“Arami Oved Avi” (Ah-RAM-ee Oh-VED Ah-VEE)
or, as we heard it in the reading from Deuteronomy,
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.”
Today’s Old Testament lesson contains a phrase we might be tempted to skip over. After all, it sounds a lot like one of those “begat” sections of the Bible, and in any case, who knows who an Aramean is? However, it is the first phrase the ancient Israelites said when they presented their offerings to God in the temple. It is also repeated every year the world over at Passover seders. It is an important phrase that deserves a closer look.
But there’s a problem—in the thousands of years since it was first uttered, the phrase “Arami Oved Avi” has been interpreted in two very different ways.
“Arami Oved Avi” can mean “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor“, but it can also be translated as “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.”
By the way, for clarification, ‘Aramean’ refers to those who spoke the Aramaic language and who lived roughly where modern Syria is today. Most of the early people mentioned in the Bible—before the existence of Assyria, Babylon, and Israel—were essentially Arameans. But let’s look at those two interpretations again:
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”
“An Aramean tried to destroy my father.”
Depending on how we interpret this one phrase, or to put it another way, depending on the lens or filter we choose, we may end up with one of two very different ways of interpreting the world itself.
I would like you to remember those two interpretations while I take a bit of a side trip—one which leads back to the main path of this sermon, I promise you. This side trip is a quick refresher on the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac.
Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, who was the daughter of Laban; Laban agreed on condition that Jacob work for him for seven years, which Jacob did. But Laban then did a bait-and-switch, marrying Jacob to his elder daughter Leah instead. Even though he had been tricked the first time, Jacob agreed to be indentured for an additional seven years so that he could also marry Rachel.
After his marriage to Rachel, trickery by both Laban and Jacob continued for another six years—I won’t go into detail, but it involved some questionable accounting that determined Jacob’s majority share of the herd he tended with Laban.
Finally, Jacob felt that a total of twenty years of this rigamarole was enough. He packed up his family, claimed his portion of the livestock, and prepared to move away, back to the land of Canaan. Laban protested and tried to stop them: he didn’t want to see his daughters and grandchildren leave, and Jacob was a hard worker who had been very good for business. Nonetheless, Laban finally relented, and Jacob, his wives and their twelve sons went off to settle in Canaan. Over the years, Jacob’s older sons grew jealous of Jacob’s second-youngest son, Joseph, who was quite clearly Jacob’s favorite. They sold him into slavery; he became Pharaoh’s right-hand man; his family joined him there years later, and, after many generations, it grew in size and became the Israelite people, who were enslaved by a later Pharaoh and led to freedom by Moses.
And now back to “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” and “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” While Biblical scholars agree that the passage has a specific Aramean in mind, they have disagreed on the identity of the Aramean to which it refers.
According to the interpretation we heard this morning, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”, the Aramean in question was Abraham, Jacob’s grandfather. Abraham was indeed an Aramean who wandered from the land of his birth to Canaan, following God’s call, to become the patriarch from whom Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all flow.
The implication of this interpretation is that we are all spiritually descended from a homeless foreigner.
According to the other interpretation, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father”, “my father” was Jacob or one of his descendants, and the Aramean is Laban, Jacob’s double-crossing father-in-law, who indentured Jacob for many years of servitude, delayed his marriage to Rachel and finally tried to prevent him from leaving for Canaan.
The interpretation that “he tried to destroy my father” is actually a quite serious accusation that Laban’s behavior threatened an entire line of descent, including the founders of all twelve tribes of Israel, down through the centuries to the present day. Laban triggered the exile of the entire nation of the Israelites to Egypt because:
- If Jacob had married Rachel first instead of Leah then…
- Maybe Joseph would have been the first-born and…
- Maybe his brothers wouldn’t have been jealous of him and…
- Maybe they wouldn’t have sold him into slavery and…
- Maybe he wouldn’t have then gotten close with Pharaoh and…
- Maybe he wouldn’t have asked his family to join him in Egypt and…
- Maybe their descendants wouldn’t have been enslaved.
In other words, maybe it’s all Laban’s fault.
The implication of this interpretation is that we can blame most of our problems on a treacherous foreigner.
So “Arami Oved Avi” can mean
We are all descended from a homeless foreigner
We can blame most of our problems on a treacherous foreigner.
If you do a Google search, you will find rabbinical scholars who have advocated for one or other of these translations over the course of centuries, bringing up convincing arguments for supporting each of them.
So how are we to decide on the right interpretation? Wouldn’t it be easier if someone could just TELL us, and then we wouldn’t have to think about it? Actually, wouldn’t LIFE be easier if someone just told us what was right, so we didn’t have to think about that either?
