Many bloggers have series that they run each week. This marks my attempt to begin such a series (and to utilize some alliteration!), where each week I will offer a particularly interesting, significant, or thought-provoking comment on the nature of Old Testament theology. This inaugural edition comes from (surprise, surprise) Walter Brueggemann:
“I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way. This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel” (Theology of the Old Testament, 66)
As many of you know, Walter Brueggemann is reading my dissertation along the way. He was at Baylor last week, and this gave me the opportunity to give him chapters 2 and 3. This morning I received an email with his response. It was resoundingly positive. I will not here quote the entire thing, but two points of special interest.
“I have read these two chapters with great interest and respond positively to what you are doing . . . The overall direction is, in my judgment, just right.”
AND . . .
“Most important, I believe that your use of all the trickster motifs in the interest of theology is the major point. The scholars who focus on trickster etc have little interest in theology and vice versa. For you to bring those two points together is a major contribution.”
Pretty cool in my view. I am so thankful for his reading and comments. I smell book blurb! Ha!
Fortress Press’ new venture, the Fortress Forum, has seemingly christened this new venture by posting an interview with Walter Brueggemann on his new book, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. The original interview can be seen HERE, though I have reproduced it in its entirety below. Do, though, go to the Fortress Forum and leave comments!
Fortress Press: Everyone talks about the death of biblical theology, but in your work, specifically An Unsettling God, how do you make the case for that discipline?
Walter Brueggemann: Obviously, the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”
My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.
But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one.
Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting.
FP: Your work espouses the implications of biblical theology for social justice. How do Christians formulate that for the public square, or can they?
WB: This is an ongoing and difficult task. I believe that there is no ready and obvious “connect” between the claims of the Bible and matters of the contemporary public square. And we should be suspicious of any who treat those connections as direct and obvious. At best, there is an articulation of broad principles, the kind that Eagleton has so well explicated. But the “connect” requires a leap of imagination in order to see how the ancient imperative in one social context can be credible in a contemporary context that is in every regard quite unlike the old one. There are of course thick mediating traditions of theological and ethical interpretation among the great intellectuals and in the faith traditions of Jews and Christians, so that the imaginative leap is never de novo or in a vacuum. But clearly the biblical tradition, since the exodus and the commands of Sinai, has focused attention on the common good and on the socio-economic policies and practices that work for or against the common good. It takes no great imagination to see that such a claim for the common good is in profound tension with the modern narratives of collectivism or individualism. As Michael Walzer has seen, the Exodus and the consequent covenant at Sinai constitute a revolutionary breakthrough in the history of thought and practice. There is no doubt that biblical interpretation must continue to explore the interface that is crucial for any authentic contemporary reading.
FP: Sometimes it seems that the Bible is used in a simplistic or biblicist way by conservatives to address the public sphere. On the other hand, the historical-critical method seems too arcane to address pressing public conversations (such as gay marriage or abortion or immigration). What’s your approach?
WB: The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made.
FP: How have you changed your attitude toward and approach to the future of the church, especially in its biblical appropriation? Where do your hopes lie?
WB: As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time.
In 1998 a volume was written with a veritable who’s who of Hebrew Bible studies taking part, all to honor Walter Brueggemann. This volume, God in the Fray (Fortress Press, read my review HERE), concludes with a brief essay by Brueggemann himself as he reflects upon what he has tried to do in his OT theology. I found this part particularly interesting:
“I have increasingly found thematic approaches to biblical theology wanting, not only because they are inescapably reductionist, but because they are characteristically boring and fail to communicate the open-ended vitality of the text. It is for that reason that I decided, early on, to focus not on substantive themes but on verbal processes that allow for dynamism, contradiction, tension, ambiguity, and incongruity–all those habits that belong peculiarly to interactionism. What I hope I have offered is an interactionist model of theological e xposition congruent with this believing community that is endlessly engaged with God, a God who is available for the extremities of praise and complaint, which are Israel’s characteristic modes of speech in this conflictual engagement. The importance of this move from theme(s) to processes cannot be overstated for me, because the interactive process seems crucial both to the Subject of Old Testament theology and to the pluralistic, deprivileged context of our own work” (310).
