Life in the Tongue

And in their heart they put God to the test by asking for food [g]that suited their taste.  Psalm 78:18

That suited their taste – The Bible has a lot to say about the tongue, most of it not very pleasant.  The tongue is a source of disagreement, the power of life and death, the instrument of “binding and loosing,” a vehicle of carelessness, a place of praise, and a way to rule.  Perhaps that’s why the translators decided to render le napšām as if it were about taste when the actual word is about the person.  TWOT mentions this idiomatic use:

About twenty times, however, nepeš is the subject of ʾāwâ “to desire,” “to crave.” Here it is not the hunger/appetite/desire itself but that which possesses the appetite, “the soul.”[1]

Thus nepeš occurs with many verbs denoting “yearning”; cf. the idiom he set his soul “to long after, yearn” for someone, something (Deut 24:15; Hos 4:8; Prov 19:18; Jer 22:27; 44:14; etc.).[2]

Since personal existence by its very nature involves drives, appetites, desires, will, nepeš denotes the “life” of an individual. [3]

Accordingly, in some passages nepeš is best translated by “life,” but “life” here denotes the living self with all its drives, not the abstract notion “life” which is conveyed by ḥayyim, nor the other meaning of ḥayyim which refers to a quality of existence as well as the temporal notion of being (cf. the use of ḥayyim in Deut and Prov). Westermann noted that when nepeš occurs as the subject of the verb it is usually rendered “soul”—desires, inclinations, etc.; as the object of the verb it is frequently rendered by “life”—the state of personal existence as over against death.[4]

With this in mind, perhaps we should read the verse as “that suited their appetites.”  It isn’t about liking or not liking the food God provided, that is, how it tasted.  This is not an episode of “Master Chef.”  This idiom is a statement about the essential craving of the people, their insatiable appetite to have everything they want.  It’s the yetzer ha’ra unleased.  That’s why God reacts so strongly to what appears to be the normal desire for food, because this isn’t the normal desire.  This is addiction.  Oh, it’s not addiction to food.  It’s addiction to desire.  They just can’t get enough of getting enough no matter what they are given or how much they are given.  There’s something in them that has to have more—of anything that will temporarily satisfy.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?  Temporary satisfaction.  It doesn’t last.  Like all addictions, it comes back with the compulsion to have it again, only this time with more of whatever it is.  More, more, more.  That is the craving of these people, and perhaps of our entire Western humanity.  That’s why such behavior puts God to the test.  It’s not that God doesn’t want His people to be satisfied.  He does.  And He’s willing to provide for those needs in order that we don’t experience lives of constant existential and spiritual malnutrition.  But true satisfaction, satisfaction that fulfills completely, is in God, not in what He offers.  It’s not what God gives.  It’s who He is.  Everything else has the potential to become an unsatiated compulsion.

God brought His people to the wilderness so that they might find delight in Him.  The wilderness is essential in this pursuit because it is a place where there are no other distractions.  You and I cannot survive in the emptiness.  It surrounds us, even when there is enough to eat.  That motivates us to look toward God, the author and finisher of our emptiness. But, of course, we can also push against the emptiness by forcing it to satisfy our compulsions—again, and again, and again.  We can believe (and it’s a choice) that Egypt is our real satisfier, that what we had in slavery was what we want now because it stopped the craving–temporarily.  What we must have is another anesthetic fix.

You see the picture.  What suits your nepeš?  What really stops the craving?  Or maybe you just don’t know because the next wave of compulsion has already begun.

Topical Index:  nepeš, person, desire, craving, addiction, Psalm 78:18

[1] Waltke, B. K. (1999). 1395 נָפַשׁ. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 588). Chicago: Moody Press.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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George Kraemer

This is a great final supplement to the study program we just finished, Bewilderments by Avivah Zornberg. Thanks for summarizing it in such a comprehensive way!