Demand Feeding and the Desire for God: A Brief Play at Exegesis

Rachel Muers,
University of Leeds

1 Peter 2:2-3

(2)?? ??????????? ????? ?? ?o???o? ?????? ???? ???????????, ??? ?? ???? ???????? ??? ????????, (3) ?? ????????? ??? ??????? ? ????o?.

(2) Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation — (3) if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 2:2 is, appropriately enough given its subject matter, a good text to play with. It has its fair share of debatable points of translation and interpretation, few of which constitute or relate to troubling problems for doctrine or ethics, and at least some of which are not about to be settled. [ii] It has the (for Western Christian scholars) exotic appeal of possible connections to Syriac texts [iii] ; it has an interpretation history that allows a succession of serious thinkers to show their gentler sides [iv] — a history that can be followed through the developments of metaphors, images and symbols rather than chiefly through doctrinal debates. It is, you might say, cute — even if it does, on longer acquaintance, become more messy and even threaten to keep one awake at night.

David Ford has never been prepared to compromise on the seriousness of the theological task, and its significance for what he describes as ?the world?s great challenges?; but he also takes seriously the playfulness of theology, a consequence of its orientation towards God for God?s own sake and ?for naught? else. Wisdom, we hear (on at least one possible translation of the relevant text) is in the presence of God at the establishment of the heavens and the earth, playing like a little child (Proverbs 8:30-1); and Ford?s work on Christian wisdom repeatedly brings to mind this interrelation of wisdom and play, not least as he attends, at the beginning of his latest book, to the children sitting in the marketplace calling out to one another. [v] This is by way of excuse for contributing, to a celebration of David Ford?s work, a piece that has more to do with play than with weighty scholarship, and that, if it wrestles with scripture, does so more as a game than as a struggle for existence.

Like many games with children, it begins by noticing something that grown-ups normally presume to be incidental — such as the detail of an illustration — and for a moment taking it to be the main point. I focus, for the sake of the game, on the image of the newborn baby that ?longs for? milk — and, presumably, lets the world know about it — and on the various possible responses to that baby, the various approaches to (as Winston Churchill put it, in his inimitable style) ?putting milk into babies?. [vi] I can imagine a range of readings of this text corresponding to a range of approaches to infant feeding, all variously supported within the rest of 1 Peter and the scholarly literature.

Thus: my grandparents? generation, following an approach that is now returning to fashion, were encouraged from a very early stage to regulate their children?s desire for milk according to a predetermined timetable — a timetable that would, according to the experts, ensure that the children grew up both adequately nourished and properly disciplined. 1 Peter, we note, addresses its readers frequently as ?obedient? children (1:14, 22), necessarily subjected to discipline to ensure that their life remains appropriate to their new birth (1:13, 4:7, 5:8), existing (for their own good) within somebody else?s timetable (e.g. 5:6), suppressing or eliminating wrong desires (1:14, 2:11).

Again: one generation of parents after another has been warned of the dangers of deceptive, or contaminated, milk for their children — whether that is the dangerous milk of lower-class wet-nurses, the formula milk that was presented in a recent set of US television advertisements as placing children at unacceptable risk, or breastmilk contaminated through environmental pollution. The authors of 1 Peter want to ensure that their readers receive only the right kind of sustenance, the unadulterated or undeceitful (taking a range of possible translations of adolon in 2:2); they want to separate this community out (as a holy nation, 2:9, a people in ?exile?, 1:1) from the contaminants of the surrounding environment. There is good and bad milk out there, and it is crucial for their healthy ?growth?, their growth into salvation, that the believers obtain a steady supply of the best sort of milk.

But then again: my parents, and I (as a mother proud to have read much more David Ford than Gina Ford), learned about child-led, or demand, breastfeeding. We were told, moreover, that this is how things have worked in most times and places. The child?s desire for milk, on this understanding, is part of what ensures that there is milk for her to drink; in a breastfeeding relationship, demand regulates supply.It makes sense to tell newborn children, not only to keep drinking (the right kind of) milk, but to keep crying out for the milk. The all-encompassing need of the infant, felt and expressed with her entire being — a need that makes her, as David Ford writes, ?all cry? [vii] — enables her to be nourished and to grow. And the infant will only go on crying if she meets with a response — so the injunction to ?long for the milk?, to go on crying, implies on this reading the promise of a response.