“The gains that I suggest are commensurate with what will surely emerge as points of contention and continued dispute. I do not imagine that I have been able to see things convincingly through to the end. So I am glad to acknowledge at least four points where the argument is vulnerable, though other such points will surface in our discussion. I regard these as vulnerable points because they propose fresh perspectives for which we lack adequate categories. I incline to think that the vulnerability is only because things are not carried thorugh, not because they are wrongheaded. It remains to be seen, of course, whether that judgment turns out to be acceptable to my colleagues” (313-314).
AND LASTLY, (almost as though he were anticipating Waltke) . . .
“There is now an important insistence . . . that Old Testament theology must be deeply and exclusively linked to the New Testament because, in Childs’s terms, the two testaments are ‘two witnesses to Jesus Christ.’ . . . A student of the Old Testament, however, cannot help but notice the disjucntion and disconnection from one testament to the other, so that the theological claims of the Old Testament do not obviously or readily or smoothly or without problem move to the New Testament. Indeed, if we are to claim some kind of continuity–as any Christian reading surely must–it is a continuity that is deeply hidden and endlessly problematic. For that reason, and given the intensely and consistently iconoclastic propensity of the Old Testament text, it may be suggested that the Old Testament stands as a critical principle over against any easy claims of New Testament faith, so that the God of Israel is not easily reduced to or encompassed by Christian claims. After all of the adjustments from the faith of Israel to the faith of the church there is yet a deep ‘otherwise,’ which is uncontained and undomesticated, that must be acknolwedged” (317-318).
Today I received two volumes from Zondervan (thanks Andrew Rogers!); one was Bruce Waltke’s 2007 An Old Testament Theology. I still remember hearing at SBL 2008 in Boston that Waltke really pressed and challenged Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament. And ever since SBL , when I sat in on a panel discussion on Waltke’s volume of which Brueggemann was a respondent (and a hilarious one at that!) I have been quite anxious to see what it is Waltke says about Brueggemann.
Here are some of the more interesting and thought-provoking quotations from Waltke; I would love for Brueggemann to respond in print:
“The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann has many strengths, not least of which is his magisterial survey of the discipline, demonstrating his profound scholarship. his style is eloquent with flashes of brilliance, but he hinders his communication by unnecessary abstractions and neologisms. His theology is salted with insights into the importance of rhetoric and with applications of the biblical faith to current social issues, but he spoils his applications by his flawed epistemology . . . ” (69)
“With regard to epistemology . . . Brueggemann embraces what he calls a ‘post-liberal, non-foundational approach.’ By this he means that he rejects both historical criticism and the orthodox confessions of the church. He complains that the ‘practical effect of this [historical criticism] enterprise was to relativize the revelatory claims of the text and treat it like any other book.’ By defeault, however, Brueggemann’s own reasoning, unaided by the Spirit, becomes his final frame of reference for knowing. Without recognizing the work of the Spirit in his epistemology: ‘the authority of the [biblical] witness is grounded in nothing more and nothing less than the willingness of the text community to credit, believe, trust, and take seriously this testimony.’ In other words, he relativizes the authority of Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ and his apostles in the New Testament solely to the reader’s response” (69).
“In addition to shifting the authority of the text away from a Spirit-empowered testimony to the willingness of the community, Brueggemann also shifts it away to the interpreter. Since there is no interest-free interpretation, whether canonical or critical, he argues, the interpreter must ‘stay engaged in an adjudicating process.’ However, by that deft move he shifts authority away from the text to the interpreter” (70).
“Brueggemann’s conceptualization o fthe biblical theologian’s task is rooted in his conviction that the biblical testimonies about I AM contradict each other. . . . In Brueggemann’s view the task of the theologian is to expose and reflect theologically upon competing claims that God is good and that God is not good. . . . Brueggemann draws the heretical conclusion from these contradictory witnesses that there is an internal contradiction in God himself. Is it too harsh to recall that the Serpent also denied that God is good and that Cain could not affirm that God was just? (71).”
AND LASTLY . . .
“Brueggemann draws his heretical theology from his flawed exegesis: he bases his understanding of the core testimony on adjectives and verbs, not on the accredited method of determining the meaning of words in their literary and historical contexts. In his method of interpretation, the reader’s response always trumps the author’s intention. . . . Brueggemann’s reading does not take account of the a priori rights of the canonical writer and lacks sympathy with I AM’s repugnance of unbelief and sin. In short, his theology fails because his exegesis is inadequate” (72).
