Thursday, December 8, 2011

Manna: Day Old Disaster (Exodus 16)

Name the day old bread that was no bargain. Manna (Exodus 16:19-20)

During their 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites faced difficulties in meeting basic human needs and typically responded by groaning against their leadership. One such need was that of food and in the face of the limited supplies they cited longing for the wonderful cuisine they ate while enslaved in Egypt (Exodus 16:1-3). God met their need for sustenance through a mysterious substance known as manna (Exodus 16:4).

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction. (Exodus 16:4 NASB)
In the Old Testament worldview, dew descended from heaven (Deuteronomy 33:28; Haggai 1:10). As such, manna emerged “from heaven” with the morning dew (Exodus 16:13-14).

Manna was a mystery food, its name literally means “What is it?”. Its modern equivalent might be “whatchamacallit”. As is common when describing divine things, the Biblical writers were left to analogies to describe manna as there was no exact correlate. Manna is characterized as “a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14 NASB) and “like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey” (Exodus 16:31 NASB). Manna was a wonder bread with frosted flakes.

Honey was one of the resources that made the promised land so appealing (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3) and manna can be seen as a foretaste of the Promised Land. Douglas K. Stuart (b. 1943) explains that “describing the manna as ‘like wafers made with honey’ was tantamount to saying that it ‘was the most delicious food imaginable’ (Stuart, Exodus (The New American Commentary, Vol. 2), 384).” The bread from heaven was given to replace the distorted nostalgic view the Israelites had of their Egyptian nourishment (Exodus 16:3).

Some have seen a natural explanation for manna in that sap from a tamarisk tree native to the region that interacts with a lice plant creates a similar product. Though scientific explanations have been supplied, manna possessed the supernatural qualities of always producing the exact amount needed (Exodus 16:17-18) and having twice that amount only on the day before the Sabbath (Exodus 16:5, 22). Its name also signifies that the substance was previously unknown.

The gift of manna did come with some responsibility - God capped the manna intake. God was explicit that the Israelites gather only enough for one day with the exception of the day prior to the Sabbath (Exodus 16:4-5, 16-19). The prohibition was clearly stated and easy to comply with yet it was given in one verse and violated the next (Exodus 16:19-20). The unnamed violators quickly learned the hard way that manna did not have a long shelf life - “it bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20 NASB).

What modern products have minuscule shelf lives? Was the prohibition against hoarding manna due to the perishable nature of the item or was the food’s character created for the prohibition? Why did God limit the amount of manna one could collect? Why did the people violate this law? Are the answers to the last two questions different?

Some have speculated that one of the reasons for the mandate was to spare the people from the food’s quick degeneration. In this way, it fits with similar food consumption laws (Exodus 12:10, 29:34; Deuteronomy 16:34). As God selected the food, it could have just as easily been a nonperishable item. The fact that manna miraculously endured two days when necessary (Exodus 16:5) indicates that quick decay was not one of manna’s intrinsic properties.

Others have suggested that manna taught the Israelites not to waste or hoard and to be content with subsistence. Others have reminded that the way that God supplied manna required the Israelites to work six days a week and in doing so, no one could eat without working (II Thessalonians 3:10).

Before bestowing manna, God acknowledged that the food would provide a test for the Israelites (Exodus 16:4). In providing manna on a daily basis the Israelites had to trust God for their daily bread (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3). Brevard S. Childs (1923-2007) comments, “Israel was taught that this bread came ‘morning by morning’, in God’s time, according to his plan. It could not be stored ‘just in case...’ If one came too late, it had vanished with the heat of the rising sun (Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (The Old Testament Library), 289).”

As such, for the Israelites, food and faith were intimately related.

Do you trust God to provide your daily bread? Do you recognize that when you eat, God has provided the meal no less directly than for the Israelites in the wilderness?

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” - Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Jesus Slept (Mark 4:38)

What end of the boat did Jesus sleep in? Stern (Mark 4:38)

The three Synoptic gospels all relay the famous story of Jesus calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). Each gospel presents Jesus sleeping when a treacherous storm hits the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 8:24; Mark 4:38; Luke 8:23).

Jesus Himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38 NASB)
Jesus’ humanity is on full display when the scene begins as God does not sleep (Psalm 121:3-4). It is significant that Jesus’ humanity is so prevalent when the scene begins because when it ends with him effortlessly calming the storm, his divinity takes center stage (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25).

As is characteristic of Mark’s gospel, the evangelist provides details that the other accounts omit. In this story, Mark adds that Jesus rested his head on a pillow and that he was positioned in the vessel’s stern (Mark 4:38). C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) remarks, “It suggests the vivid remembrance of an eye-witness (Cranfield, The Gospel According To Saint Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, 173).”

The incident is a rarity as this event marks the only instance where Jesus is said to have slept. Mark 4:38 also marks the only time the word for “cushion” (proskephalaion) appears in the New Testament. The definite article used to describe it indicates that Jesus used the only cushion on board.

Mark also documents Jesus’ location on the boat - he is in the stern, prumna (Mark 4:38; Acts 27:29, 41). In nautical jargon this means he was in the back. Robert E. Picirilli (b. 1932) explains that the stern “in a fishing boat of this type was probably a slightly elevated deck in the rear (Picirilli, The Gospel of Mark (Randall House Bible Commentary), 137).”