The commentators on this verse who note, rightly, that newborn children do not need to be told to want milk, do not note that children can be (and all eventually are, regardless of childrearing philosophy) taught not to want it at the ?wrong? times or from the ?wrong? people. [viii] At this point in 1 Peter, however, as it seems to me, the readers are not being encouraged to moderate their desires or become ?good children? (Contented Little Babies, to go back to Gina Ford [ix] ) — demanding only when it suits their parents, demanding only at the approved times, demanding only the right things. Nor, as commentators note, are they being gently encouraged to wean themselves off their current food and onto something more solid — this by contrast with other New Testament texts in which the imagery of milk is used (such as 1 Corinthians 3:2, Hebrews 5:12-14). Their desire — for something or other , and we must come to that — is being encouraged as essential to their growth — into something or other . Before they can be obedient children, or disciplined children, or patient children, or a holy nation, they have to be the newborn children who cry out with their whole being. Or perhaps, again as David Ford puts it — ?Desire is? the embracing mood of a life immersed in history and oriented towards the fulfilment of God?s purposes?. [x]

However, this is all to ignore the issue that has most preoccupied commentators on this verse — what is actually being referred to here, given that the addressees are not newborn children? Crucial here is the interpretation of logikon , which the NRSV renders as ?spiritual?. A first glance at the literature makes depressing reading for an interpreter (like me) who would like to use this passage to help her reassert the materiality of Christian hope and the inadequacy of dualistic presentations of Christianity. Logikos , which appears only twice in the NT, denotes, in philosophical texts of the period, that which distinguishes humanity from the animals, or spirit from matter. At the very least, logikos in this text alerts the reader (as if it were necessary, as if there were some particular risk to be averted here) to the presence of a metaphor. [xi] Logikos milk is, apparently, anything but the runny white stuff; which still leaves open the question about what it is, and about how the milk metaphor functions. I shall play a little more with two options that appear in the history of interpretation.

The King James Version, emphasising the logos in logikos , translated the passage as ?the sincere milk of the word?. Many recent commentaries take up, if not the letter of this translation, at least its spirit (or its logic). [xii] Milk is, after all, used elsewhere in the NT and in early Christian writings as a metaphor for proclamation or instruction. On such a reading, the addressees of 1 Peter are called to desire words, preaching, proclamation, perhaps the prophecies and the good news to which reference is made earlier in the letter (1:10-13) — as babies want milk.

This reading appears at first sight to keep the ?newborn baby? metaphor within strict limits. People who want words, who feed on words, cannot be very like newborn babies; logikos reaffirms the paradox of addressing the people who hear or read this text as babies. Becoming logikos or able to appreciate the logikos means moving beyond the stage where desires are nameless, immediate and all-encompassing, to the point where they can be described, examined, judged, learned or unlearned — where they can appear in words. At this point the possibility of a (gendered) dualism arises again in the mind of a suspicious interpreter. The text acknowledges materiality, acknowledges that which exceeds representation, and then hastens to bring it under the control of the logos/logikos . Children have to grow up quickly, get beyond attachments to material things, and prove that they are logikos by submitting to the proper (paternal/patriarchal) authorities (see 2:13-3:7).

Some other recent readings of logikon gala regard the link to ?word? as largely irrelevant, and seek instead a more expansive meaning. Thus for Karen Jobes the milk in question is the sustaining grace of God, which the believers show themselves to have ?ingested? insofar as their lives are transformed, and which they continue to desire as a precondition of their continuing transformation. Again, this interpretation may threaten to spiritualise the processes of Christian identity-formation and to separate the longing for spiritual milk even further from anything material (or maternal). What is desired is perhaps not even something as ?tangible? as words or preaching.

I wonder, however, whether logikos here admits of another reading, one that would not silence the suspicious voices but might do more justice to the scope of concern evidenced in this letter. The passage we are considering is not explicitly Christological, but the words of verse 3 — in their materiality, in the sounds they make — contain an echo; chrestos ho kurios , ?the Lord is good?, Christos ho kurios , Christ is Lord. This echo in turn serves as a reminder that the addressees of 1 Peter are being asked to relearn their desire in relationship to Jesus Christ. The indispensable condition of their need being met, of their being able to ?grow up to salvation?, is a particular human body. They do not long for just ?any old milk?, nor the milk that could be determined, through a detached assessment of their situation and needs, to be the best for them.

As various feminist critiques have pointed out, certain medical discussions of infant feeding do their best to ignore the fact that the breastmilk consumed by a baby comes in each case from somebody?s breasts.A range of alternative approaches attempt to read breastfeeding as a relationship, and the ?production? and ?consumption? of milk as intelligible only within the context of that relationship. It is probably not implausible to find, in a text written before the modern science of infant nutrition, connotations of profound intimacy in a reference to a baby?s desire for milk. What is received in response to the cry is not just something that meets the immediate need of which the cry is a symptom (the need for adequate nutrition); it is personal presence. All the other New Testament uses of epipothew , ?long for?, apart from the much-debated James 4:5, refer to the desire of one person for the presence of another or some others.

So the baby-like longing described in 1 Peter 2:2 may be linked, not only to a greater propensity to cry out, but to ?indescribable and glorious joy? (1:8) said to be experienced now by the addressees of the letter. Again to allude to David Ford?s work — the longing to see somebody face to face, and the joy of the face-to-face meeting, is not ?describable? as a list of desired items. Perhaps the word-as-milk might, also, be received through, and inseparable from, the love of particular others. The joy it gives might be ?indescribable? not only because it transcends the fulfilment of specific needs, but because it is found in these particular relationships of love.

