Exodus 16 as an alternative social paradigm.
Creation, food and identity
All of the biblical creation accounts include definitions of what people can and cannot eat. In Gen 1:29 God gives plants and fruit for human consumption. In the second creation account, humans can eat of every plant and tree, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). In the re-creation account after the flood, for the first time humans are allowed to eat meat, just not the blood (Gen 9:3--4). Most scholars see the link between creation and food as a sign of providential care, however others have argued there is a theological purpose, such as linking kosher food laws to the orders of creation. (1) It is argued here that the gift of manna in the wilderness serves a dual purpose as well. It not only tests the obedience for the Israelites, but promotes thinking about how Israelite society in the Promised Land should function.
Food and food rituals are central components of the social creation and the maintenance of the identity of the people of Israel. The Passover, for instance: at the beginning of the Exodus experience, its next celebration when the people enter the land, and its reintroduction during King Josiah's religious renewal demonstrate that the Passover is formative in understanding God's actions and Israel's identity as the people of God. (2) Observing kosher food laws during the Babylonian Exile also helped the Israelites maintain their sense of identity and prevented assimilation into the Babylonian populace.
While most scholarly attention has been on the Passover ritual, it is fruitful to explore the gift of manna in the wilderness. Many scholars see this as one of several examples of a gift of food that provides for people's hunger. Upon closer examination, we recognize that this gift helps shape the Israelites' identity as the people of God and begins the creation of an alternative social paradigm.
Exodus 16 as murmuring story
The people of Israel, recently freed from slavery and oppression in Egypt, are called to trust God for daily bread, water, and protection. This absolute trust in God to provide for all their needs does not come easily. Immediately after the victory at the Red Sea, the people murmur about lacking fresh water (Exod 15:22-25). In Exodus 16, the people murmur about a lack of food.
Exodus 16 is one of the many "murmuring" stories. A common theme of the murmuring stories is the testing of the people to show their trust in God. This trust will be necessary if the people are to enter into a covenant with God where they promise obedience and loyalty, and where their identity as God's chosen people will be affirmed. Learning to trust God prior to the covenant, however, is part of a larger narrative. The wilderness period can be seen as a liminal period within a rite of passage moving the people from oppressed slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt to free servants of Yahweh in the Promised Land. (3) The liminal periods of rites of passages are times to think about communal, social, political, and religious identities. So it is for ancient Israel.
Rites of passage and liminality
Two classic anthropologists, Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, have studied rites of passage and liminal experiences. (4) According to Van Gennep and Turner, rites of passage move a person from a former identity to a new identity. In many societies this is a movement from child to adult. Often between these new identities a liminal period occurs. The word "liminal" comes from the Latin word for threshold. It is an in-between place. In the threshold of a door you are neither in nor out of the room. In a rite of passage you are neither child nor adult, but something in-between.
One common pattern for the liminal period in tribal societies includes taking the "former" children away from their homes and camps to a new space, unknown to them. They are separated from their former identity. In this new space--this liminal period--time is spent teaching the "children" skills, mores, and patterns of the adult life as well as foundational myths and religious knowledge known only to adults. At the end of this training period, the group is brought home, some ritual is observed, and the group is given their new identity. They are then reincorporated into the new society as adults, often wearing different clothing, and possibly moving out of their parents' home.
North American society has similar rites of passage, even if these do not follow all of the particulars. Confirmation is a time apart to learn the adult religious knowledge and faith needed by young people. Once through the rite of confirmation, confirm ands are viewed as adult members of the congregation (including not having to go to church anymore!). Graduation, weddings, and getting a driver's license are each rites of passage that can fit this pattern.
Even Jesus' recapitulation of Israel's wilderness experience by his temptation in the wilderness can be seen as a rite of passage. (5) In the synoptic Gospels the temptations occur immediately after Jesus is baptized byjohn. He has been announced as God's Son, although not all of the crowd may know this. The wilderness is a liminal place, where dangers lurk yet also where one can meet God. For forty days Jesus ponders what his identity as God's Son means. The temptations attack the newly proclaimed identity as God's Son. Satan continues to challenge, "If you are the Son of God ..." The liminal experience is all about his identity. Embracing this identity in its completeness, all three synoptic Gospels record that upon returning from the wilderness Jesus begins his proclamation and ministry. He begins to live out in fullness his identity as God's Son.
In the wilderness Israel is also called to a new identity. Formerly they were the oppressed slaves of Pharaoh. Their responsibilities and moral choices were limited. If challenged about an action, they could exclaim: "I was only following orders." Not just physical freedom must be learned. The people of Israel have to make moral, ethical, political, social, and legal choices. They also must learn to live with the consequences. Obedience is no longer enforced by oppressive powers but is a free choice each person must make.
Taken away from the place of their former identity, the Israelites come to the blank slate of the wilderness. Here they learn that being the people of God calls for a radical trust in God. They truly must look to God for daily bread, water, and protection. It is a difficult lesson to learn. (6) Anxiety about the scarcity of food and the future produces a longing for "the good old days": "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 ..." (Exod 16:3). It seems that food security, even at the expense of oppressive slavery or life, is more important than freedom based on trusting God to provide everything.
God gives the Israelites their fill of bread through the gift of manna. The gift of manna serves one of the functions of the transitional/liminal period, that of instruction. The gift of manna reminds Israel that God brought Israel out of Egypt and is their God. It is also a test to see whether they are willing to become the covenant people of God by trusting God. Their trust will be shown in their daily gathering and by gathering twice as much food prior to the seventh day.
This trust entails believing that there is abundant manna--enough for everyone to be satisfied. It is provided daily for six days a week. Every person gathered what they needed; there was neither lack nor surplus. They discovered that what was needed is what they had gathered. Those who tried to hoard manna from one day to the next discovered it was rotten. Whether manna was hoarded as a security against future need or as an attempt to gain surplus to sell to others in need, hoarding is not allowed. In the prohibition to hoarding we begin to see another lesson of the liminal period. What will the future Israelite society look like?
Construction of an alternative social paradigm
Israel is not only learning to trust God in the wilderness. Israel needs to develop a type of society for settling and thriving in the land of Canaan. For 400 years the Israelites had experienced a harsh, hierarchical society of oppression, bondage, and death. At its head was Pharaoh, who claimed to be a living God. It was by Pharaoh's word and command that Egypt lived and worked. For some, life was good; for others it was oppressive death.
The Israelites are moving into a land and need to determine what type of political and social structures they will live by. God replaces Pharaoh as the head of the society. It is through God's word and command that Israel will prosper and thrive. What will this trust in God as ruler look like at the political and social level? The wilderness experience helps to explore these issues.
The giving of manna in Exodus 16 suggests one idea. In the most basic necessities of life, God's abundance provides enough for everyone to thrive. There will be no hunger or starvation. The gift of manna indicates that Israel is to build a society where there is no hoarding of the basic necessities. One cannot store up the basics of bread, in order to be ready to sell if there is a famine or a need. While there may be surpluses of other goods, at the level of basic necessities Israel is to be an egalitarian society. The promise later given, that there shall be no poor among you, reflects a warning against hoarding that harms others and a promise, if properly used, of God's abundance. Unlike Pharaoh, God's reign is one of freedom, life, and wholeness. People can live in trust and generosity toward their neighbor.
Another way an alternative social paradigm is being constructed is through Sabbath rest on the seventh day. In the ancient world, rest was a divine prerogative. In many ancient Near Eastern creation myths, humans were created as slaves so that the gods may rest. Hinting at the Sabbath, Exodus 16 shows God inviting the Israelites into divine rest. Former slaves are given an identity as those who share the honor of this divine prerogative, as the people who rest on the seventh day, trusting in God's abundance. (7) This rest will be built into the political and social life of ancient Israel.
Exodus 18 shows a further development of this alternative social paradigm in the leadership structure for the people. Leadership is both plural and local, headers are chosen not because of their wealth or physical strength but because of their wisdom, trustworthiness, and knowledge of God's will.
At Sinai God will declare Israel a chosen people, a royal nation. Their vocation and mission is to represent God and God's will to the nations. God guides Israel do this by creating for them an alternative social paradigm. Israel will not be like other nations. As a nation where God rules, there will be abundance, trust, generosity, hope, and a sharing of divine prerogatives, so all creation may experience God's shalom. Having known only the oppressive, death-dealing reign of Pharaoh, God uses the wilderness as a liminal period to help Israel claim its identity as God's people and discover new ways to live in the world.
(1.) Edwin Firmage, "Genesis 1 and the Priestly Agenda," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 82 (1999): 97-114.
(2.) Similar arguments could be made for the Lord's Supper in shaping and maintaining Christian communal identity.
(3.) The theme of journey can also be seen in the Genesis accounts of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. See Walter Vogels, "D'Egypte a Canaan: un rite de passage," Science et Esprit 52 no 1 Ja-Ap 2000: 21-35.
(4.) Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977) and Victor Turner The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969).
(5.) Mark McVann, "Rituals of Status Transformation in Luke-Acts: The Case of Jesus the Prophet," in The Social World of Luke-Acts, ed. Jerome Neyrey (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 333-360.
(6.) In fact the new identity of the free people of God is so difficult for people to accept, accustomed as they were to generations of slavery, that only two of the people who were enslaved in Egypt make it to the Promised Land. All others were of the generation born in the wilderness or were themselves only children in Egypt.
(7.) This identity for Israel echoes the positive anthropology of Genesis 1 where all humanity is created in God's image and is given dominion over the earth.
Professor of Hebrew Bible; The Rev. Dr. Frank L. and Joyce S. Benz Professor in Scripture; Director of the Center for Theology and Land, Wartburg Theological Seminary
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2014|
|Previous Article:||Science-technology dialogue and Tillich's second form of anxiety.|
|Next Article:||"As a bee gathers honey": the rule of faith in Luther's interpretation of the old testament.|