Read: Exodus 16
The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey (Exodus 16:31, NRSV).
Did you grow up being lulled to sleep with lullabies like this one?
Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.
Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird.
And if that mocking bird don’t sing,
Mama’s going to buy you a diamond ring.
And if that diamond ring is brass,
Mama’s going to buy you a looking glass….
The lullaby goes on to promise prizes that reflect other “hot items” of the song’s era: a billy goat, a horse and cart, and even a dog named Rover.
I confess that I like this lullaby. I sang it to my children and I continue to sing it to my grandchildren. (Although I sometimes wonder when they will wake up and point out that they would much rather have an iPhone than a billy goat.) But as I sing it, I also wonder if I may be inadvertently encouraging little consumers. While we can’t blame everything about our consumeristic culture on an old lullaby, could it be symptomatic of the insatiable aspect of both our culture and our human nature? Have we been guzzling consumerism along with our mother’s milk?
The “manna” story, with its emphasis on not gathering on the Sabbath, is a perfect parable for those of us who feel like we never have enough.
Soon after their escape from slavery in Egypt, the people of God face a test that will reveal whether or not they truly trust God to care of them in the wilderness. Moses relays the instructions directly from God. Each morning, God will rain down “bread from heaven” in the form on mysterious but tasty “manna.” They are to gather only enough for each day, and twice as much on the sixth day, so that they will have enough for the Sabbath on the seventh day.
But of course, people being people, they disregard God’s instructions and gather more than they need. This does not work well. The hoarded portions quickly develop worms—except on the sixth day, when the manna’s shelf-life is miraculously extended to cover their needs for the Sabbath day.
It’s easy to get distracted by the miraculous characteristics of “manna” when we read this story. We, like the Israelites, can’t get past “What is it?” But obsessing over the characteristics of the manna may distract us from the true miracle of this story: those people who are able to recognize when they have enough.
The ancient Greeks had a similar cautionary tale about a man named Erysichthon. When he cut down one of the goddess Demeter’s sacred oaks, she cursed him with insatiable hunger. After devouring everything (and everyone) around him, he finally served up himself for dessert.
I think of Erisichthon every time I see my favorite bumper sticker, which reads: INSATIABLE IS NOT SUSTAINABLE.
But maybe I should remember the manna story as well—especially as I attempt to receive God’s gift of Sabbath. At its heart, the manna story is a call to trust God to provide for our needs. It is a call to surrender our unhealthy striving for more wealth, more stuff, and more success. It is a call to recognize when it is time to say, “Enough.”
Drop Thy still dews of quietness, ‘til all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace.
(John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872)
Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:
Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.
Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!
Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.
In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.