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‘Not by bread alone’: A cruel adage

This article represents the resumption of a different kind of column I had written every Sunday two years back, titled “Sunday Read,” which I ceased writing for various reasons. Sunday Read this time around will be devoted to topics other than politics and economics, the fare of my Monday, Wednesday and Friday pieces.

After all, a human being’s existence involves much more than the impact of the nation’s politics and economy on his life. Most of a man’s concerns and interests in his daily life are more important than what, say, the government has been doing, how the insurgency could affect him, how political forces are moving.

It may surprise laymen that many journalists, because they are so obsessed with their work, often forget that politics and business aren’t really that important for most people. Sophomoric these topics may seem, humans really are more concerned about such very personal things as the meaning of their actually short lives, death, religion, sex, spirituality, love and family.

Diverging from the mundane topics of my columns during weekdays, I’ll be devoting this Sunday Read to things that I had initially thought would be under the genre of things that weren’t “bread,” in the sense of that famous biblical passage in Matthew 4:4 (also Luke 4:4): “And Jesus answered him, saying, ‘It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.’”

This has been interpreted by the religious people to mean that humans must have God in their lives and not just things that enable them to survive physically. However, the passage has evolved to become a secular adage to mean that man’s existence is not just physical, but involves non-physical things such as love, family relationships, meaning, goals, art.

And so I had initially planned to name my column “Not by bread alone,” or something like that, to signify that the articles that will be appearing under that title are devoted to topics other than “bread,” which are: politics and economics.

But as has been my habit, I researched what exactly that biblical passage meant. It turns out that, in the way many New Testament passages were regurgitations of Old Testament (or Torah) sayings, this not-by-bread-alone passage was from Deuteronomy 8:2-3, which reads:

“He humbled you, and in your hunger gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had known, so that you might understand that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

What the original passage, in effect, was saying: Man does not live by bread alone; he can live by manna. And what is this magic food? “A fine, flake-like thing” like frost on the ground (as described in Exodus), which Yahweh — the God of the Hebrews — rained on them for six days, when they ran out of food during their escape from Egypt, going by the Chosen People’s account.

Now, how metaphysical (read: unreal, superstitious) can one get? The passage, in effect, is saying bread isn’t the only food you can get; there’s manna, which God will give you if you believe in him.

More importantly, other than that nonsense that man can live not just on ordinary food like bread but on the miracle food manna, that passage really is disturbing in this day and age, as Marc Saperstein, professor emeritus of Jewish history at George Washington University, wrote:

“Krister Stendhal (the late renowned Swedish theologian, who was professor at Harvard Divinity School) once said at a faculty colloquium, ‘This verse means something quite different when you quote it to a group of people who are wealthy, than it does when you quote it to a group of people who are hungry.’

“That was a powerful insight for me. To the wealthy, who may have inherited fortunes that would allow them to enjoy a lifetime of leisure without ever working, the message is: ‘Don’t think that your gastronomic pleasures, your fine foods and expensive wines, your conspicuous consumption of consumer goods, are what is ultimately important. There is much more to life than this.’ That is a message that most of us would think is appropriate.

“Quoting the same verse to a group of the countless millions of people on this earth who go to bed hungry each night, who do not know where their next meal will come from, the meaning is quite different:

“‘Don’t complain that you haven’t enough food; it’s not the body but the spirit that is most important; you will eventually get your reward in the spiritual realm for your suffering here on earth.’ We would never say to a family of Syrian refugees from Aleppo who had lost their homes and all their possessions, and have no money to buy clothing or food, ‘Remember: man does not live by bread alone.’”

In this modern age when two-thirds of mankind are poor or in the midst of wars, that man-doesn’t-live-by-bread-alone adage is a cruel one.

So I junked the idea of naming this Sunday Read as “Not by Bread Alone.” This discussion on the not-by-bread-alone thing is the kind of articles you’ll read in this every-Sunday column.


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