So, here's my thought for today taken from these passages (Click for details):
Grace and Meaning
In the words of St Paul, or perhaps St John, or maybe St George, or even St Ringo
“When I was younger, so much younger than today.”
Ah, sorry, couldn’t resist! No, it’s not a tubby boy story – but just a general reflection that today’s story from the book of Exodus used to cause me great consternation. Or at least was one of those parts of Scripture that didn’t seem to fit…
I knew the story, the mythological story I am now convinced, of the temptations in the wilderness when Jesus proclaims, quoting Deuteronomy 6 ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test’. As I moved into the Anglican Church and got to know the words of the Venite, as Psalm 95 is known in Morning Prayer, I heard the verses ‘harden not your hearts as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness;
When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my works.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, * It is a people that do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways:
Unto whom I sware in my wrath, that they should not enter into my rest.”
And I knew that ‘lead us not into temptation’ was better translated ‘save us from the time of trial’ and so the temptation mentioned in the Venite meant that the people of Israel had tested God, they had complained, and God was displeased – as related in our Psalm for today: When the Lord heard this, he was full of wrath; *
“a fire was kindled against Jacob,
and his anger mounted against Israel;
For they had no faith in God, *
nor did they put their trust in his saving power.
So he commanded the clouds above *
and opened the doors of heaven.
He rained down manna upon them to eat *
and gave them grain from heaven.”
In a more contemporary translation it has the word that is the key phrase for me – not ‘so he commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven’ but ‘YET he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven.’
We have all this language of God’s anger and wrath, God’s displeasure – because we are not meant to question God, it seems, to test God, to tempt God. YET God provides, abundantly.
And in this came my perplexity. It seemed a contradiction to my young brain… and not only that, but how did God provide Manna and Quail – and what was Manna?
Lots of people tried to give a pseudo-scientific explanation with regards to freak winds carrying the birds to the camp and some plant whose secretion created a bread like substance for the Israelites to eat. Others simply said ‘God provides’ – but if that were the case why did God not provide in the same way today to those who were and are in dire straits.
Altogether it was a perplexity – when I was younger, so much younger than today (to quote the Beatleitudes)
But learning that Scripture was not all joined up and didn’t drop out of the sky, like manna, in one miraculous lump. Learning that our Bibles are composed of myth and legend, metaphor and struggles for meaning let me realise that there is much going on in all of our Scriptural passages that say much more than just a simplistic reading could ever open us up to, liberated me from trying to put all of these contradictions and complications into a nice, easy to understand, package.
For our ancient forebears there was indeed an understanding of the all-powerful nature of God, and the principle that God was not to be questioned and was indeed to be held in awe and worshipped. Alongside this, however, was the feeling that God did provide, and that as the stories of the wandering tribes of Israel and their amazing survival were passed down, that somehow the journey through the wilderness was sustained by God had to be held up alongside the human propensity for struggle, and complaint, and anger, and hurt, when things are difficult.
And so we have ‘YET’ – Yet God’s love and grace were poured out, despite hardship, the people of Israel survived and held on to that feeling and experience of God’s love and generosity. Despite all the odds YET they found what they considered to be ‘the promised land’ and settled and grew, and even (at times) thrived.
And so the principle of this myth of the manna is not one to try to explain, but to grasp the meaning, which is to remind us of God’s love, freely given. YET God commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven’. May we too know the deeper meaning of our Scriptures, and indeed all of our experiences, and the God who is present in each moment, and with us in all things.