“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it” (Gen 28:16). Here we wonder about encountering G-d at the intersection of Bible and Life–typically prompted by the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer.
Leviticus 23 contains one of the Torah’s summaries of the major festivals. Our lectionary splits it between the Sabbath and Spring festivals (today) and the Fall festivals (tomorrow).
Readers whose introduction to the Sabbath is the arguments in the Gospels about permitted work and Paul’s arguments against the Gentile believers needing to observe the entire Law are liable to miss the joy, the spirituality, of the gift of the Sabbath. Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath is a welcome corrective. Here’s a bit:
“According to the Talmud, the Sabbath is me’en ‘olam ha-ba, which means: somewhat like eternity or the world to come. This idea that a seventh part of our lives may be experienced as paradise is a scandal to the pagans and a revelation to the Jews. And yet to Rabbi Hayim of Krasne the Sabbath contains more than a morsel of eternity. To him the Sabbath is the fountainhead (ma’ yan) of eternity, the well from which heaven or the life in the world to come takes its source.
“Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of him who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.”
It is not necessary to define the precise relationship between the OT Sabbath and the Lord’s Day (Sunday) for Heschel to point us to a deepened appreciation of Sunday, the Eighth Day, the first day of the New Creation. At present we deeply miss being able to gather together on Sunday. But Sunday is exalted, a permanent source of joy and hope, not because we gather together. We have gathered together and will again gather together because it’s Sunday.
Better, recall that centuries before we celebrated Easter as an annual feast, we were celebrating Jesus’ resurrection—the inbreaking of the New Creation—every Sunday. So, for instance, we’d be quite justified in freeing the hymns filed under “Easter” (##174-213) for use on any Sunday. So, in the kitchen, Sunday is the day for the whole household to pull out all the stops. Every Sunday the ears of the chocolate Easter bunny may be at risk. Booze, bubble wands, fireworks: the current social distancing is our opportunity to find new ways to celebrate apart-and-together.
Toward the end of the Who’s iconic “Won’t get fooled again” there’s a line that captures repeated human experience: “Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss.” So what is Israel going to discover, free from Pharaoh, now dependent on YHWH? Yesterday’s stories of manna (“whatsit”) and quail provide part of the answer, today’s story about the seventh day, another part.
As the story’s told, on the sixth day the people are surprised to discover that they’ve gathered twice the normal amount, and look to Moses for an explanation. Moses: “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the LORD; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” Israel is miles (and chapters) away from Sinai (the Ten Commandments). But the LORD does not wait for Sinai, and surprises Israel here with the gift of the sabbath. (‘Sabbath’ appears for the first time in this text.) Under Pharaoh seven days of labor might yield seven days’ worth of food. Under the LORD, six days of labor, seven days of food. The Sovereign qualitatively more powerful than Pharaoh invites Israel into a weekly day of rest and renewal. Here the Who’s lyrics do not apply.
Jesus and the New Testament writers pick up the manna story and employ it, figuratively, in powerfully ways. Jesus, in the conversation with the crowd the day after the feeding of the five thousand: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:48-51). Hallelujah—and looking forward to again celebrating that together.
The Jesus who speaks these words is also the Jesus who constantly reminds us of God’s generosity. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-33)—as evidenced also in the manna story.
God is generous. How generous? God’s creation has enough for all. In that creation six days’ labor yields seven days of food. Obscenely, too few experience this today, with modern pharaohs subverting creation and insulting the Creator.
Gratitude and anger, perhaps both are necessary responses to this reading.
Part II: Why read the text this way?
Not that this is (God forbid) the only or best reading—but why hear it this way at all?
The above reading takes Exodus 16 to be economically paradigmatic: before arriving at the land, God shows Israel how the land’s resources are to be received and used. Other readings often take the text as simply a story of God’s provision in the wilderness, and, if there’s a lesson for other times and places, it’s a general one: trust God. (We don’t go around talking to or striking rocks to get our water—in contrast to Moses (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 20:1-13). So why this reading?
Big picture: God calls Israel for the sake of the nations (Genesis 12:1-3). How’s that supposed to work? Israel as regional (global?) superpower enforcing compliance? When I worked with World Vision’s development projects, agricultural innovation was often a part of the mix. Farmers tend to be conservative, so innovation is not an easy sell. It turns out that a good strategy is to find one or two farmers willing to try the innovation. If it works, other farmers will notice, ask questions, and the innovation sells itself. That seems to be the primary strategy God employs with Israel vis à vis the nations, reflected in texts like this from Isaiah:
In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (2:2-4)
Israel is the test plot. Its ways are potentially paradigmatic for the nations. As a psalm celebrates:
The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. (Ps. 103:6-7)
Which of Israel’s ways? That’s the tricky question, whose answer depends on (and sometimes reveals) our (limited, fallible) understanding of the shape and thrust of Holy Scripture. The traditional ceremonial/civil/moral distinction (enshrined also in #VII of the Articles of Religion (BCP 869) is not a bad starting point, but not designed to identify which precepts are ceremonial, civil, or moral. Here I’ve read Exodus 16 as economically paradigmatic because I perceive this reading to fit well both with Scripture’s portrayal of divine generosity and its prophets’ portrayal of human greed.
Part III: A hat-tip to Christopher J. H. Wright
While the inevitable errors in the above are my own, I’ve been encouraged by and engaged with Wright’s work, laid out in various books and articles (e.g., An Eye for an eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today [InterVarsity Press 1983]). Wright illustrates his interpretive model with the following (p.100):
Very briefly, the creation stories present a thick set of relationships between God, humanity, and the earth. Human disobedience fractures all of these relationships. Israel in the Land of Israel is God’s pilot project so show the nations what restored relationships look like. (Note: this says nothing about how one might reflect on the current state of Israel.) Jesus renews and expands the Israel project, with koinonia (the Greek word often translated ‘fellowship’ but in some contexts perhaps more appropriately translated as ‘solidarity’) naming our mediated relationships with the earth. Both Israel 1.0 and 2.0 (the numbering not to be interpreted in a supersessionist way) witness to humanity’s future in a renewed creation.