I want to start this post by making a comment about last chapter that I didn’t get to because I was tired and it sort of slipped my mind. Why did the NRSV choose to say “The LORD is my strength and my might” rather than “The LORD is my strength and my song”? I know that the song itself is about God’s strength and might, but they’re singing, and why can’t God be their song? Why can’t God be manifested in a hymn of liberation? Can a song be divine, literally? I guess I just like the image of God as a Song a lot. Tolkien certainly did a good job depicting God as a singer (go read the Ainulinde), so it seems a logical panentheist step to make God the song as well as the singer.
We ended chapter 15 with God being declared “the LORD who heals you.” In this chapter he’s the God who feels us. The Israelites are out of food in the desert, and begin “complaining bitterly” because, well, hunger does that to you. I’ve never been full-blown starved before, but I have had a father who once didn’t let us eat until nearly 2 pm on vacation when I was a child, and I know how grumpy that can make kids. And don’t forget that – this isn’t just adults complaining because they’re hungry. They have their families with them, their children, who are undoubtedly in even worse shape than them.
Which is why it’s frustrating that the Japanese word for “complaint” is fuhei. Those kanji are literally “not peaceful.” To complain is to upset the peace, to rock the boat, and how dare you! That word in itself contains a lot of the problems of Japanese society, let me tell you. You’re not supposed to complain in Japan. It’s bad manners.
But God provides by giving them quail and manna, which means “what is it?” in Hebrew, so from now on I’m going to call it whatsit as my own translation. And it’s a totally communist system of food distribution. It’s not a matter of the most able going out and gathering as much as they can and then selling it, no, every person gets 1 omer (2.3 liters). “To each according to their need,” indeed. Also, no hoarding allowed, you’ve got enough for one day, or for two on Friday.
This is also the first passage to institute the Sabbath. Yes, the justification for it is given back in Genesis 2, but this is the first time we see anyone practicing it. The Patriarch don’t seem to have observed the Sabbath, at least not that we’re told. It seems an entirely new idea to the Israelites, and they’re not trusting of it at first.
In fact, that’s what makes God the most angry in this chapter, that they aren’t trusting him to keep up this plan. They stockpile food when he’s told them there’s always going to be enough. They go out to look for food on the Sabbath when he’s said it won’t be there.
Since this is where the Sabbath first appears, I should also note how the Sabbath is described: “The LORD has given you the Sabbath” (v 29). The Sabbath isn’t a burden to endure, it’s a welcome gift. No other culture had a mandatory day off for its workers, something we take for granted to white-collar America. Apparently the Romans thought the Jews were lazy for only working six days out of seven. I think this idea of the Sabbath as given rather than demanded is part of what Jesus was getting at when he said “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2.27).
I wouldn’t have noticed that if I wasn’t reading this in the Japanese. Having to read every chapter with a dictionary out makes you notice all sorts of things your eyes might skim over if you’re reading it in your native language:
- This happens on the 15th day of the second month after they leave Egypt. Why the date? I’ve looked and no modern Jewish holiday seems to match it. It’s two early for Shavuot/Pentecost (50 days after Pentecost), so is this some holiday that was observed 26 centuries ago that has been forgotten?
- They keep an omer of whatsit to be kept as an artifact showing later generations what whatsit was like, which I guess was miraculously spared the instant disintegration that afflicted other stockpiled whatsit. This fact alone should have stymied attempts by people to try to come up with “scientific” explanations for whatsit. While I respect the idea of trying to come up with a scenario where the Bible can still be based on real-events-interpreted-divinely as a middle path between literalism and total rejection, but I still thinking looking at what the Bible says as a story is more interesting than the Bible as a historical witness.
- Apparently nobody used the omer much by the time the Bible was redacted, because they have to define what it is in verse 36 (“a tenth of an ephah”).
Oh, also, spoilers much? This chapter ends noting that “The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to a habitable land” (v 35). Shh! We haven’t been told yet about the cursed-to-wander bit, don’t give it away! I know it’s common knowledge at this point that they wander for 40 years, but imagine reading this blind, as a Greek interested in your Jewish neighbors.
The Japanese: kyoudoutai zentai “the whole community,” the preferred term for Israelites in this chapter, kyoudou means “doing together, cooperation” (v 1), shinda hou ga mashi da “We’d rather die than…”, ue “hunger” (v 3), uzura “quail” (v 13), jouhatsu suru “to evaporate” (v 14), masu “measure,” amaru “to be left over” (v 18), takuwaeru “to save, to put aside” (v 23), kobamu “to defy” (v 28), wakimaeru “to see reason” (v 29), koendoro, “coriander,” though apparently they also use korianda- (v 30), shoumi “precise amount” (v 32).