise did manna, overflowing with blessed nourishment,
Lie, a frozen drop, on the desert soil:
A frozen drop on the ground, but drawn by propitious suns,
It returns, purer, to the stars whence it fell. (McQueen: 17)
(Haud aliter Mensis exundans Manna beatis
Deserto jacuit Stilla gelato solo:
Stilla gelato solo, sed Solibus hausta benignis,
Ad sua quâ cecidit purior Astra redit. [McQueen: 16])
But, on the other side, th’art drawn
Like to Aurora in the Dawn;
When in the East she slumb’ring lyes, And stretches out her milky Thighs;
While all the morning Quire does sing,
And Manna falls, and Roses spring;
And, at thy Feet, the wooing Doves
Sit perfecting their harmless Loves. (Margoliouth: 31; emphasis in the original)
Furthermore, “manna” meets twice in the motif connection with “quails” (cf. Exod 16:13; Num 11:31–32), first in stanza 20 of the twenty-seven strophic poem “Daphnis and Chloe” (lines 77–80),
And I parting should appear
Like the Gourmand Hebrew dead,
While with Quailes and Manna fed,
He does through the Desert err. (Margoliouth: 38)
When on another quick She lights,
And cryes, he call’d us Israelites;
But now, to make his saying true,
Rails rain for Quails, for Manna Dew (Margoliouth: 75)
The first example of “manna” in 20th-century German Literature is a famous short novel of Thomas Mann (1875–1955), first published in English under the title Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me (trans. G. R. Manck) as the first contribution in the volume The Ten Commandments. Ten Short Novels of Hitler’s War Against the Moral Code (ed. Armin L. Robinson, 1943). Separately it was published in German under the title Das Gesetz (Los Angeles/Stockholm 1944), and in English under the title The Tables of the Law (trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter, New York 1944). Divided into twenty chapters The Tables of the Law retells the story of Moses as told in Exodus, combined with contents from the Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In chapter 10 the narration of manna is being received (Exod 16:1–35; Num 11:1–9). Briefly, the motif is mentioned again in chapter 11 (see below). Furthermore, it meets in ch. 12 to explain the Israelites’ initial weakness in the battle with the Amalekites: “Joshua’s people were troubled by thirst and had eaten nothing but manna for many days” (Mann 2001: 762). Thus Mann deviates from the biblical text Exod 17:8–16, where “manna” does not occur.
Mann takes over the biblical terminology (“manna,” cf. MT/LXX/NT; “man,” cf. MT/LXX; written in the German version as “Manna,” “Man”; both translated as “manna” in the English versions). Manna’s appearance and taste are quoted almost verbatim from Exodus 16:31 and Numbers 11:7–8. Even the strange, hardly translatable Hebrew word bedolach (Vulg: bdellium), encountering in Num 11:7, Mann uses for his poetic description of manna (Mann 2001: 758). He also takes up the motif that the manna spoils easily, but that it can be prepared freshly into cakes (cf. Num 11:8). Furthermore, the motif of people’s tiredness of manna is being received, although chapter 10 does not explicitly state that the people eat manna for forty years (Exod 16:35). The typical biblical “grumbling” of the people during the decades-long desert walk, related to the manna, is being partly literally quoted from Num 11:5:
We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at. – We remember the fish which we got in Egypt for nothing, the squash, the cucumbers, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our souls are weary, for our eyes see nothing but manna (Mann 2001: 759; for the original German version see Mann, 1990: 834).
Significantly, Mann does not use the biblical metaphor “bread from heaven” for manna (Exod 16:4; Neh 9:15; Pss 78:24; 105:40; Wis 16:20; cf. John 6:31). Instead he creates the word “Manna-Flechte” (“manna-lichen”) and calls it in chapter 11 explicitly “Bodenflechte” (Mann 1990: 835) which could be translated with “earth-lichen” (George R. Manck an Helen T. Lowe-Porter leave the word connection untranslated, reproducing it simply with the simplex lichen; see Mann 1945: 20; 2001: 760). From the author’s own notes to his narrative, it is clear that he, of course, reflects the biblical tradition of “Mannafall” (Makoschey: 60). But that he does not speak of “bread from heaven” or “falling manna” shows his intention not to tell the story of the manna as a supernaturalistic miracle, caused and initiated by God, but rather as a natural fact (albeit a “wonderful” one). Mann’s manna does not rain from heaven, but grows on the ground. That corresponds to the observation, that God’s instruction and promise (that manna should be collected every day for daily needs only; that twice of much be collected on the sixth day, so that on the seventh day the day of rest, the Sabbath, could be kept [cf. Exod 16:4–5, 22–26, 29–30]) remain totally unmentioned. In difference to the biblical manna Mann’s manna is neither an object of divine revelation nor acts it as a divine test for the people’s obedience to God (cf. Exod 16:4, 28).
