< March 10, 2019 >

Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11

 

Deuteronomy is presented as a single long sermon by Moses.

In reality, it is a collection of laws and exhortations that grew over a period of about 150 years. Today’s reading is the conclusion of the covenant laws that comprise the heart of the book. The subject matter of this conclusion is instructions for offerings and tithes at the beginning (first fruits) and conclusion of harvest. It may surprise contemporary readers to find that the offerings are not given to support the temple but to support those who are landless and thus lack self-sufficiency -- widows, orphans, resident aliens and Levites. Because the latter group received no allotment during the division of the land, they have no independent means of support.

The focus of the passage is a ritual of presentation that is to take place at the beginning of the first harvest, “When you have come into the land.” This offering is not a tithe, such as is described in 26:12 (see also 14:22-29); it is an offering of an unspecified amount of the “first fruits” of harvest, though it must be of sufficient quantity to supply a feast for the farmer and those associated with his estate, presumably his laborers and those under his protection (verse 11).

The ritual, a liturgy performed by the individual landowner before the altar, acknowledges receipt of the land promised to the ancestors and recalls the history of the people from the time of the ancestors until the present moment when the foundational oath of God is fulfilled, embodied in a basket filled full. The prescribed recitation recounts a communal faith journey spanning centuries. It begins with a landless ancestor and concludes with his descendent presenting the first fruit of the gifted land. Presumably, the community witnesses this testimony to God’s faithful deliverance and provision.

The recitation is confession of faith similar in form to the Christian creeds, which are also structured as narratives. Gerhart von Rad identified this passage as a central “credo” of Israel’s faith. With this credo the community of faith remembers itself by recounting its story. Our stories define us, both individually and as a community, for memory is the substance of identity. When we forget, we are diminished and our self shrivels, as those who have tended a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease are painfully aware. When we forget our faith stories, the religious self formed by those stories shrinks and is replaced by another self, the self produced by competing cultural stories.

The writers of Deuteronomy were keenly aware of this. Over and over again, the book commands the community to remember who and whose it is. Admonitions to remember and to teach the stories of God’s past faithfulness and commands occur over thirty times in the book, a drum beat so insistent that the reader senses that Moses knew that the people once settled would forget themselves and their God. This forgetting and its consequences -- exile -- feature prominently in Deuteronomy 4 and 28-31, parts of the book written in the post-exilic period.

The epithet “wandering Aramean” refers to Jacob rather than Abraham, for it was Jacob and his family who took refuge in Egypt. But Abraham is depicted wandering far more than Jacob, and it seems that their identities merge in the credo. The Hebrew word translated “wanderer” (abad) almost always refers to someone perishing and desperate, cut off from the community, and fading away. It is used elsewhere several times of strayed sheep, which clarifies the connection between wandering and perishing since a wandering sheep is very soon a dead sheep. Furthermore, in author’s time, the term Aramean had a derogatory connotation. An equivalent expression today would be, “A destitute vagrant was my ancestor.”

The credo recounts how the ancestor’s fortunes changed when his small clan migrated to Egypt to live as “aliens” (Hebrew ger), a term that denotes both social and legal marginality and would today be better translated as “immigrant.” The ancestral clan prospered and became a great nation. But success led to oppression, as is often the case for outsider groups that lack the legal protections enjoyed by citizens. Prosperity did not diminish marginalization. Oppression led to petition; the people cried out to God.

God saw and heard. These verbs are prominent also in the exodus tradition. They define the character of the God of Israel as a God who pays attention to the oppressed, feels compassion, and acts on their behalf -- to the dismay and discomfiting of the oppressor. The claim made by liberation theologians that “God sides with the oppressed” is nowhere more obvious than in the exodus story. God’s compassion leads God to action. The compassion of a mighty God moves the wheels of history and lifts the oppressed from their misery.

The final act in the credo drama is the gift of the land, a home for homeless immigrants, a place of their own. But not a place they owned in an absolute sense. The gift of the land is both certain and conditional. God is faithful to give what is promised, but the people must respond to this gift with faithful obedience. Ultimately, the land is God’s to give or to take away. The land is never less and never more than gift and comes with a proviso (Deuteronomy 29:24-28; Leviticus 25:23).

Not all in the society shared in God’s gift of land, but all were to share in its bounty. Those without property to support themselves were bidden to enjoy the land’s bounty at the same table as the landowner and his family, not because of the landowner’s benevolence but because of God’s command. Deuteronomy repeatedly demands that the economically marginalized -- the poor, widows, orphans, immigrants and Levites -- be supported and protected. This demand is justified in Deuteronomy by an appeal to Israel’s memory of oppression and slavery in Egypt (10:17-19; 15:15; 16:11-12; 24:17-18, 21-22).

The command in Deuteronomy 26:11 to provide a celebratory meal that is inclusive of those on the margins flows naturally from the memory of Egyptian oppression lying at the center of worship. Presentation of offering, liturgical recitation of sacred history, celebratory meal -- Christians will recognize this sequence. Sharing the fruits of our labor with those on the margins is obedient, perhaps even sacramental.