Fish and Cucumbers: Numbers 11

The following is the manuscript from a recent sermon I delivered at Oasis Community Church.  Some portions are in outline form rather than full manuscript form.  One should have his or her Bible close by while going through the expository section.  The podcast link above is a recording of the actual sermon as delivered.

The narrative backdrop: 

During the Exodus, God used a series of plagues to bring about the ultimate release of His people.  But the plagues really served a dual purpose: one is political, the other is theological.

  • The political purpose: Served by forcing Pharaoh to release the people. Eventually Pharaoh realized he had a political disaster on his hands.  Even in ancient Near Eastern monarchies, rulers still, to some extent, derived their power from the consent of the governed.  As advanced as the Egyptian military was, there weren’t enough soldiers to suppress a revolt of the entire population.  Civil unrest is always threatening to an empire because empires thrive on order.
  • Theological purpose: Undermined the mythic legitimacy of the empire.  The gods were thought to be responsible for keeping things in order.  There were gods to govern the flooding of the Nile, gods to govern the rising and setting of the sun, gods to govern the insects, gods to govern the cattle, gods to govern the health of the people; countless gods to keep the world moving along as it should in static, predictable order.  All of this mythology was devised to support the legitimacy of the empire.  If things continued to go along according in a static orderly fashion, then clearly the gods supported those who were in power.  But in the plagues, God’s purpose wasn’t just to create a political problem for Pharaoh; it was to judge the gods of Egypt and to demonstrate that whatever sense of order existed in Egypt was simply an illusion, a myth fabricated to keep power consolidated.

So when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He wasn’t setting them free for freedom’s sake; there was something much more significant at work.  God was forming an alternative community, a community that would be absolutely unique in the history of the world, a community that provided a radical alternative to empire.


Verses 5-6:

  • “Oh, we remember the fish and cucumbers…”  These were the staple items of the diet of an Egyptian laborer.  The Nile teemed with fish, and the other items were widely available because they grow well in a hot, moist area like the Nile Delta.  The cucumbers of Egypt were evidently of exceptional quality.  I’m kind of partial to homegrown Kentucky cucumbers myself.  (Pastured poultry).
  • “…that cost nothing…”  Talk about selective memory!
    Israel had been reduced to slavery by Egypt, placed under oppressive burdens, and Pharaoh had even ordered the murder of all of the male infants of the Israelites.  Was there cost for these things they ate?  Well let’s see, would you trade your freedom for a piece of fish?  Would you trade the life of your child for a cucumber?    The cost was exorbitant!  But this is how virtually all abusive relationships function: the relationship is romanticized and that romanticizing blurs and even contradicts the historical facts in a way that romanticizes and makes excuses for the abuser.

Verse 18: “It was better for us in Egypt.”  The place of captivity, the place of slavery and oppressive labor, the place of the murder of our children was better.  How could this be?  On the surface it sounds ridiculous but let’s think about a bit.

The illusion of security in the empire

  • The breadbasket of Goshen (illusion of provision)
  • Military might (illusion of shelter)
  • The underpinning mythology (illusion of stability)
  • All clearly calculated to bring about the illusion of control and to bring about a very predictable and static future where power stays consolidated and under the dominant regime.  But God clearly demonstrated in the various plagues of the Exodus that material security, provision, control, and shelter were nothing more than illusions and the Egyptian pantheon was a farce.

But when imperial security and mythology is exposed as nothing more than a cheap parlor trick, what is left?  The reality of the freedom of God.  That sounds good doesn’t it?  But there is something about freedom, especially God’s freedom, that is at once beautiful, and terrifying.

  • Beautiful because…
    • God demonstrates that He is beyond the oppressive, controlling maneuvers of empire.
    • God’s ear is perpetually inclined to the cries of the oppressed and He acts decisively in human history on their behalf.
    • But freedom is also terrifying because there is an inherent insecurity in freedom.  A free God…
      • Provides for His people one day at a time rather than with stock-piled staples.
      • Cannot be controlled or manipulated by ritual or magic
      • Defends his people without a visible military, and in fact, may choose not to defend them from their attackers if their death on this earth serves a larger purpose in His plan than their life.
      • Consequently, a free God is an unpredictable God, and an unpredictable God might provide me with a steady diet of manna while allowing me wander through the desert for 40 years in order to purge me of sinful character defects and forge me into the kind of person he desires: one who loves the things He loves, one who hates the things He hates, one who is shaped, marked, and sealed by His holiness.