Many have seen a strong connection between Jesus’ calming of the storm and the Jonah story, so much so that some have argued that it is a retelling. The detail of Jesus sleeping in the stern has played a role in the discussion. Rudolf Pesch (1936-2011) argued that a Galileean fishing boat would not have a stern and as such the ship in Jonah influenced the gospels. While Robert H. Gundry (b 1932) acknowledged a similar pattern in the two incidents of wind-water-boat (Jonah 1:10, 16; Mark 4:38), he refuted the notion of an exact replica based upon Jesus’ location - “Jesus goes to sleep up in the stern, not down in the hold as Jonah did (Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross: Chapters 1-8, Volume 1, p. 246).

Can you relate to this incident? When have you been exhausted and napped? What do Mark’s added details add to the story?

While Matthew notes simply that “Jesus was sleeping” (Matthew 8:24 NASB) and Luke says that Jesus “fell asleep” (Luke 8:23 NASB), Mark shows that Jesus was intentional about sleeping. He finds an isolated spot and gets comfortable with a pillow. He did not merely doze off like a grandfather at a family gathering.

The Mayo Clinic lists getting comfortable as one of their Sleep Tips: 7 Steps to Better Sleep. They advise:

Create a room that’s ideal for sleeping. Often, this means cool, dark and quiet. Consider using room-darkening shades, earplugs, a fan or other devices to create an environment that suits your needs.

Your mattress and pillow can contribute to better sleep, too. Since the features of good bedding are subjective, choose what feels most comfortable to you. If you share your bed, make sure there’s enough room for two. If you have children or pets, set limits on how often they sleep with you — or insist on separate sleeping quarters.

The details that Mark includes demonstrate that Jesus made time to rest. Do you?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gideon: When Less is More (Judges 7)

Who cut down his army and won a great victory? Gideon (Judges 7:2-8)

During the period of the judges in the 12th century BCE, Midianite raiders attacked Israel from the eastern desert (Judges 6:4). Their advances were made during summer (Judges 6:3), near harvest time, and impoverished Israel (Judges 6:6).

With the nation in peril, Gideon reluctantly agreed to God’s request to lead the Israelites against Midian (Judges 6:11-39). Gideon called in reserve units and Israel rallied around their new commander until God informed Gideon that he had a problem - he had two many soldiers (Judges 7:1). God opted for a less is more strategy.

The army was drastically reduced through two tests (Judges 7:3-7). The first test, comparable to modern psychiatric screening and in accordance with mandates in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 20:1-8), slashed Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 10,000 (Judges 7:3). The second test, a drinking manners test which differentiated between “lappers” and “kneelers”, whittled Gideon’s army down to its final tally of 300 soldiers (Judges 7:5-7). In contrast, the Midianites were as numerous as locusts (Judges 6:5, 7:12).

Fewer numbers being beneficial is counterintuitive. Military historian Richard A. Gabriel (b. 1942) notes that Gideon intentionally minimized his numbers from the outset. Though the Midianites had camped in Endor, land endowed to the tribe of Issachar, Gideon did not enlist Issachar. Gabriel rationalizes, “Gideon made no attempt to bring Issachar under arms. To do so would have immediately alerted the enemy. Gideon seems to have chosen to forego the additional manpower to preserve the element of surprise in mobilizing his army (Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel, 171).”

Gabriel contends that the small army was simply strategy - “Given Gideon’s plan...the force was too large (Gabriel, 172)”. This is seen particularly in the second test that dwindled his numbers. Though its rationale is not stated many have viewed it not as arbitrary but rather as a means of choosing quality over quantity. Gabriel explains, “Gideon devised an ingenious method of selecting his best warriors for the attack...he watched the hot and thirsty soldiers drink their fill. He then chose his best soldiers...Gideon chose only the men “that lapped putting their hand to their mouth,” that is, the men who drank silently and remained vigilant with their weapons at the ready (Gabriel, 172).” As such, at the rest stop, 9700 were discharged leaving only an elite force of seasoned warriors prepared for battle.

Whatever Gideon’s reasons for preferring the smaller unit, he used his 300 wisely. He divided his soldiers into three companies (Judges 7:16), attacked at midnight which concealed the small size of his force (Judges 7:19), confused and scattered the enemy into attacking one another (Judges 7:19-20) and forced them to retreat into a convoy of waiting Israelites (Judges 7:23). Gideon ultimately executed two Midianites kings (Judges 7:24-25).

How would you have reduced Gideon’s army? When is a smaller force advantageous? Why do you think God reduced the size of Gideon’s army?

While Gideon’s smaller army was effective, a strategic explanation does not fit the theme of the text. Five separate references are made to God’s promise to save Israel through Gideon (Judges 6:36, 7:2, 7, 9, 14-15). Joseph R. Jeter (b. 1943) contends, “The story of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites is less about the battle than it is about who is to get credit for the victory (Jeter, Preaching Judges, 78-79).” God’s reduction of the army’s numbers leaves no doubts as to who won the battle. This is evident from the text’s outset:

The LORD said to Gideon, “The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would become boastful, saying, ‘My own power has delivered me.’” (Judges 7:2 NASB)
Susan Niditch (b. 1950) explains, “The outcome of the battle depends not on Israelite expertise, but upon the prowess and goodwill of the divine warrior, protector of Israel. The fewer the number of human soldiers, the greater the victory of God (Niditch, Judges: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 97).” As such, the story of Gideon is really a story about the sovereignty of God.

Are there any areas of your life where it would serve you well to incorporate a less is more approach? Where do you need to become less so that God can become greater (John 3:30)? Has God’s power ever been perfected in your weakness (II Corinthians 12:9)?

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was give life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for—but got everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all people, most richly blessed.
- The Prayer of an Unknown Confederate Soldier