Lisa Nichols Hickman: The Bible’s food rules

Michael Pollan might have been reading Exodus 16.

Don’t eat food that doesn’t rot.

This is one of 64 rules that Michael Pollan asserts in his book “Food Rules: A Manual for Eating.”  We can say ‘yes’ to manna.  ‘No’ to fast food french fries. Pollan also posted a request on the "New York Times" website asking for readers rules about eating well.  He got over 2500 suggestions.

Here are a few favorites:

An Italian grandmother who said, “Its better to pay your money to the grocer than to the doctor.”

An American who says, “Eat food in inverse proportions to how much its lobby spends to push it.”

A traveler who suggests, “Don’t eat anything that you could ask for by name in a foreign country – Big Mac, Filet O’ Fish, Quarter Pounder, French Fries.”

Pollan took the responses he received and created “Food Rules.” The three chapters are:  Eat Food.  Mostly Plants.  Not so much.

I wonder if the overarching themes of his book emerged from Exodus, chapter 16.

First Rule: Eat Food.

The Israelites are feasting on their complaining.  Everyone is complaining. Don’t complaints feed us sometimes? Munching on mumblings, crunching on complaining, nibbling on nit-picking.  That junk food of judgment tastes better than real nourishment.

“Eat Food” seems self-evident. But when so much of our calories are consumed with what does not nourish, this injunction is important.  Consume what nourishes you. The irony in America is that we know so little about the struggle with physical hunger (though there are hungry people around us).  Yet we know about spiritual hunger. Isn’t that part of our complaining?

Exodus 16 is the last time in Exodus the word “complaining” is used in the book. Unbelievable, given that for forty more years, the Israelites will be sustained only by manna. Here when God’s grace meets the people’s attitude, grumbling is transformed into gratitude.  Grace plus attitude equals gratitude.

Rule two: Mostly plants.

On a mission trip to Detroit, our team enjoyed urban gardening. Abandoned lots became gardens. For a town where in 100 square miles there are 8 grocery stores, (there are 400 liquor stores). Plants provide both gratitude and nourishment. 

One day at the Peaches and Greens garden, a little boy walked up to us with turquoise vampire teeth.  He wanted to weed.  We learned he had lost an older brother to gang warfare. His mom was a single mom working two jobs.

We all wanted a parting of the Red Sea for this little guy. And yet, in this manna text – we see sometimes the way God saves us is really earthy.  It’s not always pretty.  At best, it’s an urban garden.  At worst, it’s manna.

I say worst, because nothing gets much worse than manna.  While it sounds spiritually ‘miraculous’ – bread from heaven – it was actually very earthly.  Some say manna was plant secretions, others say lichens (a fungus of sorts), others say it was plant lice.  Manna literally means, ‘What is it?  That question names the whole journey.

Perhaps, vampire teeth and all, there is hope in the garden – in the seeds and the weeds and the sprouts.  Manna.

Mostly plants?  While we want the splendid marriage, the perfect job, ideal children, and  a ‘happy’ life -- perhaps God’s provision sprouts at our feet.

Third rule:  Not so much.

The lesson from the desert is this, our ‘not so much’ – is God’s more. When the Israelites wanted to gather more than their share, God leveled it.  One omer, no more.  What wasn’t needed each day dissolved.

Recently our family hosted two refugees, from Rwanda and Sudan, for dinner. As I went through the house cleaning and preparing. Everything looked different:

-the super soaker water guns looked menacing, not refreshing

-our plants (unwatered for two days and parched) called to mind lost boys in the
desert without water for weeks.

-The basement – filled with storage, looked like wasted space.

Not so much.  This invocation is the culminating point in Exodus 16.  “Take a jar and put one omer of manna in it and place it before the Lord to be kept throughout your generations.”  And so it became a part of worship, a reminder of how little it took to survive.

For the Israelites, food equated faith.  A food crisis became a faith crisis. God’s response?  Eat food.  Mostly plants.  Not so much.

Lisa Nichols Hickman is pastor of New Wilmington Presbyterian Church in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania.