Let the Scriptures Speak

The Testing of Jesus (and Israel and Us)

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him, “It is written.
One does not live on bread alone.” (First Reading) 

A ritual offering of the first fruits and the diabolic testing of Jesus in the desert—what possible connection could there be between these two scenarios? Actually, the connection is profound and well worth pondering.

Deuteronomy 26 is one of the best places in the Bible to get an insight into the point and power of a simple religious ritual. Put yourself in the sandals of an Israelite of the late seventh century BCE. and ask yourself what you would be doing if you were carrying out the ritual expressed in these instructions. You would have gathered a basketful of the first fruits of the harvest—wheat, say, or barley—and you would be bringing it up to the Jerusalem Temple to present before one of the priests on duty. As you offer the basket, you say, “Today I acknowledge to the Lord, my God, that I have indeed come into the land which he swore to our fathers he would give us” (Deut 26:3).

It is a six-century flashback, and you are a descendant of Israelites who came into the land many generations ago. In this single gesture you are acknowledging that the very soil you farm is a gift of God in two ways. First, as creator, God made the earth and sustains its power to produce food in the form of plants. Second, as the redeemer of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God gave you the land as a place to live in freedom. In one acknowledgement you confess Yahweh as the God of nature (versus the baals of the Canaanites) and the Lord of history, the one who liberated and sustained your nation against its enemies. All this is summarized in the story of the Exodus that you recite as a “credo” in the next verses (Deut 26:3-9). Lastly, you link that story to your ritual gesture in the final words of your prayer: “Therefore, I have now brought you the first fruits of the products of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me” (Deut 26:10). Then you “make merry over all these good things which the Lord, your God, has given you” (Deut 26:11).

This is what I mean by the genius of the ritual: in one action, with a few well chosen words, you worship God as God of nature (creator) and Lord of history (redeemer). Notice that this ritual and creed caps the presentation of the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 12-25), which spells out the covenant relationships between Israel and God. The ritual gesture underscores the foundation of those relationships in the initiatives of God as creator and redeemer.

When we come to the account of the testing of Jesus after forty days of fasting in the desert, we find that we are still in the ambiance of the book of Deuteronomy. Not only do the “forty days” recall the “forty years” of Israel's sojourn in the wilderness. All three of Jesus' responses to the devil's temptations are drawn from that story of Israel's testing in the desert (God's testing of Israel and Israel's testing of God) as told in Deuteronomy 6 through 8.

When the devil challenges Jesus to demonstrate his divine sonship by commanding stones to turn into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live on bread alone”—which those who knew their Deuteronomy would complete with the words, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” When the devil offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him, Jesus paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:13, “You shall worship the Lord your God; him alone shall you serve.” When the devil shifts from temptations to arrogance to a temptation to presumption (if you are the Son of God, jump from the Temple parapet; God will surely protect you), Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Once we are in touch with the context of Deuteronomy, it becomes clear that Jesus is here pictured as reliving the story of Israel in the wilderness, and getting it right. The parallel (and contrast) extends even to the talk of sonship: “So you must realize that the Lord, your God, disciplines you even as a man disciplines his son” (Deut 8:5).

What is conveyed in the ritual of Deuteronomy 26 (First Reading) and in the testing account of Luke 4 (Gospel) is reflected powerfully in every Eucharistic celebration. In the Offertory we bring to the priest bread and wine, “fruit of the earth and work of human hands”—much like the Israelite enacting Deuteronomy 26. Then, in the blessing of the sacrament the fruits of the earth become the body and blood of the obedient Son, with whose self-giving sacrifice we identify as we join the Son's act of worship of the Father. Christian worship has not left behind the genius of its Israelite roots.

Dennis Hamm, SJ

Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson