February 17, 2013
I do not often refer to things I have written in previous installments of this series of reflections on the texts from the Hebrew Bible, but this memorable passage from Deuteronomy calls to mind something I said last year about Joel 2 for Ash Wednesday. I asked that we invite Amos into our sanctuaries on this holy day as readily as we invite Joel.
My point was that Joel calls us to mourning and fasting as ways to access God's forgiveness and favor, while Amos warns us that mourning and fasting can sometimes become places in which we can hide from our responsibilities for justice and righteousness in our communities, both within and outside the church. When I shared this idea with my wife, she assured me that each Ash Wednesday that is precisely what she did, namely, bewail her shortcomings and then act on the call to justice. I hope you do the same and call your people to do the same.
So now on the first Sunday of Lent, we are given a glimpse into one of the ways that the ancient Israelites attempted to practice this call with quite specific actions. The book of Deuteronomy, perhaps in fact a document of the 7th century B.C.E., purports to be a series of sermons, delivered by the great Moses to an Israel poised at the river Jordan just before their entry into the land of promise. Hence, the events described in the book have supposedly happened some 600-700 years earlier in time. The author is then using the authority of the lawgiver Moses, the true founder of the nation, to remind his 7th-century fellow citizens what they need to be doing to fulfill the ancient commands of YHWH, offered to them long ago on the verge of Jordan.
Here in Deuteronomy 26, the subject of the sermon is proper thanksgiving—what it means to be thankful and how to enact true thanksgiving.
When you have come into the land that YHWH your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and (after) you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that YHWH your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that YHWH your God will choose as a dwelling for (the divine) name (Dt. 26:1-2).
This long sentence is marked by repetition, a notable feature of the writer of Deuteronomy. Such a style makes it sound quite boring in our modern ears, but in the ancient ear the repetition is quite important. In fact, much of the Bible's writing is quite repetitious, a reality that adds to our difficulties in reading and appreciating it.
But note the repetitive emphasis here. The land is something YHWH gives, both as a general gift and as a specific gift from which those who receive the gift are to offer back to YHWH first fruits. And the place where this gift is to be offered is a place chosen also by YHWH. In short, YHWH gives and designates the gift of land, and YHWH receives back from the receivers a gift and the dwelling where they are to offer the gift. The gift then is reciprocal—God gives, and then they give in return.
And there we have the model action for those who choose the Lenten journey. We receive the gift of Jesus at Christmas, we celebrate the coming of that light, and then we turn to the gift of our lives and acknowledge our mortality, also a gift from the good God. When we receive the huge gifts God offers us, we then are bid to offer a gift to God in return. But we must be clear about the exact nature of the gift we are called to offer.
As the first fruits are brought to the sanctuary and given to the priest who happens to be office at that time (Dt. 26:3), the giver is to say, "Today I declare to YHWH your God that I have come into the land that YHWH swore to give to our ancestors." The gift is a direct response to the gift of land given by YHWH. However, that is not the end of the speech to be spoken by the giver. He/she is to continue: "A wandering (the word may also mean "perishing") Aramean was my ancestor; he went down to Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous" (Dt. 26:4-5). The giver of the first fruits continues to provide a brief summary of the events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the land of promise (Dt. 26:6-9).
For those of us who were trained in the study of the Hebrew Bible in the last century, we learned that this passage was thought to be a "small creed" (kleine Credo in the German that spawned the theory), a summary of what the most ancient Israelites believed. Whether or not that is true—and it has now been called into the most serious question—the result of the history lesson in the sanctuary is a summary statement of thanksgiving for all of God's actions on behalf of Israel.