News & Opinion | March 23, 2019 5:00 am

Science’s So-Far Fruitless Search for Real-Life “Manna from Heaven”

Scholars have long sought the biblical food credited with saving the Jews during Exodus.

Chef Todd Gray (in reflection) with his manna for seafood (lt) and traditional Iranian manna (rt) at Manna in The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC on July 8, 2018. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
The Washington Post/Getty Images

The heaven-sent sustenance the Old Testament says helped the Jews survive 40 years in the desert after fleeing slavey in Egypt has bewildered scholars and scientists for ages: Was it real and, if so, why are they still left with more questions than answers about its existence?

In part, the Bible is to blame, as many of its textual clues about what it calls manna only sow more confusion. At various points, the Bible says manna melts in the sun on hot days, and if not gathered quickly enough, rots and breeds worms. In the book of Exodus, manna is likened to coriander seed; in the book of Numbers, it is likened to “fresh oil.”

Manna was also purported to have supernatural qualities. In Jewish mystical writing known as the Zohar, eating manna gave people sacred knowledge of the divine. Meanwhile, another Jewish text, The Book of Wisdom, says that the flavor and taste of manna varied in each person who ate it.

Some religious historians have labored intensely trying to pinpoint exactly what foodstuff manna was. Others have tried making their own. The current frontrunner in the quest to identify manna, according to Atlas Obscura, is a that it is a type of “sticky secretion found on common desert plants.”