by Daniel Harrell
My plan this fall is to feast on food in the Bible—both symbolically and literally. Scripture starts and ends with food, from forbidden fruit in the beginning to a heavenly supper of the lamb at the end. In between there’s barley and olives, Passover and Tabernacles, bread and wine and loaves and fishes. Jesus calls himself bread of life and uses vineyards and fig trees, lavish banquets and fatted calves to tell his best parables. Food also comprises his best miracles, whether its turning water to wine, stretching a single box lunch to feed 5000 people, or grilling fish for his friends on the beach after rising from the dead. Jesus eats a lot of food too, so much so that he’s accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He’d eat with anybody, including outcasts and sinners of every stripe, much to the consternation of religious authorities. Sharing a meal breaks down barriers of suspicion and hostility. To this day we can still make peace by making an enemy dinner.
Meals mark celebrations and serve as a kind of worship. The Jewish sacrificial system never burned meat as merely appeasement. Seems the Lord likes a well-cooked leg of lamb as much as anybody. Sacrificial meat was grilled and eaten—atonement worked as nourishment for body and soul.
Food affects everything and everything affects food. I want to talk about food in the Bible this fall, but I also want to eat it. My plan includes providing recipes for an ancient family meal using ancient ingredients, and then have you cook it and eat it together with friends from this community—be it your small group or K group or Grow and Serve group or simply a dinner party you throw for the occasion, inviting perhaps a few neighbors or co-workers too. Some of us will host a few Dinners for Eight and include our new friends from Upper Room. We’ll take pictures of our tables and share them on Instagram, of course, as well as here at church so everybody can share the joy eating inspires. In the meantime we plan to host our welcome back brunch today, and a Farmer’s Market next Sunday to feature our own garden grown vegetables and honey as well as the many mission endeavors we support to address hunger.
Food fills every day of our lives, breakfast, lunch and dinner, even more so had you lived in almost any century prior to our own. For most of human history, to eat you had to grow and tend and harvest as well as cook and store food. In this morning’s passage from Exodus, Moses keeps a flock to provide meat and milk for his family. Being a shepherd was a long way from the lavish life he’d lived in Pharaoh’s court. If you recall, Moses, as a baby, was intentionally set adrift in a basket by his mother, desperate to save her son from Pharaoh’s edict ordering the death of all Hebrew male children. Moses was retrieved by Pharaoh’s daughter, of all people, who mercifully took baby Moses home and raised him as her own with all of the privilege and advantage a prince of Egypt possessed. One day, as a young man, Moses saw a fellow Hebrew abused by his overseer. The Egyptians owned the Israelites as slaves. Enraged, Moses exacted his own justice, killing the overseer, a capital crime that forced him to flee as a fugitive and head for the hills.
Bereft now of all he’d enjoyed, he tends a flock that’s not even his own. Suddenly he sees a bush on fire, except that the bush wasn’t burning. Moses has gotta see this, so he steps in for a closer look, only to have the bush call out his name. The blaze was none other than God Almighty, fire being a frequent calling card of the Lord. That it burned without need of fuel meant it was an eternal flame, befitting the Lord of the Universe. But why light up a measly shrub when you had a whole mountain and sky to work with? Jewish rabbis answer that for God to appear in a bush proves no place is devoid of his presence, no matter how measly. We read it was the Angel of the Lord who appeared in the bush, who actually was the same as God himself. We Christians understand God to possess a triple persona. I had a seminary professor who taught the Angel of the Lord to be none other than Jesus himself, pre-flesh-and-blood, the eternal second person of the Trinity who shows up here as eternal light in a lowly bush much like he’d one day appear as a poor baby in a manger, a homeless street preacher and a crucified criminal while at the same time being the light of the world.
I was also interested to learn that the Hebrew word for bush sounds like Sinai. Once Moses finally, and victoriously, rescued his people from Egyptian slavery and led them by foot across a parted sea, their initial destination would be this very Mt. Horeb, which by then will be the holy ground known as Mt. Sinai.
The LORD had seen the misery of his chosen people, the children of Abraham, and was ready to act. Rather than pick a strong young buck with a military commission to be the hero, he went for a has-been forced to live out his retirement as a shepherd, now expected to single-handedly take on and take down the lone superpower of that day with nothing but a stick. Moses rightly asked who was he to pull this off and God told him not to worry about it. “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” OK, fine, but what about between now and then?
