Science Ch.29 - Food in the Wilderness

The Israelites lived in the wilderness for forty years. This clearly involved miracles, but these did not include providing all their food and water – because other nations were managing to live there too.

When the pilgrim fathers arrived in America, the native population had to show them how to survive in a very different type of landscape from the one they had left behind. And for the first year, before they got settled, the natives fed them – something that their descendants have never stopped being thankful for. But when the Israelites suddenly found themselves in the wilderness of Sinai, they didn’t find friendly new neighbors to help them out.

       There is, of course, uncertainty about the number of Israelites who escaped from Egypt into the wilderness, but that won’t be dealt with here. Here we consider the nature of the wilderness they lived in and what kinds of miracles they needed. Israel wasn’t the only nation living there, so, like the pilgrim fathers, they knew it must be possible to survive in this new environment. The Bible text suggests they did just that, though they sometimes needed extra help.

       The other nations weren’t keen to have competitors for the limited resources. So, soon after the Israelites arrived, they met and fought with the Amalekites. Israel was only able to win while Moses was praying (Exod 17:11-13), which suggests that the Amalekite army was comparable to the size of Israel’s – so these nations were about the same size. These Amalekites were local, living “in the Negev” (i.e., in the wilderness, Num 13:29), and there was another group of Amalekites who lived on the southern edge of Canaan (Num 14:43) – or perhaps there were small groups throughout the area. They attacked because these Israelites were encroaching on their land.

       The Amalekites weren’t the only ones living in the wilderness, because soon after they were defeated, some Midianites came to visit the Israelites. This was a happier encounter because one of them was Moses’ father-in-law (Exod 18:1-9). When Moses had previously fled Egypt on his own, after he had killed an Egyptian, he had run away to “the land of Midian,” where he married a Midianite: Zipporah. It was while looking after her father’s flock that he’d seen the burning bush – so the land of Midian presumably included the southern wilderness area of Mount Sinai (Exod 2:15-22; 3:1-2).

       We don’t know who else was living in this wilderness, but it clearly wasn’t empty, and presumably it wasn’t as barren as it is now. It supported a large number of people and their animals before Israel arrived, and at least one of these nations (the Amalekites) was comparable in size to Israel.

5-minute summary

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Petroglyphs (ancient carvings on rocks) portray a lush wildlife in this Sinai wilderness. Thousands have been found, though their existence is not publicized because the few that have been signposted are now spoiled with graffiti. Various animals are depicted in them, especially the ibex, which must have been relatively common in the area.1 Clearly it was not always a wilderness.

       Paleobotanists have now found that this wilderness (i.e., the modern Negev) was indeed occasionally fertile, and these periods are now identified. Hendrik Bruins of the University of the Negev recently collected carbon-14 dates from archaeological animal feces and burned food scraps. He identified a fertile period spanning from the end of the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age (about 1600-950 BC) – which includes the period that Israel lived there for forty years.2

       In the Bible, this area is referred to by the name Negev (meaning “the south”) and the word midbar – which is related to the verb “to pasture.” Although the etymology of midbar implies that plants and animals flourished there, it is normally translated “wilderness” because it did not include human settlements such as towns – only a few ranch houses.

       However, later in Israel’s history, the meaning of the word midbar changed. When the later prophets use this word, it tends to mean a “desert.” Isaiah contrasted midbar with words such as “watered,” “fruitful,” and “inhabited,” and he calls it “a land of terror” (Isa 14:17; 21:1; 27:10; 32:15; 35:1, 6). Jeremiah says the man who turns from God will “dwell in the parched places of the desert [midbar] … where no one lives” (Jer 17:6). Notice that the NIV normally translates midbar as “wilderness” in the earlier books but translates it as “desert” when the meaning changed. This change reflects the fact that the Negev went into decline environmentally, probably due to shifting patterns of climate. It didn’t become fertile again until the late Roman period, though a few hundred years later it declined again.

