Title: Leaving Egypt Behind?
Date: September 21, 2008
Texts: Psalm 105.1-6, 37-45; Exodus 16.2-15; Philippians 1.21-30; Matthew 20.1-16
Author: Ryan Koch
Last Friday I went to Charlotte both to see a friend and also to attend the monthly poetry slam in Downtown Charlotte. This summer up in Michigan one of the pastors introduced me to this art form rising up throughout many cities in the United States. When I learned that the Charlotte poetry slam team is the two time defending national champions, I figured that this would give me a good reason to take some time off from school and explore Charlotte.
However, before departing, I had to fill up my tank with gasoline. As I pull up to the BP station, I notice that gas prices have jumped almost 50 cents overnight and I was confused at why a line was forming at all the pumps at 4 in the afternoon. So, I angrily fill up my gas tank not knowing what caused the massive jump in price. Literally as I drive away, I turn on the radio and it seems like every station was talking about the souring gas prices. Seriously, after every single song the DJ interrupted with a news story about the high price of gasoline. People were calling the station to inform the listeners of which gas stations were gouging the price of gas most. 4.69, 4.89, 4.99… even a few were charging more than 5 dollars. No matter, people were paying it. Long lines were forming because people were panicking, What if Hurricane Ike destroyed our gasoline infrastructure? What if there is no more gas? What if we run out?
So the next day as I was driving back from Charlotte, I noticed that I needed to fill up my tank again. From the highway near a few exits, again I saw the long lines. People were lining up with their gas canisters, filling up their cars to full as a precautionary measure, and shockingly some of the stations ran out of gas. Luckily, near Greensboro, the stations had gasoline, but here customers were only allowed seven gallons of gas at a time, in fears of running out.
All week, my mind has been spinning around reflecting on how we as individuals and as a society respond to crisis, especially when it involves the goods and commodities which are integral to our daily life. In our state of panic, it’s amazing just how selfish and individually minded we are! We horde, we accumulate, we place our own needs, our own survival above all else.
So this week as I’ve been reading the manna story, I haven’t been able to think about it apart from this experience. Let me read part of it to you again:
In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There 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.” Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions. On the sixth day they are to prepare what they bring in, and that is to be twice as much as they gather on the other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the LORD who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the LORD when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD.”
Now I’ve heard multiple sermons preached on this text. Usually people discuss this passage in relation to Israel’s faith or lack their of. They notice how Israel after all the Lord’s great and marvelous deeds are still able to complain about their situation and wish they were enslaved back in Egypt. Yet, the more I think about the text, the more I’m convinced that it is not concerned at all about the inability of the Israelites to trust in God. Instead, it appears to me that the text is concerned with the formation of a new people outside of the empire of Egypt.
I say this for three reasons. First off, as we read in verse four, God’s primarily concern is with teaching the Israelites how to follow instructions. Mistakenly, people overemphasize the aspect of grumbling in this passage. While they quickly notice that the Israelites grumble against Moses for their lack of food, many overlook that Moses never scowls the people for their act of grumbling. No all Moses does is attempt to redirect their complaints towards God. The people are grumbling towards the wrong person. Lastly, if we read this passage in light of Exodus 15.26, we find that the Lord, who is entitled, The Healer, desires that God’s people would be free from “all the sickness of Egypt”1
For this reason, Exodus 16, the first extended narrative about Israel on the opposite side of the Reed Sea, is about God’s construction of a new identity for the people – Israel. This is Israel’s first chance to make their own decisions about what kind of people they want to become. Yet, even more interesting, is that this narrative takes place before the great divine manifestation on Mount Sinai. For only here, do the people respond “all that the Lord instructs, we will do.” Only here, do they commit themselves to following this God fully. Thus, it is best to understand Exodus 16 as a didactical text, may I even say catechetical text where God begins to deconstruct; to disinfect the sickness of Egypt from the Israelites and instead reshape and remold the mindset of the people Israel. (And if this is true, can we read the grumbling in this passage not negatively but instead as a noise demonstrating the difficult nature of leaving Egypt behind?2)
And if this is a text where God is teaching Israel new habits, it is interesting that God’s first extended instruction deals with food. Remembering back to the Joseph story, food was the reason that Israel went to Egypt in the first place. As Michael Hardt teach us, empires tend to arise and erupt out of a response to a crisis.3 Well in Genesis we learn that the crisis revolved around a famine. Lack of food motivates Israel along with the rest of the world to travel to Egypt. Ultimately this decision leads to the enslavement of Israel for nearly four hundred years. (pause)
So lets think about what we have observed together as a community during our last two months or so in Genesis and Exodus. As Isaac has taught us, Israel’s process towards being incorporated by Egypt began when Joseph neglected his Israelite identity – when he took off his old clothes and robbed himself in Egyptian attire. This process led to Joseph becoming the brain-child behind the Egyptian empire. He controlled the food supply for Egypt which allowed him to consolidate Pharaoh’s power and single-handedly turn Egypt into the regional power that enslaves Israel.