If you know the story, or have seen the movie, you know things gets pretty exciting, from face-to-face confrontations with Pharaoh to plagues and heavenly pillars of fire and cloud, climaxing in that dramatic Red Sea rescue. The ultimate destination for the chosen people would be the Promised Land, choice real estate described as both “good and broad”—that is, fertile and spacious and conducive to growing food to eat. Furthermore, it was a land “flowing with milk and honey,” foods that implied nourishment and energy as well as delight. Everybody regarded milk and honey as delicious; the Promised Land would be a great place for kids. That God promised a land flowing with milk and honey meant no shortage. The phrase appears over and over throughout the Law and the Prophets to depict both beauty and bounty.
Of course milk would not have meant the Grade A Pasteurized moo juice we drink by the gallon. Their milk would have come from sheep and goats. Moreover, God gave his people manna from heaven but not Maytag refrigerators. Milk spoils quickly without refrigeration, so people enjoyed it mostly as yogurt and cheese and butter, by-products that actually taste better than milk. This was like a miracle. Bacteria spoils milk but bacteria can also turn milk into something as delicious as yogurt. The goodness of God often comes from unexpected places.
The same with honey, which was even more miraculous. Honey was one of the very few foods requiring no processing or treatment after it was harvested. It deteriorated so slowly as not to be noticeable and there was no substitute for it. It was made by bees out of God’s own creation created by nothing but God’s own word. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for word and for bee are the same. Psalm 19 describes the word of the Lord as true and righteous and even sweeter than honey. When the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and the messenger angel in Revelation each eat the scroll of God’s word, they describe it as tasting like honey. When Jewish students start study at yeshiva, a school that teaches the Torah, they are given a dab of honey on squares of wax paper—and admonished to “Never forget what God tastes like.” Ironically, honey, while kosher, comes from an insect that isn’t kosher (no matter that the word for the insect means word). Again, the goodness of God often comes from unexpected places.
Speaking of which, the first people to domesticate bees for honey production were the ancient Egyptians. If you’ve followed our little beehive project out back, the methods used are pretty much unchanged from Egyptian times. They too would have used boxes for hives and smoke to calm bees down so to get at the golden surplus. There was no sugar by the bag like we have now; honey sweetened everything. Granted, as those of us know who’ve worked with the hives, raising bees isn’t like raising puppies. Sweetness can sting. Though domesticated and docile, they can be agitated, which is why if you go back there, you shouldn’t kick the hives. We were checking for mites a couple weeks back—one of the presumed causes of bee hive collapse—bugs eating bugs. Mites weaken bees so you have to check for their level of proliferation which means jostling 300 bees off their comb and into a gutter and funneling them into a jar you then fill with powdered sugar which the bees angrily clean off of themselves along with the mites that are then shaken into a bowl and counted according to a math formula to measure a hive’s infestation. Let’s just say that honeybees get fairly irritated by all this. The honey we harvested last Sunday and you’ll taste today involved some pain and swelling on the part of us beekeepers. All the more reason that a land flowing with honey already would have sounded so fantastic.
At the same time, as with so many things in life, suffering and pain do make their by-products all the sweeter. Once again, the goodness of God often comes from unexpected places.
A good and broad land flowing with milk and honey was truly a gift. Yet it would be a gift mocked then and now. The famous writer and farmer Wendell Berry laments how “We came [to the land] with visions, but not with sight. We did not see nor understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired.” After forty years of rebellion, God had had it with his people.“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey,” he thundered, “but I will not go among you for you are stubborn and stiff-necked.” Modern agriculture’s relentless pursuit for higher yields feeds billions, but does so at the cost of depleted soil, genetic engineering and chemicals that has effective “de-natured nature.” The outcome has been cheap food of poor quality and no flavor that fills the stomach but provides much less by way of delight. When you’re starving you’ll eat what you’re given, but milk and honey were intended to be better than that. I recall at a food packing event being invited to stay after and eat the bulk nutrient pellets we were shipping to other people overseas. We chose to go out instead. The cheap food we Americans do excessively eat—on average, we spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other people on earth—our cheap has helped create the first generation of children with life expectancies shorter than their parents on account of higher rates of obesity and diabetes.
The late Robert Capon, Episcopal priest and food columnist, insisted that while food does keep us alive, “that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.” “O taste,” sings the Psalmist, “and see that the Lord is good.”
Recipe for Yogurt with Cucumber
2 small cucumbers
2 cups Greek yogurt, whole milk (fat=flavor)
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Peel cucumbers and cut thinly. Mix the rest of the ingredients, add the cucumbers and give additional salt and white pepper according to taste. Refrigerate 30 minutes and serve cold.
Recipe for Honey
100,000 honeybees in proximity to nectar producing flowers
Raise and monitor bees for six months, keeping space in their hive for their expansion. Harvest honey by removing bees from several frames of comb without brood and then remove caps from honey on frames. Extract honey using a centrifuge. Filter into jars. Eat.