The “spiritual” meaning of bread, part 2

In the thread under The “spiritual” meaning of bread, Lukas has been arguing that “bread” in the scriptures means “teachings”.

Lukas brought up the following verse from Deuteronomy, where Moses is speaking to the people of Israel:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Commenting on this verse, Lukas wrote:

how exactly is this verse NOT comparing bread to the words of God? I mean, how would letting people hunger, then feeding them manna, be an effective way of teaching them that they live not just by bread but by the words of God UNLESS manna and the words of God are (at least on one level) the same thing? That connection between manna and God’s words is the critical connection to make here.

Let’s be clear that I agree that we can make a connection between manna (or bread) and the words of God. I disagree about what kind of connection we can make.

When the Israelites were in the desert, God did several wonderful things for them. For example, Moses struck a rock and water gushed out, and God caused manna and quails to appear in the camp for the Israelites to gather. All of these should have been lessons for the Israelites that ultimately their life is in God, and obeying God brings life.

Take the instance of Moses drawing water from the rock (Exodus 17, and I think there’s another incident in Numbers but I don’t have time to look for it). Christians associate water with life, and therefore with Christ. Many of the references to water in the Old Testament are believed to prefigure baptism, for example, which joins us to Christ. And since the commandments of God also bring life, it would not be far-fetched to associate water with the commandments. It would be far-fetched, though, to say that when the Bible mentions water, it MEANS the commandments. Water is still water.

Likewise with bread. Bread sustains life, so naturally it is associated with Christ. For most Christians the association is very strong because in the Eucharist bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. And the manna in the desert, we believe, prefigures the Eucharist.

But all of those meanings do not coexist in the same verse at the same time. In the instance of Deuteronomy 8:3, manna serves as an object lesson: you were hungry and God fed you, so it isn’t just bread that sustains you, but also God’s command.

If you use “bread” as a code word for “teachings”, then the lesson of Deuteronomy becomes nonsensical:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with teachings, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by teachings alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

In order for the verse to make sense, then bread cannot always mean the same thing as teachings.

Once again, Lukas is displaying the Baha’i tendency to consider teachings, and the written or oral texts that convey those teachings, as the baseline of a religion. Maybe the Baha’is are right, maybe they’re wrong. My point is that there is nothing natural about this assumption. It is not, despite what several Baha’is have said here, the obvious or natural reading of the Bible.

In Christianity, the baseline of our faith is the person of Christ, not his teachings. His teachings point us toward Christ and make us like him, but always it is Christ at the center.

Observe how Lukas and I interpret the use of bread in the Bible. Lukas instinctively associates bread with God’s teachings, and I instinctively associate bread with Christ’s person.

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7 Responses

  1. I just want to thank you for this blog. I am in love with a man who is a Baha’i and I am a Catholic. This is an extremely helpful resource in helping us understand each other. Please continue it! :)

  2. Jonah:
    In the thread under The “spiritual” meaning of bread, Lukas has been arguing that “bread” in the scriptures means “teachings”.

    Lukas:
    Among perhaps many other things, yes, I think it does. What is important to bear in mind is that I do not believe that bread either always or exclusively means teachings, I simply say that often one of the meanings of “bread” is “teachings.” So any implication that I am arguing that “bread” always and exclusively means “teachings” is erroneous.

    Jonah:
    When the Israelites were in the desert, God did several wonderful things for them. For example, Moses struck a rock and water gushed out, and God caused manna and quails to appear in the camp for the Israelites to gather. All of these should have been lessons for the Israelites that ultimately their life is in God, and obeying God brings life.

    Lukas:
    Yes, I completely agree with this interpretation.

    Jonah:
    Take the instance of Moses drawing water from the rock (Exodus 17, and I think there’s another incident in Numbers but I don’t have time to look for it). Christians associate water with life, and therefore with Christ. Many of the references to water in the Old Testament are believed to prefigure baptism, for example, which joins us to Christ. And since the commandments of God also bring life, it would not be far-fetched to associate water with the commandments. It would be far-fetched, though, to say that when the Bible mentions water, it MEANS the commandments. Water is still water.

    Lukas:
    Of course it would be far-fetched to say that every single reference to water in the Bible only means commandments. I think it would be equally far fetched to say that water only ever means water. What is demanded of us is to use our imagination and rational capacity to contemplate the possible layers of meaning associated with any given term.

    Jonah:
    Likewise with bread. Bread sustains life, so naturally it is associated with Christ. For most Christians the association is very strong because in the Eucharist bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ. And the manna in the desert, we believe, prefigures the Eucharist.
    But all of those meanings do not coexist in the same verse at the same time.

    Lukas:
    How do you know this – that the meanings do not co-exist at the same time? I think what we have here is a fundamental point – firstly that I, as a Baha’i, have always been taught that there are myriad, inexhaustible meanings to the creative word (a point that you seem to agree with to some extent when you state “Most everything in the Bible has at least one figurative meaning”), and secondly that no understanding of mine can ever be considered either adequate or authoritative.
    In fact, one of the specific points I was trying to demonstrate in that post with the 11 quotes from Christ is that all of those meanings DO at least potentially exist in the same verse at the same time, albeit with varying degrees of pertinence. The symbols, similes, metaphors and allegories used by Jesus form a nexus of meaning. If we fail to understand that one term can mean several different things simultaneously we are stuck with a self-contradictory Christ Who gives us various differing instructions about the same thing. I’ll try to explain this more fully in another post soon…

    Jonah:
    In the instance of Deuteronomy 8:3, manna serves as an object lesson: you were hungry and God fed you, so it isn’t just bread that sustains you, but also God’s command.

    Lukas:
    Yeah, I agree with this. It is certainly one level of meaning to be found in this verse.

    Jonah:
    If you use “bread” as a code word for “teachings”, then the lesson of Deuteronomy becomes nonsensical:

    He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with teachings, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by teachings alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

    In order for the verse to make sense, then bread cannot always mean the same thing as teachings.

    Lukas:
    You are right, such a reading is clearly nonsensical. However, it is not the reading that I intended, if only in part because you are replacing two different words (“manna” and “bread”) with one word (“teachings”). With this allowed for, the “code word” reading would be as follows:

    He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with teachings, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

    Which is way less crazy. One possible interpretation (out of many) that I have been pondering might read more like this:

    He humbled you by letting you hunger for truth and wander in the wilderness of error, then by guiding and nourishing your souls with His Teachings, in order to make you understand that one does not live by material means alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

    Jonah:
    In Christianity, the baseline of our faith is the person of Christ, not his teachings. His teachings point us toward Christ and make us like him, but always it is Christ at the center.
    Observe how Lukas and I interpret the use of bread in the Bible. Lukas instinctively associates bread with God’s teachings, and I instinctively associate bread with Christ’s person.

    Lukas:
    Well, I don’t know how to respond to this. I mean, I can’t imagine any Baha’i saying, “Baha’u’llah isn’t that important, it’s just His Teachings we care about.” Of course the Being of the Christ, whether Jesus or Baha’u’llah, is the most important thing.

    It is a distortion of my beliefs to say that the baseline of a religion is its Teachings, as opposed to the Manifestation of God Who brought them, or the mystical tie of living love that binds the Creator with all of humanity, “For the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God” (from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi).

    The Baha’i concept that seems to be tripping us up here is that, in one sense, on one level, the Teachings and the Being of Christ can be considered the same thing – He is His own Teachings perfectly embodied, and His Teachings likewise are the single best embodiment of His spirit after He has left this physical world. In other words, His Teachings are an inseparable aspect of His Being, and vice-versa, and as such Baha’is treat them reverentially and consider them to be an inextricable, fundamental aspect of His Revelation.

    So yes, I do instinctively associate bread with God’s Teachings; I ALSO instinctively associate bread with Christ, and I ALSO instinctively associate God’s Teachings with Christ (who is, after all, the Word made flesh), and with water, and the Holy Spirit, and so on. Again, it’s a nexus and a synthesis of meaning.

  3. So, let me try to lay all of this out clearly. Here again are the statements of Christ, which I re-summarized to try to make the connections between them more obvious:

    To enter into eternal life, keep the commandments.

    To abide with God (eternal life), keep Jesus’ words.

    To abide in Jesus’ love (eternal life), keep His commandments.

    To enter the kingdom of heaven (eternal life), do the will of the Father.

    To have everlasting (eternal) life, believe in Christ.

    In order not to die (have eternal life), eat the bread that comes down from heaven.

    To live forever (have eternal life), eat the bread that comes down from heaven.

    To have eternal life, eat His flesh (i.e. the bread that comes down from heaven) and drink His Blood.

    Everlasting (eternal) life is God’s commandments.

    To see how these statement of Christ form a nexus of meaning, consider that Jesus tells us, “He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” in one place, and in another states, “to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments.”

    Therefore I say that on at least one figurative level of meaning, it is necessary to understand that belief in Christ is the same thing as keeping God’s commandments. As Christ Himself states, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” So using this verse as a guide, we can see that either Christ is contradicting Himself when He says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life,” or we realize that by His own standards, belief and obedience are inextricably bound to each other; that is to say, they are in a sense the same thing, two sides of the same coin. Those who CLAIM to believe (those who merely SAY unto Him “Lord, Lord”) and those who TRULY believe in Him are distinguished by whether they keep His words; therefore belief, in a very real way, can be said to equal obedience.

