Do angels eat? Scripture says they do. “Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance” (Ps. 78:25). “Thou didst give thy people food of angels” (Wis. 16:20). It’s puzzling to think that angels eat.
The notion of angelic food (panis angelicus) invites the question of the angelic diet. What do angels eat? The answer is not straightforward. Both passages above refer back to the exodus, when God rained bread from heaven (Exod. 16:4). Angels eat manna, we might say.
But this tells us little if we do not know what manna is. Scripture speaks of it as “a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost” (16:14), like coriander seed, looking like bdellium (Num. 11:7). (I hope you’re as relieved as I am that Study Bibles dutifully explain that bdellium is a pale, yellow resin.) According to Exodus its color is white, and it tastes like honey wafers (Exod. 16:31).
For my part, I think it’s hard to say what manna is. For one, its descriptions in Exodus and Numbers are imprecise—deliberately so. It’s not as though Scripture offers us a chemical formula. The word most used in the Bible’s descriptions of manna is “like.” Apparently, it’s hard to get to the heart of it.
Indeed, even the Israelites hardly knew what manna is. On the eve of crossing the Jordan River, Moses reminds them: The Lord “fed you with manna, which you did not understand, nor did your fathers understand; that he might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3).
When the Israelites looked out of their tents and saw the ground covered, they asked each other, “What is it?” In Hebrew, this question is: Mān hu? Our word manna is simply a transliteration of the question, “What is it?” Such a name veils more than it unveils. The Israelites, for all their grumbling, at least realized that they couldn’t comprehend what manna is.
I suspect it’s difficult to understand because manna is the food of angels rather than of men. When God lets people share the food of his courtiers, they’re hardly eating everyday fare. Saint Paul would say the Israelites ate “spiritual food” (1 Cor. 10:3). Of course they did: Angels are spiritual beings, and spiritual beings eat spiritual food. As middling creatures, we find it difficult to grasp what angels eat.
Jean Daniélou, the great 20th-century theologian of biblical and patristic typology, explains in The Bible and the Liturgy that “the manna of the Old Testament was already something other than an ordinary profane food, and constituted a true sacrament.” In other words, manna is not simply some ordinary food that points to something else (Christ as the true bread) and from there points to yet another thing (Eucharist). Manna—the food sprinkled on the desert floor—was itself spiritual food that angels eat.
In John 6, Jesus identifies himself as the true bread from heaven, the true manna (6:32). I won’t try to make a case for it here, but I think it’s hard to read John 6 and not think of the Eucharist. (“My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” 6:55–56.) Manna keeps showing up: in the wilderness, in Capernaum, and in church. Daniélou would probably say that the three are typologically related: both the first and the last get their reality from the second—where Jesus speaks of himself in Christian Platonist fashion as the “true bread from heaven.” He is the archetype on which the other two are patterned.
The numerous similarities between Exodus 16 (along with Psalm 78, which retells the story) and John 6 demand this typological connection:
- Manna was a sign (Ps. 78:32, 43; cf. Exod. 7:3; 10:1–2), just as Jesus fed the five thousand with bread as a sign (John 6:14, 26). And, we may add, he himself is a sign, the archetypal sign or Ursakrament from which emanate all other signs.
- The Israelites murmured (Exod. 16: 2, 7–8, 12), as did the Jews and the disciples (John 6:41, 43, 61).
- The Israelites failed to believe in God (Ps. 78:22, 32) despite the sign, and Jesus closely links believing with feeding on him as the bread from heaven (John 6:40, 47, 64).
- The Israelites gathered manna (Exod. 16:16–22), while the disciples gathered up into twelve baskets the leftover fragments from the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:12–13).
But these (and other) similarities pale before the one great dissimilarity that Jesus points out in the last words of his discourse: “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not like the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (6:58). The unlikeness has to do with immortality: Eating Jesus renders us immortal. The true angels’ food is “medicine of immortality,” as Ignatius of Antioch called it.
Some things are beyond our comprehension. Manna is one of them, because God shows up in manna. Manna is a theophany, a manifestation of God. When God appears—in the desert, on the Galilean shore, or in the Eucharistic feast—words fall short. This-worldly categories (even those of “substance” and “attributes”) do not reach the reality of eternal life. We’re like Israelites, stammering, “What is it?”
Angels eat. Manna is their daily diet. They live off the Word that eternally proceeds out of the Father’s mouth (cf. Deut. 8:3). Angels always eat their fill; they never go hungry, for they eternally eat the true bread of heaven, pondering God’s eternal glory in his Word. One day, we will be like angels, when the true angelic bread will forever be the spiritual food of man.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
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