Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shakespeare in Love, Deserted in the Desert (Exodus 15:22-17:16)

In the dusty hungry thirsty light of our current leg of Exodus (Exodus 15:22 - 17:16), the past few weeks laid out in photos were an embarrassing smörgåsbord of nom-nom-nom-ing in air-conditioned comfort, eg:

Folk Food, Iluma Balsamic Salad, Brat and Beans, Truffle Mac n Cheese, Folk Food, Iluma
a satisfying Sunday brunch of truffled mac and cheese (better than the Spruce fiasco), balsamic salad (distinguished from all such generic salad by sunflower seeds) and brat with beans at Folk Food, Illuma, 15% off because a bear liked my ordering style, with a little of Dale Ralph Davis' The Word Became Fresh on the side under the filtered sunlight;

Canele, Raffles City
catching up with old DG mates at Canelé, Raffles City, each one navigating vastly different streams of life since we were last in the same Bible study group but all as cackly and ravenous as ever, meant 4 people talking at once at the top of their lungs, ordering everything on the menu, and making wide gestures that caused waiters to step back to save themselves from unseasonally smacked;

Beef Noodles, Liu San, Bukit Timah Plaza
accompanying the Stateless One in her neverending search for the perfect beef noodle soup - Liu San at Bukit Timah Plaza was decent and the service from the Chinese ladies who offered arriving customers a squirt of anti-bacterial no-wash hand lotion and fridgespace for their NTUC Finest groceries good, but still not the beef noodle soup of her dreams;

Zam Zam Waiter Mutton Murtabak, Chicken Briyani, Zam Zam Restaurant
the Brunei Resident finally getting, after many failed attempts, to sample the food of Zam Zam, pronouncing the chicken briyani very good, then very loudly discussed the merits of pork. (On the theme of things porcine, back home for dinner for once, while tucking into babi assam (assam pork), the Dad came along with a syringe, swabbed my left arm and innoculated me against H1N1 ("swine flu" in pop lingo). The irony. B's mom's recipe for the babi assam, however (or also?), was spot on.) ;

Ju Shin Jung Korean Charcoal BBQ
surely the very definition of smörgåsbord - Ju Shin Jiung Korean Charcoal BBQ for a birthday dinner.

Steamboat Black Pepper Crab
Another night, there were a rowdy 8 crammed at a table laden with a communal steamboat pot, seafood and meat and veggies and 2 plates of finger-lickin' good fresh black pepper crabs and randomly-concocted alcoholic cocktails. As the drinks got more bizarre, the reminisces of good old Japan got more enthusiastic.

Unfortunately, being unable to give as good as we got, the picnic basket at Singapore Repertory Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park: Much Ado About Nothing was fairly dismal. But because the play was adequately and engaging acted, because of the cool night air and the company of friends (and perhaps also because it was a real bargain with tickets 50% off thanks to Keppel Nights), we came away excited by the theatrics.

This was how it was discovered that the whole Exodus 15:22 - 17:7 passage can be described in decontextualised Shakespearan verse.

Tis true that "An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told" (Richard III), and so the post-rescue antics of the Israelites are thus recorded.

Three mere days from the mass sing-a-long by the Red Sea beach, the Israelite contingent ran into a potable water supply situation. They had been thrust out of Egypt by the Egyptians in haste and hadn't enough time to prepare any provisions for themselves (Exodus 12:39) for the journey to the Promised Land.

For a bunch of people armed for war (Exodus 13:18), they couldn't even get the basics of a military campaign right.
Military logistics 101 (line of communication, main supply route) = NIL = FAIL.

Despite all that royal education in his youth and the defeat of the entire Egyptian army, it looked as if Moses wouldn't be gracing the bookshelves of army staff and command colleges any time in the future.
"What's in a name?" (Romeo and Juliet)
"The king's name is a tower of strength" (Richard III)
But perhaps Moses didn't need to be any good at warfare because it had been God the Warrior who had fought for Israel (see Exodus 15:1-21). It had been God in his mighty power and majesty who put out a finger to judge Egypt with the ten plagues and it was his breath that had decimated the Egyptian armed forces in the Red Sea.
"Action is eloquence." (Coriolanus)
All God's actions in the rescue of his people from Egypt were meant to reveal his name to them; an opportunity for them to understand his character - his perfect goodness, perfect trustworthiness, perfect might, his complete lordship over all existence. The Israelites seemed to have known this three days ago when they sang as much by the seaside.
"For you and I are past our dancing days" (Romeo and Juliet)
But bizarrely, when faced with undrinkable water, standing together and singing I Will Glory In My Redeemer and How Great Is Our God was the furthest thing from their minds. Instead they grumbled against Moses, God's representative, saying,"What shall we drink?" (Exodus 15:24)
"How use doth breed a habit in a man." (The Two Gentlemen of Verona)

"The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape." (Hamlet)

"Like one
Who having into truth, by telling of it,
Made such a sinner of his memory,
To credit his own lie.
Praising what is lost makes the remembrance dear." (All's Well That Ends Well)

"Ill deeds are doubled with an evil word." (The Comedy of Errors)
They get even more stunningly stupid as the days passed when, faced with the inevitable food supply situation, they grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, saying "Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." (Exodus 16:2-3)

And then, when faced with another water crisis, they quarrelled again with Moses, saying,"Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?" and but obviously still had enough energy to threaten to stone him (Exodus 17:2-4).
"To be, or not to be: that is the question" (Hamlet)
After all the wonders that God had worked for them, after his unmistakably demonstration that he was more than willing and able to do all things for the good of the Hebrews, the people choose not to be his people and refused to acknowledge his God-ness. All they had to do was trust and obey - trust and obey enough to ask the Creator for sustenance. But instead they chose to distrust his character and his motives.

What an insult to God. In the circumstances, they set themselves up against their own God in behaviour worse than Pharaoh's, probably suggesting hearts far more hardened than his (Exodus 16:28 cf 10:3).

It was as if, as someone fetchingly put it a la Hosea, after consummation on the wedding night, the bride, who had been redeemed from a tough grotty life of prostitution and graciously accepted by the groom, spits in his face and sneers that actually, it hadn't been to bad at all touting her wares in the red light district and that she'd really rather be back there than be with him. Pah.
"For aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth." (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

"Love sought is good, but giv'n unsought is better" (Twelth Night)
Still, instead of giving them the sticky end that they deserved, God carried them as a father carries his son (Deuteronomy 1:31), giving them sweet water to drink and food to eat and fighting their battles for them; sustaining them so that they lacked nothing - even their clothes did not wear out nor their feet swell (Nehemiah 9:21). Which, if one has been following the 4 Deserts Race (go Philipp!), was an amazingly comfy situation to be in.
"Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy." (Timon of Athens)
Psalm 78 spells out rather starkly, the recalcitrant faithlessness of Israel:
"They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot his works
and the wonders that he had shown them.
...

Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
"Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He struck the rock so that water gushed out
and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
or provide meat for his people?"

Therefore, when the LORD heard, he was full of wrath;
a fire was kindled against Jacob;
his anger rose against Israel,
because they did not believe in God
and did not trust his saving power.
Yet he commanded the skies above
and opened the doors of heaven,
and he rained down on them manna to eat
and gave them the grain of heaven.
Man ate of the bread of the angels;
he sent them food in abundance.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
and by his power he led out the south wind;
he rained meat on them like dust,
winged birds like the sand of the seas;
he let them fall in the midst of their camp,
all around their dwellings.
And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved."

"Tempt not a desperate man" (Romeo and Juliet)

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!" (A Midsummer Night's Dream)

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (Hamlet)

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." (Hamlet)

"Sweet are the uses of adversity, which, like a toad, though ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel in its head."
Why did God put Israel to the test to see if they would trust in his continual saving power, to see whether they would follow his law to obey him (Exodus 15:25, 16:4)? It wasn't as if God could not know their hearts and had to keep seeking affirmation of their commitment to him like some whiny insecure spouse. He knew very well that their hearts were not steadfast towards him even though they flattered him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues (Psalm 78:36-37).