Then two weeks ago, we found Israel on the verge of escape. They were celebrating the passover, protesting against Egypt – the powers of this world which always seem to win. And then last week we read about the story of the Reed Sea – the story in which Israel passed through the boundary which demarcated Egypt’s control. It was the boundary that God majestically demonstrated was the wall that Egypt could not pass through. And as Israel passes through the Reed Sea and reaches the other side, finally they are free from the powers of empire. Or are they? (Pause)
Honestly, this question continually haunts me. (pause) Is there ever really a way to leave Egypt, Empire behind. Is there really an escape from its powers, from its control? Can their ever be an alternative, a distinct entity that emerges outside the borders of Egypt? As we read the narratives following Sinai, I fear the answer for Israel is clearly no.4 Numerous stories demonstrate that Israel is never fully able to purge itself from the sickness of Egypt. So maybe the question can we ever truely escape Egypt isn’t the real question that Exodus 16 is getting at.
Instead, maybe the manna story is a glimpse, a small icon of what living outside of Empire might entail. Earlier I called Exodus 16 a catechetical text. And isn’t that what catechesis does? Catechesis is an introduction, a vision of the lifestyle which you are about to commit yourself towards striving after. It presents you with a picture of God’s kingdom which we are called to live into.
And how are the Israelites called to respond in this story? Here God teaches Israel about how they are to think about food in a manner very different from what is found in the Joseph story. God bans all hoarding of food. Each household is to gather as much manna as it needs for one day. There can be no storing up the surplus manna. They are not to create cities for food like Joseph did. They are simply called to gather enough bread for their daily needs.
And I think this is a word of resistance for us today as well. Marx once proclaimed that the mentality undergirding our society is “Accumulate, accumulate, accumulate – this is the Law and the Prophets!”5 The manna story calls us as God’s people to fight against our society’s temptation to consume as much as possible. Instead, it teaches us to trust in the Lord for our daily bread and therefore to restrict the usage of our resources, of our consumption to the bare minimum.
Doesn’t the Matthew passage for today present a similar message? Here in Matthew we have the story of a landowner going out and finding day laborers to work the vineyard for a denarius a day. As the day progresses, the landowner continues to hirer workers and then shockingly at the conclusion of the day, he doesn’t pay the laborers an hourly wage. No, all receive one denarius for their work. To modern ears similar to those who first heard Jesus’ parable the extravagance and generosity of the landowner is scandalous.
Yet, as Tom rightly pointed out a few months back, Jesus teaches that everyone deserves a fair wage. After some of the workers grumble when they receive the same money as everyone else, the landowner’s replies: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you…are you envious because I am generous?” Here much like in the manna story, Jesus teaches that each individual should be given the amount needed for them to survive.6
Lastly, I wonder if Paul’s words found in Philippians 1 might offer us another vision of what life might look like outside of this individualistic culture which pervades us. The first few times that I read through our Philippians passage, I couldn’t help but think that Paul was extremely egocentric. I mean take this sentence for example: It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. After reading this, all I could think was “ Seriously, Paul can you think more highly of yourself?”
However, what if this egocentric identifying which I want to map onto Paul is only part of the immense individualism of our 21st century capitalistic culture? What if Paul is highlighting a truth that fell foreign to my hears? This truth is that we are all embedded in a web of relationships. Paul’s reminds us – today – that our lives are inter-dependent. He is not afraid to inform the Philippians that they need him, just as much as he isn’t afraid to admit that he too longs for them with a deep affection. And perhaps here, Paul offers us a way of resisting Egypt as well. In our individualist society we are taught not to need others. Yet perhaps just by deeply interconnecting ourselves with one another – through ways such as worshiping together, sharing our deepest burdens and concerns, praying for one another, watching each others children, and of course eating together – perhaps be interconnecting ourselves through acts like these, we are able to find some ways of resisting Egypt, the empire, in ways that are much deeper than we, or at least I, ever realized.
1See Ellen Davis, “Leaving Egypt Behind, Embracing the Wilderness Economy” in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Oxford Press, forthcoming).
2Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV.4 seems to wish to say that the call to follow Jesus and be baptized is the orientation towards God’s judgment. In essence, it seems that salvation isn’t a movement away from judgment but towards judgment. For instance, he highlights that right after baptism, Jesus is sent into the desert to undergo trials. This passage is also called a test, and with the number of similarities between this passage and the sending into the desert for Jesus, I wonder if the Israelite’s grumbling cannot be read as a call towards God’s judgment. See 78-80.
3Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, see pages 15-17.
4I think the perfect counter-point to the story found in Exodus 16 can be found in Numbers 11 where the Israelites ask for meat and God gives them quail to eat. What do they do in response? They horde as much as possible. Ten times as much manna as they ate in any given day and for this act they are punished with a plague of “selfish excess.”
5Marx, Volume 1, Chapter 24. Section 3
6For more on this interpretation see http://www.nccouncilofchurches.org/resources/downloads/Year_A/13%20Sabbath%20Economics_final.pdf