The second example of 20th-century German Literature is the poem Travel (Reisen) of Gottfried Benn (1886–1956), written in June 1950, first published in Die Neue Zeitung. Frankfurter Ausgabe. Nr. 304/305, 23. Dezember 1950. The four-strophic poem is about the yearning of the ego for fulfillment of meaning. It is part of the Benn-typical “Ich-Gedichte,” see especially Das späte Ich / The Late Ego / The Belated I, 1922 (Benn 1987: 198–203, 274–75), Ein Wort / A Word, 1941 (Benn 1987: 220–21), Verlorenes Ich / Forsaken I / Lost Identity, 1943 (Benn 1987: 224–27, 279–80). The poem Travel expresses the view that travelling to the promising metropolises of the world does not lead to essential self-experience. Only staying with yourself is able to do so. “Manna,” meeting once only in Benn’s Lyrics (Lyons/Inglis: 286), is used in the second stanza in the word connection “eternal manna.” It is a cipher for the hoped-for wonders to be found in a famous city like Zurich or Havana. The first stanza is:
Zurich you think for example
Must be a place more profound
Where wonders and wisdom are always
A part of the daily round?
The second stanza continues to ask:
You think that out of Havana,
White and hibiscus red,
Must break forth eternal manna
For you in your desert of lead?
(Benn 1987: 247)
The original German version of the second stanza, alluding to Israel’s forty years in the desert, speaks of “Wüstennot” (verbatim: “misery of the desert”; for other translations see Benn 1987: 283 [waste land] and 284 [your plight]), meaning the inner emptiness, the inner outraged being of the ego that longs for “manna” in the sense of an inner richness and spiritual wealth. Just as little as Zurich, Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, or even New York (cf. allusions to these cities in the third stanza), Havana can give such “manna” to satisfy the hunger of meaning with an everlasting experience of soul’s profoundness and life’s authenticity. Preserving the “self-sufficent me” (Benn 1987: 283), of which the fourth stanza speaks, and finding a calm mental state, is the only true “manna” – not falling down from heaven, but growing in the individual I.
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VI Visual Arts
The essential biblical starting points for the manna miracle are Exod 16:4–35 and Num 11:6–9. The manna theme is referenced again in Pss 77 (78):24 and 104 (105):40. A typological interpretation can already be found in John 6:48, where the manna is compared to Christ as the heavenly bread. The Church Fathers, for the most part, follow this interpretation.
Symeon of Thessalonica (Περὶ τῆς ἱερᾶς Λειτουργίας, ch. 91), however, contradicts this point of view. The new bread is leavened bread, based on the two natures doctrine, and is not unleavened bread as in the HB/OT. In addition, John of Damascus (Ἐγκώμιον εἰς τὴν Κοίμησιν 1.8) calls Mary the bearer of the “sweetest and heavenly manna,” and Durandus (Rationale 1.3.25) makes reference to the manna urn during his discussion on the containers of the host. These theological presuppositions are also determinative factors for pictorial art. The manna miracle seldom appears alone, but is often combined, for example, with the miracle of the quail.
The earliest surviving reproduction of the manna miracle is found in the Kyriaka catacombs in Rome (second half of the 4th cent.). The theme of the redemption of the Israelites has most likely been transferred to the hope of the resurrection of those buried. The portrayal shows two people standing opposite each other with arms stretched towards the center of the picture, their arms covered by a garment, while large dots above and between them indicate falling manna.
Similar to this depiction is the version in the manuscript of the Cosmas Indicopleustes (11th cent., Cod. 1186, fol. 73v) in Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai. In this version, manna falls out of God’s hand while a heavenly arch spans the scene. The Byzantine Octateuchs (e.g., 12th cent., formerly Smyrna, Evangelical School A.1, fol. 84r) vary the theme in a similar manner, such that the manna falls exclusively from the heavens. Similarly, the Speculum Humanae Salvationis (ca. 1360, Darmstadt, University and State Library, MS 2505, fol. 29r) depicts manna falling from heaven and falling all around the people there (cf. Weltchronik by Rudolf von Ems, 3.V. 14th cent. [see fig. 15], Fulda University and State Library, Aa88, and ceiling-fresco, refectory, 18th cent., Kloster Lambach). In the Crusader Bible (middle of the 13th cent., Morgan Library and Museum, New York, fol. 9v), the manna falls vertically as white spots like a shower of rain down from a cloud.
In later artistic expressions, a second variant is favored: for example, in the fresco of Jacopo Tintoretto in the San Giorgio Maggiore church in Venice (16th cent.), one can see the Israelites picking up the manna from the ground (cf. Nicolas Poussin, Hebrews Gathering Manna, 17th cent., Louvre, Paris). A third variant shows the Israelites with baskets full of manna (Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 14th cent., Abbey Library of Kremsmünster, Cod. Cremifanensis 243, fol. 21v). The Bible moralisée (13th cent., Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS 270b, fol. 50r) illustrates the scene using a combination of these depictions, whereby some people are picking up bread from the ground, while others hold up their jars as Christ spreads around the manna from above.
