YEAR C: LENT 1
Deuteronomy is set in the context of the Israelites gathered on the east side of the Jordan ready to cross the river into the promised land. The book purports to be a series of speeches by Moses to them. Today’s passage, which comes near the end of the longest speech (Deut 4:44-28:68), anticipates a time when Israel has come into the land and settled there.
The passage constantly reminds the reader, as Moses did the Israelites, that the land is a gift from the Lord (vv. 1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11). The offering described is not made immediately the people enter the land. It is an offering of first fruits once they have settled and the land has yielded its fruit. The offering is not symbolic of taking possession or claiming ownership of the land. Rather, it has everything to do with recognising the land and its bounty as a gift.
Liturgical instruction is then given on how the offering is to be made (vv. 2-11). Several things should be noted. First, the people are to take some of the first fruits in a basket to the place which the Lord has chosen ‘as a dwelling for his name’ (v. 2). The land may be a gift for the people, but they are not the only ones who dwell there. The gift of the land is not only a material concern, a place of rich bounty to enjoy. It is also the place where the people come into the presence of the Lord. The giver of the land is present with the gift. And the proper response to the gift is to be present to the giver, and to acknowledge not only the gift but the giver.
Secondly, the one making the offering makes a response, a statement of faith (vv. 5b-10a). This statement of faith is for the most part a declaration of the history of the Lord’s dealings with Israel (cf. also Deut 6:20-25). Memory has an important role to play in the acknowledgement of God’s gifts. In part, the person making the offering recalls who they are by remembering who their ancestors were: “a wandering Aramean” referring to the patriarch Jacob (Genesis 25-50). They further recall the terrible persecution of the ancestors by the Egyptians (Deut 26:5b-7). The person also remembers who God has been for them by recalling the great compassion the Lord showed to their ancestors. They remember how different things once were to how they are now. But they are not to forget the Lord who made that difference possible. The Lord is not just a gift giver, but one who bestows such gifts on those oppressed and treated harshly.
Thirdly, we should note how the response ends. Thanksgiving for the land and its bounty ends in celebration and joy, and a sharing with those who do not know the bounty of the land in the same way. Levites, who were priests were not able to possess land in Israel, and foreigners living in their midst, were likewise not landowners. In v. 11 these too are drawn into the celebrations. The Lord’s gift is something to be shared among those who, like the Israelites in Egypt earlier, were vulnerable and at risk. Memory that is connected with faith is not only meant to engender worship, but to result in further acts of gracious sharing.
Scholars have debated whether the offering was meant to be a regular one in Israel or refers to a single event. We cannot suppose that once the offering was made it was then forgotten. Each harvest is a reminder of the giftedness of the land, of the One who is also present in the land, and of those with whom they were called to share the bounty of the land. This sense of an ongoing recognition of the land as gift fits the general tenor of Deuteronomy. The book, as noted above, ostensibly records Moses’s speeches to the generation who are about to enter the promised land for the first time. However, the laws and other material in Deuteronomy probably date from a time well after the entry into the land. The origins of Deuteronomy are often associated with the law book discovered in the temple in the time of king Josiah (late 7th century BCE, almost six centuries after the alleged time of Moses). Moreover, passages in Deuteronomy suggest that its words are not just for the Israelites who first entered the land. They are relevant for every Israelite of every succeeding generation (e.g. see Deut 4:38-40 and the shift in the sense of the word ‘today’, and Deut 5:3). Thanksgiving for the land was not to be tied to the past or to one generation, but needed to be acknowledged ‘today’, by the present generation. Every generation, as they heard the words of Deuteronomy, was to cast itself in the role of those about to enter the land and enjoy its bounty anew. That was meant to bring a new sense of giftedness, a new commitment to obedience, and a new sense of joy to be shared.
Of course, we cannot miss the fact that, especially in Deuteronomy, the gift of the land for the Israelites came at the expense of the dispossession of others. We might rightly object to this. But we should also remember that not all Scripture is there to be accepted in every detail without question. Nor is all Scripture of one voice. We can hear what today’s passage may say to us in terms of a response to the gifts of God while mourning the loss of land to many around the world, including indigenous Australians. We will find other books (e.g. Genesis) putting forward a more moderate attitude toward sharing land resources. And we should hear what Deut 26:11 says about sharing the joy of God’s gifts with those unable to in some way, even when we are caught in the dilemmas of modern political situations.
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