The First Temptation of Christ: Bread?

Reflection on the Readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent (Mar 1, 2020by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

Tests and temptations are common in the Bible. The primordial test in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-7), in the First Reading, is a serious warning that human beings must not be too confident of themselves. They can fail a test as the first pages of the Bible inform us.

Great people underwent tests and overcame them: Abraham (Gen 22), Hagar (Gen 21:9- 1), Moses (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9), Elijah (1 Kgs 19:4-8) and Job (chaps. 1-2). No wonder a late book of the Old Testament (around 300 years before Jesus’ time), the Book of Sirach, the sage shares his piece of wisdom when he compares a tested righteous person with a “gold tested by fire” (2:5).

More than 400 years later, a leader of the Christian community encourages the followers of Jesus to “rejoice” in the midst of various trials “so that the genuineness of your faith– being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire– may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).

The Hebrew word for “test,” “nissah” literally means “to lift up” The noun “nes” means “flag”. The rabbis then explain that the purpose of testing is to “lift up” the righteous like a flag, quoting Psalm 60:6 “You have given a flag [“nes”] to those who fear you, that it may be displayed because of truth”.

Israel’s forty years of struggle in the wilderness (Deut 8:2-6) appears to be the background of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Notice that Jesus quoted three times the Book of Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:13; 6:16). There are two significant differences in these two episodes. While Israel failed the tests several times, Jesus prevailed over them. It was God who tested Israel, while it was Satan who tempted Jesus.

Perhaps, a better background to this would the series of tests that the “adversary” (“satan” in Hebrew) conducted on Job (in the first two chapters of the book).

Nonetheless, the New Testament uses the wilderness trials of Israel not only to depict the temptation of Jesus but also the trials of the Church (1 Cor 10:1-10). It is no wonder that the Church reflects on this common human lot every first Sunday of Lent when we read a Gospel account of Jesus in the wilderness.

The typical place of tests is the wilderness. More than half of the Land of Israel is desert. The desert is unforgiving. Rain is rare but when it rains it is in a sudden storm causing dangerous flashfloods. The Book of Deuteronomy describes the desert as a “great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions” (8:15). Scholars, however, wonder which desert Jesus was tested in. There is no desert in Galilee (northern region of Israel) and thus locate it in the Judean desert in the south.

The three synoptic Gospels attest to this tradition of temptation albeit with reasonable differences—Mark is the shortest (1:12-13); Matthew (this year’s Gospel Reading) has three separate temptations moving from the desert to the pinnacle of the Temple to a high mountain (4:1-11); Luke reverses the last two temptations so that the climax occurs at the Temple, where his Gospel begins and ends (4:1-13). A text in the Letter to the Hebrews also mentions that Jesus “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

John does not have a temptation in the wilderness narrative but he recounts a number of tests that Jesus had to face in his public ministry (6:26, 30-31; 7:3; 12:20, 27). The most obvious is the temptation to make more bread (6:30-31).

Why bread? There is an expression “staff of bread” (Lev 26:26; Ezek 5:16; 14:13) which implies that bread enables one to “walk”. It means that as bread is essential for one’s physical sustenance, it is also needed to conduct and direct oneself properly and wisely. “Mens sana in corpore sano” (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), as the old Latin adage says. The devil does not only tempt Jesus to satisfy the latter’s physical hunger, but also to seduce him to reorient (or better, disorient) Jesus’ life according to the devil’s way. No wonder Jesus’ retort is a metaphor quoted from the Torah: “One does not live by bread alone” (cf. Deut 8:3).

Bread in the wilderness is a contradiction in terms. Expect no bread in the wilderness (see Mt 14:15). There is only bread when there is enough rain to cause the wheat or barley to produce grain.The devil is tempting Jesus to transform the desert into a fertile land or at least to an oasis. What is wrong with this? In fact, the devil is proposing a practical solution to the economic problem of Israel–lack of food because of lack of rain, long before the invention of the trickling irrigation system as used today in the Judean desert.

In ancient Canaanite religion (the religion of the neighbors of Israel), the one who causes to rain is the god Baal. Thus, he is called, “god of thunder”.

The temptation apparently is not only about an instant satisfaction of hunger after many days of fasting, but it is about turning to Baal rather than to YHWH and to attempt to make Jesus Baal—the “baalization” of Jesus.”

This temptation is reflected later when the devil is called, Beelzebul (literally “Lord Baal”) and when Jesus himself is accused to be the incarnation of Beelzebul (Mt 12:24). Thus, in the second and the third temptations that followed afterwards, the devil tried to dissuade Jesus from worshipping the true God who is YWHWH.

What is the First Temptation? If we answer in our current context, it is to confuse Jesus with the present-day Baals: power, money, ambition, greed, including (but not only) the so-called Seven Deadly Sins.

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