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The book of Deuteronomy shows us Moses delivering a series of exhortatory sermons to the people as they were camped on the Plains of Moab, preparing to enter the Promised Land. Part of the purpose of Deuteronomy is expressed well by Peter F. Ellis in his Book THE MEN AND MESSAGE OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: “Lest anyone be deceived into interpreting the history of the Pentateuch coldly or its laws legalistically, the book of Deuteronomy sets out to show that the nation was conceived and brought to birth through nothing more or less than God’s warm and boundless love and was meant to grow and develop only through a return of that love, manifested by loyalty and obedience” (Page 45). This is in part why the book opens with Moses retelling of God’s providential care of His people from the time they left Mount Sinai until they reached the Plains of Moab (Deut 1-3), following it up with a plea to faithfully adhere to the will of God as revealed at Sinai (Horeb). The remembrance, rehearsal, and retelling of God’s providential and salvific deeds serve as a motivation to love, trust and obey God. It is against this background that the credo (verses 5-9) found in today’s first reading (Deut 26:4-10) should be understood.
Deut 26:4 Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand, and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God.
It is rather odd that the text begins here rather than in verse 1, but it should be noted that what follows in verses 5-10 gives enough information to grasp what is going on. It should also be kept in mind that the Lectionary readings were not chosen so preachers could engage in scientific exegesis from the pulpit. The readings are chosen in order to establish a certain theme or themes, doctrinal or moral, for the purpose of instruction and parenesis. Some of those themes include worship, confession of faith, God as protector, God as the source of all our good, etc.
The priest shall take the basket…and set it down. In verse 10 it is stated that the person bringing the offering is to set it down before the Lord. It should be remembered however that priests were representatives of the people, they were meant to embody and represent the people they served. In the Gospel of the temptation Jesus is seen as the representative and embodiment of Israel, reliving Israel’s experience and showing what the people should have been-and what we must be-faithful and obedient to God (Luke 4:1-13).
Deut 26:5 “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, `A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
Deut 26:6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.
Deut 26:7 Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression;
Deut 26:8 and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders;
Deut 26:9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
This is the heart of today’s first reading, a confession of what God has done for his people in the past which highlights its continuing relevance for the descendants of that people. Generation after generation the people were to say “the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice,” etc. Year after year the people brought their first fruits to the Lord in recognition of what he had done, worshiping and rejoicing before him (verses 10-11).
(verse 5) And you shall make response before the LORD your God. The Hebrew word וענית (“make response”) has the basic meaning of taking heed or paying attention, with the implication of making a response, thus the meaning is: Take heed of what the Lord has done for you and act accordingly. What is known, held, believed interiorly is to be made manifest in exterior acts, a point brought out in today’s second reading: For if thou confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in thy heart that God hath raised him up from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For, with the heart, we believe unto justice: but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation (Rom 10:9-10 Douay Rheims).
(verse 5 cont.) A wandering Aramean was my father. A reference to Jacob, the grandson of Abraham whose 12 sons became the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, was from Aram Naharaim (Gen 24:10) and Jacob himself spent many years in Paddan-aram (Gen 28:5) living with his uncle, Laban the Aramean (Gen 31:20). The term Aramean should be understood spatially, not racially. It serves to emphasize the unrootedness of Jacob whose actions had forced him to flee the family home in Canaan, the land promised to Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:8).
(verse 5 cont.) He went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. Calls to mind the story of Joseph (Gen 37, Gen 39-50), one of Jacob’s sons whose forced entrance into Egypt proved beneficial to Jacob and his other sons (Gen 50:15-22). It also calls to mind the opening of the Book of Exodus: Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them (Ex 1:6-7).
The fact that “he” (Jacob) “sojourned there, few in number,” emphasizes the continuing theme of Jacob as a wanderer, with no place to really call his own.
(verse 6) And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. The proliferation of the Israelites, a sign of God’s blessing and promise (Gen 1:28, Gen 12:2, Gen 15:5, Gen 17:5-6, Gen 22:17-18), was fearful to a new Pharaoh in Egypt who knew nothing of Joseph (Ex 1:8-20).
(verse 7) Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
They cried out to the God who had blessed their fathers, and who had promised the descendants of those fathers (i.e., themselves) good things. What God has done in the past, or has promised to bring about in the future is, throughout the bible, a strong motivation for prayer, confession of faith, trust, obedience, hope, etc.
The fact that the Lord “heard” and “saw” should be seen in relation to verse 5 (see comment there). The people were bidden to “make response before the Lord,” and now we see why, because he has previously made response to them in their afflictions.
(verse 8) And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders.
Se Exodus 6:6. In Deut 4:32-40 God’s mighty acts are one of the proofs of his love for the Patriarchs (Abraham, Issac, Jacob) and their descendants, and ought to motivate the people to fidelity.
(verse 9) And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
The Lord “brought” his people “out of Egypt” (8) for a specific purpose: He brought us into this place, and gave us this land. The phrase “He (God) brought us into this place and gave us this land” stands in marked contrast to the words of verse 5: “He (Jacob) went down into Egypt and sojourned there. The descendants of Jacob are no wandering Arameans! The fact that it is described as a land flowing with milk and honey should be seen in contrast to the affliction, toil and oppression mentioned in verse 7 (see Ex 3:8, Ex 3:17). The giving of the land of milk and honey fulfills a promise made to the fathers (Deut 26:15. Deut 27:3).
Deut 26:10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And you shall set it down before the LORD your God, and worship before the LORD your God.
This act, among other things, is meant to be a reminder that all good things come from God, and that God’s blessings can become a danger if we forget that he is their source (see the warning in Deut 8:8-20).