Exodus 16:16-21: This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.
This week my roommate texted me in class, “Did you eat that pizza that you left out today? Hope you don’t get sick!” Actually, I left it out the day before, but yes. Yes I did. It was a quick and easy meal, thrown in the microwave for 30 seconds and ready to go before I left my apartment for the day. We had a quick back and forth over whether I would get sick. And I didn’t get sick, which I wasn’t too worried about, because this pizza was so processed and full of sugar and preservatives that I knew bacteria probably wouldn’t grow on it too quickly. Had this been some artisanal work of art by a chef fresh out of a wood-fired oven with fresh mozzarella, house tomato sauce, with locally grown greens on top, this would be a different issue. But it was made from a local place with lots of grease in not too much time. It was good, but I could guess what I was eating. It was food that lasted for a long time.
Our Bible holds food to be a central part of its story. When the Israelites went into the desert after Egypt, they went into the wilderness where there was no water, no food, with death looming before them, and seemingly no God. The desert turned out not to be a place of desolation and alienation from God, but instead a place where the marginalized-yet-freed people of God were utterly dependent upon their Lord, who provided for them day after day- albeit with some frustration on God’s part.
And it was not just that God provided general spiritual nourishment, or hope to help them feel good during their trials, but that God also gave them exactly what they needed in order to survive and flourish. God did not give them any more or any less, but exactly enough.
They gathered as much manna (literally translated “What is it?”) and quail as they could; and some anxiously even tried to hoard, but it was to no avail. For every morning, the excess food rotted.
Praise God, the food rots.
It goes bad somewhat quicker than usual, but as they wandered in the desert, the food that rots reminded them each day not only what they were dependent on, but Who.
Food is not infinite, the world is not eternal, and our bodies are not immortal. Knowing this can give us cause to act anxiously and worry about scarcity. Or it can help us to realize that food is a gift from God to help us live and survive. We live not with more than enough, or less than enough, but rightly enough for all.
When food goes bad, it points back to the God who continually provides, and how we are not God. We are finite creatures called to pay attention to our food, our bodies, and the myriad of ways they’re connected through the land. Eating this food is in line with God’s intentions for the flourishing of the human body. Food that naturally goes bad is fresher, more nutritious and more body-honoring. And more God-honoring.
Much food today seems to be the opposite of the Manna of God. It is often taken from the land while harming it in the process, made with chemicals that are not meant to be consumed, and intended to last for months or years. All of the overly processed sweets, pre-made meals, and artificially colored commodities point back not to the God who provides, but to the consumer in an attempt to convince them it will fulfill what God can only provide.
Foods with long shelf lives, or with lots of sugar added for taste, flavor, and addiction cannot do the things they subtly promise. They are marketed under the promise to be immortal and trustworthy, to be there in times of sadness and hardship, to sustain and heal, to help thrive and flourish, to make joyful and whole. This food can do none of these things, try as advertisers might imply otherwise.
In fact it harms the body, the mind, and in effect, the soul. Mass-produced, unhealthy food harms the land, the body, communities, and disrupts local economies. God intends for neighbors to survive and thrive together, but cheap meals on-the-go cut off neighbor from neighbor by eating in front of a TV or quickly before going to work, rather than taking the time at a table.
The socially conscious reader will protest that while this sounds all well and good, this is an option not available to everyone, for not every community has access to fresh food (or clean water as in Michigan), not every neighborhood can farm, only the wealthy can access organic produce, and all this idealism turns out to be a luxury more so than a hope.
Exactly! The ways God intended for humanity to interact with our land, to interact with our food, and to interact with one another have been perverted and altered for the sake of cost, profit, and convenience. Those chains and producers who aim to make the most money by selling the wealthy their own best health prove that there truly is a problem. In the story God provides Manna to the liberated Israelites. Feeding the hungry marginalized is within the very character of the God we worship and serve.
The fact that healthy bodies are a thing to be attained through purchasing power is yet another challenge to our interpretation of the Greatest Commandment. If we love ourselves (and God) by eating well, we have to love our neighbors (and God) by making sure they’re not only able to eat, but able to eat well. It is not only about altering the products we purchase (though it can include that), but knowing where our food comes and to where our money goes. Farmer’s markets, CSAs, and organizations that support local food are a good place to start as any. Yet even those are only partial solutions, which not everyone has access to. If the option to support local food is available, consider it. If the opportunity to give or help food-bereft communities sustain and support themselves, see if it’s a worthwhile investment. It will require act after act of wild imagination to see how we can feed everyone, and feed them well.
The food of the earth is a daily good gift from God for all of the people of God. Discipleship to Christ is taking up a long and hard work, the discipline of making and eating food that is good, while putting it into the hands of others. Finding, preparing, and eating the food of the earth is a more difficult alternative to hitting the drive-through, is costly in several ways, requires constant vigilance, but results in joy, and is something to be shared.
I eat cheap, two-day-old pizza. This is a discipline I struggle with and am learning about myself. Eating processed food is not sinful, and eating unhealthy or mass-produced food does not make you less valuable as a child of God. Every purchase, and every food we eat does have a cost and a benefit, both to others and ourselves. Discipleship may very well ask us to critically consider what we buy, where we buy it from, and what cost it has on our bodies as well as on the community it came from. This is difficult because it will cost us time and a more efficient way of life, but Jesus never said discipleship was easy.
Just as the Israelites ate perishable food that reminded them of the grace of God, today we may also eat perishable food because it is a grace from God. We do not find our salvation in food, but the God of Salvation is redeeming and making all things new in Jesus Christ, even the economies and ecologies that we live and eat within.
Give thanks to the Lord that food goes bad, and enjoy it before it does.
Adam Ogg is a friend and fellow student of Michael’s at Princeton Seminary. Adam once crashed date night for Michael by bringing boxed wine to Michael’s apartment while his girlfriend was over. Michael was an incredibly good sport about it, though he did (justifiably) tease Adam about purchasing boxed wine.