Harsh critique, indeed. I tend to agree with Brueggemann, still, that God is far more complex and indeed conflicted. I would say Waltke’s exegesis is inadequate, not Brueggemann’s, in this regard. Those who have read my work will be well aware of why I think this to be the case. Yet I also agree strongly with Waltke that biblical scholarship–here, theology–should have some relevance and import for the church (see HERE and HERE). I disagree with Waltke, however, because I see this as exactly what Brueggemann is doing. Brueggemann is, rightly, all about pressing communities of faith to wrestle with the complexities of the text, and especially, of God.
So, your thoughts?
In Walter Brueggemann’s most recent volume, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, 2009), he discusses God as a dialogic character. I found the following paragraph particularly interesting . . . regular readers of this blog will likely hear hints of my own thought here as well . . .
“Given these several dimensions of mutation, we may judge that the distinctiveness of ‘God’ in Old Testament tradition concerns YHWH’s deep resolve to be a God in relation–in relation to Israel, in relation to creation, in relation to members of Israelite society and of the human community more generally. The power and sovereignty of YHWH is a given in the Old Testament that is rarely called into question. What is readily and often called into question in the text is the character of this God in relation, a defining mark of YHWH that requires a radical revision of our notion of God. The overriding indicator of God in relationship is covenant, which sometimes is understood as a unilateral imosition on the part of YHWH and at other times as a bilateral agreement. It is precisely because the covenant is articulated in so many variations that we are able to conclude that covenantal relatedness makes it impossible for this God to be settled, static, or fixed. This God is always emerging in new ways in response to the requirements of the relationship at hand. This God is fully engaged in interaction with several partners and is variously impinged upon and evoked to new responses and–we may believe–to new dimensions of awareness and resolve. Because so much of the faith of Israel is ‘talking faith’ in liturgy, oracle, and narrative we may say that YHWH is a party to a dialogic exchange that never reaches closure. Rather, like any good dialogue, YHWH is engaged in an interaction with YHWH’s partners that always pushes to a new possibility, that makes demands upon both parties, and that opens up fresh possibilities for the relationship. To be sure, in any particular utterance from YHWH’s side, there may be an accent of finalit. The wonder, however, is that after any such cadence of finality, there is always another text, another utterance, and another engagement” (4-5)
Reflecting upon my recent post interacting with Eric Seibert’s recent volume Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, as well as a recurring theme on this blog (see HERE, HERE, and HERE), I was thinking . . . how would I describe God with one word? One adjective.
To be certain, ancient Israel has offered a host of adjectives to describe God. In Walter Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, he focuses upon the rhetoric of Israel’s utterance. For Brueggemann, these adjectives arise out of Israel’s verbal utterance of YHWH, and thus move from specificity to generality. So if “God delivers Judah from exile” (my example), then God is deliverer. But God is surely much more than that. God is . . . well, that depends on whom you ask.
So, do I suppose one word, one adjective can encompass all attributes (biblical ones, mind you) of God. Hardly. But I think it is an interesting question . . . in essence, boiled down to its bare basics, what is God?
My one word? In one of the posts to which I link above I used the word “paradox.” I think that is fitting, yet I remain unhappy with it in response to this question. I do, however, strongly feel it is on the mark. Other words obviously come to mind . . . deliverer, trickster, lover, destroyer . . .
If pressed (and if allowed to use a Hebrew word), I would say hesed. What one adjective do I think best describes God . . . covenantally-faithful. God is, if anything, concerned ultimately with the covenant, the promise, and this description I think rolls into it all the grace, judgment,trickery, love, blessing, etc. that I see typifying the paradoxical divine character in the biblical text.
So, what ONE WORD (in English is fine, or you can cheat like I did and do a Hebrew word that has a two-word English translation!), what single adjective do you think best describes God? Why?
Unofficially. He won’t be a committee member (he is retired, and insanely busy to boot), but he has kindly agreed to read the dissertation along the way and make comments and suggestions. I am tremendously grateful to Dr. Brueggemann for his willingness to do so. He has already read my article (“Jacob, Laban, and a Divine Trickster? The Covenantal Framework of God’s Deception in the Theology of the Jacob Cycle,” PRSt 36 : 3-23) and responded very favorably. It will be great to have him serving as another set of eyes for the piece. I am very excited, and very thankful! Pretty cool, huh?
Dr. Brueggemann and I will also be getting together at SBL. I am very much looking forward to it. Should be some stimulating conversation indeed!
I often find myself looking over my books and reflecting on how influential (or non-influential) a given volume has been for me. There are a handful to which I continually return (see the list on Genesis volumes HERE and HERE). But, if pressed, what single volume has most influenced my reading and perspective on biblical studies? I have it narrowed down to two, for various reasons, yet since I have asked for ONE book (and I’m not about to break my own rules . . . . mn genoito!), I will go with . . . . . .
Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
Many won’t be surprised of this choice. Yes, I admire Brueggemann’s work very much for its honestyin approaching the text and its tensions. I also have a deep respect for Brueggemann’s desire to connect the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament to the Christian faith and make it relevant for contemporary life. No small task! But this wasn’t about what I admire or respect, it’s about what has shaped my perspective on the biblical text.
To say Brueggemann has been formative for me would be dishonest. I did not read the volume in full until a few years ago, and I recently re-read it. But he has given articulation and precision to how I approach the biblical text as a literary and, above all, theological text with God as the central, not an ancillary, character. Methodologically Brueggemann and I are quite close, though my focus is more of the Robert Alter literary persuasion (and, not incidentally, Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative was the other volume I was leaning towards . . . . ) and less the metaphorical/testimony model of Brueggemann.
So, what’s your one book, and why?
This is my first interview in what I hope will be an official (yet sporadic) series of scholarly interviews. Dr. Brueggemann was kind enough to devote some of his time and answer some questions. I hope you will find it to be an enlightening and engaging discussion. Here we go . . . .
First off, thank you Dr. Brueggemann for agreeing to take part in this interview! Many of my readers will know how appreciative I am of your work. What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible in particular, as your chosen vocation?
“I had two most remarkable Old Testament teachers in seminary, neither of whom published much at all. Allen Wehrli taught me about imagination in interpretation, and introduced me to the form critical work of Herman Gunkel. Lionel Whiston introduced me to the work of Gerhard von Rad, work that was only beginning to be translated into English. I concluded that Old Testament study was where the action is. That was confirmed for me by my graduate teacher, James Muilenburg. I still think so.”
You have written prolifically on the Psalms, Jeremiah, Old Testament theology, among countless other topics. What, if you had to choose, has been your favorite book you have written, and why?
“I fall back al the time on Prophetic Imagination because it provides the basic narrative for all of my interpretive work. I most enjoyed, with due anguish, Finally Comes the Poet, because it made connections for me with the artistic dimensions of interpretation that are so crucial for faith and life.”
Bridging the gap between the Old Testament and the Church is a vital aspect of your scholarship. How do you suggest the OT/HB is best employed in Christian worship? What does it contribute that is missing in many contemporary Christian communities of faith?
“The Old Testament invites the church to a narrative reality that is open, pluralistic, and beyond all codifications. The God to whom it witnesses continues to break open our best ideologies. In worship the church needs to hear and think through much, much more text, especially the parts we find implausible and unacceptable. But that depends upon interpretation that takes seriously the complex refusal of the text to be ‘explained.’”
You have a very particular, though ‘paradoxical’ understanding of God in the Hebrew Bible. In an interview I once heard you call the God of the OT a “recovering agent of violence.” And anyone who has read your massive tome, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy will be well aware of your take on the Bible’s conception of God. Of what contemporary relevance or import is such a ‘problematic’ image?
“This ‘problematic’ presentation of God testifies against all of our ‘cozy’ notions of faith, liturgy, piety, doctrine, and morality. The Old Testament and its God is to be received only in dispute and contestation. It constitutes a wake-up call against complacency, easy conclusions, and dumbing down in faith.”
Your Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy is perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology. Now over ten years removed from its initial publication, how do you see the field of OT theology as having progressed, both in relationship to your volume and in rleationship to our postmodern context?
“Old Testament theology has become much more pluralistic and diverse. I believe my book is important in breaking away from the old models of concept and abstract ideas and themes. My accent has been on the passionate dynamic of the text itself, and refusal to arrive at abstract closure. I believe this has been important in opening the way for many ‘postmodern’ efforts that refuse the old synthesis.”
What are some of the best places, in your estimation, to study the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today? Why?
“Everyone has about the same list: alongside Baylor that list likely includes Yale, Harvard, Princeton Seminary, Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Claremont, and Union NY. These programs have a long tradition of research and offer leading, generative scholars as teachers.”
What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?
“Von Rad comes first for me. But I mention Norman Gottwald who gave shape and authorization to my own impulse to connect the text to social reality. I have learned so much from Gottwald that I keep reprocessing. He taught us that the text, like our own interpretations, is embedded in a social system that is laden with ideological freight.”
