Commentary on Deuteronomy 26:1-11
This lectionary reading shows how the people of God understand their identity as a perpetual journey.
The people’s journey has roots in God saving them from slavery in Egypt. In the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, they journeyed through the wilderness and faced such great hardships that, at times, they imagined life was better when they were still enslaved (Exodus 16:3; Numbers 11:4–5). The book of Deuteronomy provides what appears to be a final stage in their journey; Moses gives a (very long) final speech while they stand on the cusp of arriving in the promised land.
But the journeying will not end there. We know that the people will continue to face a difficult journey in the books of Joshua and Judges where they fight to conquer the native people who are protecting their homeland from these Israelite invaders. We know that the journey continues in personal sagas with migrants like Ruth and Naomi who depend on one another as they seek companionship, food, and security amidst the harsh vicissitudes of life. We also know that the journey will continue on a much larger scale with examples like the traumatic exile of the northern tribes kicked out by the Assyrians and the southern tribe expelled by the Babylonians.
These difficult journeys started before Deuteronomy 26, and they will continue after it. It seems that migration—arduous sojourning—has always been, and will always be, a part of the people’s identity. Therefore, this lectionary reading invites the audience to partake in a journey that is both a ritual and a remembrance of the significance of migration to who they are as a people.
Deuteronomy 26 does not end the book of Deuteronomy, but many scholars see it as the end of a section within the book that we refer to as “the Deuteronomic Code.” From Deuteronomy 12 to 26, there are instructions and laws that concern a host of matters. Deuteronomy 26 is an example of a religious ritual and a pilgrimage similar to the festivals of Pesach (the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Succoth (the Feast of Tabernacles) all mentioned in chapter 16. In each of these cases, there is an appointed time of the year for celebration, the celebration includes an offering, and the people are called to journey—to go on a pilgrimage—to “the place the LORD will choose” for God’s name to rest. Why is the pilgrimage in Deuteronomy 26 not included in chapter 16? Why does it come at the end of the Deuteronomic Code?
One thing that sets our lectionary reading apart from the other examples of ritual and pilgrimage is that Deuteronomy 26:5–10 presents a liturgy for the people to recite. In the mid-twentieth century, a famous Old Testament scholar, Gerhard Von Rad, developed an idea about these verses that became popular in biblical studies; he hypothesized that this recitation was a “short historical creed,” a confession of faith that was recited early in ancient Israel and developed into more extended stories in the Bible. More recent scholars have pushed back on Von Rad’s theory in many ways including the fact that the so-called “creed” was early—it might have been a very late creation that summarizes the people’s traditions. Regardless of whether these verses were an early or late composition, it is clear that our lectionary reading encapsulates central elements of how these people understood themselves and their relationship with God. What are some of those elements?
One of those elements is a memory of shared trauma. At a time of celebration—when people are called to rejoice at the blessing of another year’s harvest—there is a remembrance of slavery in Egypt. The pilgrim is not just recalling that it happened, but how hard it was: they “treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,” and we went through “our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” (Deuteronomy 26:6–7). The speaker can appreciate the great benefits of their current circumstance by unflinching recollection of the difficulties endured by their ancestors.
An unforgettable element of this recitation is the role of God in their salvation and blessings. God is the one who hears their cry, acts to save them, and ensures their arrival in “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:7–9). Since God played such a central role, it is only right to show reverence and celebrate God. Of course, all memory is selective. This recitation does not call upon the people to proclaim a history of their ungratefulness and times when God retaliated against them or wanted to abandon them (Exodus 16:2–3; 32:7–9; Numbers 11:18–20, 33). However, it is important to note that this selective recollection is not part of a program of erasing the turbulence of their relationship with God—those details are preserved elsewhere in Deuteronomy (1:26–46; 9:7–29)—but rather a way to emphasize the core of God’s nature. Although God may be many things in many circumstances, this creed highlights God as the God of liberation.
And finally, all of this is framed as a journey. They journey to a specific site (Deuteronomy 26:2) where they remember their forefather as a vagabond (Deuteronomy 26:5).1 Furthermore, they emphasize that journeying to Egypt is what transformed a family into a people (Deuteronomy 26:9), and the journeys that they now take will always carry relics of the travels of their ancestors.
Thus, the people who articulate their identity through this creed are not just establishing who they are based on the past they have endured and God’s salvific role in their journey. Instead, they are also developing that journey’s relevance for their current engagement with the world. In part, the relevance includes giving thanks to God. But it is also much more. The lectionary passage ends by connecting this journeying to care for the Levites and immigrants (Deuteronomy 26:11). Verses 12 to 13 add providing for orphans and widows as proof of faithfulness to God. This passage shows thankfulness to God and care for the marginalized as the intertwined outcomes of their ongoing journey as a people.
- The Hebrew ‘arami ‘obed is often translated as “wandering Aramean” but the word for “wandering” also means “perishing” in certain contexts like how a wandering sheep is in danger of dying.