From the Book of Exodus:
An omer is a tenth of an ephah.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 16:36 (NRSV) – May 2, 2014.)
An ephah is a bushel, about 35 liters. Ten ephahs make a homer; a tenth of an ephah is an omer. (I’ll bet that was sometimes confusing.) So an omer is 3.5 liters, just a little bit shy of a gallon.
Measurement is a human activity, a very necessary human activity. Accurate measurement is the basis of commerce — consider the weighing of commodities bought and sold, and the counting of the money (whatever it may be) with which the buying and selling is done. Accurate measurement is the basis of science — consider the search for ever more refined units of length, from the distance a horse could walk in a day, to the length of a king’s forearm, to the marks on standard bars of precious metal, to the wavelength of radiation from a krypton atom, to the distance light travels in a measurable fraction of a second. Measurement gives us control over our environment.
Or so it seems. Ultimately, all units of measurement are arbitrary, chosen by humans because they make human existence manageable, but they do not actually give us control over anything. They give us only the illusion of control.
Remember the old conundrum about a tree falling in the forest? “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to observe it, does it make a sound?” In other words, if someone is not there to measure the phenomenon, does it really happen? This is the riddle of modern physics expressed in the equations of quantum mechanics: the mathematics suggest that subatomic phenomena exist as “probability waves” and, until observed and measured, do not actually occur. Once observed, the wave function collapse; measurement causes a discontinuous change into an eigenstate, a discrete, “pinned-down” value. Once we have measured the system, we know its current state and this stops it from being in any other possible state.
But what if no one observes? What if no one measures? Quantum mechanics (and superstring theory which theoretical physicists have developed further from it) has always seemed to me rather theological. Obviously things have happened; subatomic phenomena have occurred; wave functions have collapsed. If an Observer is necessary for this to happen . . . Who is that Observer? And is that Observer thereby in control?
I’ll leave that to ponder another day and, for now, rely on common sense. If a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound — it is not controlled by any human observer, by an human measurement. “An omer is a tenth of an ephah,” is a verse of scripture that reminds us that human measurement does not equate to human control.
This verse is found at the end of the story of God’s provision of manna to the Hebrews wandering the desert. Manna, “like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey,” (Ex 16:31) condensed with the dew each morning and the Hebrews gathered it for their daily sustenance, “some gathering more, some less.” (Ex 16:17)
They could measure it, but they could not control it: “When they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.” (Ex 16:18) They could not gather more than they needed. If they tried to gather more and keep it to the next day, “it bred worms and became foul.” (Ex 16:20) Only on the sixth day were they permitted to gather a double amount and keep it over night for use on the sabbath.
And they were permitted to gather an omer of it to keep in the ark of the covenant, as a reminder of their time in the wilderness. And, perhaps, as a reminder that measurement is not control.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.