Verse 20: “You have rejected the Lord who is among you”

Let me say, I can’t find fault with the Israelites for desiring a more varied diet. (Jen calls me a foodie).  But don’t miss this.  There is more afoot here than simply desiring a nice salad.  This is really a longing for Egypt, the place of idolatry and the anti-kingdom.  The people have turned their hearts back to Egypt and this is equivalent to the rejection of God.  In other words, the illusion of security becomes the idol of security.

Application, individual and spiritualized level

  • From a spiritual perspective, each of us have been liberated from the oppression of sin and death.  Consequently, each of have been liberated from some sort of spiritual Egypt that formerly enslaved us.
  • The seductive power of the romanticized past – like an abusive relationship with our former sin.
  • The seductive power of the imagined future: When the Israelites were on their way out of Egypt in the Exodus, do you think this is what they imagined, years in the desert eating manna?  They probably imagined a much more glamorous future.The same is true for us.  Perhaps we thought the Christian life was going to be more glamorous than it is.  This is frequently played out with this formula:  “If I just had X, then I could be truly happy, truly satisfied, truly at peace.”  But nothing is more deceitful than the seduction of the future, because when I finally obtain X (whatever that may be) I find that it never delivers what I thought it would deliver.  So, the moral of the story, as far as the spiritual application goes, is this: Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it… and choke to death on it.

The seductive power of the past and the seductive power of the future rob us of joy in the present.  The seduction of both past and future is so powerful precisely because of the anxiety of the present.  When the anxiety of the present is eliminated, the past and the future are not so attractive.

Application, collective and political level: The seductive power of empire

The seduction of empire is almost irresistible to the church.  It’s fascinating that Jesus was killed for being subversive to the various political and religious power structures of His day but the church He charged to represent His kingdom on earth wants so desperately to collude with empire as if in some way the kingdom of God can be brought about by better government.

Perhaps like the Israelites, we have grown dissatisfied with God’s provision.  Or perhaps we doubt God’s leadership.  Both of which come down to the same thing: a lack of trust in the God we claim to serve.

And so, many Christians in this country busy themselves with lobbying government or reforming government as if government and empire were the answer to the world’s problems.

But I ask you, does God every really side with empire?  Did God side with Assyria when He allowed that empire to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel?  Did God side with Babylon when He allowed that empire to overthrow the southern kingdom of Judah and carry its inhabitants off into captivity?  I think not.  God doesn’t align Himself with human beings; human beings either align themselves with God or they align themselves with Him or they align themselves against Him.  In fact, when God brought those empires in to judge Israel, I think He was simply saying to His people, “If you want to play the game of empire, let me show you just how ill-equipped you are for the game.”

So let’s get super contemporary for a moment.  I don’t know how much you stay up with current events, but in the world of politics, this is the silly season.  And there was a big hullabaloo recently when the Democratic Party omitted the word “God” from their platform and then turned around and put it back in.  I, for one, was not offended in the slightest when they removed it and I am sure God did not feel threatened.  I actually thought it was an act of integrity.  Would that both political parties, indeed all political parties, put an end to the charade by removing the word God from their platforms.

Now why would I say that?  First of all, we live in a pluralistic society.  Exactly, which god is it that the word refers to?  Is it the Muslim god, the Buddhist god, the Mormon god, perhaps one of the Hindu or pagan gods?  From reading the platforms, I can’t tell.  In fact, it seems to me that each party has invented a mythical god that uncritically supports the various issues of their agenda.  It’s a nice neat mythology fabricated to give legitimacy to their structures of power.

So obviously, simply putting the word God in the party platform doesn’t align any political party with the Christian God as the politicians would have us believe.

But let me be very clear about something.  Regardless of what their platform may or may not say, the Democratic Party doesn’t represent God.  The Republican Party doesn’t represent God. No political party represents God.  The simple truth is, there is only one political entity in existence that is chartered with the task of representing God on earth and that is the church.

But the church is not an American enterprise.  The church is supposed to operate as a community in exile, a community that at this very moment sojourns in the midst of a myriad of political contexts throughout the world.  A community that is supposed to serve as an outpost or a colony for the kingdom of God in the midst the various nation-states of this globe.  It is a community that is supposed to make a difference in the world, not in collusion with empire, but in spite of it.

Nevertheless, the seductive power of empire, the shelter and provision of empire, has been a constant temptation for the church from the time of Constantine to the present day.  But make no mistake about it, the church ceases to function as the church when it trades the precarious freedom of God for the managed predictability of empire.  The church ceases to be the church when it allows itself to be seduced by the state.

Conclusion:  Whether it be on the individual/spiritual level or on the collective/political level, may we give ourselves over completely to the one true and free God.  May we get about the business of being the kingdom of God on earth.  May we stop turning our hearts to Egypt and may we stop trading our truly God-given vocation for fish and cucumbers.

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