By Skye Jethani
May 30, 2022
The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, made an observation about the opening chapter of Exodus that has transformed the way I read the Bible. You may recall that the king of Egypt was concerned that the Hebrews living in Egypt were becoming too numerous. He viewed them as a threat to his power and the prosperity of his people. So, Pharaoh subjugated the Hebrews, made them slaves in his empire, and when they continued to grow he ordered the murder of every Hebrew baby boy. Brueggemann said, “Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, ‘There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.'”
Behind Pharaoh’s brutality and injustice was the fear of scarcity. It’s a theme that occurs throughout the Bible, throughout human history, and which still plagues modern societies. For example, in 2021, Heather McGhee wrote a book exploring the link between America’s history of racism and the fear of scarcity called The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. In it, she features the research of two Harvard Business School professors—Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers. About ten years ago, Norton and Sommers researched why so many white Americans felt they were being left behind economically when the data showed whites still out-earned every other group in the country. Their findings made headlines. As Sommers explained, “It turns out that the average white person views racism as a zero-sum game. If things are getting better for Black people, it must be at the expense of white people.”
At the time, racial minorities were more visible in the culture, elite institutions were more diverse than ever before, and America had just elected its first Black president. Like Pharaoh’s fear that if the Hebrews prospered then the Egyptians could not, white Americans increasingly believed that their prosperity required denying prosperity to people of color. McGhee came to believe this “was as the root of our country’s dysfunction.” “There’s an us and a them, and what’s good for them is bad for us.” Or, as Walter Brueggemann said, there is a scarcity of wealth, power, and resources, and because there’s not enough for everyone we have to fight to get as much as we can.
This zero-sum, scarcity mindset that dates back to Exodus 1 and which always leads to fear and injustice, exists in stark contrast to the abundance of Israel’s God who provided water from rocks and bread from heaven while his people wandered in the wilderness. From the creation account onward, the presence of the Lord was always accompanied by an abundance of resources so that everything and everyone might flourish and have life. Simply put, where God is present there is always enough. Therefore, fear is unnecessary, and rather than seeing others as threats or competitors for a limited supply of resources, we are set free to embrace them as friends and welcome them as companions to share the unending fountain of God’s provision.
It’s this biblical contrast between scarcity and abundance, between the world’s empires and God’s kingdom, that must inform how we read the stories of Jesus feeding the multitudes. Each story begins with the problem of scarcity—there are thousands of people but only a few loaves and fish. How will so little feed so many? In each story, this scarcity causes the disciples anxiety and even anger. While they do not exhibit the same evil and injustice as Pharaoh, their fear represents the first steps down that dark path. But Jesus intervenes and shows them another way. “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied” (Mark 6:41-42).
The empires of this world are driven by scarcity. They convince us to be afraid, to feel threatened by others, and they teach us to justify our selfishness and greed. And when they have fully shaped our imaginations and affections, like Pharaoh, they turn us into agents of evil who will endorse any injustice to keep our family, tribe, or nation safe and prosperous. That is not the way of Jesus. His is not a zero-sum kingdom of winners and losers, but rather a kingdom of abundance where there is always more than enough for everyone.