The oldest worship service?

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 gives us a piece of very ancient Israelite worship language. It calls for a simple ceremony. An Israelite farmer must take some of the first fruits of the crop, put them in a basket, carry them to the nearest sanctuary where there is an official priest, recite the acts of God in the exodus story, and offer the contents of the basket as a celebration of the Lord’s goodness to Israel.

I assume that words used in worship go back behind written accounts to oral tradition. Worship is oral. There is nothing in the ceremony in Deuteronomy 26 that says anything about reading.

The little story the Israelite worshiper recites begins like this:

My father was a Syrian ready to perish. He went down into Egypt, and lived there, few in number. There he became a great, mighty, and populous nation (WEB).

The ancestor who was a Syrian ready to perish, or a wandering Aramean according to many translations, seems to recall Jacob. Indeed, the very similar passage in Psalm 105:23-24 specifically refers to Jacob.

You might be surprised then to know that according to a rabbinic interpretation sometimes used at Seders, the Syrian is Laban. The Haggadah translates “an Aramean has destroyed my father.” A similar interpretation comes into some Christian Bibles through the Latin Vulgate. The old Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation of the Vulgate. It says:

The Syrian pursued my father, who went down into Egypt”

The Syrian or Aramean almost certainly was Jacob, but the confusion reminds us that the text refers obliquely to someone from Aram (Syria). A few interpreters have thought it meant Abraham.

Gerhard von Rad was an important biblical theologian in the 20th century. He interpreted this passage as a creed. The Isrealites built up the more elaborate version of events found in the Pentateuch, but Deuteronomy 26:5-9 was the kernel. Martin Noth, another major voice in German Hebrew Bible scholarship, had a similar opinion.

Now their view is out of fashion. The passage in Deuteronomy 26 is seen more as a late summary of Israelite origins than as a foundation.

Although I would criticize the idea that Deuteronomy 26:5-9 is a creed (creeds are a Christian thing more than a Jewish thing), I do not think the passage is a late summary. I am convinced that this is one of the passages in Deuteronomy that lets slip the reality that worship was not always centralized in Jerusalem. So I think the passage goes back to the time before Josiah’s reforms and probably before Hezekiah’s reforms.

It also looks like it goes back to before Hosea’s version of the Jacob story. It reflects a situation where the people lived in farming villages with several Levitical shrines throughout the land.

Adam Welch in his old book The Code of Deuteronomy, which I posted about some years ago (see here), noted how the passage makes it the main role of the priest to know the correct ritual and the words to recite.

The name of God, Yahweh, recurs 9 times in 11 verses. The farmer has to go to a Yahweh sanctuary served by a Yahweh priest. He must acknowledge that he owes everything to Yahweh. He owes possession of the land to Yahweh. He owes the fertility of the land to Yahweh.

The priest probably gave all or most of the offering back to the farmer to celebrate God’s grace with his household.

This way of looking at the passage is suggestive when linked to Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus (see here). He makes the case that only the tribe of Levi left Egypt with Moses and that the Levites then converted the other tribes to Yahwism. (I doubt that only the Levites made the Exodus with Moses, but they were a major component.  The other tribes also had old memories and associations with Egypt, I think.)  So inviting people to Levitical sanctuaries throughout the land and giving them words to connect the Jacob story to the Moses story might have been part of how Yahwism spread.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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