Food serves as one of the most profound symbols throughout the standard works. Without food, both human beings and animals cannot survive. Life upon this planet literally depends upon an ability to consume physical nourishment. Hence, providing food for an individual (or even an animal) demonstrates that the giver holds the life of the recipient to be of considerable value.
Important episodes appear throughout the Old Testament, which demonstrate God’s love for his children by means of food. In the opening chapter of Genesis, God provides the first couple with “every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed,” while telling his creations “to you it shall be for meat [Heb. food]” (Gen. 1:29). Old Testament passages such as Psalm 104 express profound gratitude for God who,
“Causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart” (vv. 14-15).
The Psalm praises God’s goodness for the fact that the Lord demonstrates his love for all earthly creatures by providing them with food (vv. 27-28). Continuing this theme, Old Testament accounts, such as the story of Elijah, when God himself miraculously provides his prophet with food, reveal how important an individual’s existence was to God (1 Kings 17).
Given the symbolic value of food throughout the scriptures, Jesus’ implementation of a sacred meal by means of the sacrament illustrates the Savior’s deep concern for his followers’ lives. In part, the food provided by Jesus in the sacramental meal represents the love that led Jesus to give his body and blood in order that his disciples should live.
Though Latter-day Saints experience little challenge in capturing the biblical notion of God providing food to his children as a representation of his love, one of the Old Testament themes connected with this imagery seldom explored by students includes the reversal of the relationship, whereby human beings present God with a sacred meal offering as a reflection of their love and devotion.
In terms of ritual performances presented to God, biblical scholars have observed a universal distinction between the general category of offering and the more specific category of sacrifice. While the act of sacrifice places emphasis upon on the ritual slaying and/or death of the victim, offerings in the general sense focus primarily upon the presentative aspect of ritual gift giving. The Old Testament features evidence suggesting that the concept of symbolically offering food as a gift to God existed in ancient Israel. Some passages in the Old Testament specifically refer to offerings as “food” for God (see Lev 3:11; 21:6,17,21,22; Num. 28:2). As such, items that provided the staples of the human diet namely meats, breads (with oil), wine, and even salt appear as an integral part of altar offerings. In this context, the designation “table” for the Lord’s open-air altar secures the overall conceptual continuity of the perception of human beings demonstrating their love for God by means of a gift of food (see Ezek. 44:16; Mal. 1:7,12).
Lesson 14 in the Old Testament Sunday School manual provides LDS students with an opportunity to reflect upon these concepts. The importance of food, both as a scriptural symbol, and as a literal need upon which life is dependent, appears as a subtle theme in chapters 15-20 and 32-34 of the book of Exodus.
Clearly, the central event featured in this week’s reading includes Israel’s sacred temple encounter at Mount Sinai and the provision of the Mosaic Law. With such a momentous religious occurrence, it would be easy, therefore, for students to simply overlook the profound spiritual lesson presented in these chapters by means of food.
In light of its importance, however throughout the scriptures, students and teachers may wish to reflect for a few moments on the lessons taught to Israel through a series of crises prior to the Sinai experience, one of which directly involves the issue of food. These dangerous predicaments include: (1) a lack of drinking water (15:22-27), (2) food shortage (16:1-36), (3) an additional lack of water (17:1-7), and (4) military aggression by a foreign desert tribe (17:8-16).
Exodus 16 recounts events that occurred a month following the Exodus, after the Israelies had left the oasis of Elim and began to run low on food. Through this trial, God demonstrated his love and concern for his chosen people by providing them with a miraculous meal sent from heaven (v. 4).
The Hebrew name for this substance “manna” represents a play upon the Israelites’ question, “what (Heb ‘man’) is it” (v. 15), presenting the name as a declaration, “it is ‘man.” “In essence, then, the term means ‘whatchamacallit’ and expresses the manna’s unprecedented character in Israelite experience.” Jeffrey H. Tigay as cited in The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, pg. 141.
In the New Testament, this dramatic experience appears as a symbolic allusion to Jesus Christ, identified scripturally as the true “manna” sent from heaven (John 6:35; 48-51). As “food,” Jesus therefore, quite literally provides the greatest manifestation of God’s desire to provide his children with life. Identifying these themes may present LDS students with several important principles as points of reflection.