Monday, March 03, 2008

God's Free Food: Exodus 15-17

God has performed the first mass emancipation in written literature (that I know of, at any rate) and, in the next two chapters, sets out to provide for the Israelites. After the previous slaughters, this is strikingly non-violent: God works a number of dramatic miracles to provide the Israelites first with water, in the Desert of Shur; then manna and quail for food, in the “Desert of Sin.” These accounts again introduce to us the persistent faithlessness of the Israelites, and the joint difficulty of God and Moses in bringing them to heel. However, unlike in Egypt, here God chooses to bless the Israelites; after moving beyond the rage displayed against the pharaoh and his army, here God seems to be trying to reassure the Israelites that he is indeed concerned with their well-being.

After Moses leads the people into the Desert of Shur, they begin to run out of water; they come to a place named “Marah” but find only bitter water there. Thus begins the first iteration of a cycle which repeats over the next several chapters: the people “grumble against Moses” about their lack of necessary provisions, and Moses turns to God with the concerns. God responds by providing the means for a miracle: Moses throws a piece of wood into the water and turns it “sweet.” Here, God gives to the Israelites a rather limited covenant (at least in terms of what he agrees to provide): “If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.” Put more briefly, it would appear: do as I say, or I will kill you as I killed the Egyptians.

After the water episode, the Israelites head into the Desert of Sin and begin to run out of food. Once again, they “grumble against Moses and Aaron,” this time regretting they had not “died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt.” At least in Egypt, “we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” God promises Moses an even more dramatic performance: he will “rain down bread from heaven” in such quantities that the people may simply collect off the ground whatever they need for the day’s rations (plus an extra day’s rations in advance of the Sabbath). Better yet, he later promises meat for dinner and bread for breakfast – specifically, quail, which come during the evening to “cover the camp.” Some of the persistently disobedient Israelites don’t bother following even these simple rules – they collect surplus food, which mysteriously rots overnight, then attempt to collect food on the Sabbath, but fail to find any. God tries to consolidate his position by instructing Moses and Aaron to preserve some of the manna in a jar: “then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.”

Leaving the Desert of Sin and heading to Rephidim, the Israelites find that they are again running out of water. Once again, “the people” complain to Moses about the lack of water and wonder why he took them away from Egypt, “to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst.” Moses once again turns to God, his staunch ally against the public: “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Once again, God proposes a new miracle to prove his power to the Israelites: Moses will walk out ahead of the people, and strike a rock with his staff; afterwards, water will come out of it “for the people to drink.”

Post-revolutionary resentment isn’t necessarily uncommon. The new regime starts falling short of some of its original promises – or perhaps some promises people believed the new government made on its way to the top. People haven’t really changed, even if the political structures have. The people who used to make bread aren’t making it anymore. Order has collapsed, resources are scarce, and the thought leaps into the head: it didn’t used to be that bad, not compared to the way things are now. During the 1990s, you could sometimes find these feelings in the former Soviet bloc, after the communist social welfare structure had collapsed and the new Western-supported markets had done great favours only to a new class of investors, most of whom were merely opportunistic former communist leaders. In this case, though, the Israelites are portrayed as being particularly fickle. God kills their bosses, ships them off into retirement (admittedly via a desert), and gives them free food and water. Along the way he even carves them a dry path through the Red Sea – a remarkable feat which you would think, wrongly, would be more than enough to convince the Israelites forever that God was indeed on their side.

A final incident in ch. 17 involves a rival tribe, rather than food and water. The Israelites are attacked, while still staying at Rephidim, by the Amalekites. Who the Amalekites are and where they come from is not mentioned in the text, though we may presume they’re the descendants of the Amalek mentioned in the Genesis 36 genealogy. This Amalek is descended from Esau, father of the Edomites. Tellingly, Amalek is descended from Esau’s son Eliphaz and a concubine named Timna; since in this part of the Bible genetic heritage tends to equate to theological heritage, this is an immediate clue that the Amalekites will be trouble. And indeed they are; we aren’t told why they’ve decided to attack the Israelites, but evidently the battle was a very serious affair. Once again, though, God seizes the affair to again show his paternal hand in human events: so long as Moses holds up his hands, the Israelites win the battle, but if he lowers his staff, the Amalekites regain the upper hand. Moses afterwards celebrates by building an altar: “for hands were lifted up to the throne of the Lord. The Lord will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.” There is a very touching moment when Aaron and Hur help hold Moses’s hands in the air, and I recall hearing a sermon on how this single verse illustrated our Christian duty to support one another in serving God. The inspiring lesson loses a little luster when we consider that the “support,” in this case, goes toward starting an unending holy war against a people who don’t seem to have done anything grievously wrong just yet. This story is surprisingly kind to the Israelites, on the other hand: unlike the last several episodes, here they do not grumble unceasingly but simply head out to fight.

The implicit message in these chapters seems to be much more than that God will provide – it is that God must provide, because the Israelites are really not capable of taking care of themselves. They are a feeble, impatient lot who seem to forget within a matter of days the most striking and unheard-of miracles, not just once but again and again. Moses gets along with God because he seems to be the only enlightened one: he, the leader, is apart from the mob not merely by virtue of his title but because he is a much greater man than they are. Where in Genesis it was vitally important for a strong man to lead his household (and the women constantly bickered, making this leadership a difficult task), in Exodus it is important for the prophet to lead, and everyone under him bickers. And this father figure must be eternally patient with the foolishness of his children – just as God is with the Israelites here, amazingly tolerant of their amnesiac disbelief just days after he crushed all of Egypt for the pharaoh’s own sins.