How quickly the pendulum of belief swings. In chapters 14-15 of Exodus, one finds a celebratory, exultant and apparently faith-filled flock of Moses, high and dry on the safe side of the Sinai. The party is over, however, as chap. 16 opens with the congregation blaming the pastors and complaining about how they used to do things at their old church. That’s what it sounds like, at least, for someone like me, the son, grandson and spouse of pastors, and a pastor myself.
The temptation in preaching this passage is to go for the low-hanging fruit, if I can use a food metaphor, of making this simply into a sermon about ingratitude and faithlessness, which can be presented all the more starkly with allusions to what just took place in the narrative. Novelist Margaret Atwood tells of growing up in a household where refusal to clean one’s plate at every meal was met with the parental challenge “ Think of the starving Armenians.” It’s no longer the Armenians, but rather the starving Somalis, Ethiopians, and even Americans, but human nature is still the same, so the preacher must remind both every child and every adult who gets their minimum recommended caloric content each day that they should indeed be grateful.
Yet the text is much more complex than that which can be addressed in a few pious nostrums, but let the pastor beware (Caveat Pastor?)—“going there” in the sermon may press up against some of the most deeply held beliefs and widely-practiced habits of Western culture. For the text is at its heart a critique of hoarding, which is signified in two ways. The first, more subtle way is in the nostalgic reference to the “fleshpots of Egypt,” which represent the “good eatin'” that went on back in the slave quarters. But those fleshpots stemmed principally from the servitude of people like the Israelites and the exploitation of the surrounding vassal states north, west and south of Egypt, whose “cooperation” was guaranteed by the military/industrial complex and its war machine. That the regional superpower had most recently seen its Defense Department grind to a halt and then be swept away in the Sea of Reeds ought to have been a sign to the children of Israel of the ephemeral nature of human power, but it wasn’t. Still, the textual linkage of hoarding with violence stands out to the reader even if the characters in the narrative don’t get it.
The second, more direct way in which hoarding is critiqued is in the command by God that the community gather manna sufficient only for each day. Curbing the impulse to get all that one can is thus the first, yet often the most troublesome lesson the people of God have to learn on their journey to the Promised Land. They were more than willing to follow God when being chased by the Egyptian army, but the hard, daily slog through the sand, when terror subsides and boredom sets in, makes following and trusting this God is a far less appealing option. Yet it is the fundamental learning that the community is tasked with internalizing and without which they will not succeed. For that which is hoarded rots, the text asserts. Which is not to say that God desires that the community survive at the edge of starvation. Rather, the community is called to live, not at the fringes of either hunger or hoarding, but rather in the center, which the text describes thusly as the ideal state of affairs: [T]hey gathered as much as each of them needed” (16:18).
In this, the two core values of the tradition are affirmed in the most basic of human functions, eating. The love of God is made manifest in the trust required to believe that one’s daily needs will be met. And the love of neighbor is manifested by the self-discipline to take from the Creation only what is required so that there will be adequate remaining for others and for the maintenance of the Creation itself.
This is not a hard text to understand, but it is a very difficult one to live out. In the US, the whole economic system is built on doing everything the text says the community must not do in terms of hoarding, and the foreign policy is built on the same faith in technological and military superiority which the text shows to be utter folly. The preacher will give the Word of God this Sunday to a congregation who will leave worship and drive to the Cheesecake Factory, where they can buy entrees that contain 3-4 servings each and enough calories to support a normal human being’s intake for two days. They will be able to do this because they live in a society which spends $700 billion per year to see to it that their right to consume 4500 calories per day remains intact. And they will eat this meal, and often we pastors sitting right there among them, without a trace of irony, as if the text we just read had nothing to do with us.
This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.