To read the first part of this title you might be forgiven if you thought that the post might be some sort of reactionary rant against the new Canada Food Guide. Instead, what you’re going to get is another sermon. The title is a collapsing of Nehemiah 8:10. This was the Old Testament reading from this week’s Lectionary readings.
Since I first started Dining with Donald, I’ve wanted to work more on Bible passages that relate to food, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been making a more deliberate attempt to focus on those readings. Not surprisingly, food references seem to leap out at me all the time now. I wasn’t on to preach last Sunday, so what follows after the reading are a few thoughts on the Nehemiah passage. There’s no audio with it, so you’ll have to do without my dulcet tones on this one.
8:1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel.
8:2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.
8:3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
8:5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up.
8:6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
8:8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
8:9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
8:10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
8:11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”
8:12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
Eat the Fat
The book of Nehemiah recounts the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem, after many years in exile in Babylon. If you want all the details, the book of Nehemiah is a rather short read. Once returned, they start to rebuild the city walls and the temple. When this is completed, Nehemiah invites Ezra to read the Torah to the people. It is an important gathering. We read that everybody who was able to comprehend was there. Our reading leaves out a few verses, which are filled with names of important figures in Jerusalem who are with Ezra as he reads. The Levites. offer assistance, acting as a sound system of sorts, repeating and explaining what is said.
The reading takes the whole morning(and no phones to check when the going gets boring). The people’s response to this reading is to break down in tears. They respond to the reading of the Law, with grief land mourning. Yet immediately, Nehemiah and Ezra tell them to stop. The reading of the Law is a cause for celebration and not for mourning.
The people are then told to go home, eat the fat, and drink sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared. Several things about this jump out at me.
One the first things is that the people are told to go home and have a really good party. Eating the fat is a code, so to speak. It means prepare the best, the richest foods. Foods that would be associated with feasts such as marriage feasts. When I read this earlier last week, my mind went to Isaiah 25:6:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
The reading of the Law is first, and foremost, a cause for celebration. The Law is about God’s promise to the people. The covenants that God made with Noah, with Abraham, and with Moses. Not only that, it’s about God’s covenant faithfulness. Even though the people have not upheld their end of the covenant God always seeks to renew the covenant. God is always wanting to bless the people. The first response to this, then, should be celebration.
Next, the celebration is meant to be shared. The people are instructed to send portions of the feast “to those for whom nothing is prepared.” This is a feast commandment, and an opportunity for the people to start living out the Law. The book of Deuteronomy on several occasions lists who should be included in the feasts of the people. The widow, the orphan, the aliens, and strangers(perhaps better stated as: everyone), are all supposed to receive portions of the feast.
This leads to a third thing. The sharing is the sharing of the feast. It’s not meant to be a sharing of reheated leftovers. It’s not a meant to be a sharing of high calorie, high sugar, processed junk. It’s not supposed to be a sharing of: “well, they didn’t earn ii, so they should be grateful for what we give them.” It’s meant to be a sharing of the best. It’s sharing of the fat, and of the sweet wines.
Then there is the instruction that goes along with it. “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The cause for celebration, as mentioned before is that they can take joy in what God has promised them. Their return from Babylon was not something that the people had accomplished by themselves, rather it was the work of God. This is one thing (and maybe the main thing) that the Law serves to remind them of. All that they have and accomplished is a gift from God. They are to deal generously with those who live among them , because tht is how God deals with them.
Next week the lectionary skips out of the book of Nehemiah. This is unfortunate because we end up missing the rest of the story. In conjunction with this celebration, the Festival of Booths(Sukkoth) is reintroduced. We read that it hadn’t been celebrated since the days of Joshua, an indication of how far and for how long the people had strayed from following the Law.
Then, in chapter 9 we read of a national day of confession. The first response to the Law is one of celebration, but over the course of time, the people then must confront the fact that they haven’t been observing. As a result, after the time of feasting comes a time of fasting. Repentance is important and necessary, but it comes as a result of realizing all that God has done, and taking time to celebrate God’s goodness.