Exodus 15 & 35, and Mark 14
Mercedes García Bachmann
Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter. That is why it was called Marah. And the people complained against Moses, saying, "what shall we d rink?" He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statute and an ordinance and there he put them to the test. He said, "If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you." Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water. (Ex.15:22-27)
Then all the congregation of the Israelites withdrew from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord's offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord. And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats' hair or tanned rams' skins or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of sliver or bronze brought it as the Lord's offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. All the skilful women spun with their hands, and brought what they had spun in blue and and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen; all the women whose hearts moved them to use their skill spun the goats' hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the Israelite men and women whose work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord. (Ex. 35:20-29)
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." (Mark 14:3-9)
This Bible study on three texts starts from the question: What would be one element necessary for helping our communities to become healing and reconciling agents in the world? In saying "one element", I mean there may be several important elements, but at least this one should not be overlooked.
I have chosen tolerance of differences as one necessary element in building communities of healing and reconciliation. And about this Bible study is about tolerance of differences.
"Tolerance" has a somewhat negative implication, as it means less than whole-hearted acceptance of that in others which we do not like or share. Yet at least tolerance implies recognition of differences and also recognition of elements in the other (the other person, community, culture, country, continent, church, whatever) that we about which we are willing to talk and learn. We also realize that others may need to be tolerant of us, in a variety of ways. Rather than discriminate or ignore the other/s as of lesser value than us, at least we should make an effort to tolerate them, and eventually, to recognize their values and possibly come to an acceptance of them.
This approach to tolerance could be a first, necessary step in becoming healing, reconciling communities, as most of our world rejects, persecutes, despises and even kills persons, peoples or communities with whom they violently disagree. I propose some scriptural texts for study and several questions, so that Bible study groups consider a range of possibilities as bases for discussing tolerance, and choose the passage that addresses them most directly.
Think of your body; try to be more aware each part of it and how it feels. Do you feel your feet, your knees, your brows, your fingers, your bowels, your breast coming up and down with your breathing? Are you aware of your nails? Your skin? Your eyes? Is there any part of your body that you do not feel at this time or permanently? Have you suffered any kind of accident or illness that prevents you from feeling something somewhere?
Imagine now how the social body feels when "accidents" prevent us from being fully aware of certain members of the group or of society; when within the community we do not listen to, pay attention to, or otherwise "feel" certain members (notably children, youth, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities).
Optional question: What does it mean to be healing communities?
To me, it means to be communities where people and processes can be healthier, can get back to a more authentically united state of being, recover wholesomeness, harmony, well-being, shalom. I state this while recognizing that different cultures hold different views of what is "healthy" and what is not, and that societies vary in their approach to how people may be healed.
Question 1: Come together (as individuals, as Christian communities and as regional, ethnic or national communities) and honestly recognize that even if we are practicing Christians, we do not love our neighbours as ourselves; honestly recognize who are those neighbours we do not accept and which of their characteristics (real and stereotyped) we do not like; which are the ones we do like, which are the ones we fear or do not understand.
There are cultures in which health means to be rather weighty, have some fat in oneself; for others, to be healthy means to be extremely slim, live on a low-fat diet; for still others, health has more to do with low levels of stress than with food itself; and so forth. In the Bible, there aren't many definitions of health, nor of sickness, for that matter. There are a few instances, however, in which God's self-revelation to Israel is as a healer or physician, and Jesus' ministry was remarkably oriented towards healing the sick and expelling demons. 1
Read Exodus 15:22-27 in your Bibles. Pay particular attention to v. 26. Notice how the idea of health presented here has a strong, direct link to God's own action: "I am Yahweh your healer", which means, "No other power (human or divine) is your healer; only me."
The second important thing in this divine statement is that healing for Israel is bound together with listening to God's word and living it out: if you keep God's commandments and statutes, none of the plagues and sicknesses set upon Egypt will come upon you. This was realized as soon as the people had come out of bondage and had encountered their first difficulty in the dessert: unpotable water (Marah). Instead of waters of death as in Egypt with the plagues, these become waters of life. Yet, there is a condition: "If...".