In some cases, the miracle of manna is also contained within a picture of the miracle of the quail (Stuttgart Psalter, 9th cent., Stuttgart, Württemberg State Library, Cod. bibl., fol. 23, fol. 91v) or in a miniature image (cf. Byzantine Octateuch of Smyrna [see above]). The Byzantine Octateuchs (e.g., ibid., fol. 85r) depict the moment when Moses summons his brother Aaron to put some manna into a vessel (Exod 16:33). In the Cosmas Indicopleustes (cf. above), the manna miracle is presented along with a reference to the Israelites going through the wilderness.
In addition, the manna miracle is portrayed in small picture cycles; for example, it appears along with the bitter water (Exod 15:24–25) and the striking of the rock (Exod 17:3–6; the Crusader Bible [see above], fol. 9v); or the miracle of the water and the bronze snake (Tintoretto, ceiling, Sala Superiore, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, second half of the 16th cent., Venice). However, the manna miracle can also be missing in extensive pictorial cycles – such as in San Marco in Venice (13th cent. “Moses” Dome). There, in the adjoining dome, only the quail and the water miracle can be seen.
In early Christian times, the use of a specific typology can be identified. On the door of Santa Sabina in Rome (first half of the 5th cent.), the bitter water, the quail, and the manna (in addition to the water miracle) are assigned to miracles of healing, feeding, or Jesus’ miracle at Cana. In San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, the two works of Tintoretto – the Last Supper and the Manna Miracle (1590–92) – are juxtaposed on the sidewalls of the sanctuary. This reveals a Eucharistic reference to the manna theme that also appears in the sacramental chapel of the parish church of Verolanuova (1735–40). There, Tiepolo has compared the manna miracle to the sacrifice of Melchizedek.
Already at the altar of Klosterneuburg (1181), the manna theme is assigned to the Last Supper. Here, we see a figure – probably Aaron – placing a jar filled with manna into an open ark which contains the two tablets of the law and Aaron’s staff (cf. Heb 9:4). Finally, the manna image sometimes illustrates Ps 77 (78), as in the Stuttgart Psalter (see above) as well as in the Chludov-Psalter (after 843, Moscow, Museum of History, Cod. 129, fol. 76r.).
Manna has a wide range of symbolic meanings in film.
Depictions of the Exod 16 miracle include La Vie de Moȉse (prod. Pathé Frères, 1905, FR), Roger Young’s series Moses (1996, CZ/UK/FR/IT/DE/ES/US/CA), and Robert Dornhelm’s The Ten Commandments (2006, US). In these, manna arrives as the salvation from imminent starvation. As the Israelites thirst and hunger, they criticize Moses’ leadership. When manna appears, the people rise, eating and celebrating while Moses prays in thanksgiving.
Other allusions develop more oblique and ambivalent themes: eating, the ethics of provision, nature vs. technology, and even drugs.
In Gabriel Axel’s Babettes gæstebud (1987 Babette’s Feast, DK), bread and quail become sacramental for a pietistic Christian village in Denmark. The community’s life is lackluster until a cook, Babette, re-enlivens the people with a gourmet meal. In addition to bread, Babette’s signature dish is “quail in a sarcophagus.” Wright comments, “Quail being a form of manna and sarcophagus meaning ‘flesh-eater,’ the film alludes to Jesus’ discourse in John [6:31–51], ‘I am the bread of life … this is the manna that comes down from heaven … if you do not eat of the flesh of the Son of Man you will not have life’” (Wright: 16).
Two Steven Spielberg films, Empire of the Sun (1987, US) and Schindler’s List (1993, US), highlight the liberative but selective provision of manna in wartime. In Empire, after Japan’s surrender, the young protagonist Jamie is grateful to discover Red Cross food packets falling from the sky. However, as a Japanese boy he’d previously befriended offers him a mango, incoming American troops shoot the child; there will be no manna for him. Schindler characterizes its protagonist as a Moses saving his Jewish factory workers from the Holocaust: when Schindler insists, “I want my people,” a Nazi officer retorts “Who are you, Moses?” José Diaz-Cuesta Galían notes that Schindler becomes as God to his workers by feeding them from his own supplies (Díaz-Cuesta Galián: 67). Schindler’s manna is saving but provides for painfully few.
Beyond the Euro-American film scene, the goodness of manna is more ambiguous.
In Ma Sheng-mei’s analysis, Japanese anime dubiously “turns trauma into manna” by idolizing the deadly fallout of the atomic bombs that fell on Japan in 1945 and the subsequent American influence. Filmmakers such as Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii, and Hayao Miyazaki, argues Ma, “alchemize Western modernity, the most traumatizing of which landed in 1945, into a godsend or ‘manna’ fallen from the sky, suppressing the politics of race, or East-West relationships, the politics of gender, or woman-man relationships” (Ma: 97). Manna becomes an opiate, desensitizing Japan to its trauma.
Finally, D. E. Hyde’s film Manna (2015, US/BZ) features an indigenous fisherman who lives a solitary but wholesome existence in nature, removed from the cruise ships looming unnaturally on the harbor. Yet manna arrives, packets of a white substance the fisherman finds washed up on his shore: cocaine. The film finishes with a view of his face, uncertain what to make of this gift.
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