In today’s highly partisan world, I think we know that’s a bad idea. In this world of disinformation and half-truths, of misinformation and fake news, we know we must be diligent in our research, turn to trusted resources, and be thoughtful in our decisions. But even then, as our “Arami Oved Avi” example shows us, sometimes that is not enough. What do we do next?
It all comes down to how we decide to perceive the information we are given. We can choose the lens or filter through which we view the world. We can choose the lens of cynicism, of opportunism, of revenge. Or we can choose the lens of God’s Grace.
What we at Epiphany call the Jesus Filter.
The Jesus Filter allows us to look at our two interpretations and decide which one would most align with God’s Grace:
Just as we can choose between “We are all descended from a homeless foreigner” and “We can blame most of our problems on a treacherous foreigner” …
We can choose between:
Cultivating empathy with our fellow children of God and Nursing a bitter desire for retribution against those we perceive to have wronged us.
We can choose:
Seeing our commonality and working together for the benefit of all or Protecting what “we” have so “they” don’t get it.
When faced with ambiguous statements, the Jesus Filter encourages us to find:
Abundance amid scarcity,
Trust amid fear,
Reconciliation amid hostility.
The history of those three ancient words, “Obed Aram Avi” shows that the problem of interpretation has always been with us. A simple three-word statement became either a justification for fear and retribution of the OTHER or, conversely, an embracing of the OTHER as family.
One last aspect to consider about the two interpretations is the focus on ancestry and past history:
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.
An Aramean almost destroyed my Father.
One interpretation is a simple statement of humble common ancestry, while the other appears to be the nursing of an ancient grudge. Guess which one the Jesus filter would steer us toward?
One problem with pursuing an ancient grudge is that you will almost always find your grudge challenged by someone with a prior claim for revenge or retribution for past wrongs. Yes, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter first before he married Rachel. But Jacob tricked Laban into obtaining ownership of almost all his flock. Both Team Jacob and Team Laban can truthfully claim the other side were jerks and could probably have a good grudge last for generations.
That’s not what God wants for us, but that’s what we keep on doing—choosing to interpret our past to nurse ancient grudges instead of acknowledging a common humble ancestry. We have so many examples of this throughout history:
- Catholic and Protestant
- Shia and Sunni
And of course
- Russia and the Ukraine
I do want to add that even when a dispute or grudge seems to clearly show one side is more in the wrong than the other, the Jesus Filter still comes into play. During the past few days of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, I have been struck by how often I have heard Ukrainians call the Russians “brothers”. We pray to God that this recognition of brotherhood and common ancestry will prevail over the grudges and hatred of those who started this war.
How one interprets “Arami Oved Avi” can show how one interprets the world.
The interpretation of a sinister foreigner—an Aramean—who upset Jacob’s marital plans through trickery has come to imply evil intent to destroy Jacob’s entire family line. It has been considered by some to be the event that led to exile and persecution in Egypt. It has come to personify the malevolence of all strangers, of any foreigner. And because Laban was the father-in-law to an ancestor, it has been treated by some as a warning to be vigilant against enemies who appear to be close to you.
But the interpretation that is supported by the lens of God’s Grace, by the Jesus filter, is the one in which those bringing their offerings to God—their selves, their souls and bodies—recall humble origins, and resist any puffed-up image of themselves as being somehow superior to strangers or to the unhoused. And as today’s passage from Deuteronomy later says, you and the aliens who reside among you shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you. You don’t even need to use the Jesus Filter to see God’s Grace in that passage.
When we let past grudges eat away at us and grow into a thirst for retribution, whether we are talking about families or entire countries, it can lead to a chain of revenge passing from generation to generation. A chain where no end is in sight, and whose actual start no one will remember.
If, on the other hand, we all embrace the shared idea that some of our own forebears have been poor, homeless, and oppressed, we can put ourselves in the shoes of the downtrodden of the world and see the havoc wrought by that chain of revenge and retribution.
Before we bitterly denigrate “those people” who wronged us, or someone close to us, or one of our ancestors, why don’t we all hold out that Jesus filter in front of us and look at the crisis, the headline or the slow driver in front of us.
God has given us free will to interpret the world as we wish.
The Jesus filter highlights love, not fear. Abundance, not scarcity. Relationship, not division.
With the Jesus filter, our interpretation, as Children of God, of “Arami Oved Avi” becomes crystal clear:
Let us celebrate, with the aliens who reside among us, the bounty that God has given to us, for we remember that our own ancestor was a wandering foreigner.