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In Deu. 26:5, the Hebrew text states,

ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב

The King James Version translates אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי (arami oved avi) as “A Syrian ready to perish was my father.” The context seems to suggest that the phrase is referring to one of the patriarchs of the Israelites, perhaps Jacob.

However, the Targum of Onkelos interprets the Hebrew word אֲרַמִּי (“Aramean”) as though it refers to Laban, translating the phrase thus into Aramaic:

לָבָן אֲרַמָאָה בְעָא לְאוֹבָדָא יָת אַבָא
Laban the Aramean sought to destroy [my] father.

Does אֲרַמִּי refer to Jacob or Laban, and if Jacob, why does the text identify him as אֲרַמִּי if he is a Hebrew?

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  • I have never before considered the KJV here, but it seems rather weird, where is the "Syrian" or the "ready to perish", it seems rather odd. I'm not sure why you chose the KJV as the simplest interpretation. I think the NIV's "My father was a wandering Aramean" reading is more natural, and should be preferred over the KJV. Jacob spent a lot of years in Aram with Laban, so it's not surprising that the text should identify him as an Aramean (perhaps to signify our humble and lowly beginnings).
    – Bach
    Jul 29 '20 at 21:56
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That Deut 26:5 refers to Jacob is inescapable for several reasons:

  1. Jacob was the "father" of Israel which Laban was not
  2. Jacob went to Egypt which Laban did not
  3. Jacob was poor and destitute when he left for Aram to escape from Esau - Laban was never poor and ready to die or threatened
  4. Jacob became a great nation which Laban did not

Therefore, the central question, is why does this text refer to Jacob as a Syrian/Aramean?

I believe there are some fairly obvious reasons:

  • Jacob was descended from Abraham, his mother was Rebekah who were both Aramean/Syrian
  • Jacob lived and worked in the land of Aram/Syria for 20 years where he got married and acquired great wealth
  • Jacob's wives and mothers of his children were all Aramean/Syrian
  • The Purpose of Deut 26:5 was to rehearse the fact that the nation of Israel were chosen by God and miraculously given the land they occupied; and that is occurred by taking people from another place and transposing them into the promised land.

The Pulpit commentary makes the same point:

A nomad Aramean was my father] Jacob-Israel, the son of an Aramean (Genesis 24:10, cp. Deuteronomy 24:4), himself a nomad shepherd in Aram (Hosea 12:12, Genesis 29-31), with Aramean mothers to his children. EVV. ready to perish and R.V. marg. wandering or lost are all possible transl. of the Heb. ’ôbed, used of lost or ‘wandered’ beasts, Deuteronomy 22:3, 1 Samuel 9:3; 1 Samuel 9:20, Ezekiel 34:4; Ezekiel 34:16, Psalm 119:176; and of men perishing, Deuteronomy 4:26, Deuteronomy 7:20, Deuteronomy 8:19 f., Deuteronomy 28:20, 2 Samuel 1:27, Job 6:18 and frequently. Here no doubt intended to mark the nomad origins of Israel in contrast to their present state as cultivators of their own land.

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