Manna in the wilderness; I well remember this story from my Sunday School days. In Egypt the Hebrew slaves had cried out to God for release, and Moses had been raised up as an unlikely leader. “Let my people go!” had been the message Moses had carried to Pharaoh, and then followed the ten plagues, the permission to leave, followed by Pharaoh’s change of heart and an ensuing pursuit. The crossing of the Red Sea—where the mighty Egyptian army was defeated by the waters themselves—and then into the Sinai wilderness. But what is there to eat here? Don’t worry, God is providing manna; bread in the wilderness. And on they sojourned to Mount Sinai for the giving of the Law.
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These stories were all very dramatic and quite appealing to a young boy, though I have to confess that when my family went to the old Metropolitan Theatre to see Cecil B. DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments, I did find myself rather flagging midway through. The three hour and forty minute film even had an intermission, and I vividly remember wishing that we would just go home…
Still, the Exodus was all good story, almost mythical and magical in its contours. The thing is, it is also much more than that, and much more than just a long-ago story of signs and wonders wrought by God for our ancient forebears. The African-American slave church knew this, such that the singing and the preaching of that phrase “Let my people go!” stood as a powerful counter-narrative of deep hope and resilience. The Exodus story remains the defining one for the African-American church tradition, running through Martin Luther King’s “Free at last, free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last” and continuing right up to today.
I want to suggest that this story of the manna and quails being graciously provided in the wilderness can speak with a peculiar power to us… so long as we dare to hear its deeper claims; claims that speak to politics, economics, ethics, practice, and choices.
Freed from slavery, on the other side of the Red Sea from the shackles of Egypt, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.” They looked back, not at what God had done for them, but in fear and anxiety. In Egypt we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread—oh your memories are doing what memories so often do; don’t you remember how hard you worked, how hungry you were? No, no they don’t. Better to have been killed in Egypt, they say, for you have brought us out into this wilderness where we’ll starve to death.
It is not because they are a bad people or even an ungrateful people. It is because they are a people whose imaginations have been trained in Egypt. Their imaginations will slowly be opened, with the provision of food.
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’
“What is it?” they’d said. In Hebrew, manhu? It is bread, Moses says. “Bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Here Walter Brueggemann comments, “Bread from heaven is not given in Egypt. It is given in the wilderness, outside of Egyptian definitions of what is possible, where there are no resources. The first task is leaving; the second task is believing.” They needed to believe that there was an alternative to Egypt’s definitions of what was possible, and more significantly the Egyptian way of seeing the world; of consuming and accumulating and holding and exercising power and control. They had to learn that Egypt had been run according to what Brueggemann calls the “myth of scarcity,” in which those in places of privilege and power believed that they did not yet have enough, and so fated the rest of that society—most notably those slaves—to a life of hardscrabble scarcity. Against this the freed slaves needed to learn the lyric or liturgy of abundance, of which Brueggemann says the following:
I propose that the lyric of abundance that is evoked by the generosity of the creator, sits deep against the myth of scarcity. The lyric of abundance asserts that because the world is held in the hand of the generative, generous God, scarcity is not true. I mean this not as a pious, religious sentiment, but as a claim about the economy…
And not just for that world either, which is where this ancient story of wonder can place a claim upon us. Do we sing a lyric and liturgy of abundance that says there is enough, and the enough is to be shared? Or have our imaginations been captured by our own world’s myth of scarcity; one that is—to cite Brueggemann one last time— “the dominant power of politics and the relentless liturgy of TV commercials.”
I’m not saying that there aren’t people who struggle against scarcity. Certainly in our city we can see it, and there are people here among us for whom meeting a monthly budget on a fixed or limited income is anything but easy. I’m also not saying that there isn’t a real scarcity of food in many, many places in our world; that there’s no such thing as famine or food shortage. To try to say that would be to conjure another sort of myth altogether. Yet those scarcities are, by and large, of human making. How many famines are created through wars, through unsustainable agricultural methods, through a market system that sees land that once produced food now producing cash crops like coffee beans or sugar cane? We do have the capacity to produce enough food for all in our world, yet things are structured against it.
And then within our own country—within the affluent Western world—there are deep problem of food waste. According to a 2016 CBC story, in Canada, $31 billion worth of food—that’s some 40% of what we produce—ends up in landfills or composters each year. It isn’t just the producers, manufacturers and retailers that are the problem here either. Estimates suggest that close to half of that wasted food is actually tossed in our own home garbage bins. We buy it, take it home, fail to use it or reject the idea of leftovers, and toss it out. And yet we say the cost of food is too high.
The scarcity myth is not just about food either. The restlessness with the “enough” and the “sufficient” has been planted deep in our bones. People lined up this past week to purchase the latest iPhone; maybe not so many as Apple would like… but Apple and Samsung and all the rest will never see their sales growth as being enough. You can set aside commodities and still witness that desire to have more. People get restless with the state of their investment portfolios, or with their relationships, or with their own bodies… it isn’t enough; I want more or better or different or, or, or… and then I’ll be happy. But those are largely mythic longings too.
The arc of the Exodus story says that the old has been left behind, and that the people now stand in a place of learning a new liturgy that proclaims that there is enough. The “enough” must be learned day-by-day, as hoarding is impossible. In Exodus, if one tries to gather more than is needed for the day, it just goes bad. And then the next lesson that will be learned on the other side of the Sinai desert is that the liturgy of abundance is to be lived out in sharing. The torah is full of details as to how land is to be harvested and food shared, so that no one need go without. It is marked by laws intended to ensure that the land itself is allowed to rest, and that debts are never allowed to sentence any one family to cross-generational poverty.
I know that it is hard to leave the old behind, which is why the freed slaves could rhapsodize about the fleshpots and bread they’d had in Egypt. In our case it is hard to leave the old behind when so much of it is systemic, international, multi-national. How do you begin to change any of that? Most of us will never even get close to moving in the spheres of influence we imagine might be able to effect real change. But we can cultivate alternate imaginations, and we can choose to shift our expectations and habits around food, commodities, bottom-lines, and what things truly are meant to be valued, treasured. Maybe we can begin to learn that ultimately the answer to that question “manhu; what is it?” is “it is enough.” And enough is not a bad thing at all.