Why would the Israelites call their father a wandering Aramean?

1. A God given liturgy for future generations  

Does God tell his people exactly what to say when they gather to serve him? Does he give a liturgy for his people to follow in perpetuity?  For the most part, he seems not to. Look throughout the Scriptures and notice that wedding and funeral services are not described in any detail for future generations. There is no chapter and verse like the detail of The Book of Common Prayer within the Bible. But we are not left in the dark. Much is said about marriage. The Christian theology of marriage shapes the way a wedding service is conducted. Funeral customs from different cultures can be shaped by the sure hope of the resurrection for those who trust in Jesus Christ. 

But an individual act of confession bucks that trend; and importantly this is found in the monoculture of ancient Israel. When the Israelites first enter the land of promise, they are told to stand before God and bring their first-fruits to his altar. 

Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the LORD your God. “And you shall make response before the LORD your God,

Deut 26:4

And then this confession comes condensed in three words in Hebrew, all starting with Alephs. אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י (Arami Obed Avi) 

A wandering Aramean was my father

Deut 26:5

2. A God given framing for future generations with first-fruits 

Before we examine why they would describe their father as “an Aramean”, and what “wandering” might mean, we must see that in its context, this confession is an enduring expression of the grace of God, a framing for future generations.  These are not, in fact, the opening salvos of the liturgy. Before the first-fruits are handed over, a bold statement is made.

And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.’

Deut 26:3

God has kept his promises; the first-fruits is an expression. Having handed the tokens of his blessing, a theological history is recounted, which starts off with, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:5).

This father is clearly Jacob/Israel, who went down to Egypt “few in number” and came back a “nation, great, mighty and populous” (Deut 26:5). The individual recounts God’s work in bringing them out of Egypt and into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 26:5-9). They then present the first-fruits of the soil before God and worship and rejoice before him “in all the good the LORD has given to you and your house”. (Deut 26:10-11)

At first reading it seems like this event was a one-off ceremony, but the details also imply that this reenactment could happen every year as the new season arrived. When they enjoy their crop of harvest, God is calling them to remember not just what he has done, but to never forget where they have come from. Never forget in the face of the abundance of wheat, barley or olives, their corporate story, that their father was a wandering Aramean. 

3. But was father Jacob an Aramean?

This declaration of a godly Israelite in Canaan states that their father was a Aramean. When we remember that another translation of this word is Syrian, is there a scandal lurking beneath this confession?

Here’s what we do know. Jacob’s mother’s family was Aramean. His maternal grandfather is called Aramean (Gen 25:20; 28:5) and so is his uncle Laban (Gen 31:20, 24).  The place Jacob fled to was called Paddan-aram, outside the land of Canaan (Gen 25:20; 28:2,5-7; 31:18; 33:18; 35:9,26). Eleven of  Jacob’s sons were born in Paddam-aram (Gen 35:22-26 cf. 33:1-2). It was where he spent the best parts of his life. The children might have identified at least as culturally Aramean. If you’ve moved countries, sweated to create a new life, and raised a family, you do feel like you belong to that new country. Jacob’s is the migrant’s story.

But nowhere else in the Bible is Jacob himself called an Aramean, and his relatives are referred to as Aramean to distinguish them from him. Jacob was of the seed of Abraham. Jacob’s family blessing was focused in Canaan, but he lived most of his life with his other relatives just outside the promised land. If Abram was called from Ur of the Chaldeans, Jacob was called away from the Arameans. Interestingly, God blesses and changes his name only as he left Paddam-aram to return again to Canaan (Gen 35:9).

God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but nIsrael shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel.

Gen 35:9-10

The much later prophet Hosea tells the whole story of Jacob/Israel from Canaan to Aram, and then to Egypt and back to Canaan again.

Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep.

By a prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded.

Hos 12:12-13

God’s renewing mercy came to Jacob as a foreigner outside the land of promise in Aram. He was in a sense “an Aramean”.  If the Israelites were called out from the nations around them, then they need to remember that they were “once not a people” and the were formerly part of the gentiles around.

4. What sort of ‘Aramean’ was Jacob: wandering, perishing or lost?

My greater difficulty is not the word “Aramean”. When you read the story, that makes sense. The greater difficulty lies with the word “wandering”.  

The word in Hebrew is the participle, אֹבֵד (‘bd). You might recognise it from the related word Abaddon, destruction. This particular participle (QAL) form is nowhere else in the ESV translated “wandering”, but rather:

  • perishing (of animals and people) – Job 4:11, 29:13, 31:19; Prov 31:6; Eccl 7:15
  • lost (of animals and people) –  1 Sam 9:20 (donkeys); Is 27:13 (exiles); Jer 50:6 (sheep – metaphoric for people), Ezekiel 34:16 (sheep – metaphoric for people), Psa 119:176 (sheep – metaphoric for people); 
  • void (of counsel) – Deut 32:28
  • broken (of a vessel) – Psa 31:13

What if we read the statement as perishing or lost rather than wandering? Sure he fled and then returned to Canaan, but Jacob worked for his uncle Laban for decades in the one location. Maybe God’s grace is deeper here.

Arguments for “perishing”: 

In the context of the first-fruits in Deuteronomy 26, the focus is on food. Because of the famine, Jacob and his family were about to die in Canaan (42:1-3; 43:1). They were saved by their journey to Egypt; and indeed by their mistreatment of Joseph and the plan God had for him.  “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen 50:20)  When the Israelites come before God they remember that, in the loins of their father, they were almost dead, but God saved them and brought them through the hardship of Egypt to the bounty of the promised land.

Arguments for “lost”:

Perhaps there is a more metaphoric view here, like the times when the Israelites are referred to as lost sheep (Jer 50:6; Ezekiel 34:16; Psa 119:176)? My father was a lost Aramean. Jacob was a shepherd his whole life and especially at Aram his shepherding of sheep turns around his fortune. He is the first in the Bible to see that God was his shepherd. When blessing his sons he tells that the “Mighty One of Jacob” is “The Shepherd”(Gen 49:24).  

“Perishing” and “lost” intersect in their meaning when it is clear that lost sheep would by nature also be defenceless and perishing. Interestingly the New Testament stories of the lost sheep and prodigal son use the Greek “perishing” word when describing the one who was lost and is now found (Luke 15:4, 6, 24).

Probably I would suggest that we follow the King James Version’s more humbling translation.

“A Syrian ready to perish was my father”

DeuT 26:5 (KJV)

5. Once was lost, now I am found; once dead, now alive.

As saved people in the New Testament we must never forget who we were. And we have an Old Testament example of personal and family testimony.  

The Israelites in one of their only divinely-mandated liturgies are told to remember that they were just one of the nations and that they were perishing, like lost sheep, before God led them to and from Egypt into the promised land. 

Saving the perishing and finding the lost is a point of continuity between the Old and New Covenants.  Jesus said to Zacchaeus,   “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (lit. perishing).” (Lk 19:9-10) Perhaps Jesus is saying that Zacchaeus is very much like one of Abraham’s children have always been at there deepest identity; perishing and lost. When the prodigal son is now enjoying the restored relationship with his father and enjoying his new robe, fattened calf and rings on his fingers, he would need to remember that he was dead and now is alive again, was lost and now is found (Lk 15:24).

And further, perhaps the saving of people from all kinds of nations is hidden in embryonic form in the Hebrew declaration. The essential nature of the Old Testament Israelites is precisely the same as the New Covenant Christians. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10)

With three Hebrew words, the Israelites, God’s first-fruits, remembered where they came from when they gave their own first-fruits.   

“A wandering Aramean was my father”

Deut 26:5 ESV

Or, even more helpfully .. 

“A Syrian ready to perish was my father”

DeuT 26:5 KJV

It may be wrong to look back longingly, like Lot’s wife at what we have been saved from; but it is a God-given practice for us to look back and confess where his grace has led us.

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