“Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…Now we languish; there is nothing in sight except manna.” (Num 11:4b-6)
Beginning in Exodus 19 and continuing through all of Leviticus and on to Numbers 10 (all or significant parts of three of the five books of the Torah), the Bible records the establishment and elaboration of YHWH’s covenant with Israel. On either side of this Sinai material, the Pentateuch narrates a series of episodes in which rabble-rousers among the people “murmured” against Moses and against God. On the way out of Egypt, these troublemakers accused Moses and God of bringing Israel into the desert to die of hunger and thirst (Exod 16-18). On the way to the Promised Land (Num 10-20) they complained about the steady diet of the mysterious manna God provided in enough quantity to meet their daily needs for sustenance. ‘Oh, for the good old days of fish, cucumbers and melons, onions and garlic!’ Any reader with an average familiarity with human nature will recognize the scenario.
Nostalgia derives a great deal of its power from the amnesia that must accompany it. These grumblers seem, on the one hand, to have forgotten the forced labor, the attempted extermination of their male population, genocide by a form of attrition, the lash of the whip, and the impossibility of making bricks without straw. They also seem to have lacked the vision to see the possibilities ahead, the courage and perseverance to stay the course, and, above all, the confidence that God planned for them good and not evil. God is no trickster offering liberation but substituting death. God would provide for their needs, although not necessarily their desires, until one day they would reach the land flowing with milk and honey. They way out of bondage is forward, not back.
I cannot help thinking of this Israelite ‘Back-to-Egypt’ party when I hear people today talk about ‘Taking America Back’ or ‘Making America Great Again.’ I wonder what are the cucumbers and leeks that they miss. Do they long for the day before universal suffrage? Do they regret the end of legalized discrimination against people because of race, religion, or gender? I am sorry to say that, if the political pundits have any insight, the current cultural and political foment reflects, at least in part, the feeling on the part of some white men that their hold on power and status has been loosened. I suppose, to employ the analogy more accurately, this segment of society aligns more with the interests of the Egyptians than with the interests of the Israelites. This group regrets that others in society have gained more equal status. This group never left Egypt; they have seen others liberated and, in zero-sum logic, interpret that liberation to mean loss for themselves.
This observation raises a semantic question regarding the phrase, “Take America Back.” Does it refer to taking the country back from someone, seizing control again, returning the Israelite escapees back to bondage, restoring the old order? If so, it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Alternative, the phrase could have in mind returning the country back to the conditions prevalent at a particular time. If so, I would be very interested in hearing adherents of the ‘Back-to-an-earlier America’ party specify the target era – the 1960’s or the 1860’s.
Fortunately, many, and maybe enough, of us are not nostalgic for an earlier era, largely because we do not suffer from this brand of amnesia. As one born during the Eisenhower presidency, a child of the 1960’s who came of age in the 1970’s, I remember “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and “My Three Sons” fondly. Nevertheless, I also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, three horrible assassinations, Watts burning, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the feel and smell of a draft card. I am a white male. Others remember what it feels like to be the one segregated, what it does to one’s dignity to be excluded from a profession because of one’s gender, or the long, hard fight for the right to vote.
No. I do not want to go back to conditions in any era in America’s past, nor do I want to return to the program-piety of the church of my youth. Tradition involves fidelity to core principles, but it cannot be static. It certainly cannot be regressive. It must grow, moving forward, or it will stagnate and die. The Bible testifies frequently to the generative power of the contrary of amnesia: remembering.
You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.” It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt. (Exod 13:8-9 NRSV)
You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut 24:17-18 NRSV)
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1Cor 11:23-26 NRSV)