In the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, God gives manna to the Israelites who, upon seeing the frost-like substance covering the ground, ask “what is this?” (Ex. 16:15) This question, transliterated “man hu” becomes the name for this sustaining substance. Its very name is the question that gives rise to hermeneutics; it is the question that hermeneutics asks.
Odo Marquard has a pithy essay titled “The Question, To What Question is Hermeneutics the Answer?” in Farewell to Matters of Principle: Philosophical Studies. In this piece Marquard poses hermeneutics both as questioning and as the interpretive movement which attempts to answer questions. He offers several “questions” as the provocations of hermeneutics. These include 1) finitude 2) derivativeness and 3) transitoriness. Manna, a substance that turns the action of questioning into a noun (and a relationship), adroitly illuminates these hermeneutical provocations. For the sake of brevity, let me say that Marquard poses hermeneutics as the human attempt to deal with our contingency.
Manna has everything to do with contingency. It emphasizes our finitude: the Israelites receive it from the graciousness of God’s divine plenitude in their situation of lack, need, and hunger. It shows us our derivativeness: the Israelites might have liked to return to the fleshpots of their former masters where—ironically and retrospectively—they felt more in control of their lives than during their desert sojourn, but they had to interpret their existence as a nation based on what appeared within their horizon of experience. It emphasizes our transitoriness: the Israelites could gather up the manna only for one day (except before the Sabbath day), any surplus kept to the following day would become rotten and wormy. And such it the fate of interpretation: (meta)narratives that become so self-satisfied with their universality and Truth that they forget to renew themselves daily in their own context will become rotten and wormy.
Hermeneutics will always be an attempt to place ourselves in a bearable relationship to our own contingency. Manna, as a hermeneutic, shows us that our contingency is very real, it cannot be reduced or overcome, but our contingency exists in a dynamic relationship with God’s grace.
There is perhaps one more aspect of manna that commends it as a hermeneutic: it is placed in the ark of the covenant with the Law. The Law and the stuff of interpretation, placed “before the LORD in safekeeping for your descendants.” (Ex. 16:33) A constant sign unto the generations that as we remember that we have the presence of the LORD—as the Law, the Word, the Bread of Life –we must always ask, “man hu, what is this?”