       So the area where Israel lived for forty years wasn’t a deadly desert – though it wasn’t a garden, either. It was an area occupied mainly by flocks, herders, and their families, with few fixed settlements. Therefore, the land had vegetation for Israel’s herds, and it was possible for large numbers of people to live there, but it wasn’t easy.

God’s timing

This explains the fact that the miracles of food and water recorded in the Bible occur mostly when they first arrived in the wilderness or when they traveled to new locations where they didn’t yet know the water sources. The timetable went like this:
• Three days into the journey, “bitter” water was made drinkable at Marah (Exod 15:22-25).
• They stayed a few weeks at Elim, which had a lot of water (Exod 15:27 – 16:1).
• They started out for Sinai, but they needed food, so manna fell (Exod 16:1-36).
• A few days later they needed water, and a stream poured from a rock (Exod 17:1-7).
• They spent about a year at Sinai, receiving the law and building the Tabernacle (Num 10:11).
• Having gotten moving again, they complained the manna was boring, so quails arrived (Num 11:4-9, 18-23, 31-32).
• Right at the end of their travels, in the fortieth year, they gathered at Kadesh (ready to enter Canaan) and needed water again, so they got another stream from a rock (Num 20:1-13; for the year, compare 20:28 with 33:38).

       It appears that they only needed water on three occasions: at the very start of their journey, when they knew nothing about this wilderness; when they started their major journey to Sinai across strange country; and right at the end. By the end of forty years, we’d expect they would know where to find water, but perhaps they were now all gathered together in a tighter encampment, ready to cross hostile territory, so they could not forage for water so effectively.

Water from the rock

On two occasions, at Meribah and later at Kadesh, water flowed from a rock Moses had struck. The ancient rabbis imagined a single isolated rock that rolled through the wilderness, following them and providing a constant source of water. Paul refers to this image without saying he believed it really happened (1 Cor 10:4). There is nothing in the text to imply the same rock was involved in both places.

       It is likely that the water streamed from a rock face at the base of a large block of higher land. Higher land often has a water table that breaks out as a spring in the rock face at the edge. This is why Ancestral Puebloans built homes on the cliff edges of high plateaus such as the Mesa Verde in Colorado, where they could collect the water that came out of the rock face and also access the pastures at the top.3

       Perhaps Moses was at the bottom of a rock face, and by striking the exact spot he released a previously untapped water table. This water would continue to flow, possibly indefinitely if the outflow was matched by periodic rainfall in the higher area. So the miracle consisted of God showing Moses exactly where to hit the rock in order to release this water when it was needed on these two occasions.

       By contrast, the manna was constantly provided. It first appeared when the Israelites set out for Sinai in Exodus 16, and by the time they left Sinai a year later, they complained they were bored with it. It finally stopped when they reached Jericho (Josh 5:12). On the occasion they complained about the manna, God promised them meat “until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it” (Num 11:20), and soon after the camp was covered in quail.

       On a holiday in Malta I was surprised to find the southern coastal areas dotted with small huts no bigger than a latrine. I later realized these were hides – not for bird watching but bird shooting. Malta is the only place in Europe that still allows a twenty-day season for quail shooting – it is in April, when the birds land exhausted on their way from Africa to Europe.4 About seven thousand people register every year for this sport, which sounds to me as easy as a turkey shoot because the birds are trying to rest.

       We don’t now know whether quail used to land regularly in the Negev during the more fertile time when Israel was there, but this is certainly possible. In that case, it was a miracle of timing in that they arrived just after God had promised them. Quail normally migrate in April, which is roughly Passover time – that is, the first month. These quail arrived at the end of the second month (Num 10:11), but this may still have been the normal time for these particular quail. The Jewish calendar wanders somewhat because it uses lunar months of 28.5 days each and periodically corrects itself by adding an extra month – which explains why Passover and Easter are so movable. It is therefore likely that this occurred at the normal time for migration, but the calendar was a little misadjusted.

