Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world’ exclaimed the crowds who had just been fed with loaves and fishes in last week’s gospel. Who is this ‘Prophet’ whom they were expecting, and why did the feeding of the crowds make people think he had turned up? The answer is expanded in this week’s readings, but first we have to know about Deuteronomy 18:14ff and Moses’ promise of a ‘prophet like me’. This idea evolved into an understanding that the Messiah would come and repeat some of Moses’ miracles. It is easy to see, therefore, how the crowds saw Moses and the manna in Jesus and the loaves.
But as always my concern is not to reinterpret the OT readings in the light of the gospels, but to let them speak for themselves, in context. And, as so often in the Exodus narrative, the context is the people’s grizzling. Of course the grumbling of people in uncertain times is a common motif, and we can easily read this text thinking what an awful, faithless lot they were. But the text makes no such judgement, and God seems not to either at this point. The people are a month or so into their journey, and quite understandably they are fearful. Having faced thirst at the end of the previous chapter, they now face the very real threat of starvation. We might condemn them for their lack of faith, having seen the provision of God before, but we might also feel that they are justified in having a bit of a moan.
That said, however, we might wish for a little bit more sense and insight for the people. So often our reaction, when faced with problems, or change, is to go backwards. There is an attraction in what we know, where we have been, even if our memories get a bit selective: nostalgia, is, after all, not what it was. The Israelites get nostalgic about life in Egypt – we might have been slaves, but at least we got food! Churches long for the golden age when the pews were full and the Sunday Schools thriving, and even those with a penchant for revival pray ‘Lord, do it again!’. They seem to have lost sight of a God who does new things, who is able constantly to surprise them, and who knows their needs even before they ask.
Anyway, God invites them to bring their complaints near to him. At least a moan is a cry for help, and God delights to help. The miraculous provision of bread and meat follows, and even though the people remain pathologically stupid in the way they handle it, they can’t fault God for his provision. So to all the grizzlers out there: bring your complaints to God: this passage in no way suggests that to cry out in despair to God is a bad thing to do. Experience his patience, see his power, and benefit from his provision. But then try to learn from it: we have a God who is faithful, and we don’t need to be anxious.
(By the way, a PS for real theological anoraks: it is possible to translate v 15 with the people asking ‘Who is he? For they did not know who he was’. This identification of Moses the provider with the manna itself might be one root of John’s tradition that Jesus himself is the bread of life, coming down from heaven to give life to the world. Just saying.)
Image: “Alexandr Ivanov 081” by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov – http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/238/7793_Народ_собирает_манну_небесную.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons