How is it that so many of my own profound experiences with God happen when food is around? Is it just coincidence? I don’t think so. There’s something deep, profound, and mysterious about the role food has in the story of God.
When I was in my 20s and I’d shipwrecked my faith, it was at weekly meals with a caring family where I experienced firsthand the hospitality of God. Community dinners that I’ve experienced both in the context of a church small group and in my neighborhood have been some of the most significant spiritual experiences of my life.
In fact, we might say that as we pay close attention to God’s story in the Bible, wherever God is, there is a snack, a meal, an overabundant feast. At every major plot point of the story, there you find God and food. Alexander Schmemann, in his book about Eucharist, begins with the line, “You are what you eat.”
Here’s how the story of the Bible unfolds.
In Genesis 2, we find God’s first command and prohibition. Before Moses, before the 10 Commandments, before even sin and death enter the world, God gives Adam one thing to do and one thing not to do: “You may freely eat the fruit of every tree in the garden—except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat its fruit, you are sure to die” (Genesis 2:15–17).
In other words, God’s first directive to a human being is, “Eat this. Not that.” Of all the things God might provide instructions to human beings about life, God begins with eating.
Likewise, food plays center stage when everything goes terribly wrong. There are three curses found in Genesis 3—first to the serpent, second to the woman, and third, and most extensively, to the man. The Hebrew of verses 17–19 is three lines of poetry with the verb “to eat” central in each line.
“Since you listened to your wife and ate from the tree
whose fruit I commanded you not to eat,
the ground is cursed because of you.
All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.
It will grow thorns and thistles for you,
though you will eat of its grains.
By the sweat of your brow
will you have food to eat
until you return to the ground
from which you were made.
For you were made from dust,
and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17–19).
Acquiring food, eating, having enough to eat—it will be a struggle. Just take notice of all the places within Genesis 2 and 3 that the words “eat” and “ate” show up. There’s something fundamental about both the right and wrong orderings of the universe that have to do with eating. Within the context of God’s relationship with humanity, it’s what’s broken, and it’s what’s being restored.
We come to the book of Exodus and the story of God’s people in slavery. God, one by one, clobbers the Egyptian deities, and at the grand conclusion, just before the big finale at the Red Sea, we find an interlude around a meal.
“These are the instructions for eating this meal: Be fully dressed, wear your sandals, and carry your walking stick in your hand. Eat the meal with urgency, for this is Yahweh’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11).
Again, take note of every time the word “eat” shows up in Exodus 12, outlining instructions about how to celebrate the Passover meal as an annual holiday. God wants to commemorate this victory with a yearly party.
God leads his people to Mt. Sinai where they’re given the Law. Among the more obscure individual laws for us modern people today are the food laws found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Most notable in these lists is no pork.
Why does God care what the Israelites eat? Of all the things a deity could make seemingly arbitrary rules about, why food? In one sense, it echoes the Genesis story (“Eat this. Not that.”) Another way of considering this is God placing limits on humans’ consumption of God’s creation. As if God might be saying, “I really like these. Don’t eat these.” Notably, it’s only animals that get ruled out. There are no prohibitions about eating plants.
And yet another, and perhaps more significant way of considering it, is that the animals that are prohibited from being eaten are also excluded from being offered on the altar as sacrifices to God. If it’s not appropriate on the altar, it’s not appropriate for the human body.
And the sacrificial system given to Israel was concerned not only about what they ate but also about who they ate with. To bring a sacrifice to the altar was to initiate a meal both with God and with the community. As John Goldingay writes, “Israel’s worship thus combined the order of a banquet and the celebration of a barbecue.” Eating was central to the worship of Israel.
And then we come to Jesus. I’ve heard it said that Jesus eats so much in the Gospels that if he hadn’t walked everywhere, he would’ve been fat. The Gospel of Luke, especially, portrays Jesus as eating everywhere he goes, a bit like Brad Pitt’s character in Ocean’s 11.
When a crowd of 5,000 follow him to a rural place, Jesus is most concerned about what they’re going to eat, and he feeds them all. When he tells a story about what the end of everything will be like, he describes a banquet. He eats with the wrong people. He invites himself to a meal at Zacchaeus’s house. When the disciples walking to Emmaus encounter the resurrected Jesus, somehow, they don’t recognize Jesus until they all sit down to eat. Jesus and food go together like peanut butter and jelly—or maybe better, bread and wine.
Most important in the Jesus story is the Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. The death and resurrection could have happened at anytime, but it gets tethered explicitly to the Passover story and the Passover meal.
And so, it’s the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist that has become central to Christian worship ever since. Each week we rehearse the words, “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is coming again,” all while remembering the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. We remember the eating in the garden, the eating at Passover, and we look forward to eating at the banquet in the kingdom of God.
Finally, we come to the end of the story. Sure, there are a lot of crazy images throughout Revelation, but the most significant one is where it all lands—an epic feast.
“Let us be glad and rejoice, and let us give honor to him. For the times has come for the wedding feast of the Lamb, and his bride has prepared herself” (Revelation 19:7).
The story begins with two trees: Eat this, not that. The story ends around a banquet table. From the garden to the table—how fitting.
It’s with this in mind that church potlucks are one of the most spiritual and theological things we can do together. They point us towards the imagery of Exodus 25:11, Isaiah 25, Luke 14, and Revelation 19.
It’s with this in mind that we make space in our busy lives to eat with one another. We make space to eat with our neighbors. We make space to eat with strangers. We make space to eat with them and with God.
I once visited a Jewish Shabbat service, and the rabbi closed with my most favorite benediction ever:
They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.
If you want to go deeper, you should check these out:
Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba
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