Parables of Intimacy: A Biblical Theology of Eating and Drinking (Part 3)

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I’m finishing a paper on a Biblical Theology of Table Fellowship.  So, for the next 5 days, I will post short excerpts from my paper that help us think about what we do, and the significance of eating and drinking with one another.  Here’s part 3: Table Fellowship in the Prophetic Writings. (Or go back to read part 1 or part 2)

table fellowship

 

Table Fellowship in the Prophets

References to table fellowship in the narratival former prophets seem largely in keeping with the two themes traced in the Law. Hospitality shines as a light in the otherwise bleak fog of Judges (Judg 19:4-6, 21). Later, Elkannah’s love for Hannah, though barren, leads him to serve her a double portion at his table (1 Sam 3:5). But just as eating and drinking confirm community, it was David’s absence at table that alarmed Saul to David’s flight (1 Sam 20:18).

Beautifully, David reverses this image by inviting Saul’s grandson, the crippled Mephibosheth to ‘eat at my table always’ out of love for his father, Jonathan (2 Sam 9:7). It is all too easy to associate this elegant act of mercy with the poet-king’s later [1] composition; ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies’ (Ps 23:5). Note that David’s countercultural display of voluntary association with a would-be enemy represents something of an anomaly in the OT practice of eating and drinking. David intimates the surprising nature of his action as he comforts the boy, ‘Do not fear’ (2 Sam 9:7), but the narrator also makes explicit the associative theme developed thus far: ‘Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons’ (9:11). Regular fellowship around food suggests a filial status.

However, later in the former prophets, the enacted association at table can also be a terrible indictment, as when Elijah puts to the sword all those who ‘eat at Jezebel’s table’ (1 Kgs 18:19, 40).

The commentary in the latter prophets diverges slightly from the two themes traced above. The prophets regularly use language of food and drink metaphorically to illustrate spiritual realities. Jeremiah draws on the Lord’s physical provision for Israel in the desert (Jer 2:6) to point to ‘two evils’ committed by Judah (2:13). They have forsaken the “fountain of living waters,” the generous provision of Yahweh to provide for their physical and spiritual needs. And like Adam and Esau before, they broke fellowship with their abundant provider and for lesser pleasures, and ‘hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water’ (2:13). Here the desert and water imagery illustrate Judah’s rejection of their great provider.

The latter prophets regularly use eating and drinking to symbolize not mere cognitive assent, but holistic appropriation. Jeremiah recounts his call, ‘Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy’ (15:16). Similarly, Isaiah extends Yahweh’s invitation, ‘Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters’ to purchase ‘wine and milk without price’ as illustrations for ‘hearing’ (v. 3), ‘seeking,’ ‘calling,’ (v. 6), and ‘returning’ (v. 7).

Eating and drinking provide vivid images of receiving provision from outside oneself and consuming it until it becomes fully integrated into the person. Or as Rice puts it, “[Isaiah] makes it clear that it is not mere intellectual cognition he desires, but a chewing and digesting, and inner appropriation in which the total self is involved.”[2] Blomberg also comments that this is another rare OT instance where “the invitation is extended to those who would often be excluded.”[3] It would seem that something about this eschatological promise of salvation extends the otherwise exclusive Jewish association around table fellowship to outsiders.

Isaiah contains what seems to be the most significant passage in the prophetic writings for the role of table fellowship in the eschatological age. He predicts a coming banquet that, shockingly, welcomes guests from ‘all peoples’ (Isa 25:6). Yahweh himself will host this end-times banquet of ‘rich food full of marrow’ and ‘aged wine well refined’ (25:6-9).

The multi-ethnic makeup of this Messianic Feast could neither have been more emphatic as it was scandalous to a people reminded daily against associating with foreigners at the dinner table. The radically inclusive language, ‘all peoples’ (2x), ‘all nations,’ ‘“all faces,’ and ‘all the earth,’ unites distant families into one singular entity, ‘his people’ (v.8) who cry out, ‘this is our God’ (v.9). Blomberg suggests: “By common agreement, this is the single most influential passage for the development in both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity of the idea of a Messianic banquet.”[4] And I will argue below, that this passage provides the most significant backdrop by which we understand the NT theme of table fellowship.

Ezekiel depicts a similarly inclusive but antithetical banquet, not of salvation but of wrath (Ezek 39:17-20). This time the guests include birds and beasts who will feast on the ‘flesh of the mighty’ and drink the ‘blood of the princes’ who stand in opposition to the Lord. Block’s comments on illustrate the incredible nature of both the Messianic banquet of salvation and eschatological feast of judgment:

While most ancient Near Easterners could speak of sacrifices as food prepared by humans for the deity or for deceased royal ancestors, seldom, if ever, were humans invited to participate in communion meals with deity. At most, the king would eat of the food presented in sacrifice, but this is a far cry from Ezekiel’s imagery of an indiscriminate host of animals dining at Yahweh’s table. By contrast, the biblical writers expressed remarkable freedom in their portrayal of Yahweh hosting banquets for earthly guests.[5]

Whether the earthly guests include guests as ‘indiscriminate’ as animals or gentiles, the sheer initiative of Yahweh to share his table radically alters the dominant note of exclusion to table fellowship among non-Jews. Perhaps the criterion of ‘insider’ versus ‘outsider’ might one day transcend ethnicity and run deeper than a dietary code.

(Continued in part 4)

Notes:

[1] I am using the term “later” here canonically, and not necessarily chronologically

[2] Gene Rice, “Dining with Deutero-Isaiah,” JRT 37.1 (1980): 23.

[3] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 60.

[4] Ibid., 68.

[5] Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 474.

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3 thoughts on “Parables of Intimacy: A Biblical Theology of Eating and Drinking (Part 3)

  1. […] Just in time for Thanksgiving, I’m finishing a paper on a Biblical Theology of Table Fellowship.  So, for the next 5 days, I will post short excerpts from my paper that help us think about what we do, and the significance of eating and drinking with one another.  Here’s part 4: Table Fellowship in the Writings. (Or go back to read part 1, part 2, or part 3) […]

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