OT Lectionary Sept 27th Trinity 17 Numbers 11

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages

Nostalgia, they say, isn’t what it used to be. When things get tough, everything from the past suddenly looks wonderfully attractive, even cucumbers, melon and garlic. Every church leader knows that, and many agree with it, while others, like Moses, have to contend with it again and again among the people they are called to lead.

Our passage today gives us a picture of church which is all too familiar. The people want to go backwards, and they remember the past selectively, focussing on the garlic but not on the slavery, the beatings, the sheer exhaustion and hopelessness of it all. The Devil you know is obviously preferable to the unknown future, and they feel insecure in spite of God’s promises to them, showing that here as in so many places the root problem is faithlessness. So upset are they that Moses can hear the sound of weeping, which is odd because it is usually the presence of onions, rather than the lack of them, which causes people to cry.

Just as the people turn on Moses in their distress, so Moses turns on God, pouring out to him his utter exhaustion with the task to which he has been called. In fact there are several occasions when Moses reaches the end of his tether, and it is fascinating to note (and I do intend to write a book about this one day) how each time Moses complains to God and asks that he might die rather than carry on with this miserable existence, his cries bring about divine and supernatural action. For those in any doubt this passage proves once and for all that God is male. According to all the Mars vs Venus literature when women are upset they want a hug, not a solution, whereas men simply want to get on and solve the problem, which is why blokes so often get it wrong. God does not say ‘There there’ to Moses: he acts, by anointing with his Spirit a task force who can share the burden with him.

But even this group don’t get it. Even with this spiritual anointing they are jealous for their position, and are peeved that two elders who didn’t turn up for the event had nevertheless been anointed. Moses himself makes a prophetic statement, which looks over the horizon to Pentecost, wishing that all of God’s people could receive his Spirit and become prophets.

Grumbling congregations, burnt-out leaders, jealous church officers; nostalgia for the past golden age, death wishes, despair: all these are sadly around as much as ever in today’s church. Even the other side of the cross and Pentecost we still hanker for the good old days, and often wear our leaders out doing so. This story challenges us to reflect on what we might be doing to those whom God has set over us. How terrible if we were causing them to despair of life itself. It also calls us to believe in the future which is coming, even if it seems aeons away, to look forward with faith and hope, and to walk together confidently under the anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

Old Testament Lectionary 2nd August Trinity Exodus 16:9-15

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.

Alexandr Ivanov 081.jpg

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