by Patricia K. Tull
According to Exodus, God freed the Israelites from Egypt, a land where they had been forced to build food storage cities for a powerful king, a pharaoh so hard-hearted that he preferred bringing all Egypt to ruin through plague after plague rather than to allow his slaves a holiday. To its captives, Egypt was an “iron-smelting furnace.”
Scripture describes Egypt as a stratified society in which even the Egyptians were forced to sell themselves and their land to the king to avoid starvation. Archaeology supports this view of ancient rulers’ brutality. In the royal tombs at Luxor, figurines and paintings depict spinners, weavers, farmers and fishers laboring under supervision, enriching their kings. The economic system instituted by God in the wilderness turns this system inside out.
GOD PROVIDES IN THE WILDERNESS
The first two events after the Israelites cross the sea illustrate a new reality. Two crises occur: a shortage of water and then a food shortage.
In the first case, the water is too bitter to drink. God directs Moses to throw a piece of wood into it, and it becomes drinkable. Soon the Israelites reach an oasis with 12 springs. One of these events suffices; both together show extravagant grace. God shows by divine example what ruling well means: not domination and extraction such as the people experienced in slavery, but provision and care. When contemporary people debate whether water is a basic human right that all, including the poor, need for survival, or whether corporations may usurp water supplies for profit, Christians should be guided by awareness of this story: Even in a desert, God provides clean drinking water to everyone.
In the second crisis, when the people complain of hunger, God tells Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” This manna sustains the Israelites every day for 40 years, until they begin eating the produce of the Promised Land.
Though a generous gift from God, the manna comes with principles that build new disciplines. First, everyone has enough. No one has more than another. So circumstances enforce equality. Second, the manna spoils after one day, so they cannot hoard it as the Pharaoh hoarded grain in Egypt. Food that cannot be used for economic exploitation is new for the Israelites who can now enjoy their daily meals without thought of economic gain and without worry over want. Third, the manna keeps Sabbath, allowing its gatherers to do so.
Thus the 40 years become a training ground, a period of formation. The manna’s properties seem designed to shape habits. Slaves who had lacked all choice become a nation choosing to depend upon the God who provides. Further, a new generation sees the benefit to the whole community when every neighbor has enough. The manna does not serve anyone’s prestige or wealth. Rather, it serves nutritional needs, giving energy for life’s activities. And the Sabbath rest returns more than 2,000 times, every week for 40 years.
Considering that the first rebellion against God and against the earth’s bounty concerned food in the Garden of Eden, and considering food’s fundamental links to ethics, its prominent place in the wilderness stories comes as no surprise. Nor should it surprise us that, when the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai and receive rules for their life in Canaan, these teachings are laden with dietary regulations.
The manna’s strange behavior imposes physical limits on the ways Israelites can manipulate food. But in the land flowing with milk and honey, these limits will be lifted, and the harvest will abound. It is the Garden of Eden in reverse: In Genesis 3 God had replaced a moral constraint with a physical barrier; after the first couple transgressed their one and only restriction, they were expelled from the garden, barred from transgressing further. But now the reverse will happen: When the manna’s constraints give way to abundance, the people must still adhere to moral boundaries, rules governing the land, the farming of fields, the choice of foods, the sharing of harvests and the treatment, killing and eating of animals.
The rules the Israelites receive follow manna principles. First, just as the manna belongs to God, so acreage in the new land is a loan (and only a loan) from God: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” The people aren’t free to take it away from one another. The land must ideally stay within families, even if economic hardship befalls some members. If it is sold, it reverts to the original owner every half century, narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
Second, food is a basic right for all, including the poor and non-Israelite neighbors. Equitable distribution will no longer come miraculously, but through the generosity of leaving grain in the field, grapes in the vineyard and fruit on the trees for others to glean.
Scripture’s most famous gleaner illustrates the human potential recovered by food sharing. To save herself and her mother-in-law from starvation, the Moabite woman Ruth gleans diligently in the fields surrounding Bethlehem. Her lifesaving work results eventually in her marriage to the field’s owner and the birth of King David’s grandfather. Lives are saved, children born and history made through mundane rules about sharing the harvest.
Third, labor is restricted both by the manna and the Sinai rules. In the Ten Commandments at Sinai, the Sabbath reappears as rest for all, including employees and livestock. Sabbath rest also appears on the scale of years for the sake of the fields themselves, for the poor and even for the wild animals: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” Just as dominion in Genesis 1:26 meant not domination for human enrichment, but taking charge for the benefit of all, so here, stewardship of time ushers in practices that are generous to the community, kind to animals and sustainable for the land.
FASTING AND LENT
Even in the bountiful land, Sinai’s rules impose dietary limits. Some meats are always forbidden, such as pork, shellfish and certain game. Special restrictions apply during holy seasons. The Day of Atonement requires self-denial and fasting. Such self-limitations, some perpetual and some seasonal, daily renew awareness of food choices and reinforce ties between the sacred and the mundane. Food becomes a channel for reverent gratitude.
Many observant Jews still follow such rules: eating kosher meats, abstaining from foods at certain times and fasting periodically. Observant Muslims similarly abstain from pork and alcohol perpetually, and fast during the month of Ramadan. Dietary self-discipline encourages emotional self-control as well, such as the discipline to eschew verbal and social violence.
Acts 15 relates the release of gentile Christians from Jewish law. Christians sometimes see this story as license to disconnect deity and diet. Yet, even in this story gentile Christians are told to avoid certain foods. Paul likewise clarifies that all things may be lawful, “but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Fasting and abstention are less prevalent today among Christians than among Jews and Muslims. Fasting before Communion and on Fridays is less stringent for Catholics now than 50 years ago. Some Protestants choose voluntary abstentions during Lent, but they are usually personal and sometimes trivial. Yet Christians can still use voluntary fasts to remember our gratitude for the earth’s bounty and to pray for the poor who are forced to fast daily.
The Bible’s stories about the wilderness illustrate the training and proving that people of faith undergo. Such discipline is spiritual — it goes to the heart of what we believe about God and about human purpose — yet it is also social and environmental. Socially, self-discipline — whether it concerns nutrition, justice or equity — assures that all in the community, including the weakest members and even the foreigners, have access to life-sustaining basics. Environmentally, the self-discipline exhibited in the wilderness and commended for Israel’s subsequent life in Canaan refrains from taking more from the land than it can sustain. It allows rest for fields, animals and farmers, and offers Sabbath rests from labor for gain.
Fasting for Lent, or at any other time, need not be trivial. Rather, dietary self-discipline can change the world we leave to future generations. Choosing protein from grains and legumes rather than beef not only profits our health and pocketbook, but also benefits the world. It alleviates the suffering of factory-farmed animals, reduces methane from cattle, saves the clearing of forests for grazing land and preserves hundreds of gallons of clean water.
Choosing to drink water from reusable containers, likewise, reduces air toxicity around plastics factories as well as carbon pollution from trucking. It discourages commodification of drinking water, so poorer communities can retain their wells and streams. And water from the tap is better regulated and cleaner than bottled water anyway.
These two fasts — from beef and from bottled water — reap personal and also social, environmental and spiritual benefits. They remind us of our ancestors who received manna and water from God and of those today in need of daily bread.
PATRICIA K. TULL is A.B. Rhodes Professor Emerita of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and author of “Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis,” from which this article was adapted. She and works for Hoosier Interfaith Power & Light. Workbooks and leader guides to accompany “Inhabiting Eden” are available at inhabitingeden.org.