The recipients of this letter are, I suggest, being reminded about the multiple embodied relationships through which they receive what they need for their ?growth? and learn to cry out for it. Christ is one from whom their food comes, who meets and calls out their needs, and whose presence they desire — and he is not spiritual as opposed to material. But then Christ is also the milk itself, logikon gala , because he is the gift they receive — the one they ?taste and see? within the community of which they are part, as they tell his story and eat together, and as they experience each other?s presence.

The readers of 1 Peter are, after all — hence the emphasis at other points on discipline and holiness — engaged in an intense process of communal transformation. Just as the words of this text do not allow the reader to forget their ?materiality? (working through their sounds, chrestos/Christos ), the letter as a whole does not allow its readers to forget the particular historical means through which ?life-sustaining? gifts are mediated to those who read it. The letter comes from somebody in particular (Peter, v. 1:1, but then also Silvanus, 5:12, and the ?sister church in Babylon?, and Mark, 5:13) to somebody in particular (?the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia?, 1:1). More problematically, it speaks to and presupposes various specific institutions (including not only ecclesial institutions, but slavery, the Roman Empire and the patriarchal family), which are offering some means of supplying material needs and forming embodied life — something a bit like milk — to the readers of the letter.

Even if it is right to read logikon gala as ?wordy? milk — scripture or proclamation — perhaps this text says something about the approaches to scripture that are appropriate to those who ?taste and see that the Lord is good?. Perhaps the text is not talking about a word that comes ?unadulterated? by anything material — purely logical, or simply spiritual — but about a word that is historical and embodied, that is only itself as historical and embodied, that does not transcend materiality by escaping it. In which case, the word-as-received, scripture read in communities, might turn out to be a little more like milk. It might have something to do with the meeting of real needs in the present, as well as something to do with helping people to grow beyond those needs (in ways they cannot identify in advance and may not be concerned with in advance). The word-as-received in communities might, as David Ford and other proponents of scriptural reasoning have suggested, respond to cries — including the most ?basic? cries, the cries of children to be fed — and call forth more cries from those who read and hear it. It might also bring about ?indescribable joy?, joy in being in the presence of others (within the texts and within the communities) through the encounter with whom the presence of Christ is made real.

As I read this text, I find that the milk metaphor is hard to contain. It refuses to keep its distance from the realities it is being used to describe — because its primary reference is to something universal and unavoidable. All the readers of this letter really were once crying children who needed milk and a cuddle, and all of them really still are people who exist in some particular set of relationships of dependence and love, and who have crying needs and profound longings that arise within those relationships. They are now, as 1 Peter repeatedly recalls, in a position to recognise that they might have learned to ?long for? things that are not good for them, and that the process of unlearning this longing — coming off the junk food — could be difficult.

Playing with this text, however, suggests to me that the result of such unlearning is an equally, or more, profound longing that is equally, or even more, concerned with the whole person (the logikos and the infant) — and the ?growth? to which that longing is essential might have an equally wide reference. There might be genuine Christian wisdom about the feeding of infants; it might even be worth crying out for, or losing sleep over. But the pursuit of this or any other urgent concern would not — as 1 Peter suggests and as David Ford?s work has demonstrated — be incompatible with rejoicing in God for God?s own sake.


[i] I am grateful to Mike Higton and David Horrell for their help in the preparation of this article.

[ii] As Karen Jobes notes, in certain Christian communities the text is a focus for reflection on the inerrancy and sufficiency of scripture, and there are issues in translation and interpretation that would affect those debates. Karen H. Jobes , “Got Milk? Septuagint Psalm 33 and the Interpretation of 1 Peter 2:1-3,” Westminster Theological Journal 64.1 (2002), pp. 1-14, here p. 1.

[iii] The Odes of Solomon, especially 8:14, 19, and 35:5.

[iv] See for example the discussion of the imagery of the ?milk of the word? in Puritan rhetoric, in Marylynn Salmon, ?The Cultural Significance of Breastfeeding and Infant Care in Early Modern England and America?, Journal of Social History 28/2 (1994), pp. 247-269.

[v] David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p.14f., a discussion of Luke 7:18-35.

[vi] In case anyone is wondering, he was not actually talking about breastfeeding; he was talking about the distribution of cows?-milk-based products during wartime, and its contribution to national security. See Pam Carter, Feminism, Breasts and Breastfeeding (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995), p. 55.

[vii] Christian Wisdom p. 23.

[viii] In fact, the commentaries tend to assume, as they explain the metaphorical ?vehicle? that the longing of a baby to be fed — if we can even articulate the desire so clearly — is straightforwardly identifiable as a longing for breastmilk, taken as the obvious literal referent of ?unadulterated milk?. Babies, a recent advertising campaign in the USA claimed, are born to breastfeed. I am not so sure; my experience and anecdotal evidence suggests that suckling, as much as feeding from a bottle, is something babies learn to do, and learn to want to do.

[ix] Gina Ford, The Contented Little Baby Book (London: Vermilion, 1999).

[x] Christian Wisdom , p. 50.

[xi] On all this see J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Word Biblical Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 1988), p. 87.

[xii] See on this Jobes, ?Got Milk??.

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