Formations 07.22.2018: Inheriting Fruits

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When Israel comes into the land, they are to tell the stories of ancestors who went down to Egypt. There, their ancestors became great, and then they were enslaved. And they will remember God, who heard their cries and led them through the wilderness into a land where they would learn freedom.

This is a tricky story. It carries memories of strength and weakness, freedom and oppression. Even more, it doesn’t hold all of Israel’s stories. Most notably, while some Israelites remember the gift of land, the resident aliens and Levites stand present and remind us that not everyone received land. Not all relationships to the land were the same.

Still their story can teach us. At its center, this story confesses the givenness of land. With this, the people bring the fruits of the land and present them to God. Then they share these fruits with the whole community, Levites and resident aliens included. At its best, their story framed the people they would become.

I grew up with stories of blessing. But these stories—stories about property and neighborhoods and churches and schools and success—also hold words like “hard work,” “earning,” “ownership.” Other stories about these same fruits, however, question those stories I inherited. They remind us that at times, and also now, the land and its fruit and its labor have been stolen.

Deuteronomy, like the moment we live in, asks us to examine such stories. Do they hide oppression? Do they prevent freedom? Do they welcome all of us? Do they recognize what’s good in all of our stories? This may be hard work, but in Deuteronomy, it’s the kind of work needed to receive God’s good gifts.

A few weeks ago I read an essay by Davíd Carrasco that concludes with a response to one description of identity in the United States. Someone had said tomato soup was the primary influence of English Protestantism on the US. Immigration, in this recipe, may add flavor but it never fundamentally changes the dish. Against this, Carrasco remembers the tomato’s history.

Originating in Peru, this fruit migrated over thousands of years and many miles to Mexico, where Aztecs named it tomatl. Only after the Spanish arrived during colonization did it travel across the Atlantic to Spain and Italy. By the time it reached Britain, Americans had been cultivating tomatoes for over two thousand years (76).

Such a complex story about just one fruit reminds us that all of the fruits we’ve inherited carry stories more varied than we know. At the same time, Deuteronomy’s story reminds us that hearing and sharing such diverse stories of diverse fruit may lead us to lands we’ve scarcely imagined.

Davíd Carrasco, “Borderlands and the ‘Biblical Hurricane’: Images and Stories of Latin American Rhythms of Life,” Harvard Theological Review 101 (2008):353–76.

Discussion

• What are the most important stories of your own personal history? Of your family’s history? Of your church’s history?
• How do these stories reflect your community’s story? Whose stories do they center? Whose do they marginalize?
• How do your memories shape your relationship to the places and people you come from?
• What personal and communal responses do you stories invite? How do these relate to the responsibilities of citizens in God’s kingdom?

Reference Shelf

Deuteronomy: Then and Now

Modern believers face the basic difficulties that confront anyone who seeks to interpret ancient literature. Deuteronomy, for example, reflects the agrarian culture and the specific social, political, and religious institutions of ancient Israel. Very few of these cultural and institutional structures can be found in modern Western culture. Yet, because it is Holy Scripture, believers cannot and should not simply dismiss, disregard, or dismember the Hebrew Bible. Jews and Christians alike must struggle to make the necessary historical and cultural translations in order to be able to see the relevance of the ancient text.

Deuteronomy 25:13–26:15 is no less foreign to modern multinational, multicultural, individualistic, heavenly-minded Christianity. Modern Christians—and Jews—do not usually conduct barter transactions. The Amalekites have long since ceased to exist as an identifiable ethnic group. No one offers first fruits under the ministry of the high priest at the temple in Jerusalem: There is no temple in Jerusalem; there is no high priest. These regulations have no literal pertinence for anyone today. Short of a dismissive observation that business should be conducted fairly, an artificial effort to equate Jerusalem’s temple with some modern institution, arbitrarily to designate a modern high priest, or arrogantly to claim membership in some modern counterpart to the chosen nation—a perspective that biblical Israel itself ultimately found inadequate for describing its existence before God—is there a word of God for modern believers in this passage?

[…]

Life in covenant relationship with God is, in part, a very everyday matter. By means of a skillful exegesis of the commandment against coveting, Deuteronomy subtly establishes the relationship between the theological affirmation that YHWH delivers the oppressed and the ethical demands of fairness, at the minimum, and generosity. Former slaves cannot fulfill the call to holiness by oppressing others, “taking advantage” of their weakness. Once migrant Arameans cannot honor the God who blessed them with harvest and flock by stinginess.

Mark Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 388–88.

The Land

Family land represented one’s part of the promise God made to the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The earliest of the words of promise to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) speaks of Abraham’s going to an unknown land that God will identify as the promised destiny of Abraham. There God will bless him, bring him fame, protect him, and—through him—bring blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).

Land and blessing are intertwined in these stories of Israel’s forebears. God is bringing blessing to Abraham and his descendants, according to early Yahwhistic tradition, out of divine love and without regard to any merit on Abraham’s part. Central to that blessing are land and descendants, the two clearly interdependent. One critical aspect of this promise is the way that the narratives of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the OT) present the land as God’s own, which God is giving to Israel as a possession. It is at one and the same time God’s land and the land that God is giving, or granting, to Israel.

Deuteronomy works out the terms on the basis of which the land—Yahweh’s land—will be Israel’s land: Israel must be faithful to Torah; must not worship the foreign deities of the land; must treat the land with respect, acknowledging Yahweh’s ownership; and must never suggest that its own might or power secured the land. The land was sheer gift of grace, but the gift, once given, carried with it the gravest of demands of obedience to the divine covenant, faithfulness to God’s Torah (cf. Deut 8 and Josh 24 in particular).

Walter Harrelson, “Land,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 499.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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