Three-quarters of a century ago, in my primary school, as I suspect in every other primary school in the land, the day’s lessons began with scripture. Later the time-table named the scripture period, religious instruction, later still religious education; but at that time it was scripture. Psalms and the Beatitudes to be learnt by heart, stories read and studied from both Old and New Testament, starting with the wanderings of Abraham through to the journeys of Paul.
Not the least gripping of the stories we read was one from the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers. The narrative has a variety of themes which may be found in many a novel – jealousy, attempted murder, sex, revenge, violence, compassion, forgiveness, a rags to riches tale with a happy ending.
Like many others, in later years I enjoyed the rock musical based on the story, “Joseph and his Multi-coloured Dreamcoat”. But it is the original story which, to coin a phrase, holds the stage.
The story came to mind the other day after watching a news item on the television. During it, there had been displayed horrifying pictures from the African continent of men, women and, most distressingly of all, children, dying of starvation as famine swept their lands.
Joseph, as you will recall, possessed, among other talents, the ability to foretell the future by interpreting dreams. As he slept, Pharaoh had seen seven fat kine (I prefer to use the old word, sounds more regal than mere cows) devoured by seven lean and hungry animals. Joseph warned that this was a signal of famine to come. Preparations for the coming catastrophe were then put in hand.
The word “famine” entered my vocabulary a life-time ago, but it is, I confess, only in recent years that I have come anywhere near understanding its truly awful meaning. Until these and similar television pictures came into the home over the last decade or so, famine was a rather old-fashioned biblical term for something that happened in stories of long ago. “I’m starving” we say when an hour or two has elapsed since the last meal. Starving used as a synonym for feeling hungry. The literal meaning is far starker.
In the lands smitten by famine, we see far more than mild hunger pangs felt an hour or two after a wholesome meal. Famine induced starvation is unimaginable misery, suffering, sickness leading to a lingering, painful death. Babies too weak to cry, fall apathetically into the sleep from which there is no awakening.
The Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the sub-Sahara region have for centuries suffered periodic famine. The story of Joseph, though no doubt part fable, part synthesis of the experiences of many people, is surely not complete fantasy. The peoples of Old and New Testament times alike knew only too well of the ravages of famine. The biblical phrase “to hunger and thirst” grew out of painful experience.
When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and included in the prayer the phrase “…give us this day our daily bread” it was not an empty set of words. The disciples knew full well how life depended precariously upon the vagaries of weather, on an absence of pests, as well as relying on a successful harvest.
To solicit for bread was a commonplace in lands where begging was endemic. For how else did the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the homeless exist where no welfare state provided for their sustenance? Charity from others was their means of survival.
Food for the next meal was, and still is, a first priority for a great number of the populace throughout the world. To secure another meal is life; fail, and death becomes a stark reality. No wonder that food and drink provide so many religious metaphors. Food succours and strengthens. It is the means of sustaining life. It gives the body strength. Its absence removes both the will and the ability to live.
Parallels with the importance of nourishing the spirit are obvious. Moving from the reality of real hunger to recognising that spiritual life, as well as physical existence, is sustained by feeding, is not a large step. So a prayer for daily bread is about more than bodily need. To adapt a well-known advertising slogan, there is a need to reach those parts ordinary foods cannot reach.
“Bread of Heaven”, we sing, “feed me ‘til I want no more”. Not a peon in praise of gluttony, but a prayer for spiritual sustenance. Recognition that there are needs over and beyond mere physical survival.
The human body needs continual feeding at regular intervals. Food is provided by other living organisms be they plant or animal. Our life depends upon the lives of others. Adequate and appropriate food and drink is prerequisite for a healthy physical life.
However we have needs additional to that if we are to truly live. Spiritual needs have got to be satisfied. And, as with physical needs, the occasional top-up at irregular and long intervals is not the answer. The infrequent special service, the christening, the funeral, grief at time of crisis and little else, does not sustain the spirit in a healthy state. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Without faith, hope and love, life is but a stunted existence. To become a whole person, we have to go beyond satisfying physical need.
The unique spirit of humankind, the soul, the essential humanity, call it what you will, withers and distorts, sickens and malfunctions when it is starved of sustenance, just as does the body when denied its regular intake of food.
