Canada 150: Terre de nos aïeux (Land of our ancestors)
Hespeler, 9 July, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 12:33, Psalm 136:1-3, 10-21, Deuteronomy 26:1-11
n the passage we read this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy, we are given an account of an ancient Israelite harvest festival. When the people harvested their crops, they were to take the first portion of that produce and present it as a gift to the Lord. This was a common practice in the ancient world and local temples of many different go
ds in many different places depended on it for major support.
Something that is unique about this harvest festival as described in Deuteronomy, though, is the speech that every Israelite male was to repeat as he gave his gift, a speech that began, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” From there the worshipper went on to tell the whole story of the people of Israel through their slavery in Egypt and how, through Moses, God saved them from slavery and brought them out through the wilderness and into the land that he had promised to that wandering Aramean ancestor. It is quite a story to have every single male citizen tell once a year; you have to wonder what all of that is about.
I have a bit of an idea. You know that story of the origins of the people of Israel? It is a great story, but here’s the thing: it probably didn’t happen exactly like that. I mean, it never does – there is always a difference between the story that a people tells about where they came from and how it actually went down.
Even the Bible occasionally admits as much. This morning we read an account of the moment when the children of Israel left the land of Egypt. You all know what that moment is supposed to look like. It is a big dramatic scene in the movie, The Ten Commandments. All of the Jews are gathered around – one people united together around their common ethnic and cultural identity, ready to set out to search for freedom together.
Except, the Book of Exodus lets it slip that it wasn’t exactly like that. lets it slip that it wasn' onelike. It is a big dramatic like. It is a big dramatic It says that, when the Israelites were ready to leave Egypt, “a mixed crowd also went up with them.” What? I don’t remember seeing that in the Ten Commandments! But when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Ancient Egypt, the most powerful empire in the world at that time, was a slave economy and it drew its slave population from all the regions around it. Of course all these slaves resented their captivity. Of course they longed to be free! Any opening, any loosening of Egypt’s brutal regime would have been seen as a reason to hope for escape. Of course as many slaves as could have managed to would have joined any such exodus.
But what does that do to the story? It certainly muddies the story of the origin of the people of Israel that we have been told. It suggests that maybe they weren’t all descended from one common ancestor. I mean, sure there could have been a core group that traced their origins back to a certain tribe, but the Bible suggests here that others may have attached themselves to this group and come to join them in the worship of their God and in other customs. That is, after all, realistically what happens in the origins of most national identities.
There is a word that appears in the ancient documents and inscriptions of that part of the world at about that period of time – in the writings of people such as the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Sumerians and others. They speak of a group of people that they call the “Apiru.” They do not speak highly of them. The context seems to indicate that this word meant slave, nomad or bandit somewhat interchangeably. Apparently this word, Apiru, was loosely applied, to roving bands of troublemakers. It doesn’t seem to indicate any specific ethnic group so much as a social designation of generally undesirable people.
Well, the theory is that this ancient word, apiru, is actually the origin of the word Hebrew. You see, that is how outsiders would have seen the people who came to be known as the Hebrews (or the Israelites) when they first appeared on the historical stage – as a loose collection of slaves, nomads and general troublemakers. In some ways, that was who they were, but over time they did manage to forge a common identity, particularly as they went through some powerful experiences of God together.
And one of the keys to their development of that common identity was the telling of the stories of those experiences of God. Without the stories, the experiences didn’t make sense. So that explains why it was considered so important that every Israelite tell the story regularly. That was why every individual, whether directly descended from Abraham or not, needed to stand before the priest and say, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”
That is how a national identity always works. The actual history of how a people come to be living together in a land is always messy. People usually enter into the land as individuals. Some might be raiders, exiles, slaves or refugees. Others arrive as rulers, investors or entrepreneurs. But once they are there, the only way that they can find an identity beyond their particular tribe or group is by telling common stories that they all share. That is the process that we see at work in the passage in Deuteronomy and, frankly, in many of the national stories told throughout the Old Testament. It’s not that the stories aren’t true, it is that they are more than just true – that people found meaning in them beyond the literal meaning of the story.
This question of identity is also important to Canadians as we continue to celebrate 150 years and more of history. People sometimes complain that there is just no clear Canadian sense of national identity. Sometimes we simply define ourselves by what we are not: specifically that we are not Americans. We play up minor little quirks like the way we pronounce the last letter of the alphabet (and, yes, of course it has to be “zed”), or a rather unique way of saying “out and about” that we have that everybody but us can hear. And of course we will go on about peculiar passions like Tim Horton’s coffee, hockey and beer that actually tastes like something. But we don’t seem to feel as if all of that, put together, really amounts to what you would call a solid national identity.
