Finding Manna in the Age of Monsanto


The idea of manna unsettles the sense of entitlement behind modern-day genetic modification.

Once upon a time, in order to grow corn, farmers around the world would do the same thing their parents and grandparents did: plant simple, ordinary corn seed. But now, in the twenty-first century, they have marvelous new choices. They can purchase potent seeds such as Bollgard, Yieldgard Plus, or Genuity SmartStax. Behind the fancy monikers are promises of unprecedented crop yield.

All of these choices are courtesy of the global mega-corporation Monsanto, a world leader in genetically modified food. They are part of a great tradition of human technology that insists that, with a bit of scientific tinkering, we can improve on the limitations and blandness of Mother Nature. And of course, Monsanto, its PR machine insists, is simply putting technology at the service of the people, helping to feed a hungry world.

But grassroots activists and critics of globalization tell a different story: many of Monsanto’s patented genetically modified seeds are designed to be infertile after planting, forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year instead of practicing the ancient art of seed storage. Further, the seeds are highly dependent on the usage of toxic pesticides sold, of course, by the same company. These new costs have embroiled hundreds of thousands of poor farmers and their families in debt.

Lemon-LimeIt’s yet another piece of a distressingly familiar pattern: a profit-driven corporate juggernaut uses its economic power and political clout to put a stranglehold on poor communities worldwide, forcing them into economic arrangements that keep their countries bankrupt and beholden to aid from the West. These arrangements not only fail to deliver on promises of prosperity, they are also harmful to creation. And all the while, companies like Monsanto reap massive profits, even as much of the world continues to go hungry. What can we do to change this bleak reality of global economic oppression and injustice?

Enough for Everyone: Food Justice in Exodus

An increasing number of faith-based activists and advocates from both the Jewish and Christian traditions are making the audacious claim that some powerful answers might be found in the old and odd tales of the Torah. They are looking to stories of liberation from empire, of a new covenantal community, and of divinely given visions of an abundant creation that can be shared by all, free from hoarding and bondage.


Fruit images credit: Jessie Caron.

I believe that ancient biblical wisdom can empower us to take on the high-tech and politically sophisticated iniquities of the Monsantos of the world. One story, in particular, offers a profound vision of economic and ecological justice: the famous account in Exodus 16 of God feeding the hungry, grumbling, newly liberated but still fearful Hebrews who were wandering in the desert. For us churchgoers, the manna story was a lovely and quaint Sunday School tale of God’s miraculous provision, as well as a prototype for Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist. But we would do well to take a deeper look at its insistence on “enough for everyone” and its introduction of the Shabbat rest, which offered a framework for resistance to slavery.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

One seemingly innocent detail in the story is the very name of the food with which God feeds the ungrateful recipients of divine liberation. We all know it as “manna,” a word that has taken on its own cultural significance, even outside of religious settings.

But what exactly was this substance that saved the Israelites from starvation? God told Moses, “I will cause bread to rain down from heaven for you” (Exod. 16:4), and the notion of it being a kind of bread became part of the tradition (including the language of Jesus and the Gospels). But it doesn’t seem to be bread in the sense of a grain-based product. Verses 13, 14, and 31 of Exodus 16 toss us a few intriguing details:

In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.… It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.

“Like frost … like coriander seed … like wafers.” Is the text playing with us? The ambiguity is sufficient to spark continuing debate, from the rabbis of antiquity to the scholars of today: was it some kind of resin from the tamarisk plant, a desert lichen, an insect secretion, maybe even some exotic mushroom?

The Israelites themselves were not certain what this substance was. Their befuddlement, in fact, gives rise to some linguistic playfulness: the name they eventually give this puzzling and unfamiliar foodstuff (“manna”) is a pun on their earlier query in verse 15: “When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, ‘What is it [man hu]?’ For they did not know what it was.” In a way, one could argue that God fed the Israelites with “What’s that?”

