“My father was a wandering Aramean,” said the ancient Israelite on the occasion of bringing the first offerings from the annual crop to the temple. But the words recited in Hebrew could also be translated and interpreted very differently: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.”
Which is it? What was the meaning of the saying to be recited by the offerer? Was this a memorial of Jacob, a man who came from Aram and whose life was characterized by migration (see Genesis 25-36)? Are was this a remembrance of Laban, the relative from Aram who was fiercely jealous of Jacob and may have intended to kill him (see Genesis 31)?
Can three words in Hebrew (אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי ‘arami ōveid ‘avi) have two very different potential interpretations? When an Israelite brought offerings from the earliest part of the annual crop to the temple (the first fruits) the intention was to show gratitude. The purpose of the recitation of the liturgy of Deuteronomy 26 was to remember where Israel came from and how God saved the Jewish people from extinction.
What then do these three words mean and how do they foster gratitude? Is it, “My father was a wandering Aramean” or “An Aramean sought to destroy my father”?
The root אבד can mean “to perish” or “to be lost, astray” in the usual Qal form or “to destroy, to let perish” in the Piel. One clear context where the root refers to something that is lost or out of place is Deuteronomy 22:3, where Israelites are commanded to return lost items to those who own them. However the root is much more frequently used for either the active verbs “destroy” or “perish.”
With the vowels that were added to the Torah in the early Middle Ages, the best reading of this passage is “my father was a wandering Aramean.” This likely refers to Jacob, whose grandfather, Abraham, hailed from Aram (Syria), having gone there from Ur of the Chaldees. Jacob lived with Laban in Aram where he married Leah and Rachel. He then traveled back down to Canaan.
Why would God have the person bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the temple recite this history? Sometimes we need to be reminded where we came from. Gratitude often begins with remembering and then acknowledging how far we have come.
But the sages have suggested a very different reading in one of the most commonly read texts in all of Judaism: the Passover haggadah. In the maggid portion of the Passover liturgy, a prominent section begins, “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” Here the sages are reading the verb as a Piel, “to let perish.” This way of interpreting the verse refers to Laban’s desire to kill Jacob in Genesis 31. If Laban had destroyed him, there would be no Israelites.
Both readings are possible and perhaps we could argue that the “wandering Aramean” reading has better evidence. Yet both readings also bring to mind a good reason for gratitude. In the first, the Israelite would think of how the people had at last realized the dream of the patriarchs. Being settled in the land and bringing forth fruit from the ground is what the semi-nomadic ancestors of Israel greatly desired. In the second reading, the very existence of Israel is seen as a fortunate outcome of history.
Each of us, Jewish or not, could stand to ask: where do we come from? How did we get here? What did God have to do with it?
The liturgy for one bringing first fruits (1-11).
The law requiring Israelites to bring first fruits (the earliest part of the harvest) as a donation to God is found scattered in various places throughout the Torah. One off thing about this law, which differentiates it from the tithe, is that no quantity is specified. An ancient midrash states that a single cluster of grapes or grain of wheat would suffice, but a more authoritative ruling of the sages required a minimum of 1/60 of the crop (Tigay, Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary). According to the Mishnah, the landowner was to tie ribbons of grass on the first ripening stalks or vines to remember at harvest which crops need to be donated (Bikkurim 3:1).
Deuteronomy adds something new on comparison with other passages about the first fruits offering: a liturgy to be recited to the priest when delivering it. This liturgy is a sort of catechism keeping alive the essential theology of the covenant: God will bring supernatural agricultural blessings for the land of Israel when the nation obeys the Torah.
And this liturgy becomes a central part of the ceremony in the haggadah, the book of ritual for Passover. The haggadah has something in common with some parts of the book of Deuteronomy, reciting history and tradition with an emphasis on the blessings of God’s covenant with Israel. It is natural that the Passover haggadah looked to the Deuteronomy 26 liturgy for bringing first fruits to the temple, since both pieces of literature have the same purpose: to give families words to say on a special occasion commemorating Israel’s eternal relationship to God.
“I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house.” Acts of love start with intention but over time we often forget the intention and we are left with the empty shell of an act. We give, We serve. We love. Why? Who are we doing it for?
It is one thing to speak to someone as if we are devoted to them and not carry through on our words. This is by far the more common deficiency we see in religion. Some of the most “devout” people act coldly or even viciously toward one another. Words of love and verbal expressions of commitment can be a cheap currency.
But the opposite error is to serve, give, and love without declaring the intention behind your actions. Sometimes we act in ways that show devotion to others but we fail to tell them. Sometimes we do by habit things that serve and benefit others but we forget who we are and why we took on these actions to begin with. A child may not feel a parent’s love even though they receive day in and day out acts of caring and service from them. Acts of love, when they are divorced from words of affirmation and affection that would make them effective, can go unrecognized.
Acts and words of love, when they are given together as a unity, fully do the work of bringing happiness to the ones we love.