I know you are currently writing (or have finished writing your part) of the NCBC on the Psalms with my teacher, Bill Bellinger. What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you?
“I have in prospect a collection of sermons and a collection of lectures and essays. I am working on a manuscript on the prophets and one on the metaphor of “Babylon.” I do not know if I will finish those, but those are likely the last longer manuscripts I will attempt.”
Thank you, Dr. Brueggemann!
In recent months, since SBL in Boston, Dr. Walter Brueggemann and I have been in sporadic contact through email. We have agreed to get together at SBL in New Orleans, and he has also agreed to read my dissertation–unofficially–along the way. What a great set of eyes to have on the manuscript!
But, just this morning, I received an email from Dr. Brueggemann stating he would be willing to allow me to do a brief interview with him for the blog here. I am looking in to starting a series of interviews for Hebrew Bible scholars, very much like Matt at Broadcast Depth has been doing for NT scholars. I have many in mind, and a few in the works already. Dr. Brueggemann, though, is the first to agree officially.
So, within the next week, roughly, be on the lookout for my interview with Walter Brueggemann!
(See my earlier post HERE on the topic of OT theology as [a]historical discipline).
As I am writing my dissertation on an Old Testament theology related topic, and as I prepare to do some TA work Bill Bellinger’s OT theology seminar this Fall, I find myself continually returning to a question on method. The question, for me, is less what is/constitutes OT theology and more how is one to do/construct an OT theology. One can learn very much, I feel, by attending to the history of research on the topic. Reflecting on this question, I will here survey four responses briefly, those of Eichrodt, von Rad, Childs, and Brueggemann.
Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (2 vols.), 1930s
Eichrodt’s theology is systematic in its organization, grouped into three parts: God and world, God and man, God and people. OT theology for him is an historical (though not chronological), and scientific (though not confessional) exercise. He sees the task of OT theology as being “to construct a complete picture of the OT realm of belief” (I, 25). Eichrodt does this by what he calls a “double aspect,” emphasizing 1) comparative material from ancient Near Eastern religions; 2) a forward looking trajectory to the NT and Jesus as fulfillment of OT precursors. Eichrodt takes a cross-section approach, arguing one can ‘cut’ at any given point in Israel’s historical narrative and there discern the unifed structure of OT belief. His approach is thus, in this way, synchronic, and it assumes a basic unified structure to OT thought over time. The conceptual center Eichrodt identifies as the central organizing principle of the OT is the Mosaic covenant, the encounter between YHWH and Israel with formative implications. Other covenants, such as the Abrahamic or Davidic, are merely later retrojections of this primal covenant concept.
Problems with Eichrodt’s View
1) Too much unity. Eichrodt does not take into account adequately the posibility of development over time (as does von Rad, below). By assuming a continuity across the entire history of OT thought, there is no emphasis on the reshaping and reappropriation of, say, Exodus traditions that are now well known in scholarship.
2) Covenant as the center. Related to #1 above, there is simply too much unity. Eichrodt’s covenant is univocal. What about the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Noachide covenants? Is it adequate to call them retrojections? This emphasis on unity has also been challenged by the advent of bi-polar OT theologies or even a great multiplicity of theologies, as Erhard Gerstenberger argues for in his Theologies of the Old Testament.
3) Supersessionism. Writing in Germany in the 1930s, such rhetoric may be understood. But it is still inexcusable. While his NT trajectory may be defensible based upon the simple fact this is an Old Testament theology (though I am still not so forgiving), his rhetoric is not. Not only is his theology full of critiques and jabs at Judaism, which has developed into a degenerate faith, but he also goes so far as to call Judaism a “torso.” I cannot accept this.
Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.), 1950-60s
Von Rad rejects Eichrodt’s systematic way of doing OT theology because he believes the OT’s own way of doing theology is non-systematic. He proposes a diachronic model, namely tradition history. He argues that ancient Israel’s faith traditions developed and grew over time. As a result, there is no unifying center to the OT; one can and should rather speak of theologies. The task of the OT theologian is to identify and trace out the various traditions and their development. Israel’s faith, then, is grounded in a theology of history with its starting point being YHWH’s action in history. Toward this end, von Rad begins with what he calls the kleine Credo, tiny statements of faith that narrate the basic picture of OT salvation history. The two kleine Credo he emphasizes are Deut 26:5-10. and Josh 24:2f. These creedal statements narrate the same events: ancestral promise, exodus, land. Sinai is absent in these creeds and thus has a separate development. The importance of doing theology in this way for von Rad is that it honors the order of events as ancient Israel has set them out. Reactualization (or, the making pertinent and continual reshaping and updating of a tradition in each successive generation) is seminal for von Rad.
