OT Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Trinity 9 – Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 (Related)

Lessons from Liminality

You may or may not have heard of Arnold van Gennep. He was a French folklorist who lived from 1873 to 1957 and is best known for his work on ‘Rites of Passage’ and what he called ‘liminality’. Coming from the Latin for ‘doorway’, liminality is about how we change from one stage of life to another. Engagement, for example, is a liminal stage between singleness and marriage, and is a time for learning gradually to live differently (or it used to be before we simply shacked up together). Bereavement is a similar liminal state, where we learn to come to terms with the death or loss of someone or something. It can be an uncomfortable place to live, even when the change is a positive one, and all kinds of emotions can rise to the surface. In the end we may or may not negotiate it successfully.

The Wilderness Narratives of Exodus and Numbers describe Israel in a state of liminality between the experience of slavery and moving into sovereignty in their own land, and the lessons they had to learn during this extended period were designed to shape their existence in the future. In today’s passage we get a glimpse of some of the tensions and reactions to being in a liminal stage, and state of change and readjustment. Their behaviour is very typical, and can teach us a lot about negotiating our own transitions.

The first key motif is that of grumbling. The Hebrew word only occurs in the wilderness narrative, and is a bit stronger than mere grumbling: it is a full-blooded complaining against God and his appointed leaders in the community, a complaining which at times taxes those leaders almost to breaking point. When change comes, even if it is change for the better in the long run, we can feel disorientated and thence angry. Business gurus talk about the ‘J curve’: when change comes, things can get worse before they get better, and the temptation is to want to go backwards instead of forwards.

It is this desire for what was familiar over what is more difficult which leads to the second reaction: idealisation of the past. Just about every funeral I have ever taken is of someone who was perfect in every way, loving, kind, thoughtful, considerate and so on. Frankly I don’t believe it, and I always take the opportunity to acknowledge in the service that the deceased may not have been perfect, and there might be things which have hurt us and which might need forgiveness. Often people thank me afterwards for the honesty which allowed them to move on from the pure hagiography and admit that things weren’t always perfect between them. So whilst in slavery in Egypt, being forced to make bricks, even without the raw materials, life was wonderful. They had all the food they could eat. Really? Highly unlikely, I would think. But probably what did happen is that were fed by human hands: now they had to rely on God, which seemed much more risky. How are you tempted to idealise the past? How might you admit a more realistic assessment of it.

Fortunately, they had a God who was, and is, responsive to our cries. Jesus was later to tell us that God knows what we need, and cares for us with his perfect provision, but here he appears to want to test their reaction to their new state. Are they going to ask nicely for food, knowing that he is the kind of God who loves and cares for his children. No, they’re going to moan at Moses. Here’s a third lesson from liminality: the desire to find someone to blame for our misfortunes. It feels easier to blame humans than God himself, and this repeated motif, of grumbling about their leadership, bring Moses almost to the point of suicide. Church leaders will have experienced those times when they have to act as lightning conductors for the people’s anger, usually about some aspect of change. Have you ever sparked that lightning yourself?

Fortunately God is big enough to take it, even if it brings Moses to breaking point, and he rains down both bread and meat on the people. But there is a third lesson, which comes beyond the end of our passage, but is worth mentioning. Once God is providing for them, they have to learn the new rules which changed circumstances demand. They have learnt that however much manna they gather, it is just right for them. But they are not to try to keep any overnight. Possibly doubting God’s faithfulness, that is exactly what they do, and of course it turns maggoty. They are still living in a Egyptian mindset. While they ‘sat round pots of meat’ and ate all they wanted (yeah, right!) the slavery mindset is to hoard, to grab all they can to supplement tomorrow’s no doubt meagre rations. They had to learn that God had not put them on starvation rations, and he would provide and keep on providing. Do you really have that kind of trust in God’s faithfulness?

The Israelites spectacularly and consistently failed to learn these lessons from liminality, and spectacularly extended what should have been a year in the desert to 40 because of their lack of trust and faith. If we are going through a period of change, it is God’s invitation to learn lessons about him which will take us into the future successfully. May we have the grace to learn quickly!

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