Food in the Bible: Famine

Food in the Bible: Famine

Amos 8:7-12

by Daniel Harrell

“Food is history. Food is place. Food is power.” To trace the historical arc of food in the Bible is to encounter conflict and deception, grace and forgiveness, time and eternity. We’ve talked food and tasted it both in this room and in many of your dining rooms. Our dinners have been filled with bounty and blessing, for both ourselves and the Lord. Each dinner began with the prayer: “Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

Celebrating food last night felt a bit forced given the barbarity unleashed on Paris, a city that celebrates food like no other. As of this morning 129 are dead and 352 injured. French President Hollande has called it an act of war perpetrated by Islamic State jihadists to punish France for its airstrikes against them in Syria and Iraq. Some are invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty this morning, demanding that ISIS be met by a collective military response. “Enough is enough,” I read in one column this morning. “A certain quality of evil cannot be allowed physical terrain on which to breed. Pope Francis declared the Paris attacks “not human.” In a sense he is right. But history teaches that human beings are capable of fathomless evil. Unmet, it grows.”

129 people died in Paris on Friday. 45 in Beirut on Thursday in a similarly suicidal attack, though western outrage was absent since, well, Lebanon in Lebanon. Expect backlash in Europe against Syrian refugees in coming days. Even though as one Lebanese writer put it, “If only Europe understood the night of November 13 in Paris has been every single night of the life of those refugees for the past two years. But sleepless nights only matter when your country can get the whole world to light up in its flag color on Facebook.”

When does it ever stop? The Psalmist (94) rightly asks, “O Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked exult? They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.” And then rattling its own saber, the Psalmist goes on, “O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve!” We empathize with this last line. Eye for an eye. Unmet, evil grows.

The jihadists write their own revenge poetry: “Wake us to the song of swords, … The horses’ neighing fills the desert, arousing our souls and spurring them onward. … pride stirs at the sound, while humiliation lashes our foes.” Jihadi poetry contains a great deal of theology. “Religious doctrine is the essential glue of jihadi culture. Their theologians believe they are uncovering and resuscitating the true and literal tenets of their faith against interpretations of clerics and scholars accused of being in cahoots with political tyrants.” And on it goes.

The critical difference between the Psalmist of Scripture and theologians of jihad is in whose hand justice resides. “Judgment will be founded on God’s righteousness,” sings the Psalmist. “The upright in heart follow the Lord.” “He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? He who disciplines the nations, he who teaches knowledge to humankind, does he not chastise? The LORD knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath. Blessed are those whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law, to give him rest from days of trouble, until a pit can be dug for the wicked.” Somehow, we must faithfully wait on the Lord. “If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.”

This morning’s passage from Amos is this kind of silence, a silence of separation and depravation on account, ironically, of bounty and blessing. The context is famine, but here in Amos, the problem is not a shortage of food. God’s people enjoyed plenty. Compared to their neighbors, they lived the good life both in terms of power and prosperity. It was the grace of God, but like in too many times in the Bible, grace taken for granted. The Lord favored his people only to have them treat their favor as favoritism and permission to do as they pleased. For a full seven chapters the Lord indicted their duplicity and lack of compassion. “You rob the poor and cheat the helpless! You measure out grain with dishonest measures, charging high prices for your grain mixed with chaff swept from the floor.” Time and again Amos warned them of pending justice. Yet despite all the caution, hearts did not soften, consciences did not twinge, actions did not change nor did lips utter a single “I’m sorry.”

Therefore, says the Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your festivals into funerals, and all your songs sad. I will make everyone wear funeral clothes and make you mourn as if you had lost your only son;  when it ends it will indeed have been a bitter day.” This is familiar Judgment Day doom. “The time is surely coming,” declared the Lord GOD, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.”

It is appropriate to pause in this season long series on food to think about famine. Some 795 million people don’t have enough food to be healthy this morning, mostly in developing countries, mostly in Asia, many in sub-Saharan Africa, almost everywhere war is fought. Still, according to the UN Hunger Report, this number represents about 200 million fewer hungry people than in 1990, despite a population surge, a decrease so significant that some believe hunger’s scourge be eliminated in our lifetime. Last Sunday I reported how last season’s wheat harvest of seven hundred and eighteen million tons meant roughly two hundred pounds for every person on earth. There’s plenty of food in the world, just not enough access to it.

Here in America access is easier. Our incredibly proficient agriculture industry makes possible for Americans to spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than anywhere else on earth. According to federal statistics, an American in 1919 had to work for two and a half hours to earn enough money to buy a chicken; these days we have to work less than fifteen minutes. The good news is that our ability to produce cheap calories on a massive scale has helped feed the world. The bad news is that cheap food has made people fat and sick. The World Health Organization calls this “globesity” and has labeled it an epidemic health concern. It’s especially bad in America where obesity-related diabetes and heart disease continue to rise and where per-capita calorie consumption has increased to the equivalent of adding two slices of Domino’s daily.

Our taxes heavily subsidize corn and soybeans, two crops that feed livestock and help create the types of food public health officials have warned us for years to stop eating. In the United States today, you can sell meals for a dollar or you can sell nutritious meals—doing both on a large scale is not possible. We could eat better food, but higher quality food requires expensive ingredients. Free range, naturally fed turkey goes for several dollars a pound more than a Butterball. As a wedding present I gave Nicole Lindsay a cooking lesson—she prepared a glorious pan-seared salmon with wine reduction for her fiancé, Patrick. But to buy responsibly fished salmon, or grass-fed beef or free-range turkeys or anything organic and all that goes with it on a consistent basis will bust any newlywed’s budget. Millions of Americans often have no choice but to rely on the kind of cheap food they get in a processed box or at a chain restaurant. In the land of plenty the problem is plenty. Too much of a good thing.

“The time is surely coming,” declared the Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” To speak of a famine of the word is not to say God stopped communicating. As with an eclipse—the sun going dark at noon—the silence of God was not something that happened to the sun, but between the sun and our eyes. Or apropos to this famine, between God’s word and our ears.

There is a long and recognizable link between hunger and hearing in Scripture. Way back in Deuteronomy, God let his people hunger on purpose. Their toes almost to the Jordan River on the way to their new Promised Land, Moses stopped to remind how the Lord let them hunger so he might feed them with manna from heaven—a bread neither they nor their ancestors had ever experienced—a “total God thing” some would say. The takeaway lesson was learning how “people cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Centuries later when God’s word became flesh, Satan challenged a starving Jesus in the desert to turn a stone into bread, to make his own manna and prove he was God. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy instead: Food goes beyond nourishment. Food signals hope and shows love. To make and break bread with another to give others yourself. Nobody would demonstrate this more plainly than Jesus.

“We must be careful about allowing abundance to con us out of hunger,” Robert Capon once wrote. So importance is hunger to hearing that the Christians have long practiced fasting to reorient attention. In fasting we participate in the longing and taste a bite of the agony that is the passion of Christ—that suffering love which finally and deliberately beckons us back to the table to eat. “Fasting is as much an act of prayer as prayer itself, and, in an affluent society, it may well be the most meaningful of all religious disciplines—the most likely point at which the salt can find its savor once again.” Hunger can make the best sauce.

Amos concludes with people wandering from sea to shining sea, drifting from one place to another in search of an answer, seeking but not finding. Abusing God’s goodness serves as its own kind of just dessert. An indulgence of bread (whether you eat it or hoard it or spend it all on yourself)—afflicts body and soul. We hunger for God but then try to feed ourselves with ourselves. But our words do not nourish us. Too many additives. Too much sugar. Too long left wide open on the shelf until stale and all the flavor is gone.

As you’ve probably picked up, I do like to cook. I’m on a constant flavor quest; taste being the very soul of good food. On the cusp of one Thanksgiving, having eaten too many turkeys textured like sawdust rather than succulence—more foul than like fowl you might say—my chief aim when it came my turn to roast a bird was to capture such a tender experience of tastiness that all generations would call me blessed. Achieving truly remarkable flavor in a turkey takes some science. Because it’s so lean, turkey dries out fast when cooked. Heat causes raw individual coiled proteins in meat fibers to unwind and then rejoin and shrink leading to the loss in moistures. But if you soak your turkey in a salted brine first, 1 cup table salt dissolved per gallon of water, you can reduce moisture loss substantially by disrupting the molecular composition of the proteins—the technical term is denature—thus enhancing natural juice retention.

Your average turkey needs to brine about four hours: any less and there’s no effect, any more and it starts to get salty. Mine was slated to surface just before Dawn was due back from an exhausting, week-long business trip. She was eager to be home for the holidays, and I’d happily and eagerly agreed to meet her at the airport. But then her plane got in earlier than scheduled. She phoned to let me know her good news, she was already home, hooray, could I come and pick her up her now?

“Um, well, see, I have my turkey in brine. If I take it out now its proteins will have failed to fully denature. If I leave it in longer it will be rendered too salty. Would you mind grabbing a cab and I’ll just see you when you get here?”

I’m sure you know what I did.

There is a link between hunger and hearing, between silence and word. Silence as separation and depravation has power to awake and restore. At night I can sleep as long as there’s noise, from my fan or my nifty phone app. But let the power go off or the phone battery die and I bolt upright in bed. God works in silence. This presents an enormous obstacle to many. In regard to evil, God’s silence leads to presumptions of either consent, impotence or absence. Some clamor that a loving Lord who cared about his creatures would act more overtly. Others know, however, that most clamoring comes from the shallow end of the pool. The Holy Ghost operates as breath and wind, evident only in its effects, redemptive more often than preventative—allowing freedom of movement for the sake of genuine love, passion in humans that sometimes turns hateful and destructive. The resulting silence pulls us down to depths too deep for words—depths where words alone cannot breathe.

Such depth of silence is where faith can start. Jesus went to the cross in silence and rose from the dead silently too. The resurrection itself made hardly a sound, its initial evidence only an emptiness that testified beyond doubt to the power of God. Our gospel has a gaping hole at its center, an empty hole in the ground, merciful space where strength and hope are drawn, where love never fails and everything that needs saying has already been spoken. It’s like being at a dinner table where nobody talks because everyone eats and is so happy to have finally found the flavor they’ve sought their whole lives.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” God makes you hunger so you will hear. Then feeds you in ways you could have never imagined. Go just a few verses further in Amos: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord to Amos, when I will raise up the fallen house of David and restore the fortunes of my people. The mountains shall drip blessing, the fields yield more wheat than you can harvest, and you will plant vineyards and drink its new wine, and you shall sow gardens and eat their fruit. I will establish you so deep you will never again be uprooted.” “Whoever has ears,” Jesus said, “let them hear.”