    This same deep interweaving of symbols also occurs between life and bread, and therefore, logically, and I believe rather obviously, between teachings (or commandments and words) and bread. Just to be thorough, here would be a very superficial explanation:

    Jesus says, “This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.” He also says, “if thou wilt enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments.” Again, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever,” and “his [God’s] commandment is life everlasting.” So it appears to me that eating the bread is profoundly related to keeping the commandments, inasmuch as both are given as the clearest possible instruction on how to gain eternal life.

    Additionally, these words create a powerful connection between His own Being and the commandments of God; His flesh is the bread of life, and God’s commandment (word) is life, and He is the “Word made flesh.” This is worth contemplating, I believe.

    It is interesting to note that Jesus did not say, “In order to gain eternal life, you must eat the bread that comes down from heaven AND eat My flesh AND keep the commandments AND keep My words AND do the will of the Father in heaven AND believe in Me.” One possible, and I would posit probable, significance behind this observation is, again, that Jesus is using different terms, symbols, allegories, similes and metaphors to describe one reality – the reality of salvation. So I say that while each of these terms/symbols has its own distinctive meaning on one level, and that we can see that each of them describes a unique facet of salvation, a different aspect of the spiritual path, on another level they are all profoundly unified, “waves of one ocean” if you will.

    So one of the many possible lessons to learn from all of this is that, on one figurative level of meaning, eating the bread IS keeping the commandments IS keeping His words IS eating His flesh IS doing the will of the Father in heaven IS believing in Christ.

    One point that I would like to make is that I do not believe that these interpretations are exclusive, or true in an absolute fundamentalist sense. They are not the only valid or plausible or meaningful way of understanding these concepts. I nevertheless believe that this interpretation is true, and that this meaning of the Gospels is important and intentional, but that does not mean it is true in every sense and in every possible application of the verses and terms.

  4. Jonah – sorry this comment got posted twice, it wouldn’t let me post in on “The Spiritual Meaning of Bread (part 1)” so I posted it above, and afterwards it appeared on both pages. I suspect my weird internet connection was responsible…Please feel free to delete it from whichever page is less appropriate in your estimation. Sorry!

  5. Thank you, Kate, for your encouragement. Both of you are in my prayers. If any questions come up, feel free to raise them on this blog. I’m going to set up a Q&A page (something I’ve been planning for months and haven’t gotten around to).

  6. Lukas wrote:
    It is a distortion of my beliefs to say that the baseline of a religion is its Teachings, as opposed to the Manifestation of God Who brought them, or the mystical tie of living love that binds the Creator with all of humanity, “For the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God” (from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi).

    When you get right down to it, the baseline of your religion is God. What I was trying to say was how you access God. The normal Baha’i response would be the Manifestation. But how do you access the Manifestation? The Writings. You can reach him on other ways, like praying in your own words (though using the Manifestation’s words is more potent), or doing service, or sitting quietly in the gardens at Bahji, etc. But the clearest, most direct interface between God and man is the Writings revealed by God.

    And that’s okay. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m saying it’s different from Catholicism. In Catholicism, likewise you can commune with Christ in many ways, through service to others, through the stages of prayer – and all of these are important and necessary. But the clearest, most direct interface between God and man is the sacraments (not the Bible!). The bread that Jesus is talking about is the sacrament of the Eucharist.

    Lukas wrote:
    It is interesting to note that Jesus did not say, “In order to gain eternal life, you must eat the bread that comes down from heaven AND eat My flesh AND keep the commandments AND keep My words AND do the will of the Father in heaven AND believe in Me.” One possible, and I would posit probable, significance behind this observation is, again, that Jesus is using different terms, symbols, allegories, similes and metaphors to describe one reality – the reality of salvation.

    Yes, I agree that they all describe one reality. What I disagree with is the assumption that all of these things can be reduced to Christ’s teachings. It’s that reductionism that I disagree with.

    Lukas wrote:
    So one of the many possible lessons to learn from all of this is that, on one figurative level of meaning, eating the bread IS keeping the commandments IS keeping His words IS eating His flesh IS doing the will of the Father in heaven IS believing in Christ.

    If you consider that one of many possible meanings, then I don’t have a problem with it. I personally don’t like the approach, because it strikes me as rather mechanical or algebraic, and therefore limiting. The beauty of the Scriptures, for me, is that they cannot be neatly lined up like this. The seeming messiness of the Bible reflects the fact that it is the product of the personal expression of many persons, both God and human. Since it expresses their nature, it reflects the messiness of personhood.

    I feel like what you’re doing is like taking a poem and turning it into a quadratic equation.

