The context for our scripture reading has its roots in God’s call to Abram centuries earlier, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1) and the promise that God made to Abram, ” I will give this land to your seed” (Genesis 12:7). That promise went unfulfilled for a very long time, but Israel is about to experience its fulfillment.
The book of Deuteronomy begins, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” (1:1). The Lord told Moses, “Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their seed after them” (1:8). Moses will not enter the Promised Land with the people (Deuteronomy 34), but the people are about to enter it under Joshua’s leadership (Joshua 1-3).
Some of the book of Deuteronomy has the character of a dying father sharing last-minute wisdom with his son, but most of it is laws by which the people are to live.
The verses that immediately precede our scripture reading remind Israel of Amalek’s treachery as Israel journeyed out of Egypt and command, “Therefore it shall be, when Yahweh your God has given you rest from all your enemies all around, in the land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the sky; you shall not forget” (25:19). Those verses and our scripture reading both constitute instruction for Israel once it enters the Promised Land.
Our scripture reading establishes the offerings of firstfruits. This initial offering becomes the precursor for the Feast of Weeks, known in the New Testament as Pentecost (Exodus 23:15-16; 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9; Numbers 28:26).
The verses immediately following our reading establish the requirement for a tithe to provide for “the Levite, to the foreigner, to the fatherless, and to the widow, that they may eat within your gates, and be filled” (26:12-15).
Chapter 27 gives further instruction for “the day when you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, that you shall set yourself up great stones, and plaster them with plaster: and you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you have passed over; that you may go in to the land which Yahweh your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has promised you” (27:2-3).
DEUTERONOMY 26:1-2. THE LAND THAT YAHWEH YOUR GOD GIVES YOU
1It shall be, when you have come in to the land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein, 2that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that Yahweh your God gives you; and you shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which Yahweh your God shall choose, to cause his name to dwell there.
“It shall be, when you have come in to the land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and dwell therein“ (v. 1). This is looking toward a day that has not yet come, but which will soon arrive. Israel has not yet occupied the Promised Land, but the day is nigh.
The emphasis here is on Yahweh’s gift of this land to Israel. In the book of Joshua, we will read of conquest, but it is not conquest that will give Israel a homeland, but God. The land and all its produce will be the gift of God.
“that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you shall bring in from your land that Yahweh your God gives you“ (v. 2a). The first produce to be harvested each year is called the firstfruits, and is to be given to the Lord before the farmer is allowed to consume or sell the rest (Leviticus 23:14). This offering of the firstfruits is an acknowledgement on the part of the one making the offering that it was God who made the harvest possible and that everything belongs to God. The offering is an act of thanksgiving.
The requirement is to give the firstfruits—not the last portion of the harvest. Firstfruits are the most precious, as anyone can attest who has waited all winter for a fresh, homegrown tomato. The people are to honor God with the first and best, not the last or least.
This was similar to the practice of vassals in their relationship to their king. Vassals were expected to do homage by paying tribute to their king. To fail to do so was to invite the king’s wrath.
“and you shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which Yahweh your God shall choose, to cause his name to dwell there“ (v. 2b). The one making the offering is to place a portion of the harvest in a basket and offer it to the Lord at the place of the Lord’s choosing. Later, that will be the Jerusalem temple, but this is much earlier—long before the temple. Before Jerusalem, there will be the tabernacle at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1), but at this time the tabernacle has no permanent location.
This practice will serve as a reminder to Israel that it is Yahweh, not the Canaanite god Baal, who is responsible for their prosperity. It is Yahweh, not Baal, to whom they should direct their thanks. It is Yahweh, not Baal, to whom they owe their loyalty.
This offering of firstfruits is a new institution. Prior to entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were a nomadic rather than an agricultural people. They wandered to find pasture for their animals rather than plowing and harvesting crops. Having no annual harvest, they could not make a firstfruits offering. Now that situation is in the process of changing.
DEUTERONOMY 26:3. THE LAND WHICH YAHWEH SWORE TO GIVE US
3You shall come to the priest who shall be in those days, and tell him, “I profess this day to Yahweh your God, that I am come to the land which Yahweh swore to our fathers to give us.”
“You shall come to the priest who shall be in those days“ (v. 3a). Thompson thinks that this would be “the chief priest at the central sanctuary” (Thompson, 254). That seems likely later, but for now there is no central sanctuary.
“I profess this day to Yahweh your God, that I am come to the land which Yahweh swore to our fathers to give us“ (v. 3b). This is the first of two speeches that the one making the offering is to give. This speech acknowledges that the one making the offering has entered into the land that Yahweh promised “our ancestors”—beginning with Abraham. It has been centuries since God made that promise. This speech acknowledges that Yahweh has made good on that promise. It serves to remind the one making the offering that the land and its produce is a gift from God.
DEUTERONOMY 26:4-10a. HE WENT DOWN INTO EGYPT, AND LIVED THERE
4The priest shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of Yahweh your God. 5You shall answer and say before Yahweh your God, “A Syrian ready to perish was my father; and he went down into Egypt, and lived there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6The Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid on us hard bondage: 7and we cried to Yahweh, the God of our fathers, and Yahweh heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression; 8and Yahweh brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs, and with wonders; 9and he has brought us into this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10aNow, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, Yahweh, have given me.”
“The priest shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before the altar of Yahweh your God“ (v. 4). In this verse, the priest sets the offering before the altar, but in verse 10, the one making the offering is instructed to do so.
“A Syrian ready to perish was my father“ (v. 5a). Thus begins the second speech required of the one making the offering (the first speech being found in verse 3b).
The Arameans were a Semitic people who occupied portions of Syria and Mesopotamia. The connections between the Israelites and the Arameans go back to the beginnings of Israelite history. Abraham was originally from Ur of the Chaldees and Haran, two Mesopotamian cities. When he was old, Abraham sent his servant “to my country, and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:4). The servant did as he was instructed, and returned with Rebekah, the “daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean” (Genesis 25:20). Later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, would return to Paddan-aram, where he married Leah and Rachel, the daughters of Laban, who was again identified as an Aramean (Genesis 31:20).
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all wandering Arameans, but this verse must apply to Jacob, because he was the “A Syrian ready to perish” who “went down into Egypt, and lived there, few in number” (v. 5b).
“and he went down into Egypt, and lived there, few in number“ (v. 5b). To live in a foreign land “few in number,” is to be vulnerable. Jacob’s family as they entered Egypt numbered only seventy people (Genesis 46:8-27). Also, Jacob’s status as an alien contrasts dramatically with the status of the one who is bringing the offering, who has a homeland—the Promised Land.
“and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous“ (v. 5c). The growth of the Israelite population in Egypt became a problem when a new king became fearful that the Israelites were “more and mightier than we” (Exodus 1:9). By the time of the Exodus, four centuries later, the number of Israelite men aged twenty and above was six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty, not including the Levites, who were numbered separately (Numbers 1:46).
“The Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid on us hard bondage“ (v. 6). The story of the sojourn of Jacob’s family in Egypt is familiar. In the beginning, they enjoyed Joseph’s benevolence, but in time “a new king over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and who enslaved the Israelites. The Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and in brick, and in all kinds of service in the field, all their service, in which they ruthlessly made them serve” (Exodus 1:14).
“and we cried to Yahweh, the God of our fathers, and Yahweh heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression“ (v. 7). In their misery, the Israelites remembered God and prayed for delivery. God told Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows” (Exodus 3:7).
“and Yahweh brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terror, and with signs, and with wonders“ (v. 8). The story of the Exodus is well known. It begins with the call of Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3—and continues through the plagues (Exodus 7-12)—and the miracle of the Red Sea, where God drowned Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14).
“and he has brought us into this place, and has given us this land“ (v. 9a). This is the point. Yahweh has been faithful, and has brought the Israelites to their homeland.
Some scholars wonder why this brief account of Israel’s history omits the story of Moses at Sinai. However, this is not intended to recount all of Israel’s history, but only the part having to do with the establishment of their homeland (Craigie, 322).
“a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 9b). A recently nomadic people might be expected to speak of green grass and flowing streams rather than milk and honey. However, this phrase is repeated many times in the Old Testament, suggesting that “a land flowing with milk and honey” was a proverbial statement meaning “a prosperous place.”
“Now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, Yahweh, have given me“(v. 10a). The one making the offering acknowledges his debt to Yahweh by bringing a portion of his crop to make this offering. The people have waited for many centuries for this opportunity.
DEUTERONOMY 26:10b-11. YOU SHALL WORSHIP AND REJOICE
10bYou shall set it down before Yahweh your God, and worship before Yahweh your God. 11You shall rejoice in all the good which Yahweh your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the foreigner who is in the midst of you.
“You shall set it down before Yahweh your God, and worship before Yahweh your God“ (v. 10b). As noted above, verse 4 called for the priest to set the offering before the altar, and this verse calls the one making the offering to do so.
“You shall rejoice in all the good which Yahweh your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the foreigner who is in the midst of you“ (v. 11). The harvest is a joyous time, so celebration is not only appropriate but is likely to be spontaneous. This verse doesn’t specify the way that the celebration is to be observed, but a harvest celebration would include plentiful food and drink.
Levites and aliens are both dependent on the rest of Israel for their support. Levites, being responsible for religious observances, have no land of their own, so they depend on the offerings of the people for their support. Aliens not only have no land of their own, but are also second-class citizens—or, more accurately, non-citizens. This verse reminds Israel to include these vulnerable people in its prosperity and celebration.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Christensen, Duane L., Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 34:12, Vol. 6B (Dallas: Word Books, 2002)
Christensen, Duane L., Word Biblical Commentary: Deuteronomy 21:10 – 34:12, Vol. 6B (Dallas: Word Books, 2002)
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan