By Brian Hollingsworth, Partners in Health and Wholeness Intern, Wake Forest University School of Divinity
…When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter…And the people complained against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. There the Lord made for them a statue 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 statues, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15: 22-26)
In his book “Healthy Human Life: A Biblical Witness,” James K. Bruckner explores how the story of Moses and the Israelites speaks to God’s concern for community health and justice. Indeed, following the destruction of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, we find that the very first issue confronting the young Israelite people was one all too familiar to us today: access to clean water.
From this story, Bruckner draws on the giving of God’s law and commandments, and the ways these laws shaped the Israelite community, to reveal how health and justice are central to God’s desire for human thriving, particularly for those who are marginalized, oppressed, and facing threats of injustice. “In Exodus,” writes Bruckner “the giving of the Torah established, among other things, a structural standard of human health and thriving for a common people who would otherwise have disappeared into the sands of time.”
According to Bruckner, God’s promise to not bring upon the Israelites “any of the diseases” of Egypt is of particular importance as we consider God’s intent for a healthy community. What are the “diseases” God speaks of? Bruckner explores two possible interpretations:
- In one interpretation, the “diseases” of Egypt speaks to the systematic oppression brought on by Pharaoh’s rule, a system that relied on slavery, oppression, and the marginalization of an entire people group. In God’s new sociality, all people are free, and the laws which govern them are intended to promote health and wellbeing for all, especially those in poverty, widows, and orphans (Bruckner notes that the Torah mentions care for the helpless and hopeless more than 400 times)
- Another interpretation understands the “diseases” to reference the actual physical ailments, diseases and health concerns that affected the Egyptians. It is important to note, however, that the absence of these diseases is not a magical gift from God, but rather are dependent on the community’s obedience to God’s laws, which require the entire community’s commitment to its own well-being and the health of the community as a whole. “The protection and promise are covenantal,” writes Bruckner. “They are not ‘magical,’ but are tied to the practices described in the Sinaitic legislation, which constitute the healthiest diet, lifestyle, and social standards among the ancient eastern law codes.”
As we seek to keep ourselves and our communities free from “disease” in any form it might take, we do well to take Bruckner’s insights and the story of the Israelites to heart, and act accordingly. Let us consider:
- Health – both individual and communal – is of central importance to God’s desire for us to live full and abundant lives.
- Like the laws and commandments given to the Israelites, the laws we make and enforce today should have the entire community in mind – including, and especially, those who are oppressed, marginalized, or who risk “slipping through the sands of time.”
- We are called to live in covenant with God, understanding that our actions and obedience to God’s desire for us is necessary for the abundant life we are promised.
- Our laws and actions should reflect God’s desire for all people to prosper and live abundantly.
May we all embrace and live into God’s freeing and healing love in our lives!
Quotes and references taken from James K. Bruckner’s Healthy Human Life: A Biblical Witness