3“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
I have laughed at the petulance of the people in the wilderness. It’s a comfortable position of moral superiority. As if I would not have been among the grumblers.
It’s an easy thing for a pastor to do, faced as we are with grumblings in our congregations and people whose eyes sometimes seem to be less concerned with the Promised Land than the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s oh so seductive, as you read the story, to imagine that you occupy the sandals of Moses. But such a hearing of the text, however delicious, is not only presumptuous, but altogether too shallow. It makes caricatures of the people of Israel as well as the members of our congregations.
The people of Israel have seen wondrous deeds, though I suspect the wondrousness has been exaggerated in the retelling. There are hints in the text that the events at the Red Sea (technically, the Sea of Reeds) weren’t like the Cecil B. DeMille drama. In fact, most of the Biblical “miracles” are really pretty ordinary events – but events that were wondrous in their timing. That the wind blew all night to dry up the marshland enabling the Israelites to escape is wondrous in its timing if not spectacular to behold.
So these people have been rescued by what moderns would likely call “good fortune” (a phrase that explains nothing and refers to an ancient deity in the Greco-Roman pantheon) and now they are hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. They are refugees in flight, not a triumphant victory parade. And there, in the barren lands of the Negev, the thought of perishing slowly in the desert makes the suffering of Egypt seem preferable. It is a choice we all often make. The long road to freedom requires a great deal more courage and sacrifice than most of us muster easily. We can put up with a great deal of tyranny for a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.
I know that the larger sweep of the Biblical narrative is a story about a broken covenant and rebellious people. So from the perspective of the generation assembling the narrative in exile in Babylon with Jerusalem in ruins, the story is about the persistent faithfulness of God in spite of our faithlessness – even as it yet summons us anew to faithfulness.
But as I ponder the story, as I consider all the different layers in the narrative, I begin to see something other than petulance; I see grief.
“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
They didn’t ask to die in their beds; they wished that God had slain them in Egypt. This verse is the corporate equivalent of Jeremiah declaring that God should have killed him in the womb or Job lamenting the day of his birth.
Cursed be the day on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying,
“A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon,
because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb forever great.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?
It is the cry of despair born of grief.
Job has lost all his family. Jeremiah is forced to witness the folly of his nation as it plunges towards destruction and the terrible suffering of siege. Israel in the wilderness was not a happy march into freedom. This was a people who had lost a life, however harsh. Yes, they have fled the suffering of their bondage. But they had also fled in fear for Moses had made this people a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh. They were the cause of Egypt’s troubles. They had become the object of the nation’s hate. There is language in the story that they were driven out of Egypt. They had lost their life and their homes there, however cruel and harsh it had been.
But now they are in a cruel desert. Weary, hungry, thirsty, far from a home of any kind.
“God should have just killed us when we were still in Egypt.”
It is hard to hold to a promise in such times, hard to keep putting one foot in front of the next. Hope doesn’t come easily to the grieving. We see only what is lost not what might be.
In grief we tend to lose the thread of our story. The imagined future that has shaped our lives is lost to us. I remember a widowed woman in a nursing home, in a room she had shared with her husband, bitter that he had left her. “We were supposed to go together.” They had been a couple without children or friends, but they had always had each other. Now she had lost the story line that had shaped her life. It is the same with the death of a child or a sibling. One of my daughter’s early comments at the death of her sister was: “She was going to be my maid of honor.” It is the anguish of divorce, the crisis of a lost job or career.
In grief we lose the thread of our lives. The days become a wilderness through which we stumble, because we no longer know where we are going. My mother wanted to trade her life for my daughter’s. We all would have.
The wilderness is still wilderness. What was is no more and what will be is not yet. The people grieve – and God provides. Day by day there is bread enough for the day. And water is found in unexpected places.
There is a layer in this story of faithlessness and testing. But there is also a story of mercy. God provides. God leads. God upholds them even when they wish they had never been born. And the Promised Land comes. Not easily. Not quickly. But it comes.
Those little pieces of bread we receive each Sunday morning are a far cry from the feast envisioned by Isaiah or celebrated in the vision of the New Jerusalem. But they are enough for the day. They are sufficient for the journey. They witness to God’s persistent faithfulness. They bear witness to the promise. They call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the thread of a new story, of a life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.