Last week we spoke about cravings, and this week the theme continues. Now in the old testament, the Torah, some of the Israelites who left Egypt with Moses are strongly craving meat. They whine that in Egypt they had cucumbers and melons, leeks and onions, fish and garlic — and real meat. But out here, all they get is manna – the strange bread from heaven. Why did they ever leave Egypt?
Pretty soon more and more of the camp is complaining. So Moses goes and complains to God — why do you hate me so? Look at the people you make me care for, make me nurse along like I’m a mother breastfeeding children — these aren’t my kids! This burden is too heavy!”
So God says God will send so much meat that the people will literally have meat coming out of their noses and they will hate meat.
Moses points out there are over a half million men — plus their families — where is there enough meat to feed this many people meat for every meal for a month?
God answers — watch me. Gather elders and I will give them some of the spirit on them from you so you don’t lead alone. Moses does as God asks, and when the spirit settles on the elders, they begin to prophesize — proving their connection to the divine. Yet they kept their authority to speak and prophesize carefully only in the presence of Moses. Two other men, however, who also were leaders, didn’t go to the meeting. Yet they, too, began to know the word of God. In the camp — away from the authority of Moses — they began to prophesize.
Word got back to Moses real quick on the lips of a young man. Joshua tells Moses — “Moses, stop them!”
But Moses replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? I would that all of God’s people were prophets and that God would put the Spirit on them!”
Our reading ends here, today, to drive home the Christian message that Jesus gifted the Spirit to all people — just as Moses once wished.
But what of the promised meat? After today’s reading, the meat does come. Quail arrive in a windstorm. And they eat as much meat as they can handle. But while the meat was still in the teeth of those who gathered it, a plague struck and the people who had craved other food died.
In Numbers, the author says God did this. Science would say that eating meat that falls out of the sky from a hurricane is eating spoiled meat and listeria kills people. Scholars, however, say the entire story is a way of speaking of spirituality.
See, food in the Bible is often a sign, a reference, to spirituality. Jesus is the bread from heaven. Lamentations food for the soul is desired. In John, Jesus tells his disciples he has food they do not know of to eat – it is the food that is the will of God. We are told to labor for bread that doesn’t perish but abides into eternal life. We are reminded at each communion how the simple food of bread and pressed grapes are so, so much more than that which nourishes our bodies.
Food is a symbol. It represents life. Represents goodness. Represents spirituality. Represents God.
With that in mind, some scholars read this disturbing story in Numbers as a story about the people coming to terms with a new spirituality.
In Egypt, they had many religions. Lots of different kinds of food. Many different gods to pray to and to feed their souls. But out here, in the wilderness, they have only got YWHW – the strange God of Moses and of their great-forefathers. So while in Egypt they had specialty gods — out here they only have one universal god. And this is getting pretty bland.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special to pray to for womens’ problems? Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone special just for children? Rather than saying evils — like plagues, listeria, deaths — come from the same God who gives births, medicine, and health — it would be easier to say an evil god sends evil. The people, in this interpretation, crave more variety in their gods.
If they can’t get more variety, they at least want more substance. This bread alone diet is boring. Give us something harder! Give us more spirituality! Give us more truths! Give us something to sink our teeth into! Give us the meat!
Moses goes and tells God he’s had it — he’s been nursing these babies that aren’t even his. He is giving them the most basic spirituality, the most basic nourishment, the most basic faith — and they aren’t happy. They want more. They say they want meat. No more of this simple religion stuff. Give them the plethora of gods in Egypt or give them more substance than what they have now.
And so the quail are hard spiritual meat, hard truths, scary realities, crazy paradoxes, the deep nuances of religion, the hard to comprehend wisdom of God — the power, and breadth, and immensity of God. As soon as the people try to get their mouths on all of this, they die. It’s too much. God is more than we can understand or know. Just a portion of God’s power diluted through Moses still makes the elders go crazy and speak prophesies. That diluted power makes even other elders who weren’t even present when God transferred the Spirit prophesy. So in this story, when scholars read it as a story of spirituality, the people balk and cannot handle meaty religion.