“I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house,” said the worshipper in ancient Israel. Part of a liturgy recited in third years, when setting aside a special tithe for the poor, the words are spoken to God as an expression of love. The “consecrated” things were those crops removed from the owner’s use and set aside for the Levite, the poor, and for immigrants. That is, the family was to think of it as “set aside” for a special purpose, for a use commanded by God.
By speaking the words, in addition to setting aside the donations, the giving family was doing more than just giving. They were consecrating life, living on purpose. They were affirming the value of healing the world and caring for others. They were avoiding empty religious words on the one hand and cheerless acts of devotion on the other. Word and act together make love real and lasting.
The liturgy for bringing the tithe (12-15).
Just as bringing the firstfruits was an occasion for a declaration of faith and faithfulness, so is the tithe. This liturgy is for the third year tithe (Deut 14:28-29). Delitzsch suggests this declaration is limited to third year tithes because in the first and second years, tithes were brought to the Temple where were were already offerings and worship ceremonies. Third year tithes, though, were collected in the towns where they had been grown. The sayings about the dead in vs. 14 are slightly mysterious, but likely reflect two facts: if the farmer handled the goods to be tithed while mourning they would be unclean from corpse contact and it is possible that the Israelites were surrounded by a culture in which food and objects were buried with the dead. Israelites could not deduct from their tithe for this purpose. The declaration of faith ends in a picture of paradise in the land, blessed from heaven and miraculously fertile. The tangible actions of the people in tithing and obeying the commandments were part of a covenant of blessing, a relationship with God involving mutual love and generosity.
“Today you have affirmed Adonai to be your God.” It seems simple to us. Affirm Adonai alone as the God you will believe in and serve. But it proved to be a standard neither Israel nor Judah could live up to.
“Their land is filled with idols,” Isaiah fulminated against Judah, “and they bow down to the work of their hands” (Isaiah 2:8). Therefore, he said, “man is humbled and each one is brought low . . . [so that] Adonai alone will be exalted on that day” (2:9, 11).
What was the temptation of idolatry, of turning to various deities for aid? The truth is we are not free from the spirit of idolatry. People who knew about Adonai but who chose to seek aid from other divine beings were looking for some power from above to give them security and prosperity. They lived in a world where hope was placed in rituals, magic, appeasing beings with the ability to control natural forces.
Idolatry begins with our desire to control or manipulate the elements around us in pursuit of safety from hunger, poverty, danger, and death. Adonai chose a people to be for him, commanding them “this day to observe these laws and rules.” What he asked from Israel was devotion. What he promised in return was “he will set you high above all the nations he has made.”
In other words, the specific blessings of the covenant, which are about to be spelled out in Deuteronomy 28, would mark the land and people of Israel as uniquely free from hunger, poverty, and danger among all the peoples of the earth. Trust me, God said to Israel, and I will show you what life can be like.
There is no promise like this outside of the covenant with Israel and in the land of Israel. It amounted really to God promising Israel a foretaste of the world to come, which every other nation and individual must wait for. But although today we find this promise beyond our grasp, we do believe there is a world to come. And as we affirm Adonai to be our God we not only look forward to that future promise, but we add peace and purpose to our lives now.
Israel’s part in the covenant summarized (16-17), God’s blessing of the covenant summarized (18-19).
With the laws fully explained, the rest of Deuteronomy is about the covenant, blessing and curse, and preparing to enter the land. Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes that these verses are very similar to the passage that preceded the long section of laws (11:32-12:1). They form a set of literary bookends around the law, placing it in the context of a mutual agreement.
Israel is to obey and make these laws their national way of life and God will make Israel blessed far beyond all other nations. They will be a treasured people enjoying the glory of nearness to God. Their greatness will come from a land providing abundance and prosperity. The nations will see all this and likely be drawn to it, though the text goes only so far as to say they will see it.
God promised that Israel would be a holy people, which Tigay defines as “sacrosanct, inviolable, a nation that others harm at their peril.” The supernatural condition of abundance was never achieved and in the end is a picture of the better world we are still waiting on Messiah and God to bring to earth.
“This day you have become the people of Adonai your God.” There will be a ceremony, though it won’t be held until Joshua chapter 8, a covenant ratification observance. The first generation already had one back in Exodus 24. Moses and the elders felt that the second generation needed a ceremony too.
What does it mean for Moses and the elders to say, “This day you have become the people”? The author of Deuteronomy seems to be saying that hearing the Torah in some way makes that generation enter into the peoplehood of Israel. In other words, there is something about the words, the meaning, the intentional relationship which Torah teaches that causes a people to become the people of God.
We might compare it to a wedding ceremony. Deuteronomy 27 is like an engagement. The wedding itself will not happen until Joshua 8. But the intentions of the people to belong to Adonai are spoken here in Deuteronomy.
The first generation had its ceremony and the second generation will follow suit. We might ask ourselves a deeper question: how effective is this ceremony, these words, the intentions of the people? Do these ceremonies have power in themselves to bring about the covenant faithfulness they represent?