Instead, his continous acts of mercy in withholding his wrath from them was to give them the chance to repent as his provision would confirm and "double confirm" that it was the LORD who had brought them out of Egypt and who would continue to save them as long as they kept depending on him. When they responded rightly to adversity by continuing to trust him, they would find their trust richly rewardly.

But we know the end of that story, how those who had been saved from Egypt rebelled again and again in the wilderness and how they got their just reward in the end. And ironically, it was not God who brought them out of Egypt to kill them in the wilderness but they who brought the judgement of death upon themselves by their distrust and disobedience:
before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them,
and he killed the strongest of them
and laid low the young men of Israel. (Psalm 78)

"A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,
We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;
But were we burdened with like weight of pain,
As much or more we should ourselves complain" (The Comedy of Errors)
There is much to be said about Jesus as the True Israel who was tested in the wilderness for 40 years and found to be true. But to forestall further complaints about the lengthiness of these posts...

Anyway, in the same way that God revealed his magnificence and great attractiveness to the Israelites through their rescue from slavery Egypt, so his reveals his same qualities (even more so) to us in our rescue from slavery to sin.

And better than the water from the rock is the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life (John 4); better than the manna that rained from heaven that sustained them in the wilderness is the heavenly bread that is Jesus who gives life to the world (John 6). Whereas God was with them in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, Jesus the Emmanuel was with us in the flesh and the Spirit is in us who believe.

So what of we who have drunk the living water and eaten the heavenly bread, that is, who have tasted the goodness of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)? There is a warning for us in fate of our predecessors who too tasted the goodness of God but hardened their hearts, did not believe God and so displeased him, and were put to death in the wilderness (Hebrews 3; 1 Corinthians 10:5).

Yet, despite the better water and bread, we easily cease to believe in God, to trust in his goodness and promises, and to obey him. In fact, we are quite happy to write in exclusion clauses to trusting and obeying for "life-threatening situations" - a two-pronged insult to God by claiming that (i) when it comes to the crunch, he and his ways cannot be trusted and (ii) that the cravings of our hearts and therefore our assessment of our lives are the only truth.

If we are honest, we know that there are things in the world that tempt us - perhaps the oft-preached material trio of possessions, status, sex and relationships, or perhaps things off the usual pastoral radar. We also know that there are things in our own personal makeup that no other human knows about, things we struggle with (hopefully) and despair that we will ever change.

So hampered with sticky sins, we might think our future uncertain. If God puts us to the test, to test our faith and our obedience, how will we stand up under it? How will we ever get to the Promised Land of the End of Days? Paul assures us that no temptation will come upon us that is not common to man. And God is faithful - he will not let us be tempted beyond our ability, but with temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that we may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

So we face tests and temptation in no different way from the way we were redeemed and saved, with full knowledge that God is sovereign and that he knows what he is doing, that he is a person of steadfast love and limitless power and providential care, and nothing is beyond his resources, and so full dependence on his strength and his salvation. We will not be more godly if we were taken out of a difficult situation but if we persevere in faith and obedience under it. If we stand firm under the heat, we will prove to ourselves that our faith is genuine and that God is true, all for greater end of bringing greater glory to God (1 Peter 1:6-7). Difficult circumstances are not so we can find out more good things about ourselves but so we can find out more about God so we can praise him and give him glory. He has shown, and will show more of, his constancy. He will not let us down because, as Moses too knew, his glory is at stake.

Yet, at the same time, let us not test God with our unbelief and disobedience to see if he really means what he says, to check if what we have been told will come true, to make an assessment of whether this judgement thing (how awfully unfashionable) will be proved right. God will pass that "test" with flying colours.

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