They need the milk-bread religion. They need the simple stuff. The people who kept to just the basics and trusted that is all they needed survived. The ones who craved more died.
… In this interpretation — which was really favored in the middle ages — a good faith doesn’t have to know everything, a good faith just has to trust what they have is enough.
… I think I would have been among those people who died.
I can’t stand not knowing something. So this interpretation, although it helps explain God doesn’t willy-nilly kill people for doing as God permitted them to do… this interpretation still discourages asking questions and wanting to know more.
I didn’t come to the UCC to remain silent. One of the UCC slogans about don’t check your brain in at the door of the church really appeals to me. I want to use my brain in church! And I believe God wants me to use my brain too!
So, I don’t like either way of thinking about this troubling story – either God as the source of misery and joy, nor as God wanting us to be stupid followers.
Instead, I like to hear this story as a reminder that our faith grows. It’s okay to start with a faith that’s made of milk and bread. That’s the faith the Israelites started off with. It’s okay to begin our faith journeys thinking Jesus surely was a blond haired, blue eyed, beautiful man… because a lot of us are blond haired, blued eyed, and we see images painted of Jesus when he looks like that.
But as we move into more solid food, more mature spirituality, we realize that Jesus– who was born in the Middle East as a Jewish man — likely didn’t look like a proper modern German.
Because our faith began with picturing Jesus looking the same as us ethnically is nothing to be embarrassed about. We all start with milk and bread. We slowly move towards meat.
I think this is what Jesus’ harsh words are about in Mark. When we see others who we think are still on beginning faith, we shouldn’t belittle them. We shouldn’t hurt their faith with questions theologians can’t answer with gallons of spilled ink. No, their faith will be tested in time — tested with fire, hardships — and they will become salted, full of salt, full of flavor, as God sees fit.
So that same lesson applies to us… there’s no need to be ashamed we don’t have answers to some of the hard questions… for instance, what does Jesus mean about Resurrection? Life eternal? Do people have bodies? Why does parts of the Bible contradict itself? Why do we have stories like the one today that says God does hurtful things?
These meaty questions are hard to digest. Giving fast answers — I don’t know and I don’t want to think about it — or “because the Bible says so” — work for awhile, when we’re on simple diets of bread and milk. But eventually, these lose their salt. Life gives us bigger challenges, greater fires, than what we’ve faced before. So we go back to our faith, and spend more time, grow into it, and take a more nuanced understanding of God back with us to face the world.
Fast food diets — full of quick easy food, lots of fat, lots of sugar and salt — are tasty. But they don’t nourish us. Faith that is fast, easy to follow, full of sweet sayings and salty good wisdom — is tasty and great… but it doesn’t nourish us for long.
Eventually, we have to go looking for more nutritious food to sustain our walk with the Lord. Eventually, we have to face harder questions. There’s no rhyme or reason, no particular age — whether child or adult — when this unsettling realization that we’ve outgrown the Happy Meal of our Faith and we’re not satisfied. It just happens… many, many times over the course of our lives. And that’s when we go for more food — and maybe even more nutritious food.
Maybe our prayers change from “Now I lay me down to sleep” to also knowing The Lord’s Prayer, or personal prayers.
Maybe our understanding of the Bible changes, or how we relate to God, or to one another.
Or maybe we learn new facts that make us think in new ways – such as today in the Younger Saint’s Moment we talked about how a popular story in Jesus’ time was the tale of Odepius and how he cut out his eye. So Jesus, when saying we should cut off our limbs, maybe was turning that popular story into a lesson that instead of maiming ourselves, we should just not do wrong in the first place.
However it is, our faith changes so that it is nourishing again. It is manna again. It is salt within us, so we can be at peace with one another.
It is okay where ever you are on your faith journey and where you have been. We’re all on this faith journey. We’re all traveling at different paces, starts and stops, going backwards, running forwards, and utterly veering off the road. But together, we’re all walking together — and none of us will lose the reward of a cup of ever-flowing, ever life-giving water because we travel this journey in the name of Christ.
Given to Saint Michael’s United Church of Christ, Baltimore Ohio 9-27-15