Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

24 January 2011


When the devil counsels Jesus to turn stones into bread after those forty days in the wilderness without eating, Jesus remarks that “People do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4 TNIV). Or, in the King James Version—which I’m trying to make a habit of visiting this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of its publication—“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”

It’s such a strange and, for me, unsatisfying statement, especially when I consider it in light of the physicality of the description—wilderness, stones, bread, hunger, mouths. It’s hard for me to imagine not eating for forty days. I’m guessing that long of a fast in a rocky wilderness would make every stone a loaf in one’s imagination. How can mere words allay such a hunger?

For us, the meaning of Jesus’ temptation story may be largely symbolic—or, in any case, not directly applicable to actual hunger, actual rock-fantasies, actual bread, but rather temptations of a more general and less physical nature. After all, who among us is likely to end up starving to death in a desert littered with stones? If you are like me, you have probably never experienced genuine hunger, and, even if you had, your temptations would not lie in the realm of feeding yourself. But, for Jesus, who was 100% man—emptied out of his divinity, if I understand Philippians 2:7 aright—and actually in these circumstances, without food for forty days in an actual wilderness littered with stones, this sentence means differently.

So, I was thinking about that. About words from God’s mouth assuaging the direst hunger, feeding a person—indeed, engendering and nourishing and sustaining life itself. And so I got to thinking about the whole concept of words as food—specifically, the detail of our original design that words exit from the place where food enters—and the startling image of being fed directly from God’s mouth. Mouth-to-mouth feeding, so to speak, a method of nourishment that mothers of small children practiced in prehistoric times and still do to this day in some cultures but that, in contemporary Western culture, many find disgusting (even though, interestingly, we have no objection to kissing and other mouth-body exchanges).

In any case, the first thing that came to my mind in reflecting on our food coming from God’s mouth was not mothers prechewing their babies’ food but, of course, the mouth-to-mouth feeding that I witness every spring and summer in my yard. The barn swallows that build their nest in the eaves of our house feed their young in exactly that way. The little babies sit waiting all day with their enormous mouths wide open, while both parents bullet back and forth across the yard: foraging frantically, racing back to the nest, dropping a bit in each mouth, going for more. This goes on for weeks, right up until the fledglings swoop down from nest themselves and fly away.

I often see male cardinals feeling full-grown female cardinals. It’s called mate feeding and is a common practice in many bird species. Scientists disagree about its purpose. Some suppose it provides food while the female is too preoccupied with the activities of childbearing—building a nest, brooding, and raising her young—to have much time left over to get food on her own. Others say it provides needed additional nutrition as her body prepares to produce offspring. Still others argue that, since mate feeding occurs not only when the female is nesting but throughout the breeding season, it may help the female decide on a mate: the male that provides for her, or perhaps finds the delicacies she likes best, is the one she will choose. It may, on the other hand, be a courting ritual that keeps the two birds together longer—and thus likelier to produce more and healthier offspring. And it could also simply be in certain male birds’ genes to feed others in general—babies, eligible girlfriends, mates, whoever.

I once saw a male cardinal feeding a full-grown female brown-headed cowbird. The weirdest thing ever. She just sat there on a branch while he went back and forth to the feeder, got her another bite, and another, for close to an hour. If they hadn’t kept it up for so long and if I hadn’t Googled and found others describing the same amazing event, I would have thought I imagined it. (The explanation, in case you aren’t up on your birds, is that cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, so females—and, presumably, pairs—grow up thinking they’re of the same species and thus viable mates. As far as I know, though, cardinals and cowbirds can’t produce offspring together.)

Back, though, to being fed words from God’s mouth. To summarize, the notion of eating anything that, as the KJV rather graphically describes it, “proceedeth out of” another’s mouth is a bit repellent. But the birds have shown me the implicit caring—love even—at the root. God’s Word—or God’s words, as I like to undo this expression for the Bible—becomes actual nourishment that enables me to grow and leave the nest and, eventually, share words with others.

In the passage from scripture that Jesus is quoting from while he is being tempted, Moses, having just issued the Ten Commandments (words), reminds the Israelites of an important connection between wilderness, hunger, bread, and words. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years,” he tells them. “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that people do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:2,3 TNIV).

Although Jesus quotes the passage using a word for “word” common in the Greek of the New Testament, the same word in the original Hebrew passage (מוֹצָא, motsa—it rhymes with matzoh, the Jewish unleavened bread, but is not the same word) is relatively rare, appearing only twenty-seven times in the entire Old Testament and translated as the English word word only in this one instance. Everywhere else it means something along the lines of “that which comes out.”

We don’t live from bread—or mannah or matzoh or any other nourishment we think essential to life—but from that which comes out of God. God’s breath, originally. God’s words, thereafter, which culminate in God’s son, the Word.

The prophet Jeremiah previewed what should be our response to this mystery. He says to God,
When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight. (Jeremiah 15:16)
Like those baby swallows in the nest, he sat open-mouthed, hungry, desperate to be fed.


Dena Dyer said...

I love this! And I'm really, really glad you've joined the High Calling Blogs network. We all look forward to getting to know you better. :)

Patty Kirk said...

Thanks for commenting!

The HIgher Calling looks like a good little network of blogs.
I'm glad I'm officially in it now. I was invited to join because a chapter of my food memoir, Starting from Scratch, had been anthologized in The Spirit of Food, which the High Calling members were discussing. I was really looking forward to participating in that discussion. After I registered, though, I kept not being able to post. Eventually, I figured out it was because my email system had eaten the emails I needed. Good to know it's okay now.

Jill Gilbert said...

Where is your new blog?

patty kirk said...

Hi Jill,

I don't know how I missed this comment. Just overwhelmed with stuff, I guess. It's http://www.pattykirk-writer.blogspot.com.