    Everything in the Bible points to God. But that doesn’t mean all the pointers are the same. The commandments, Jesus’ words, the Father’s will, and the bread of life all draw us to God, but that doesn’t have to mean they’re the same thing. It doesn’t have to mean they’re different, either. Of course Jesus’ words are consistent with the Father’s will, but they aren’t the same as the Father’s will.

    This is why I object to you’re equating bread with teachings. Not because the comparison offends my beliefs, but because it seems to be a kneejerk mathematical identity that doesn’t allow for scriptural ambiguity. That, and it seems to violate the law of Both/And.

    One point that I would like to make is that I do not believe that these interpretations are exclusive, or true in an absolute fundamentalist sense. They are not the only valid or plausible or meaningful way of understanding these concepts. I nevertheless believe that this interpretation is true, and that this meaning of the Gospels is important and intentional, but that does not mean it is true in every sense and in every possible application of the verses and terms.

    Yes, I understand you don’t regard bread=teachings as the only reading of bread. The issue for me is, is that the interpretation you choose to privilege. If it is, then you’re putting your emphasis in the wrong place.

  7. I just came across this the other day. I am not sure that I have ever read it before, and of course I found it to be very interesting and relevant to this discussion.

    By the way, Jonah, I am very glad that you prefer scripture to my logical breakdowns thereof. It shows good taste, at the very least, as one is the creative word and the other is decidedly not!

    Anyway, here’s the quote:

    Question. — The Christ said: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.”[1] What is the meaning of this utterance?
    [1 Cf. John 6:51, 50.]

    Answer. — This bread signifies the heavenly food and divine perfections. So, “If any man eateth of this bread” means if any man acquires heavenly bounty, receives the divine light, or partakes of Christ’s perfections, he thereby gains everlasting life. The blood also signifies the spirit of life and the divine perfections, the lordly splendor and eternal bounty. For all the members of the body gain vital substance from the circulation of the blood.

    In the Gospel of St. John, chapter 6, verse 26, it is written: “Ye seek Me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.”

    It is evident that the bread of which the disciples ate and were filled was the heavenly bounty; for in verse 33 of the same chapter it is said: “For the bread of God is He which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” It is clear that the body of Christ did not descend from heaven, but it came from the womb of Mary; and that which descended from the heaven of God was the spirit of Christ. As the Jews thought that Christ spoke of His body, they made objections, for it is said in the 42nd verse of the same chapter: “And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?”

    Reflect how clear it is that what Christ meant by the heavenly bread was His spirit, His bounties, His perfections and His teachings; for it is said in the 63rd verse: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.”

    Therefore, it is evident that the spirit of Christ is a heavenly grace which descends from heaven; whosoever receives light from that spirit in abundance — that is to say, the heavenly teachings — finds everlasting life. That is why it is said in the 35th verse: “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.”

    Notice that “coming to Him” He expresses as eating, and “belief in Him” as drinking. Then it is evident and established that the celestial food is the divine bounties, the spiritual splendors, the heavenly teachings, the universal meaning of Christ. To eat is to draw near to Him, and to drink is to believe in Him. For Christ had an elemental body and a celestial form. The elemental body was crucified, but the heavenly form is living and eternal, and the cause of everlasting life; the first was the human nature, and the second is the divine nature. It is thought by some that the Eucharist is the reality of Christ, and that the Divinity and the Holy Spirit descend into and exist in it. Now when once the Eucharist is taken, after a few moments it is simply disintegrated and entirely transformed. Therefore, how can such a thought be conceived? God forbid! certainly it is an absolute fantasy.

    To conclude: through the manifestation of Christ, the divine teachings, which are an eternal bounty, were spread abroad, the light of guidance shone forth, and the spirit of life was conferred on man. Whoever found guidance became living; whoever remained lost was seized by  99  enduring death. This bread which came down from heaven was the divine body of Christ, His spiritual elements, which the disciples ate, and through which they gained eternal life.

    The disciples had taken many meals from the hand of Christ; why was the last supper distinguished from the others? It is evident that the heavenly bread did not signify this material bread, but rather the divine nourishment of the spiritual body of Christ, the divine graces and heavenly perfections of which His disciples partook, and with which they became filled.

    In the same way, reflect that when Christ blessed the bread and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is My body,”[1] and gave grace to them, He was with them in person, in presence, and form. He was not transformed into bread and wine; if He had been turned into bread and wine, He could not have remained with the disciples in body, in person and in presence.
    [1 Matt. 26:26.]

    Then it is clear that the bread and wine were symbols which signified: I have given you My bounties and perfections, and when you have received this bounty, you have gained eternal life and have partaken of your share and your portion of the heavenly nourishment.
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 98)

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