Our Old Testament story teaches us that national identities don’t just happen. They are formed, sometimes intentionally, through shared stories.o what you woudsomething. onounce the last letterere is just no clear Canadas of that nation and adopting them a If Canada is lacking when it comes to a strong sense of national identity, is that because it is lacking when it comes to things to be proud of? Of course not! There are so many achievements that we can celebrate in the areas of science, art, sport, policies and so much more.
What we may lack, however, is that sense of a shared narrative. Canadians have come from many backgrounds and individual stories. The First Nations were here like just about forever and everyone else entered as an immigrant, refugee, exile or transient. We talk about all of that forming a great cultural mosaic and there is certainly a great richness and beauty in that diversity. But if we can’t find a way to tell a story of this nation that everyone can feel a part of, it will not be enough.
That is, I think the real genius of the story that is prescribed in Deuteronomy. It is the kind of story that anyone should be able to find themselves in. I mean, not everyone may have a literal wandering Aramean – the actual Abraham – as their ancestor, but they probably have a wandering Scotsman expelled from his farmland to make way for sheep, or a starving Irishman desperately looking for something to fill his stomach with after the potato crop has failed.
Not everyone might have had the Egyptians treat them harshly and afflict them, by imposing hard labour on them, but there are many who suffered under various forms of modern day slavery, who fled repressive regimes and unlivable conditions to find freedom.
Not everyone might have experienced God delivering them “with terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders,” though I know that some have. But every single one of us has experienced the joy of coming to live in “this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” and a land overflowing with the beauty and bounty that God has placed in it for our wise use.
I guess that what I am saying is that there is a story of what it means to be Canadian and to love this country and to know it to be your home, but it is not necessarily the story that they keep telling us. This year, in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday, the CBC created an extended documentary called, “The Story of Us,” that attempted to do what I have been talking about and offer Canadians a common story that we could all share.
As you have probably heard, the series was sharply criticised from many quarters. People complained that it contained many historical inaccuracies, that various groups were given stereotypical representations, that entire communities were written out of the story altogether. Some of these flaws, I think, were unavoidable. You can’t tell a good national story without being inaccurate sometimes, and you cannot include every group in the story. These things alone shouldn’t have derailed the project.
I suspect that the bigger problem was the assumptions that they made about what a national story was supposed to be – a notion that they may have picked up from our neighbours to the south. Maybe they thought that the story was supposed only to be about the winners, the triumphs and the accomplishments. These things are a great part of it, to be sure, but I don’t necessarily think that they are the heart. So many who have come to love this country, have not come to do so through their triumphs but through their struggles. They found refuge here. They found safety and hope when the world elsewhere had offered them little of either.
Many First Nations people, for example, have hardly had an experience with the Canadian government that has been joyful and affirming but have developed and displayed a deep love and commitment to this country and have worked at calling us to be our best. That is an essential part of Canada’s story and it stirs my heart more than many a tale of victory on the Plains of Abraham or on the banks of the Red River.
A colleague of mine, Rev. Tony Boonstra recently posted a rewrite of the passage we read from Deuteronomy this morning. I was amazed to see someone else thinking along the same lines that I was, so I can’t think of a better way to close this morning than by sharing Tony’s take on a what a story of Canada is:
My great, great, great grandfather was a feudal serf, eking out a living for his family, literally by the sweat of his brow. There were numerous children and the family clan grew in number.
We suffered severe deprivation under the feudal system and were grievously persecuted during the time of the Reformation. Our family was torn apart; some who remained true to the Roman Catholic faith; some who joined the Protestants under the leadership of Prince William of Orange.
During the Industrial Revolution, we experienced the bitter pain caused by the tremendous social upheaval. Then in the beginning part of the 20th century, we suffered scarcity of basic essentials during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. This was hardly past when we suffered humiliation and the loss of freedom under the German occupation during World War II.
Many times in desperation we cried out to God. In time, He chose to lead a few of us in number, to a land flowing with milk and honey, a country we affectionately call Canada. For a generation we remained quiet and to ourselves getting used to what for us were foreign traditions and uncommon values.
But now we have come to bring our first fruits. We have chosen to share in the responsibility of making this country a welcome haven and home for all its citizens. And so today we bring our gifts, our ideas, our values, our dreams, our story, and we offer them freely in gratitude to Creator God, who so lavishly has entrusted to our care, the whole word.
We covenant with you to make Canada a country where all people are given the respect they deserve, where people are given the freedom to embrace the values and traditions that are dear to them. We want Canada to be a country where the beauty of all God created is appreciated and where all people are valued for the unique beings they are.