I suppose it’s time for me to start thinking of the passages surrounding Exodus 16 as Complaint Central. Previously, it hadn’t really clicked for me that the Israelites begin griping almost as soon as Moses and Miriam have finished leading the people in their triumphant Song of the Sea. Nor had it registered that manna, the magic sky bread, came as God’s response to more griping. Then, in today’s chapter, Israel continues griping. There’s something about writing about these passages, not just reading them or even merely reflecting on them, that draws one’s attention to these patterns. So: welcome to our last stop at Complaint Central, at least for the time being.
Happy Magic Bread Day! This is the chapter with the manna, and so many things about it seem foreign to me in so many different ways. I have no clue what it’s like to travel in the desert or to travel long distances on foot. I don’t know a whole lot about what’s normal for storing food without refrigeration or sealed packaging. And I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it said that someone “grumbled against” someone else outside of the Bible. But there’s one thing here that I’ve got half a clue on, and that’s people being people.
So, I was googling around for information on the song in Exodus 15, trying to think up an introduction for today’s post, when I happened to play the song “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt. I suddenly found myself crying over the song’s duet and its picture of faith. Twenty years ago, I loved the song, but considered its contrast between faith and rationality overwrought; now, I’ve kind of come around to it. Trust in God doesn’t always make sense to us, yet here I am, like Miriam and Zipporah, seeking faith and speaking words I never thought I’d say. And as I listened to the song and read the Hebrew lyrics of the bridge, taken from Exodus 15, I laughed out loud through my tears. Of course they didn’t include lines like “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea” (15:4) and “You send forth Your burning anger, and it consumes them as chaff!” (15:7) Can you imagine a DreamWorks movie with such a celebration of–to put it as tactfully as possible–retributive justice? Now that would be a real miracle.
Today’s chapter details Pharaoh’s greatest mistake. The disgusting discomforts of the bloody Nile, the frogs, the gnats, and the swarms weren’t enough. Neither were the livestock diseases, the skin inflammations, the hailstorms, locusts, and darkness. And it looked for a moment like the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn might be enough, but then Pharaoh changed his mind and wanted his slaves back. So, today he and his chariots come after Israel in hot pursuit. Throughout the book of Exodus, but especially here, Pharaoh is the picture of anti-repentance.
Sometimes a lot of different things happen in a chapter. In today’s chapter, for example, God tells Jacob to go dwell in Bethel, which Jacob does, and God has a message of blessing for him once he settles there. Also, people die: Rebekah’s nurse Deborah, Rachel as she gives birth to Jacob’s twelfth son Benjamin, and then old Grandpa Isaac. If you can find a common theological or spiritual thread through all these events, more power to you. But as far as I can tell, the only theme tying them together is “some things pertaining to Jacob’s family happened in Canaan.” Sometimes chapters are like that.
More than once, a verse or passage in Genesis has done little more than remind me that we live in a vastly different culture than the people of the ancient Near East. And yes, we have just such a chapter today. Genesis 23 covers the death and burial of Sarah. Two verses are devoted to Abraham’s mourning over her, and fifteen verses–75% of the chapter, by verse–are devoted to the negotiation by which Abraham buys a burial plot. If you or I were recording this event, we would probably approach it somewhat differently.
Today’s chapter tells the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham goes to do it, and the angel of the Lord tells him that he doesn’t actually have to sacrifice his son. It’s one of the better-known passages from the Bible, and with good reason. An ostensibly all-loving God calling for human sacrifice, only to turn around and say, “No, wait, sacrifice this ram instead,” has a way of arresting our attention. But I feel like the story, in its magnitude, has me hemmed in on all sides. How can I adequately address its scope? How can I say something worthy of the monumental matters it raises?