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. 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. It is the cry of despair born of grief. It is the parent or lover who wish they could have died in place of their beloved.
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 blamed for 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. However cruel and harsh life in Egypt had been, they had lives and homes there. Now it is gone and they are in a cruel desert: weary, hungry, thirsty, and far from a home of any kind. We can see why they would say it would have been better to have died in Egypt.
What they find in the wilderness is mercy. However easy it may be to mock their faithlessness after the wonders they have seen, this is a story about mercy. God saw. God heard. God provided. There is language in the story about faithlessness and testing, but first we find mercy.
God does not provide them with riches. What God gives is bread enough for the day. But it is enough. And slowly it leads them forward. Step by step it leads them towards their encounter with God at Sinai. Day by day it sustains them until they find rest in a new land.
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 call us to journey on. And in that bread and wine we find the promise of life and a world borne forward from grace into grace.
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This post is adapted from the post From Grace into Grace in 2015.
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWeltchronik_Fulda_Aa88_103r_detail2.jpg By Anonymous (Meister 1) (Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons