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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

That Wacky Old Testament (2)

As a teenager I spent a fair bit of time at the home of a friend whose father grew up in WW2 England.

Back in 1940, the Germans did their best to cut off the English food supply. Submarines patrolled the English Channel and the Atlantic, sinking boats destined for the U.K. Less than a quarter of the millions of tons of food usually imported into England actually made it to its destination.

Rationing was introduced to make sure everyone got their share of what was available.

A Different Kind of Children’s Book

The government’s (quite legitimate) concern was that as food became scarcer, prices would rise and the poor would be unable to afford to eat, or that some citizens would hoard and others would be deprived. My friend’s father probably had the standard blue ration book for children, which provided half a pint of milk daily, some fruit and the full meat ration. Adults with the buff coloured ration books did not do quite so well.

My friend’s dad never got over the mindset induced by childhood scarcity. In 1975, with a high-paying senior bank job and a business on the side, he would fish in the back of the fridge for what he called the “old stock”, his face suffused with something akin to delight whenever he came across a leftover wedge of cheddar green with age, which he would dutifully scarf down.

Needless to say, despite his fine example, his family failed to get with the program.

An Improbable Blessing

But my friend’s father would have instantly understood this verse from Leviticus in a way most of us would not:
“If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them … you shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new.”
“Fantastic,” says the more sarcastic modern reader, accustomed to the nasty looks he gets from his wife for failing to check best-before dates when dispatched to the supermarket, “They got to eat old food”. Who in his right mind would want “old store long kept”?

The Luxury of Old Stock

But this verse is actually listed among Israel’s blessings for obedience to Jehovah, not among the curses for rebellion. As anyone who has actually experienced genuine scarcity or starvation understands, having old food around at all is a luxury. The person who has gone hungry or, worse, watched their children go hungry, understands what it feels like to have an empty belly for days on end, something that nearly everyone experienced at one point or other thousands of years ago. In such an environment, there was no such thing as “old store long kept”. Everything that crossed your path got eaten on the spot.

The Regular Course of Human Affairs

With no refrigeration and no efficient way to store perishables, all the great civilizations of yesteryear knew regular deprivation. Egypt, along with much of the East, experienced famine, and scripture records how God provided a solution through Joseph, a Hebrew. Babylon had its own agricultural crisis. Wikipedia notes that China has had 1,828 major famines in the last two thousand years (almost one per year), and that Britain had 95 famines in the Middle Ages alone.

Scarcity is still the rule in many places in the world today. Westerners huff and puff about endangered species and complain about starving African children who are happy to eat lemurs and bats to get any kind of meat. Lions, elephants and gorillas are luxury items in some places. In Madagascar, up to 20% of the meat consumed is “bushmeat”. The shift in perspective that results from being perpetually unable to saunter at will into the local Loblaws or Metro for a cartload of groceries is inconceivable to the present generation, but absolutely commonplace throughout human history.

Starvation is the regular course of human affairs.

Clearing Out the Old to Make Way for the New

We are the exceptions, folks. The Old Testament was not written TO us (though there is much in there FOR us). In our current environment of plenty, we take for granted that one clears out the old to “make way for the new” just as often as Mom feels up to cleaning out the fridge. We assume it, and all too rarely appreciate it. It wasn’t always that way.

So while it seems improbable to us, God was telling Israel that obedience to his law would make them the envy of all the nations of their day. And those who read and heard the law understood this in a way we do not — and hopefully never will.

Sadly, the only “clearing out the old” we seem to do these days is when we abandon the foundational principles by which the church has operated and often flourished for the last two thousand years.

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