In their quest for historical veracity, scholars have pointed to other etymological possibilities, such as the Egyptian term mennu, which means “food.” Whether or not that is true, it’s clear that the text is having its fun—the Torah is winking at us: get the joke?

Unfortunately, those of us reared in traditions with a high reverence for God’s Holy Word usually don’t get the joke. Our piety leaves little room for divine humor. We miss the wonderful fact that having “What’s that?” on the dinner menu is but one of many occasions of wordplay in Torah. Did we miss it that Adam (the first man) was formed out of adamah (the soil)? Is the primal joke that we are literally, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested, “earthlings”?

But more than humor is going on here. My sense is that the Exodus tale is inviting us to a little midrash: Is there some weightiness hiding behind the quirky name/non-name for the divinely provided food? Are the sly Hebraic bards insinuating something to the astute reader, something that might be pivotal to our understanding of what the God of liberation is trying to teach these unruly children?

Unidentifiable Food from an Unnameable God

“Manna” is not the first cryptic name to be figured in the Torah. Earlier in the narrative, in Exodus 3, having heard the groaning of the Hebrews, God intervenes by appearing to Moses in the burning bush. Moses, perplexed and reluctant to take on this role of liberator, asks a seemingly strange question: what should he say if the Israelites want to know the name of this God?

Hasn’t this fiery divine presence already given adequate self-identification as the God of the ancestors? Why would Moses need another “name” for this God? Could it be that the Israelites, in their generations of oppression, have lost touch with the ancient stories? Under the crushing weight of slavery, have the Israelites despaired that their God has disappeared or forgotten them?

God responds to Moses’s query in a most perplexing fashion: “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

Can we detect a theological “What’s that!?”

That famous “name” is quite odd, even for a deity, and hardly even a comprehensible word. Sometimes referred to as the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters have confounded generations of believers, scholars, and others. Given the complex workings of ancient Hebrew, it simply isn’t clear how these four letters are to be understood. The typical English translation is “I am who I am,” though it could just as easily be rendered, “I will be who I will be,” or even “I am becoming who I am becoming.”

An odd name, indeed, but in fact the elusiveness of the name is precisely its power and profundity. Linguistically, we cannot grasp God’s name. Nor can we, in any other sense, grasp or control the true and living God. God’s name is one of radical freedom: I will be whoever I will be, in spite of any human efforts to name, control, limit, or manipulate me.

This is a powerful theological assertion in the wisdom of the ancient Israelites, which is further fleshed out by two of the central commandments in the Sinai covenant: the prohibitions against graven images and against taking the Lord’s name in vain. Both of these are reactions to what the Israelites saw in the empires and city-states around them. In their world, religion served political power; the gods, captured in name and image, were emblazoned in imposing statuary and architecture, functioning to uphold the king or Pharaoh. (We moderns diminish the significance of “taking the Lord’s name in vain” by assuming that it refers to outbursts like “Goddamit!” In fact, the commandment is a radical hedge against the politicization of divinity for human purposes—perhaps not unlike saying “God bless America.”)

The “name” given to Moses proclaims, in essence: I am a God whom neither Pharaoh nor you can control. I am holy—in the Hebrew sense of “set apart,” transcendent of human purposes and designs. Isaiah will reaffirm this notion centuries later, after witnessing Israel’s futile efforts to create its own religious system at the service of monarchy: “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts” (55:8).

The deliberately enigmatic name of God is central to the liberation story, asserting at the onset of the Exodus adventure that this God is different from the gods of Egypt, deities who serve and uphold empire, who provide the theological underpinnings for a system built on slavery and oppression. If the liberated Israelites are to form a different kind of human society, it must be grounded on the premise that they must never try to control or contain the radically free YHWH.

Manna’s Message of Sacred Wonder

So what does the story of God’s name have to do with the desert feeding story? What is the joke behind “I AM” feeding the people with “What’s that”? (It’s starting to sound a bit Abbot-and-Costello–ish.)

The story of manna -- a life-sustaining substance that cannot be fully named, controlled, or hoarded by humans -- challenges our world of profit-driven agibusiness and genetic modification. Creative Commons/Musée de la Chartreuse.

There is, I am convinced, a compelling connection between these two puzzling names/non-names: just as God’s name is elusive and uncontrollable, so too God’s fundamental provision, the first food of the newly liberated community, cannot be named. The life-sustaining abundance of a good and holy creation cannot be controlled by humans—it must always be received as grace. It cannot be hoarded, but must be consumed in appropriate measures and released to ensure sustenance for the entire community.

Pharaoh, surrounded by his divine sycophants, feels free to extract the goods of creation and “hoard” them in storage cities built on slave labor—a practice implicitly condemned in the revolting image in Exodus 16:20 of the hoarded manna that is rotten and “stinks of maggots.” Torah, meanwhile, is warning us that we can control neither the Creator nor the creation. Just as we must always approach God in wonder and awe, knowing that God will be who God will be, so too must we always regard nature with an awe of ultimate unknowing—“What’s that?”

The Exodus story is communicating, however slyly, a powerful and very relevant teaching: by not naming this food substance (and not hoarding it), humans are being instructed not to manipulate, dominate, or control creation. In the new covenantal community, which is charged with creating a radical alternative to the slavery of Egypt (or mitzrayim, the provocative Hebrew name, meaning literally the narrow place, or perhaps the suffocating imperial system), we must desist from extracting natural resources for purposes outside God’s economic vision of enough for all.

We only need to look at the track record of modern human societies to further understand the wisdom of the unnamable gift of creation. Rather than adopting a stance of awe and gratitude, advanced human societies have largely tried to name and control the earth and its natural resources, to the point of pillaging and exploiting them to our purposes. We privatize the land, capturing it in deeds and measurements. We deplete the land through hyperproduction. We turn natural resources into commercial commodities, exhausting them for economic gain. We create “food systems” whose ultimate purpose is to fuel profits. We mindlessly waste what we choose not to use, even to the point of poisoning the ecosystem.

Moreover, we take the ultimately ineffable miracle of abundant life contained in a tiny rice seed, and we twist it into a patented market commodity, bearing such elaborate names as Bollgard or Genuity SmartStax. And we use it to fuel a system of inhumane inequities and injustice.

Tragically, our religious systems have, like the gods of Egypt, provided ample justification for our destructive approach to creation, just as they have for our political systems. But perhaps it’s not too late for us to hear these ancient stories again, to let them reawaken us to a fundamental awe before both Creator and creation.

As I live into this amazing story, I also wonder whether we need to balance what Rabbi Jesus will later call a “hunger for justice” (Matthew 5:6) with a “hunger for mystery”—a spiritual “What’s that?” that we ask without needing an answer. (Following his own desert sojourn, Jesus also drew heavily from the manna story in inviting his followers to experience the reign of God rather than the reign of Caesar.)

And perhaps, as people of faith reread these stories, we will find that the profoundly hopeful global movements for economic justice and for ecological healing can and will come together. We might learn that building an economy of “enough for everyone” must be based on an apprehension of the sacred quality of creation that proclaims the goodness and beautiful mystery of what God has made and given us.

The Exodus account of manna ends on a curious note. The people are instructed to put a portion of manna in a jar and keep it on display in the sacred tent in the presence of God. It is to be a sign for the generations to come, “so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt” (16:32). In other words, this story, this test of faith, this new economic practice, was to be memorialized as sacred and central to the identity and vocation of God’s people.

We were told to keep a jar of “What’s that?” in a sacred place as an eternal reminder of sacred wonder. Somehow, we’ve lost that jar. We need to refind it. There is a sacred story we must remember and tell our generation. That story can help rekindle our hunger not for domination but for holy mystery. And maybe, in the process, it can empower us to be healers of a scarred earth and builders of a truly just and holy human economy, with enough for everyone.


(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


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