There are two accounts of the manna and the quail in the Pentateuch, the other being in Numbers 11. There the manna was provided first, and after the people “murmured” (a constant motif in the Exodus story), the quails were given. In this account greater emphasis is placed on the manna.
Both are intelligible as phenomena in the Sinai desert, the manna being a sweet excretion from certain insects and the quail being migratory fowl that often drop dead from exhaustion in their flight over the Sinai desert.
Note how the final remark of Moses highlights the manna at the expense of the quail, providing the phrase “bread from heaven,” which was destined to play an important role in later tradition.
Responsorial Psalm: 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54
The phrase “bread from heaven” is taken up in the refrain of the psalm. Psalm 78 is a long recitation of Israel’s salvation history from Jacob to David. This section of it covers the Sinai period. The bread from heaven becomes the “bread of the angels,” a further step on the road to its typological interpretation of the messianic banquet and the Eucharist.
Today’s reading from Ephesians continues the parenesis, or ethical exhortation. The material is almost certainly derived from a primitive Christian catechism.
Note first the reference to the teaching of Christ. Note secondly the pattern of renunciation and renewal. “Put off” and “put on” are suggested by the candidates’ divesting themselves of their garments to go down into the baptismal waters and their vesting again with the baptismal robe after emerging from them.
We cannot be sure that this symbolism was already applied at this time, but it is not improbable.
Running through this passage is the contrast between the old pagan life and the new Christian life. The word “likeness” in the RSV is not in the Greek, and we have no reason to speculate that the author is here thinking of human beings as having lost the divine likeness (though retaining the image) at the fall. Also, the word “nature” translates the Greek word for “human being.” We might find it helpful here to use Tillich’s term, the “new being.”
This is the opening section of the discourse on the bread of life. Like so many of the Johannine discourses, it is composed from traditional materials. The reference to “signs” recalls the discussion in Mark 8:11-13and the figurative interpretation of bread recalls the dialogue in Mark 8:14-21.
The evangelist himself is not averse to the term “sign,” but he polemicizes against a faith that does not penetrate beyond the sign to the thing signified. Hence the exhortation to labor not for earthly bread but for the “food which endures to eternal life.”
This introduces the theme of the bread from heaven. At the outset it is stated that the Son of man (that is, he who came down from heaven and who will ascend thither again) will give this bread.
The dialogue about the true work looks like a digression, but it serves to underline the nature of the bread from heaven. This bread has to be received in faith; that is the only way to labor for it.
Having established the difference between the sign and the thing signified, the dialogue then proceeds to draw a second distinction, that between the type and its fulfillment, between the manna and the “true” (that is, eschatological) bread from heaven.
Note how the evangelist draws both distinctions by means of the Johannine technique of misunderstanding. Each time the Jews misunderstand the Revealer, who then proceeds to give the correct interpretation.
In the course of this dialogue, a shift occurs, First Jesus promises as Son of man to give the bread of eternal life, but later he says, “I am the bread of life.”
There is a major dispute as to whether the evangelist already has the Eucharist in mind in this first part of the discourse or whether that theme does not really come to the fore until John 6:51-58 (regarded by some as the addition of a redactor).
Is Christ the bread of heaven already in the incarnation or only in the Eucharist? Is this bread made presently available in the proclamation of the word only or in the sacrament also? Are eating and drinking no more than metaphors for faith in the divine Revealer, or do they also include sacramental eating and drinking?
We would hazard two opinions on this subject. First, it would be wrong to draw a sharp line between the historical and the kerygmatic, and the sacramental. All are part of one single act of revelation and redemption, with the historical coming of Christ decisive, and the preaching of the word and partaking of the sacrament complementary as re-presentations of the once-for-all revelatory and redemptive event.
Therefore, it is not either faith in the word or sacramental eating and drinking alone, but both, the one informing the other but the one incomplete without the other.
Second—an even more hazardous opinion—since John 6:20-51b speak exclusively of the bread of life, and only John 6:51-58 of the flesh and blood of Jesus, the background of the earlier part is the fellowship meal and preaching of the word, while the background of the later part is the Eucharist proper.
If the later part is the addition of a redactor who is also of the Johannine school, it would mean that the evangelist had emphasized the agape meal and preaching, to the virtual exclusion of the Eucharist proper.
But his rather “way-out” view was seen within the Johannine school to require supplementation. It is in that supplemented form that John’s Gospel has been received into the canon by the Church.
As the text now stands, it asserts that the incarnate Christ is present as the bread of life in the fellowship meal and in the word, and that in the Eucharist proper the crucified One gives his flesh and blood to be the food of the faithful.