03/24/2013 02:06 pm ET Updated May 24, 2013

With Liberty, Justice and Manna for All: Israelites in the Desert on Welfare

Early in "Oliver Twist," a starving, orphaned Oliver asks, "Please, sir, I want some more [food]." The shocked orphanage master responds by clobbering, imprisoning, disparaging and eventually evicting Oliver.

Contrast God's response to the starving, recently liberated Israelites' requests for food (as well as water, safety,and law). God grants their requests promptly, without objection, implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of their request.

This often-overlooked, but important fact requires us to reject a common picture of the Israelites as ungrateful whiners. If their requests are legitimate, the Israelites shouldn't be blamed for making them.

This is not just a niggling, interpretive point; it has implications for the modern world. God's response reveals that liberty is worthless unless the free are also fed, safe, and living under the rule of law.

Are the Israelites Whiners?

According to the whiner interpretation, God bestows a great gift merely by liberating the Israelites from bondage. Then they make numerous further demands. They demand to be defended against the pursuing Egyptian army (Exodus 14:11-12). Then they demand water (Exodus 15:24), food (Exodus 16:3), water again (Exodus 17:2-3), meat (Numbers 11:4-6), and food and water again (Numbers 20:3-5). Arguably, the Golden Calf debacle begins with a demand for leadership and law (Exodus 32:1).

On the whiner interpretation, God gives the Israelites a great gift: freedom, the ability to pursue their own well-being. But instead of fending for themselves, they demand further handouts. God did plenty for the Israelites by liberating them. How dare they ask for more! To use a distinction currently popular on the Right, the Israelites in the desert are takers rather than makers.

The whiner interpretation is embodied in a traditional Passover song called Dayenu, a Hebrew word which means roughly, "it would have been enough." The song says that if God had liberated the Israelites, but not defended them at the Reed Sea, it would have been enough. Had He defended them, but not fed them, it would have been enough. Had he fed them, but not given them laws, it would have been enough.

But as argumentative kids often remark around the Seder table, the song is wrong. It would not have been enough to bring the Israelites into the wilderness and then abandon them to be massacred, starve or fall into anarchy. And of course God does no such thing.

As the rest of the Bible shows, God is not slow to criticize and chastise the Israelites when they do something wrong. But unlike the orphanage master in "Oliver Twist," God does not freak out and strike out when the Israelites ask for more in the desert. Instead, God fulfills their requests without the slightest hesitation or objection. This is the Bible's way of indicating that their requests are perfectly legitimate.

The Israelites say to Moses, "Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" (Exodus 17:3). They are quite right; to give people freedom and then allow them to die of thirst would be doing them no favor. By itself, the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery would not have been of any value at all. Their liberation is actually of great value, but only because it is combined with the nurturing that God provides in the desert.

An Objection: The Request for Meat

But wait! God does react with anger and retaliation to the Israelites request for meat (Numbers 11:18-20). Doesn't that support the whiner interpretation?

The request for meat must be seen in context. When the Israelites first ask for food, God tells Moses that He will provide bread, but Moses tells the Israelites that God will provide meat as well as bread (Exodus 16:4-11). This puts God in a bind. Sticking with his original offer to provide only bread would undermine the credibility of His prophet, so God provides meat. Alas, this raises the expectations of the Israelites. Thus, they later request meat, a request which God considers illegitimate.

The striking difference between God's reaction to the request for meat and His reaction to the other requests highlights the crucial distinction between luxuries and necessities. Requests for necessities are legitimate; God honors them without question. But meat is a luxury in the ancient world. Requests for luxuries are illegitimate; God responds with criticism and punishment.

The whiner interpretation is not completely wrong. The Israelites do make an illegitimate request. But only one, and only because they are misled by God's earlier gift of meat.

Morals for the Modern World

Moral No. 1: Politicians who guard people's liberty jealously while denying them the opportunity to satisfy their basic needs are not providing a great good, or even a moderate good. Rather they are providing something worthless -- like throwing a designer watch rather than a life preserver to a non-swimmer drowning in shark-infested waters. Rather than acting in the way that God acts toward the Israelites, these politicians are acting like the master of Oliver's orphanage.

Moral No. 2: What about people who cannot satisfy their own basic needs? The Israelites are able-bodied, but unable to farm until they come to arable land, unable to defend themselves at the Reed Sea, and unable to make their own laws (presumably because they lack experience at self-governance). God provides food, water, safety and law until the Israelites can provide these things for themselves. Today, to determine who should qualify for government aid, we shouldn't ask whether people are able-bodied. Instead, we should ask whether they are able to find work, defend themselves against potential exploiters, and live under an adequate legal code.

Moral No. 3: Rhetorically, the makers/takers distinction suggests that there are two sorts of people: freeloaders and job-creators (i.e. self-supporters who also contribute to society). But this is a false dichotomy. There is a third sort of person. In the apt phrase of Ronald Regan some people are truly needy.