Question 2: In your view, what are the conditions God puts on the people of God in order to achieve health and avoid sickness?
Israel is called to live as God's people and, through that call, to find wholeness and avoid sickness. Thus, in this text from Exodus 15, healing is linked to God's calling: God's people, gathered in diverse communities around the world, are called to the twin tasks of healing and reconciling.
Question 3: In your view, is there any difference between people who seek to live according to God's will within Christian denominations and people who do otherwise? Is God's calling to be healing communities only for us Christians? What about the rest of the world, and especially people of other faith communities?
The second text proposed for study is from the same book in Hebrew scripture. The people of God are still in the dessert (they spent forty years there!). They had received the whole instruction from God through Moses at Sinai and had already experienced God's wrath and forgiveness following their disobedience in worshipping the golden calf.
Read Exodus 35: 4-9, 10-19, 20-29, 35:30-36:1, 36:2-7 to have an idea of the subject matter.
Many people regard chapters 35 to 40 in Exodus as extremely boring. They are repetitive of chapters 25-31 and technical, yes. Yet they are there in our Bible! As one Christian commentary puts it, they are about "Israel in an advent mode"2, in a time of waiting, and that is important.
Question 4: Turn to Exodus 35:20-29, a section without parallel. Here there is an invitation to different people to participate in constructing and adorning God's sanctuary! What are the characteristics of this invitation and its response in terms of groups of people? Who responds, and how?
I chose these verses for several reasons; one is that most commentators and preachers ignore them, thus making them invisible to us; second, it would seem in these verses that there is no gender barrier when it comes to serving God with our talents and skills: v. 22 states clearly that both men and women brought objects of gold according to the will of their hearts. At this point, the sanctuary is not barred to women! Furthermore, according to v. 25, those women who had weaving ability (literally, "who were wise of heart in their hands") did spin fabrics with their hands, and brought that which they had spun to be used in God's service.
Question 5: What does this text (Ex. 35:20-29) tell you about a healing community and the use of everyone's skills? Can you apply this text in any way to your own community? Why (or why not)?
Notice how here again, as in our previous text, the community's actions (in this case, Israel still in the desert) are directed by God's words, as stated earlier in the book of Exodus, yet they have the freedom of will to respond to God in whatever way their own generosity allows them.
Turning to the New Testament, we find in the gospels too that there are several stories in which the apostles or others to whom Jesus speaks are challenged when they intend to cut off certain people from Jesus' blessings. One such story appears in Mark 14:3-9. There, an unnamed woman pours an expensive ointment of nard on Jesus' feet, to which the disciples respond with anger and criticism, but Jesus does not (see especially vs. 4-5).
Elsewhere in Mark, the blind man Bartimaeus shouts at Jesus - and Jesus takes notice of him - despite the efforts of others to make him quiet down. In John's gospel, when the disciples come back from a Samaritan town and find Jesus talking at the well with a Samaritan woman, they wonder at his breach in custom but do not say anything.
Question 6: Choose one of these gospel stories, or another one that you remember from the New Testament, and discuss how it affirms the idea of God's community as a healing and reconciling community known for its inclusiveness.
Question 7: As you come to a close in this Bible study, review your answers to the above questions, and seek concrete actions (prayer services, personal or community repentance, gatherings, service ministries) to start to address those aspects of your own community that may not be sufficiently healing and reconciling.
May God bless your reflections, and your actions!
Norbert Lohfink, "I am Yahweh, your Physician' (Exodus 15:26). God, Society and Human Health in a Postexilic Revision of the Pentateuch (Exod. 15:2b,26)", in Theology of the Pentateuch: Themes of the Priestly Narrative and Deuteronomy, Minneapolis, Fortress, 1994, pp.35-95; pp.35-36, 95 stresses the fact that one of Jesus' main signs in his earthly ministry was healing the sick in order to announce the coming Kingdom of God.
Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p.313.