Like all of you, there are some things I especially enjoy eating. Seafood, Caesar salad, fresh blueberries, banana bread. And sometimes I find myself craving something sweet. Like a Werther’s butter toffee candy or an ice cream cone. I still remember one of my favorite family traditions growing up when we were on summer vacation in Vermont. Our family used to go the grocery store soon after we unloaded our suitcases from the car. We would drive down the hill to the nearest market where, in addition to basic food for the week, each member of my family could pick out their own pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
That pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream was designed to last you for one entire week. Which meant each person in my family had to use a certain amount of restraint and a certain amount of discretion. You could carefully portion your ice cream on a daily basis, scraping off equal layers each night until you reached the bottom at week’s end. Or you could plow through your pint of ice cream in one or two sittings, and then you had one of two choices. You could test the good graces of another family member to see whether they would share some of their pint with you. But groveling never worked particularly well in my family for those who didn’t follow instructions. Or you were relegated to raiding the generic half gallon of ice cream in the freezer available to anyone who had inadequate self-control. Of course, when you walked back to the living room with a bowl of plain old ice cream while everyone else was smugly enjoying their Ben and Jerry’s, it felt like a walk of shame.
Ice cream has been a favorite in my family for as long as I can recall. And the truth is we could all sit here and create a personal list of our own greatest hits when it comes to food. Take a moment, though, and consider how you feel about the following items. Cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. Would any of those foods be at the top of your personal list? I don’t mean to disparage cucumbers or melons or garlic, which are all fine in my book, albeit hardly extraordinary. On the other hand, onions wouldn’t be anywhere on my list of favorite foods or foods I crave…
And yet for the Israelites in this morning’s Scripture lesson, now about two years removed from the Exodus event when they escaped from Egypt and Pharaoh’s army, fresh vegetables were clearly on their minds. Egged on by those who liked to complain among them, the Israelites longed for meat and they cried out in desperation for cucumbers.
Mind you this wasn’t the first time the Hebrew people had ever whined to their leader Moses. Just as they were about the cross over the Red Sea, the Israelites complained bitterly. With Pharaoh’s army breathing down their necks and no sign that the waters of the Red Sea were about to part, thereby enabling them to walk across to the other side on dry land, the Israelites let loose.
“Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done, bringing us out of Egypt? It would have been better for us to remain in Egypt than to die out here in the middle of nowhere…
This longing on the part of the Hebrew people to return to Egypt continued throughout the Book of Exodus. Later on when the Israelites ran out of water, they railed against Moses again. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst? Facing their own fears about starvation, the Israelites remembered fondly the fleshpots of Egypt…
There’s something about this morning’s complaining in the Book of Numbers that’s different, however. By this point, the Hebrew people were no longer on the run. They no longer felt threatened by Pharaoh’s army who drowned in the Red Sea when the waters overtook them. And they no longer feared their own starvation because God provided them enough manna in the wilderness to eat every single day.
So if the Israelites weren’t afraid for their own safety or afraid for their own starvation, why would they complain about a lack of cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions? Were they tired of eating manna and they wanted a little more variety in their daily diet? Were they worried nutritionally about getting more foods from each of the five food groups? Or were they simply bored and had nothing better to do?
Actually, I think there was something deeper at stake. This public lament by the Israelites about a lack of fresh vegetables wasn’t really about their taste buds or their overall diets. It was really about a deep yearning for home. Or at least a yearning for a taste of home.
The same way all of us have food we love and food we crave, each of us probably has our own idea of what “comfort” food is. Food that reminds us of home, even if we left home a long time ago. For the Israelites, the manna that fell from the heavens each day was sweet and likely fairly palatable. But cucumbers and melons and garlic and leeks, the Egyptian vegetables they knew so well? Those were foods that reminded them of their home in Egypt. The only home many of them had ever known…
If you are a vegetable gardener or a farmer, you know that melons and onions and cucumbers are examples of cultivated crops. In order to successfully grow those vegetables, you need to be settled in one place for a while. You have to till the land, plant the seeds, weed judiciously and frequently and wait for the harvest to come. In other words, you have to put down some personal roots in order to put down some vegetable roots.
Once upon a time, the Israelites had those roots. Slavery back in Egypt, harsh though the living may have been for the Israelites, had that one thing going for it. It was settled. And Israelite families could grow their own vegetables, provided they met the other demands of their Egyptian masters first.
But now as they wandered aimlessly through the wilderness for two years straight, it’s hard to blame the Israelites for wanting stability in their lives and families. For all its downsides, at least life in Egypt had rules and guidelines and it made sense. Life in the wilderness was unknown and insecure and unpredictable.
The situation has some parallels with a person who has stayed in their job too long. The challenge is gone and the sense of satisfaction is gone, but the routine feels familiar and more secure than walking away and starting a job search from scratch. Or a person who falls off the wagon after a time of sobriety because what happens to them after a few drinks feels more secure than living one day at a time without being under the influence. There is something to this morning’s version of that old adage. The Egypt we know is better than the wilderness we don’t…
Even the timing of today’s Scripture lesson makes sense. One year after a big change, people are still trying to get adjusted. Often they think of what they left behind as much as they think about what they are looking forward to. By the time people get to a second year, however, transition periods seem more permanent. The past may be more familiar and the destination may be totally unfamiliar, but the cold reality is there’s no going back…
As the Bible story unfolds, Moses hears the complaints of his people and he, in turn, begins to complain to God. I’m tired. I can’t do this by myself. Why do I have to be their babysitter? Maybe it would be easier if we just went back to Egypt. Or maybe I should just die right here on the spot.
Yet God had other ideas. Instead of granting Moses’ wish, God told Moses to appoint a council of elders to share the burden of leadership. God’s plan was undoubtedly a big change for Moses. Looking back at things like climbing Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, Moses was a man who who was used to doing things solo.
Still, just as the Hebrews could not return to the land of Egypt, Moses could not go back to being the one and only head of his people. Both Moses and the Israelites wanted things to be the way they used to be. And it wasn’t about cucumbers or melon. It was about wanting to be at home.
In the end, the challenge for Moses and the Israelites was to find their home in the strange and foreign wilderness. And the truth is that there are times in life when you and I have to do likewise. Maybe right now in these 2018 days is that time for some of us. Times when the institutions and the people we trust seem shaky. Times when the traditions and the structures we’ve grown accustomed to shift before our eyes. Times when the ground under our feet feels unsteady and unstable and there’s nothing firm we can hold onto.
Long ago, the Israelites and Moses had to learn that their real home was not a particular place or a fertile garden full of fresh vegetables. They had to learn that their real home was in the heart of God. The One who was with them every step of the way.
May you and I hold onto and learn the same lesson. In the name of God who walks with us and makes a home for us always. Amen.