This week’s sermon is a bit of a sidebar. We’ve been hearing St. John’s account of the feeding of the multitude and the explanation that follows by Jesus to the gathered crowd. We’ve talked about how this miracle signifies the return of the manna. And that people were looking for that as proof that the Messiah had come. But we’ve not talked about manna and what it was.
There are multiple natural explanations for the manna in the desert. There are Bedouin tribes that will sell you modern manna in the Sinai today – claiming it is the same thing that the Israelites ate during the Exodus. The most compelling natural explanation for the manna is the result of a bore attack by insects on the desert Tamarisk tree. The sap which flows through the tree’s wounded bark congeals into a sweet buttery substance that is a staple of the local diet.
There are natural explanations for the flocks of quail around the camp of the Israelites too. Migrating flocks of quail, fighting the wind currents over the Sinai peninsula, will frequently land in large numbers, exhausted to rest before returning to their flight. Such exhausted quail are easy to capture. It’s been a common occurrence in the region for a long time.
If there are natural explanations for things that the Bible describes as miraculous, does that mean the Bible is wrong? Well, that depends on how you understand “miraculous”. Many have pointed out the timing of the event is the miracle, not the natural event itself. Or perhaps, more importantly, the miracle is in the eye of the beholder. You can choose to see miracles all around you – and rejoice in the presence of God, or you can reject them and insist that they carry no meaning or significance.
It seems to me that the choice you make about such things colors the way you perceive your life and the world around you. One of my literary heroes, Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, chose to believe in meaning and transcendent beauty in his story – and it made a profound difference in others. For myself, I choose to be part of Team Puddleglum. Perhaps you do too. (You can read about Puddleglum and his choice in CS Lewis’ book “The Silver Chair”.)