       The curious expression “two cubits deep” (Num 11:31) probably doesn’t mean they were lying on top of each other to the depth of one meter, but it may refer to the fact that they were exhausted and flying just above the ground, so they were easily caught.5 The Israelites ate quail for a month (Num 11:19-20), which is about the length of the quail-shooting season on Malta. The quantity and the timing were extraordinary – and can certainly be described as miraculous, even though we can suggest a mechanism for this miracle.6

Manna, manna

In contrast, manna is totally mysterious – though there have been several suggestions of natural phenomena that it might be connected with. The Bible describes it as white, like coriander seed or resin, and says that it settled with the dew and “melted” in the full sun. It tasted sweetish, and also savory like olive oil, and could be boiled or ground into flour and baked. But it didn’t store well – it soon smelled and attracted maggots (Exod 16:20-23, 31; Num 11:7-9). This is similar to various identifiable phenomena: tiny white mushrooms that pop up when dew moistens the land, exudates from insects (as found in tamarisk trees or the “Manna of Iran” found on bushes), exudates from trees themselves (such as the white “Manna Ash” found in Iraq and Iran), and others.7

       The problem with all of these phenomena is that they are short-lived or they occur only in tiny quantities, so they can’t have been a natural source of food for the nation during their forty years of wandering. Whatever it was, Israel considered it unusual and didn’t have a name for it; they called it man-ah (meaning “What [is] it?”), so it wasn’t merely large quantities of something that normally occurred.

       None of these ideas concerning manna completely emulate what is described in the Bible narratives, but they do help us to see that the miracles in the wilderness fit into the pattern found throughout the Bible. Instead of materializing the food or water that was needed, God used his creation to supply it. In the case of manna, we still don’t know what part of his creation he used to produce it or what kind of food was produced. However, it arrived alongside the natural phenomenon of dew, had to be collected in early morning, and needed to be processed before it was edible – so it wasn’t simply a food handout at mealtimes.

       So the water and quail were likely from normal sources, but the timing and quantity were miraculous. The water came from a rock face, which is where streams normally do break out, but Moses knew exactly where to strike the rock in order to release an untapped water table. Similarly, the quail arrived at the expected time, though in unexpectedly large quantities and sufficiently exhausted to be caught easily – and also in exactly the right place, where Israel was camped.

       Personally, I’m still left with the uneasy feeling that the miracles are diminished somewhat when we understand some of the mechanisms behind them. However, I realize that this is due to my failure to appreciate the way that God works. I’ve read and seen too much science fiction and fantasy, where amazing things happen by completely alien means. But the God of the Bible is the one who created this world, so we shouldn’t expect his acts to appear alien. We expect them to be homely but awesome. That is, they should be similar at least in some ways to actions that are normal in creation, though done at a special time, or in extraordinary quantities, or amazingly quickly. And that is how we see God working in the Bible.


• Other similar-sized nations were already living in the wilderness when Israel arrived, so it was not impossible to live there.
• Water normally does break out from rock faces around an upland area, and migrating quail normally arrive exhausted and easy to catch.
• Various substances that fit the description of manna do arise naturally, though not in the large quantities described.
• Proposal: The wilderness miracles are extraordinary in terms of timing and quantity, but not necessarily extraordinarily different from phenomena that still occur naturally.

1^ See Uzi Avner, Liora Horwitz, and Wayne Horowitz, “Symbolism of the Ibex Motif in Negev Rock Art,” Journal of Arid Environments 143 (December 2016) (
2^ See Hendrik J. Bruins and Johannes van der Plicht, “Dating of Iron Age Agriculture in the Negev Highlands,” Radiocarbon 59, no. 4 (August 2017): 1233-39 (
3^ See Kenneth R. Wright, “Ancestral Puebloan Water Handling,” Lakeline (Winter 2008): 23-28 (
4^ See “Hunting,” Birdlife Malta (
5^ This is suggested by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews 3.1.5 (
6^ See chap. 29, “Explaining the Exodus.”
7^ See Roger S. Wotton, “What Was Manna?,” Opticon1826 9 (Autumn 2010) ( WottonManna).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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