The answer would have to be no. Neither the first nor second generation will be particularly faithful. Why then the ceremony? It seems we need good intentions, words spoken promising to do our duty and to be the people we aspire to be. But those good intentions and spoken words have only the power we give them. Do we see what is truly good and what will benefit us? If so, only total devotion to that way and a clear vision of the path can help. Straying is easy and self-deception is a strong force. This passage of Torah does not explain the gap between intentions and transformation, but merely states the intention. We will need to look elsewhere to find the deeper answers we seek.
Instructions for a ceremonial placing of the Torah on Mt Ebal (1-8), you have become the people of God (9-10).
Ideally, the people led out of Egypt would have entered the land without the forty year delay (see Numbers 13-14 for the story of the spies, which led God to delay their entry into the land). If they had kept on the expected schedule, the covenant ratification ceremony in Exodus 24 would have been followed shortly after by entering the land to live out the covenant. But now, having been delayed for an entire generation, there is a need for a covenant renewal ceremony, which will be carried out in Joshua 8 but which is described here.
The ceremony involved the words of “this teaching,” probably a reference to the text of Deuteronomy. Tigay (Deuteronomy: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes that the entire text of Deuteronomy would easily fit onto two large stones (compare the laws of Hammurabi). However, since we know Deuteronomy did not exist as we know it until hundreds of years after the time of Moses, what are we to make of the story of these stones? Perhaps they contained some form of what we now find in Deuteronomy 12-26, a collection of laws. The story could have a basis in reality even if the idea of the text of Deuteronomy being written on them is an anachronism.
The ceremony required a special altar made without iron tools (which are used for war and thus would bring the shadow of death to the altar, against God’s wishes). This special altar did not conflict with the one-sanctuary command of Deuteronomy 12 since it will be before the sanctuary is set up in the land (Tigay).
Vs. 8 says that the law is to be written “most distinctly,” which in a midrashic tradition becomes the legend of the Torah being written in the seventy languages of the nations. How can Moses say “today you have become the people of God”? Tigay suggests it is because they are only now for the first time, hearing all of God’s commandments. The reception of the Torah completes God’s election of Israel; the Torah is what makes Israel God’s people.
DEUTERONOMY 27:11 – 28:6
“Adonai your God will set you uppermost above all the nations of the earth.” God works in mysterious ways, as the famous saying goes. With a misguided and diminished humankind, struggling to make meaning of its existence, how does God reach out and make himself known?
He chooses one specific people, a rather small one at that, and gives them extraordinary promises. “I will make you the highest of nations,” says God, “if you bring about an example of my ways on earth.” The word for highest or uppermost is ‘elyōn, a word many times used as a title for God. But sometimes it is simply an adjective as in the uppermost basket in the baker’s dream (Gen 40:17), the upper gate (2 Kgs 15:35), or the upper pool (2 Kgs 18:17). God will make Israel uppermost among the peoples of the earth.
How would this promise work and what would it look like? All of Israel’s dwelling places will be blessed, reminding us of the words Balaam spoke when God showed him Israel’s glory: “how lovely are are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). God will bless every aspect of Israel’s fertility: the children they bear, the crops they grow, and the animals they raise. Their basket of produce and kneading bowl of bread dough will be abundant. Even their actions, coming and going, will be blessed from above.
These promises are stated in another form in Leviticus 26 with even more details. The Torah blessings provide a glimpse of true utopia, one that the prophets will build on in a number of statements of the blessed days to come. All the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. Each person will sit in peace under his or her own vine and fig tree. The plowman will overtake the reaper. Swords will be beaten into plowshares. Nations will not make war again. The wolf will lie down with the lamb. There will be One Shepherd over all of them. Egypt and Assyria will be a second and third with Israel. Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the house of Adonai.” The hills will drip sweet wine. God will serve the nations a banquet of fine, rich food and well-aged wine. Every tear will be wiped away. Death will lose its sting, swallowed up by God forever.
The chance was offered to Israel to have a foretaste of all of this, through the Sinai covenant. The promise itself is alive and is what we long for, not just the foretaste, but the full realization of it in the messianic era to come.
The ceremony of blessings and curses in the land (27:11-26), blessings of the covenant (28:1-6).
Moses details a ceremony the people are to perform after they are in the land (fulfilled in Joshua 8). Six tribes each will stand on the slopes of Gerizim and Ebal in Samaria (to keep the number at twelve, Ephraim and Manasseh are subsumed under “Joseph”). Twelve sins have curses spoken over them, a list similar to the Ten Commandments: idolatry, dishonoring parents, the boundary mover, the tormentor of the blind, the oppressor of the weak, he who lies with his father’s wife, he who lies with an animal, the one who lies with his sister, the one who lies with his mother-in-law, the murderer, the receiver of bribes, and the breaker of Torah in general.
The speaking of curses in chapter 27 leads into the fuller account of the covenant blessings and curses in chapter 28. What will be the blessings if the people as a whole can live out the Torah? What will be the curses if they do not? The blessings (28:1-13) will place Israel as the highest nation on earth in glory if they come to pass.