The Manna in Art
In both Shemot 16 and Bemidbar 11, the Torah describes the manna, the food which Hashem miraculously provided for the nation of Israel throughout their wanderings in the desert. The three images portrayed here, one by Ercole de' Roberti,1 one by an unknown Dutch artist,2 and one by Nicolas Poussin,3 all describe the Israelites gathering the manna. The three artists differ in their conceptions of what the manna looked like, where and when it fell, and how the nation reacted to the miracle.
Roberti's colorful painting focuses on the act of gathering. The image is framed on three sides by the huts of the Israelites, while a line of figures collecting the manna fills the foreground. Moshe and Aharon stand to the left, watching the other Israelites scoop the sand-like manna into their sacks and bowls. Several people collect in pairs, others turn to bring the manna home to their families, while another eats on the spot. In the background, a clear blue sky lends the scene an atmosphere of serenity.
This artist chose to highlight the miraculous nature of the manna. There is no mistaking the heavenly source of the food, as large white circles rain from the sky. Many of the figures lift their pots to catch the falling bread while others look upwards with their hands clasped in prayer. In contrast to the other depictions, this one does not include Moshe and Aharon, nor any allusion to the Israelite campsite.
Poussin's painting is the busiest of the depictions, containing dozens of figures set against a dark landscape. It is full of drama and movement. In the left foreground, several people lie on the floor, so weak from hunger they cannot stand. To their right, others scramble to scoop the manna into their vessels. One man pushes a little child out of his way in his rush to gather the food. Moshe and Aharon stand behind them, surrounded by thankful Israelites who look heavenwards with hands raised in gratitude. Moshe, too, raises his finger,4 apparently telling the nation that the manna is a gift from God. In the distance, the tents of the Israelite campsite are just visible.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
What Did the Manna Look Like?
The unknown artist depicts the manna as large white circular drops, similar to big snowflakes drifting down from the sky. Poussin and de Roberti's manna, in contrast, look like small tan granules of sand on the floor. Which is closer to the Biblical description? In Shemot 16:4 the manna is said to be "דַּק מְחֻסְפָּס", while later in that same chapter it is described as being "כְּזֶרַע גַּד לָבָן". In Bemidbar 11:7, the text similarly states: "וְהַמָּן כִּזְרַע גַּד הוּא וְעֵינוֹ כְּעֵין הַבְּדֹלַח". Almost every term used in the descriptions, though, is not fully understood. What does "מְחֻסְפָּס" mean?5 What type of material is "בְּדֹלַח", and how was the manna similar to it? Which seed is a "זֶרַע גַּד", and is the manna being compared to it in shape, size, or color?
Where Did it Fall?
Roberti depicts the manna falling in the midst of the campsite itself, while both Poussin and the unknown artist have the nation gather their food at a distance from the Israelite tents. Which rendition is more faithful to the text? The verses are ambiguous. From Bemidbar 11:9 it sounds as if the manna fell on the dew in the camp itself. Shemot 16:4 and Bemidbar 11:8 though, suggest that the people had to "go out" and "trek" to gather the food.6 This leads Bavli Yoma to suggest that the manna fell in different places. The righteous were able to gather it near their tents, while others had to travel to find it.
Nature versus Miracle
The unknown artist highlights the miraculous nature of the manna, having it fall straight from the sky so as to ensure that all recognize its heavenly source. Poussin and DeRoberti, in contrast, opted not to emphasize this aspect.7 Hashem's words, "I will rain down bread from heaven", clearly suggest, like the picture of the unknown artist, that this was a miraculous phenomenon. Nonetheless, one might still question the extent of the miracle. Was the manna purely supernatural, or, in bringing miracles, does Hashem try to work as much as possible within the laws of nature?8 See Manna - Natural or Supernatural and Life in the Wilderness for elaboration.
When Did the Manna Fall?
Both De Roberti and the unknown artist paint a blue sky, setting their scene during the day. Poussin's image, in contrast, is set against a dark sky, suggesting evening. When did the manna fall – in the morning or night? From Shemot 16:13-14 it sounds as if the Selav came in the evening, while the manna arrived in the day. In contrast, Bemidbar 11:9 suggests that the manna fell at night. One possible solution is that the manna fell while it was still dark, but was first ready to be collected in the morning.
Reaction to the Miracle
The unknown artist portrays almost all of his figures looking heavenwards to the source of food, with several standing in poses of thanksgiving. De Roberti's characters, on the other hand, are busy collecting the manna, oblivious to all else. Poussin offers an array of reactions – some Israelites stand in gratitude, others in wonder, while others fight over the food. How did the Israelites react to the miracle? Was it recognized as such? Did it cause internal strife and bring out the worst in some of the nation, as Poussin suggests, or did it bring the people closer to God and dependence upon Him?