Feast and Famines
When We Grow Our own
Professor Jung has written a powerful and persuasive wake-up call that is compelling and complete without any additional commentary. I am in full agreement with what he has written, and need add nothing to his statement. But since our well-beloved editor has invited me to comment, three ad hoc matters occur to me.
1. The standard use of “desire” (hmd) in the Old Testament is the same as the term regularly translated “covet” (see Gen. 2:6; Exo 20:17; Deut 5:18). To be sure, there are proper desires recognized in the Old Testament that are legitimate and not an affront to the given order of creation. But the thin interface between “desire” and “covet” suggests that early on Israel recognized the seductive power of desire, and therefore the moral-theological risk that is at work in desire.
The linkage between the two renderings of the term suggests that there is something inherently propelling and insatiable about desire that pushes one beyond one’s self, crossing the boundary into the affairs, property, and life of another. Thus in the tenth commandment on “coveting,” it is “neighbor’s house, neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, or ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to our neighbor.” While there are other texts that keep desire in proper form, these texts suggest something inherently acquisitive about such hunger (Exo 20:17; Deut 5:18). In what is perhaps the most studied text using the term, Micah condemns aggressive land acquisition:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
And evil deeds on their beds;
When the morning dawns, the perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields and seize them;
Houses, and take them away;
They oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance (Micah 2:1-2).
The text is reminiscent of the narrative of Naboth’s vineyard (I King 21). The lust for land is of course a bit remote from food, but not much. The drive for land that belongs to the neighbor shows up in many forms, agribusiness as well as military adventurism, that is, a drive to control markets and resources, thereby serving one’s own well-being at the expense of the neighbor. Since the rich diet of many US folk is at the top of the food chain, the drive for food is well connected to the general acquisitiveness that shows up in policy as well as in anti-neighborly behavior. For good reason, “covet” occupies the climactic position in the “Big Ten” at Sinai!
2. The teaching of the wise shows evidence that Israel was capable of sorting out desires, making decisions about the relative worth of some desires in contrast to others. Perhaps the best know “better saying” is at the conclusion of Psalm 19, after an ode in celebration of Torah:
More to be desired are they than fine gold, even much fine gold (Psalm 19:10).
Here our term “desire” (hmd) refers to a desire (lust) for the commandments of YHWH that are preferred to a lust for gold. This conclusion of the Psalm fits well with Professor Jung’s “education of desire.” The singers and teachers in Israel knew that choices must be made. And they apparently knew that gold–that is, money, property, control, leverage–is a compelling lust. The pursuit of gold readily translates into food, into control of the food supply (see Genesis 47:13-26), and into the capacity to take food needed by others for the enhancement of the self. Such a desire is clearly community-destroying. By contrast a desire for the commandments of YHWH is community-enhancing, because the commandments continue to insist that one’s future is linked to one’s neighbor in a common destiny. Eating in such a context suggests that eating is always done in the presence of many sisters and brothers, whether they are acknowledged as present or not. At the table are hungry brothers and sisters. But when the commandments are negated, we can imagine we “dine alone” in luxury and extravagance. Amos describes such “dining alone”:
Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
And longue on their couches,
And eat lambs from the flock,
And calves from the stall;
Who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
And like David improvise on instruments of music;
Who drink wine from bowls,
And anoint themselves with finest oils (Amos 6:4-6b)
Dining alone is an act of denial, a failure to notice the collapse of the food chain:
…but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph (Amos 6:6c)
3. Claus Westermann1, long ago, called attention to the terse, haunting verse of Joshua 5:12:
The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land; and the Israelites no longer
had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
The verse marks an end to the sojourn tradition and a transition to the settled land. The verse looks back to a long season of manna when food was, so the tradition says, wondrously given by a generous God. In the economy of “wonder bread,” all had enough (Exo 16:17-18); but that bread could not be stored (Exo 16:20-21). When Israel came into the land, it ceased to be dependent upon God for food. Now it secured its own food. It owned the land that would yield bread. It owned the bakeries and could make its own wonder bread. It owned the granaries and had ample in store for time to come.
The book of Deuteronomy observes that a store of independently produced food will dramatically transpose a community of gratitude into a community amnesia (6:10-15; 8:1-17). In such circumstance Israel can no longer remember the gift of bread and or the name of the bearer of bread, for Israel was able to say, in an innocence borne of denial:
My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth (Deut 8:17).
According to the text of Deuteronomy, such amnesia, wrought of controlled extravagance, brings along with it a lethal future.
Professor Jung triggers for me a new sense of our food crisis:
-that acquisitive desire works havoc in the social infrastructure;
-that choices have to be made…for gold or for commandments, for self or for community;
-that independently produced food produces, in turn, amnesia about our true position in life.
I am grateful to Professor Jung (and the editors) for permitting us to see, yet again, the life-giving wisdom of the text. In our amnesia we thought we would know better…alas!
November 3, 2008
1 Claus Westermann, What Does the Old Testament Say about God? (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979) 46-47.
1. Walter Brueggemann has pointed to fine line between “desire” and “covet” in the Hebrew scriptures. How would you define each? What might be some healthy desires that enhance creation and are sanctioned by the Bible?
2. How can we be conscious of others as we eat even when they are not present? How does the shower of manna in the wilderness inspire us to dine in global community?