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The Meal and the Gift (Exodus 18:12; 24:11;33:11)

Exodus 18:12 And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt-offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.

Exodus 24:11 But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank.

I forget who said it and no longer have a university library at my disposal to find out, but supposedly encounters with the divine throughout cultures and religions across the world occur primarily through the vehicles of the meal and the gift. I would be interested to read more on this from a biblical and comparative religions perspective, if anyone knows a good book on the subject. I do remember two particular examples from my Old Testament class of shared divine meals both of which occur in Exodus.

In the first example the meal shared with God is a family event. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro has traveled to visit him, because Moses sent away his wife, Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and her two sons. Jethro’s curiosity about the God of Moses was piqued by their accounts of the escape from Egypt. Perhaps he was also concerned by his daughter and her sons being sent away. He travels with them to visit Moses and is told everything that God had done for them. Jethro proclaims that YHWH must be greater than all the other gods and then makes a burnt offering to YHWH. Aaron and all the the elders of Israel then join them to eat bread and possibly the meat from the offering in a feast. This little participial clause at the end of this story says that this took place “in the presence of God.”

In the next chapter there is an ambiguous exchange concerning Moses going up to Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. YHWH first speaks to Moses offering a covenant for the Israelites to be his people and that YHWH will “come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you” (19:9). Then YHWH gives some provisions for this encounter, “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (19:12) Then the people are to come out to meet YHWH and presumably hear him speak. YHWH descends and Moses goes up to meet him where YHWH tells Moses again to warn the people not to force their way through to see him and that “even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them” (19:22). Moses seems a little taken aback when he replies that the people can’t approach because YHWH already told him not to let them. Then YHWH tells him to bring up Aaron up with him.

The next example occurs after four chapters of instructions concerning commandments governing all aspects of the community’s life including annual festivals, sabbath observance when the people confirm this covenant. The people respond that they will obey everything the Lord commands. After some offerings confirming this “Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel” (24:9-10). As if the reader should expect these men to be struck down, since they apparently went up unannounced the text says, “But God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel” and then adds, “also they beheld God, and they ate and drank” (24:11)

After a later incident involving a golden calf, Moses erects the Tent of Meeting where it says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (33:11). Later in the same chapter Moses asks YHWH to reveal his glory and although YHWH agrees he cautions, “But you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (33:20). So, which is it? Does YHWH allow people to freely eat meals in his presence and speak face to face as happened with Moses, Jethro, Aaron, the elders and others or does YHWH prohibit such close contact remaining set apart, transcendent and other from his followers?

There seems to be a tension between YHWH wanting to come near and be known and this restriction against full contact. IMany scholars think that there is more than one tradition being held in tension within the text. The priestly tradition which wrote the first creation account and viewed God as transcendent would want to be sure that a proper distance is maintained between God and the people. The Yahwist writer, who most often uses the term YHWH for God (the Hebrew text substitutes the word “Adonai” and is translated LORD with small caps in the biblical text), responsible for the second creation account typically pictures God in much more earthy and relational terms.

The Christian tradition chooses to hold the transcendence and immanence of God in continuing dynamic tension. What I find interesting is that we find this tension within the biblical narrative itself, even within a few verses. People often think of the God in the Old Testament as distant and angry, but here we have two examples of God sharing a divine meal. It’s not as if the rules about who gets to be in the presence of God are very clear. At times only Moses is allowed to go up the mountain and see God. Moses encounters God face to face in the Tent of Meeting, but is not allowed to see his face a few verses later. God commands Moses to bring Aaron up to the mountain to see him, but seems unperturbed later by a large unannounced group of elders who eat and drink in his presence.

The shared meal in itself is a gift, in the case of YHWH it is a gift of presence. Likewise, when we share meals with others it is also a gift of our presence and perhaps there is space made for the divine when we break bread. This is also perhaps why rules about table fellowship became so important. If sharing meals is a sacred act and the way that God sometimes reveal God’s self, then it is not something to be taken lightly and maybe not to be shared with just anyone, particularly sinners and unclean people. The God that joins Moses for a family get together with Jethro is the same God that motivated Jesus to eat with sinners and gluttons, opening up once again the meal to be a sacred space where we can encounter the divine and each other in a simple and necessary act.

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