Friday, April 11, 2008

Murmerings in the Wilderness

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we continue with our lenten series of homilies on The Book of Exodus, we arrive at the troubling episode of the "Golden Calf" to be covered on Sunday (EX. 32-34). Tempted and anxious with the delay of Moses on Mount Horeb/Sinai; and desiring a concrete representation of God for its "worship;" Israel seems to break the first commandment almost simultaneously with its reception of it. Regardless of what the Israelites may have thought about it, the Golden Calf clearly violated the Word of the Lord: "You shall have no other gods before me." (EX. 20:3) As a "jealous God" Who had just liberated them from slavery in Egypt, the Lord was intolerant of idolatry - the worship of false gods. This whole episode seems to fit into a pattern that can be called the " the murmurings in the wilderness." These murmurings against God and his servant Moses, continue to break through the narrative of Israel in the wilderness as a kind of sub-theme that realistically portrays the challenges and uncertainties of its newly granted freedom. As God "tests" the patience of the Israelites, His patience also seems to be "tested" in the process.

The Old Testament scholar Bernard Anderson has compiled a list of "Israel's Murmurings in the Wilderness" in his study of the Exodus event:

EX. 15-22-26 Brackish water at Marah
EX. 16:2-3 Longing for the fleshpots of Egypt
EX. 17:2-7 Water complaint at Massah and Meribah
NUM. 11:4-6 Complaint about manna
NUM. 12:1-2 Criticism of Moses for marrying a Cushite wife
NUM. 14:2-3 Complaint against the leadership of Moses and Aaron
NUM. 16:12-14 Accusation made by Dathan and Abiram
NUM. 20:2-13 Complaint about wilderness life
NUM. 21:4-5 Impatience during the march through Transjordan

The Hebrew word that is usually translated as "murmuring" has the fuller sense of deep dissatisfaction, resentment and anger. In other words, very serious complaining. Anderson makes a further insightful observation about the honesty of the narratives outlining Israel's formative years in the wilderness:

Where else in the ancient world - or in the modern world, for that matter - has a people had the courage to say that its origin was characterized by weakness, if not failure? This is another reminder that Israel tells its history, not from the standpoint of human achievement but in the consciousness of God's searching judgment. (Understanding the Old Testament, p. 78)


Even though the Lord grew "angry" with Israel for its idolatry and murmuring, still He disclosed His real nature and relationship with Israel in a magnificent passage found after the Golden Calf episode:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and fourth generation. (EX. 34:6-7)


The Lord's steadfast love for Israel never waned, but the original adults who left Egypt were not allowed to enter the Promised Land - including Moses! They all died in the wilderness before the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan.

Perhaps we too "murmur" during the forty day sojourn of Great Lent, leading us to the Promised Land of Pascha: "It is too long." "It is not convenient." What can I feed the children?" "Do we really need to fast?" "What am I supposed to do at work?" "We are a small minority," etc. Perhaps we even long for the modern-day equivalent of the "fleshpots of Egypt" - whatever that may mean. This is rather curious considering the healthy foods that are "allowed" during Great Lent - fruits and vegetables, legums, pastas, whole grain breads, and fruit juices, to mention a few. We even have tofu and soy products - "milk" "burgers" and "hot dogs!" I am waiting for soy fillet mignon to hit the market! I wonder just how much energy and ingenuity we spend trying to get around true fasting? As a change of our usual habits, it does prove to be challenging, no doubt. And we do live in a "wilderness" of empty attractions with a multitude of "golden calfs" that seem to make it all palatable. But, like the Israelites of old, we need to remain faithful to what God expects of us. The Lord does not test us beyond our capacity. True freedom - not the false freedom that is actually license - is found when we abandon the "fleshpots" of Egypt and nourish ourselves on the living Word of God. And, of course, we receive the true "manna" from heaven - the Eucharist - to sustain us in the wilderness of the fast - forty days and not forty years! As we begin to grow weary and tire, perhaps this scriptural admonition meant to sustain us, will prove to be helpful:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (HEB. 12:12)



Fr. Steven

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