Famines past and present are, unhappily, facts of life. Sometimes they are described in that most unfortunate phrase, as being Acts of God. I find it difficult to accept that God from time to time, as it were, loses his temper, and sends plagues of pests, torrential rains, droughts or other disasters upon the land which this phrase implies. That surely cannot be so. However, that apart, the role of the wise person is, like Joseph of old, to make preparations beforehand, giving relief to the distressed, and sharing bounty with those who starve.
Many famines are of man’s making. War, pillage, greed, exploitation, theft, ignorant arrogance, all play their part in bringing misery to others. That sometimes this occurs under the cloak of religious wars is uniquely revolting. Religious war is itself a contradiction in terms. Religious ethics are surely about mutual respect, sharing and supporting the weak. To destroy or abstract from our neighbour the bread he needs to live, is a negation of religion.
Similarly, there may be famines curtailing the nourishment needed to satisfy spiritual hunger, and thus enable growth and development. Sometimes, as bracken grows on the uplands choking all other growth and producing inedible forage in its place, so materialism, stifles the production of spiritual victuals. Great effort is needed to root out the enveloping weed to enable life-supporting shoots to flourish.
But more frequently, the food is available; it is self-imposed fasting or unwise choice of repast which is starving spiritual growth. Enjoying that which is outside material wealth, selfish greed and love of personal possessions, and exercising love and charity towards one’s fellow beings, enables healthy spiritual growth to take place.
The story of Joseph is not simply about relieving the effects of famine. It was right to build barns in time of plenty to store supplies against harsh times to come. It was proper to feed the hungry that they should not starve. But beyond that there was a spiritual famine which had hardened hearts enabling hatred and jealousy to grow like a cancer. In the climax of the story Joseph forgave his brothers, showing generosity to them and to his family. That spiritual feed enabled love to expand as unworthy passions atrophied.
There is much that humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the physical part of them. The physical body of all in the animal kingdom has to be maintained with food and drink, exercise and repose. We are born, we reproduce, we die. All this and more we share with the rest of animal life. But it does not end there. For we who are privileged to be part of the human race have skills which others animals do not share. The ability to think, to plan, to prepare for example. A sense of the past, and a vision of the future is ours. But most importantly, we have something which is somewhat vaguely referred to as a soul.
We can feel compassion. We can exercise tolerance. We can make self-sacrifices in order others might benefit. We can feel moved by thoughts and experiences outside of ourselves. We may feel awe and wonder. We have a perception of good and evil. We can aspire to be saints; or we can degenerate into devils.
But this aspect of our lives needs sustaining with wholesome fare, not left to perish, or, even worse, become grossly mutated through the poison produced by, what Joseph might have called, false gods.
Some of the vilest crimes of humanity, for example the burning of heretics, genocide against those of (in inverted commas) “inferior race or intelligence”, or the so named ethnic cleansing, have been committed by those whose spiritual and moral values have been distorted thus.
We in our time and land are strangers to the famines ravishing many parts of Africa and Asia. We are better fed then ever in our history. By and large, with a few exceptions, we are healthier then the generations which went before us.
Our expectation of life has expanded enormously throughout this century, particularly in the latter half of it. We worry about over-weight rather than under-nourishment. We are the privileged. We are more anxious about calorie intake than concerned about the state of the harvest. As the hymnist puts it
“We have enough, yet not too much
To long for more”
But are there not some signs of a famine in spiritual succour? Does our spiritual being grow large on over-eating as does our physical waist-line? To enable us to live a complete life, physical well-being is important. A healthy body requires sustaining with a healthy diet. Spiritual well-being is crucial to a full, complete life. Manna from heaven is important.
We as individuals, and society as a whole depends, not merely on physical strength and well-being, but on a sense, first of being not just a receptacle of physical needs into which fuel has to be pumped, but body capable of prayer as well as understanding. Secondly, we most always have in our minds that we are a part of a society which respects and cherishes all other members. Their needs are our needs; our requirements apply equally to them.
“….give us this day our daily bread” – but from the fount of all wisdom as well as from the bakery.
“Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven
Feed me ‘til I want no more”
May your appetite be insatiable.
C.J.Rosling 16 January 1999
Hucklow 17 January 1999; 23 October 2005
Fulwood 21 February 1999