I have never known hunger. I have always lived in a house with adequate food. My father made sure of that. He had not been so fortunate. He had known hunger and food insecurity most of his life until he joined the Navy. Poverty is not a part of my biography, but it is a part of my history. Knowing and internalizing that history makes it harder for me to turn a blind eye to poverty I encounter. It has also embedded within me certain assumptions about what ought to happen in the face of poverty. Namely, I assume the ideal situation is one in which the poor–like my father–manage to develop out of poverty through the assistance of others, wise governmental policies (like the GI Bill), sacrifice, education, and long-term employment. Yes, I know that’s not always possible, but it is the embedded assumption I make. All other realities push up against that basic narrative. I am interested in the ways people’s internalization of their history shapes their view of the world.
The Bible retells broad patches of history in a few places: Deuteronomy 26:5-10; Psalms 78, 105, 106, 136; and Acts 7:1-53 (Stephen’s Speech). I’m sure there are other places that do similar recitations of history and if you know of any, I’d be grateful if you’d remind me of them. I’m interested in how these functions theologically, ethically, liturgically, and psychologically.
Deuteronomy is the last book of Torah–the last of the five books of Moses. Within the story line, God had led the people of Israel (the descendants of Jacob) out of the slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. They wandered in the desert 40 under Moses’s leadership. The people were about to cross over into the land of their inheritance led by Joshua. Moses would die before reaching that place with them. Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’s final speech to the people. It includes reminders of the legal codes which they are to follow–Deuteronomy 12-26. Deuteronomy concludes the legal prescriptions of the book.
In Deuteronomy 26, Moses explained to the people how they were to make their offering of “first fruits.” They were to bring to their priest the first fruits and first recite the history that begins, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Biographically, this would not have been accurate. The gift-giver would be making reference to Jacob. But they internalized this history by saying “my father.” Scholars who read Hebrew (I don’t, sadly) say that the word translated “wandering” in both the NIV and NRSV implies more than just on-going journey. It emphasizes vulnerability and poverty. The gift-giver had land, could stay in one place long enough to reap a harvest, and would come to a stable sanctuary and their remember things had not always been that way. It also retells the experience of mistreatment they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians (Deuteronomy 26:6). God had acted to deliver and provide the land.
In the second part of the prayer when providing the first fruits, the gift-giver would declare the purpose of the first-fruits saying, “I have removed from my house the sacred portion and have given it to the Levite (priestly-class), the alien, the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 26:13). In other words, they give the first fruits to offer care to those in their present context most resemble the internalized history–the faithful ones who cried out to the Lord (Deuteronomy 26:7 = the Priestly Levites), the vulnerable and destitute (Deuteronomy 26:5=fatherless and widows) and the Aliens (those living in what is to them a foreign land the way the Israelites lived in Egypt Deuteronomy 26:6). By using “we” and “me” language when remembering their history, the people cultivated empathy for those who may be less fortunate than they at that moment but on equal footing through the internalized history. The past also served as a road map of where these narratives were headed and how they should unfold.