Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”
The provision of manna in the desert is one of the most elemental and significant demonstrations of God’s provision in the Hebrew scriptures. As God gives the Israelites each day their “daily bread,” they are slowly and lovingly taught to rely on him and trust in his good-gifting nature. We too can trust in the Lord’s provision for our needs as Israel did (at least on their best days). This lesson is as relevant today as it was 3200-some years ago.
But when Jesus, in the Jewish rabbinical tradition of midrash, or homiletic commentary on texts, offers his insight into the Exodus narrative, he goes above and beyond this lesson. Check it out:
So [the crowds] asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
The Jews here are “grumbling” and “argu[ing] sharply among themselves,” just as their Hebrew ancestors did in the desert, and just as we still often do today. Indeed, “this is a hard teaching,” one that even leads some of Jesus’ followers to turn away from him (John 6:66). How much harder, even, it must have been for the original audience, who knew nothing of the communion tradition which had yet to be established. It would have sounded downright cannibalistic.
In Jesus, the physical provision of bread from heaven (which, by the way, immediately precedes this text when Jesus feeds the five thousand) is not the central reality to focus on. This is why, when the crowds say “Sir, give us always this bread,” in reference to the literal bread Jesus had miraculously multiplied, Jesus reframes the issue. Rather than literal bread, Jesus says that in fact, he himself is the bread of life, the one who satisfies humanity’s true hunger–for eternal life. Unlike the manna in Moses’ day, which the people ate but still eventually died, the bread of Jesus himself was unto eternal life. Jesus is referring both to the communion bread by which his followers would be spiritually nourished, and to the “bread” of his teaching, which provides us with the strength to follow God and to do good works.
We, of course, have the advantage of hindsight to see the foreshadowing of the symbolism of communion and its soteriological implications, but we must also acknowledge that to “eat my flesh and drink my blood” has everything to do with the nourishment of God’s Word. For indeed, man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:3, cf. Luke 4:4). Jesus’ teaching is the nourishment we need to empower our bodies to do good works. So, in the words of the ancient liturgy, “feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”