Talitha Arnold: "Longing for Cucumbers"


The Israelites cried out to Moses, "We remember the fish we had in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic." 

There are a lot of foods I like - lemon meringue pie, enchiladas, blueberry muffins. There are even some foods I crave - like chocolate in any form. But cucumbers, leeks and onions? They're not at the top of my list. In fact, they're not even onthe list.

Two years after the Exodus, vegetables were very much on the minds and in the hearts of the Israelites. Stirred up by the "rabble among them," they wept for meat and cried out for cucumbers. Certainly, the Israelites had complained to Moses before. At the edge of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh's army breathing down their necks and a watery abyss before them, they cried out, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, binging us out of Egypt? ... It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness."

That longing for Egypt echoes throughout the Book of Exodus. When they ran out of water, the Israelites railed against Moses, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?" Facing starvation, they remembered fondly the fleshpots of Egypt.

But this complaint in the book of Numbers - this longing for the cucumbers of Egypt - was different. The Israelites weren't dying. They faced no imminent threat, either from Pharaoh's army or the lack of food or water. Pharaoh and his troops didn't make it past the Red Sea, and God had provided manna for the Israelites every single day of the last two years. The Israelites' complaint sounds more like someone who's bored rather than someone fearing for their life. One could argue the Israelites were akin to the young adult in their first apartment or off to college, finally free of Mom or Dad's demands to fold the laundry or sweep the floor - but now missing the parental washer, dryer, and vacuum cleaner.

It's easy, therefore, to dismiss the Israelite's complaint as mere whining. But listen more closely. No, the Israelites weren't starving. Yet, who could blame them for wanting a bit more variety in their daily diet? God didprovide, and the manna wasgood to eat. but every single day? Wouldn't you want some onions and garlic to spice things up?

But I think the Israelites' cry for melons and leeks goes far deeper than satisfying their taste buds. I hear their longing for cucumbers as really a longing for home - or at least a taste of home.

We all have our own "comfort foods." Foods that remind us of home, even when we've left home far behind. A friend grew up in a family with three brothers and parents who seldom made much money. Her dad was a teacher, her mother cleaned other people's houses. Every Monday morning, before she left for work, my friend's mother put a big pot of beans and green chili on the stove. The beans lasted the full week. My friend and her brothers ate them with every meal. It's how you stretched a pound of ground beef or a chicken among six people.

As an adult, my friend's tastes have expanded along with her income. On occasion, she can even afford to eat sushi or prime rib. Yet, every Monday morning, she starts a pot of beans and green chili before she heads for work. Beans and chili may be a "poor-time food," but it's also her "home-time food."

The Israelites of the Exodus would have understood. No matter that God's manna was sweet and abundant or that cucumbers and garlic came from slave times. Two years after they'd left Egypt, Egyptian vegetables reminded them of the only home they'd ever known. Who could blame them for longing for cucumbers?

Moreover, in hankering for such food, the Israelites weren't just longing for the past. They were longing for a place to call home now. Onions, leeks, melons, garlic, cucumbers, those are cultivated crops. To grow them, you have to settle down and stay in one place for a long while. It takes time to prepare a plot of land, time to plant the seeds, time to tend and weed, time to wait for the harvest. In a word, time to put down roots.

For two years, the Israelites had been hunters and gatherers, always on the move. Life in Egypt was harsh, but at least it was reasonably settled. They could grow their own gardens - once their work was done and if they stayed on the Egyptians' good side.

Now they never knew where God would lead them next. Even if they trusted God to provide the next meal of manna, they had no idea where that meal would be. They had no clue where their children would play or where they would sleep from one night to the next in that endless wilderness. Who can blame them for wanting to back to Egypt, back to when life was settled and somehow made sense in its own way?

The Israelites' lament for their old life in Egypt reminds me of the experience of a good friend who finally got out of a bad relationship. She was thankful to be free of the verbal abuse and no longer walking around on eggshells. Yet, two years into being single again, she found the dating scene daunting. Even more, she felt overwhelmed by questions about the future. "I feel liberated," she said, "but I hate the uncertainty that comes with the freedom. Before I knew where I stood. Now I don't know. 

"I can't, and I won't go back to the relationship," she continued, "but where do I go now? People keep telling me I have my whole life ahead of me. Right now, that future feels empty and never-ending. 

"To be honest," she said, "it scares me. I guess there's some truth to the old saying 'Sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know.'"

The Israelites would have understood. The Egypt they knew was better than the wilderness they didn't.

My friend's wondering about her new life came two years after her exit from the relationship. The Israelites' lament for cucumbers was two years after their Exodus. The timing is no accident. The first year after a major change - even a good one - is often a "manna in the wilderness" time. We pray for the strength simply to get through the next day or just the next hour.

But by the second year, we realize there really is no going back to the way things once were. We may still ask God for our daily strength, but we also need God's help to turn our vision away from the past to the uncharted territory ahead of us. Most of all, we need God's help to create a new home, a new way of being in that new territory.

Facing into such change is seldom easy. Ask anyone who's lost a spouse or a job, anyone who's had to leave home to find work or find safety. Ask any church in a changing neighborhood or a changing world.

Just ask the Israelites.

Just ask Moses.

The people weren't the only ones who were tired of the wilderness wandering. Moses was, too. Earlier on the journey, when the Israelites complained to him, he'd been their advocate with God. "They're hungry, they're thirsty. Do something, God."

This time was different. Moses cried out for himself. "I'm tired," the great leader said. "I can't bear this burden on my own." Like the Israelites crying out for cucumbers, Moses got a bit cranky. "I didn't give birth to these people," he reminded God. "I'm not their nursemaid."

The Bible doesn't record Moses' inner dialogue, but the chances are good that, like the rest of the Israelites, he longed for his own good old days - whether back in Pharaoh's court or tending his father-in-law's sheep. If he can't go back to his old life, then let him go back to the dust, he told God. "Take my life."

God didn't do that. Instead God showed Moses a way to new life. "Appoint seventy elders to bear the burden with you," God commanded.

Moses did what God said, but it couldn't have been easy. As much as he wanted help, sharing leadership was new territory for Moses. He'd always been the solo leader - Pharaoh's fair-haired boy, his father-in-law's lead shepherd. Moses was the one who led the people out of Egypt, the one who parted the Red Sea and struck the rock for water. He'd climbed Sinai alone, to talk with God alone.

With God's help, Moses had basically done it all on his own. Now God anointed seventy others with authority. God even gave them some of Moses' spirit. That had to be hard for Moses. But two years after the Exodus, it was either change or die.

Like the Israelites, Moses couldn't go back to Egypt. Nor could he go back to his old way of leadership - any more than the Israelites could return to the gardens they'd left behind in Egypt. We really can't fault either the Israelites or Moses for their complaining. They simply wanted things to be the way they used to be. Their longing for cucumbers was really the longing for home. And it's a longing that's in every human heart.

The challenge for the Israelites and Moses was to find that home in this strange and foreign wilderness. It's our challenge, too. They had to learn time and again to trust that the God who had heard their cries and brought them out of slavery into freedom was still with them in this new and fearsome foreign world. We do, too.

Most of all, the Israelites had to learn that their real home was not in a particular place or well-tended garden. It was in the heart of God, the One who was with them every step of the way.

We have to learn that, too, because that's also where our home is. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Help us to trust you, O God, in the journeys of our lives. When we find ourselves in strange places or fearsome times, help us to know you are still with us. Even in the wilderness - especially in the wilderness - help us find our true home in you. Amen.