Origins and influences II: some Old Testament meals

Meals – actions of sharing of food and drink, time, and hospitality – offer an accessible ritual, an effective sign, to establish for communion, mutual commitment, between those taking part.

Two examples from the Old Testament suffice to illustrate the general point

The first, found in Genesis 31, resolves a time of tension between Jacob and Laban. After agreeing to a covenant of mutual commitment to each other, they set up stone monuments to their covenant, an animal sacrifice is made and a meal shared. The meal is the final act in the process of reconciliation.

The second is a meal not between men, people, only. But between the Creator and the created, between God and a human person. In Psalm 22 (23) the psalmist announces the love and care he receives from the Lord, instancing the sharing of food.

You have prepared a table before me
in the sight of my foes.
my head you have anointed with oil;
my cup is overflowing.

Psalm 23.5

Maybe the most remarkable meal in Old Testament – once more a meal shared between God and human beings – comes in the Book of Exodus.

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.”

Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Exodus 24.1-11

This extraordinary meal is a sealing of the Covenant between God and Israel, newly liberated from slavery in Egypt, and journeying to the Promised Land.

The explicit association between ritual use of blood and the sharing of a meal is a feature too of the Passover Feast, (Exodus 12).

And it finds its echoes also in Jesus’ Last Supper and our Eucharist.

The Passover Feast will be explored in greater detail in next week’s blog.

The meal at Sinai promises much and is followed by Moses spending 40 days and nights on the mountain with God receiving the instructions for the Temple cult and the 10 Commandments. (Exodus 25-32)

But sadly, despite its promise, Israel defaults on what the meal signifies. For when, after 40 days, Moses comes down from the mountain the people have given up on him and turned from the One God to idolatory.

Israel defaults on her commitment to God but God does not jettison Israel. God remains faithful despite everything.

And in this faithfulness of God lies Israel’s hope. Later in her history facing fresh exile and enslavement she looks forward to another meal with the Lord, which will restore her and sustain her in righteousness.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.

And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

 It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the LORD; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25.6-9

A final meal to consider, this time between Abraham and the Lord, according to the scriptures, but where the Lord is present in the form of three men. Commonly this episode is seen, by Christians, as having trinitarian overtones. But for now let us confine ourselves to observing how here it is the Lord who is welcomed, and who receives hospitality from the hands of Abraham, our Father in Faith.

And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Genesis 18.1-15

At the meal God and man meet as one. In offering hospitality Abraham is gracious to God: and in response to Abraham’s goodness God – who will not be outdone in graciousness – offers to respond in a way that startles Abraham and Sarah, but to which he will be true.

When we come together to celebrate the ritual meal that is Eucharist we gather as a people who are in need of reconciliation – between us and others, between us and God. We gather before the Lord and acknowledge his hospitality and renew our trust in his continuing help. And we too hope for that which is beyond all hope…

As we prepare for our communion the priest prays:

Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil,
graciously grant peace in our days,
that, by the help of your mercy,
we may be always free from sin
and safe from all distress,
as we await the blessed hope
and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Our sharing in communion is full of promise…

Reflection Questions

  • Where in our celebration of Mass does reconciliation and healing come to the fore?
  • How is hospitality exercised when your community gathers to celebrate Mass? How are strangers welcomed?
  • When and how and why do you yourself exercise the ministry of hospitality?
  • What role do meals play in your life and the life of your family? Where have they made a difference?

Acknowledgements

  • Translation of Genesis and Exodus: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
  • Translation of Psalm: From The Abbey Psalms and Canticles, prepared by the monks of Conception Abbey © 2010, 2018 United States Conference of Bishops, Washington DC
  • Photographs. Moses Window (c) 2019, St Mungo’s Cathedral, Glasgow.
  • Commentary: © 2021, Allen Morris


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