So what did the Jews of the late 2nd temple period (the era in which Jesus lived and taught)understand the word lechem to mean? Because this is so important, I’ll write it twice – once here and again below:
Lechem is appropriately translated as that which enables physical life. Lechem certainly can mean food for the body but more figuratively lechem means the vitality that animates and sustains the physical body. Food, shelter, water, friends, wealth, family, wives and neighbors are all lechem to us.
Let’s return to Deut 8:2-3…
And you shall remember all the way that YHWH, your God, had you go these forty years in the wilderness in order to degrade you, to test you, to know what was in your heart: [whether] you would observe His commandments or not. So, He degraded you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by lechem alone, but man lives (cha’yah) by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.
OK, let’s unpack this very dense passage.
In the Hebrew phrase ‘man lives…” (yi’chayah ha-adam), the verb ‘lives’ (cha’yah), has a range of meanings which includes to prosper, to sustain life, or to nourish (Gen 27:40; Gen 45:7; 2Kings 18:32; 1Sam 10:24; 2Sam 12:3), or to restore to health, to heal, recover (Josh 5:8; 2Kings 1:2; 2Kings 8:10). By contrast, Israel’s neighbors and other surrounding ancient near east cultures sought to link themselves with the forces of life in terms of nature deities, or by magical recitations and appropriate magical ritual. In the Hebrew Bible, cha’yah is determined by a right relationship to, and right understanding of, God and God’s will for mankind. For example, Moses places the people in a state of having to choose between life and death by laying the word of God before them (Deut 30:15-20). Israel is called upon to choose life, “for this word is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life” (Deut 32:47). One of the great themes of the prophet Ezekiel is the effort to liberate life from all false supports and obligations by connecting life wholly and utterly to the Word of God. In Proverbs, man is called upon to make a decision for life, by embracing God’s Wisdom (Prov 2:19; Prov 5:6; Prov 6:23; Prov 10:17; Prov 15:24). Finally, by cleaving to God, the righteous have life (Hab 2:4; cf. Amos 5:4, 14; Jer 38:20).
In other words, the right ordering of our lives comes from the Word of God — not from magic and fortune telling, not from pursuit of wealth, not by government policies, or peer-pressure. Deut 8:2-3 is a description of how the LORD tested the Israelites and continues to test the nations inhabiting His creation.. In this context, then, manna is provided to test whether the Israelites will ‘trust’
that God will provide for their sustenance while in the desert.
Now, here’s how trust enters into this text: manna (!m’ä) literally means “what is it?” When the manna first appeared, it was unknown to them. Having no knowledge whatsoever of this strange substance, they were asked to trust that the manna was sufficient for their survival. And now we come to the nub of this teaching — the relationship between manna and lechem. Superficially, the manna is correctly thought of as food. However, from God’s perspective, manna serves as a diagnostic device, much like a thermometer or blood test, but taken periodically over a long period of time. In this case, manna is a “trust thermometer”.
The word lechem, on the other hand, is appropriately translated as that which enables physical life. Lechem certainly can mean food for the body but more broadly lechem means the vitality that animates and sustains the physical body. Food, shelter, water, friends, wealth, family, wives and neighbors are all lechem to us. Thus, when Moses, the prophets, and Jesus reveal that the manna is the lechem of heaven (lechem ha’shamayim), they are not referring to good health and a prosperous life. Manna is the lechem ha’shamayim, a substance that enables a life of higher purpose than that of physical comfort or even existence. Manna, declares Moses, is the lechem ha’shamayim and is symbolic of trust in God and God’s Word. But to receive manna is to agree to be tested. When we choose to live by the Word we knowingly agree to struggle always against temptation.
This is exactly how Jesus seems to have interpreted Deut 8:2-3. In Jesus’ teaching, lechem ha’shamayim refers to the inner spiritual life that can only come from trusting the Word of God.
Now, here’s the study question for the next lesson – Given that the lechem ha’shamayim fell every day, what do you think Jesus meant when He taught us to pray “Give us this day, our daily bread”? Are we really being taught to ask God for food and prosperity and for all our days to be bright and sunny?
Now, go and study
-  For more detailed information, please see the entryfor ‘bread’ in Harris et al, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament↩
- The Old Testament concept of faith (!muîae — eymen) is best understood as trust. It does not usually mean ‘belief’ as in “I believe God exists”. In those days the existence of God was unquestioned. Indeed, all cultures of those days believed in deities of one sort or another. The question always was whether one could “trust” their god(s) to deliver. Moreover, the word ‘trust’ captures exactly what God desires because the relationship between Israel and YWHW is covenantal — God and the Israelites (mankind) are bound forever via mutual obligations.↩