By Brian Hollingsworth
Last semester I took a course exploring the intersection of Food, Faith, and Public Health. It was a challenging course – opening my eyes to the many issues of food justice and health disparities that exist both within my own community, and in our nation and world at large. The question at the heart of our discussion was: “How does our Christian faith inform the ways we respond to issues of justice, particularly as they relate to food and health?”
Of our many readings, I found James K. Bruckner’s Healthy Human Life: A Biblical Witness to be particularly insightful. In it, 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:
“…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)
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 well being for all, especially those in poverty, widows, and orphans (Bruckner notes that the Torah mentions care for the helpless and hopeless over 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.”
Bruckner’s insights are both helpful and challenging. They challenge us to look at texts in the Old Testament with modern eyes, and ask ourselves: in light of God’s commandments and the story of the Israelites, are we upholding our end of the covenant to keep our communities clean of the “diseases” of injustice, oppression, and hunger, and health disparities? Are we living in such a way as to ensure healthy communities for all?
While the answers to these questions are vast and complex, I’m thankful for my experience at WFU School of Divinity, where these questions are being actively explored and lived out as we seek to grow as ministers of reconciliation, peace, and justice in the world. My prayer is that through asking and living tough questions, we might all more fully embrace and live into God’s freeing and healing love in our lives!
Quotes and references taken from James K. Bruckner’s Health Human Life: A Biblical Witness. Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012.
Brian Hollingsworth is a CBF Leadership Scholar and a third year student at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, where he is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree.