Manna and the Mountain-Devouring Cloud of Fire

In the Exodus account, the glory of Lord appears in a fantastic and fearsome form. 

Exodus 24 depicts it as a ‘consuming fire’ atop Mount Sinai, veiled by a cloud. This glory was the very presence of God on earth: when Moses entered into that cloud, he hears the voice of God. Later, after this cloud of fire has descended upon the tabernacle, Moses goes inside where he talks with God ‘face to face’ and is afforded an indirect glimpse of the divine glory itself (Exodus 33).

But this is not the first time the glory of the Lord is seen. In fact, it makes a surprisingly subtle entrance into the history of Israel, recounted some chapters earlier, in Exodus 16:

Then the Lord said to Moses: I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you. … So Moses and Aaron told all the Israelites, “At evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord (verses 4, 5-6).

The manna would appear in the morning, meaning that the grand vision of God’s glory would coincide with the reception of this simple sustenance. It seems a far cry from the mountain-devouring cloud of fire that would come later. Dewy bread scattered upon the dry sands of the desert seems like the last place one would expect to see the glory of the Lord. But then, it’s also strange that God manifests Himself to a nation of slaves stuck wandering around in the desert—and makes them His chosen people!

As Catholic Christians, we recognize in the manna a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. In the world of biblical theology, things in the Old Testament that foreshadow something or someone in the New are known as types, from the Greek word, typos, which, of course, means a model, or example. There are tons of types. Some are pretty solid, such as the way in which Adam and Eve are understood to be types of Christ and Mary. Others sometimes seem like a stretch.

It’s hard not to see the manna as a type of the Eucharist. After all, the Bible itself links the two together: manna is mentioned in the great Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, in which Jesus identifies Himself as the new bread that has come down from heaven—in other words, the Eucharist.

But do Catholics go too far in believing that Christ’s divinity, body, and soul are present to us in the Eucharist? John 6, of course, seems pretty clear about how this new bread is His own very flesh.

Many Protestants, however, remain unconvinced. Certainly, there are also some Catholics who have had moments of doubt as well. Anyone who still questions the Real Presence should take another look at the exodus story. It is certainly striking that the glory of the Lord—that is the divine presence—is there associated with simple rolls of bread. It suggests that the typological identification of the old bread with the new has to do with more than just the fact both are bread that came down from heaven.

The story of the manna suggests that the typological connection goes deeper: both forms of bread manifest, albeit in different ways and contexts, the presence of God.

This story also has much to say to Catholics who already have a lively faith in the Real Presence.

It reminds us just how awesome it is that in such simple food we enter into the presence of God Himself. Think about it: that fire-cloud that devoured a mountain top is, in a sense, contained in a substantial way, in the Eucharist received at Mass. Put another way, the fire that once consumed the mountain is now consumed by us. (Technically, it’s still the other way around: in eating the Eucharist, it is God who consumes us, who permits us participation in the divine life.)

This image of fire, of the divine spark, consumed by the believer is itself a biblical image. Such a scene is vividly described in Isaiah 6, where the prophet has a vision of the heavenly temple where angels unendingly sing of the glory of God that will be poured out on earth. When Isaiah sees all this he is, naturally, petrified and exclaims:

Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (verse 5)

What happens next? One of those angels takes a pair of tongs, approaches the altar, and lifts up an ember. The angel then touched it to Isaiah’s mouth: “See,” the angel said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (verse 7).

What happens at Mass is more incredible than this. We not only touch our lips to the burning ember, but swallow it. And, in the Eucharist, it is the fullness of the divinity, the soul, and body of God Incarnate that is made present to us anew. The cloud of fire at Sinai not only reminds us of this mind-bending reality, but also helps us to better understand how it can be so. Like the cloud covering the fire, the Eucharist bread and wine are veils to us. But make no mistake about it: behind that veil is the fire of divine love.

image: jorisvo / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • JMC

    What a stirring metaphor, swallowing the burning ember. It makes the catechetical phrase “properly disposed” take on a whole new clarity: IF WE PERMIT, that “ember” we swallow will change us, purge us if everything unclean, just as the ember that touched Isaiah’s lips cleansed him. But that permission on our part is paramount, for God will not act against our free will. What an incredible gift!

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