Problems with von Rad
1) Too much diversity.
2) Heilsgeschichte seems to function as the implicit center for von Rad.
3) Is OT theology the same thing as history of traditions?
4) Wisdom literature does not fit nicely into his theology; it is not about salvation history.
5) The credo theory is little held to anymore today. Rather than being small statements of faith out of which ancient Israel’s historical narratives grew and developed, they can just as well (and are likely better viewed as) later, distillations of an already expansive narrative.
Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 1985.
Childs’ opening chapter on methodology is worth the price of this volume alone. Literally. In it, Childs notes several problems with prior attempts at OT theology: 1) is one’s task to write an OT theology, a history of Israelite religions, or both?; 2) an overemphasis on variety and growth has led to an inability to see any sort of coherence; 3) OT theology has failed to engage the question of how concrete communities of faith have heard and appropriated these texts; 4) the relation of OT theology to Judaism and the NT remains ill-defined. As a result of these points, he says the field is at a stalemate. As a way forward Childs advances the canonical approach, whose basis is the received traditions of Israel located in the Hebrew Bible, and not the (reconstructured) events or experiences lying behind the text. Childs argues that canonization represents the final step in a process of hermeneutical activity that establishes the scope of what is and is not authoritative literature. The final form of the text, for Childs, still preserves many elements of ancient Israel’s earlier theological thought and its development. It is now given a new interpretive context, though, in its place in the canon. Now, Childs is quite inconsistent across all his volumes over what constitutes canon (see Brueggemann on this). Here, canon seems to mean an exercise in intertextuality (very Midrashic!) in which Scripture interprets Scripture. Therefore, tradition-historical exercises like those of von Rad are absent and inconsequential for Childs; according to him, they are not only reconstructions but also lie outside the bounds of Israel’s faith.
Problems with Childs
1) Which/whose canon? There is no single canon for Christianity; the canon varies by faith community. How is one to adjudicate what canonical shape of the text is or is not authoritative?
2) What is meant by canon? Childs is inconsistent across his works on what he means by canon. In Introduction to the OT as Scripture, it means the literary shape of the book. In OT Theology in a Canonical Context, it means an intertextual exercise. In his earlier Exodus commentary in the OTL series, it is an exercise in reception history.
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. 1997.
Brueggemann is writing after what Leo Perdue has called The Collapse of History (noting the move away from history for a variety of reasons in OT theology/study in general). Brueggemann’s Theology is itself postmodern, perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology we have. Methodologically, Brueggemann’s work may be described as a “theology of metaphor” or a “theology of rhetoric” in that he intentionally brackets out discussions of history and focuses upon what the text says and how the text says it. Towards this end, he employs the image of a courtroom to talk about the witness of the OT, focusing upon Israel’s solicited testimony, counter testimony, unsolicited testimony, and lastly, embodied testimony. Given this methodological stance, Brueggemann is very happy–indeed, interested and purposeful in–maintaining the tensions of the text. He notes, in good postmodern fashion, the plurality of interpretive strategies and possibilities that pervade OT study. At bottom, though, Brueggemann seems very much to be a covenant theologian and reads the text through this lens.
Problems with Brueggemann
1) Is OT theology entirely ahistorical? Can it be?
2) Does the image of a courtroom cause an unintended problem by fostering, unintentionally, a sense of ‘legalism’ in the OT?
3) Does a truly postmodern OT theology lead, again, to too much diversity?
I take a little from everyone. Each has difficulties, which I note, but also areas that are to be commended. Here is what I glean:
From Eichrodt . . . . an appreciation of the covenantal concept as central from the OT and Israel’s faith.
From von Rad . . . . an agreement with his focus on reactualization and development of the traditions, as well as emphasizing that one must honor them in the order preserved by ancient Israel.
From Childs . . . . the realization that the final form of the text is the beginning place (the raw material, perhaps) for OT theology, and that the final form preserves therein earlier stages of Israel’s faith development.
From Brueggemann . . . . an appreciation for the emphasis on rhetoric as a place of focus (contra Childs’ wholly intertextual approach in the volume discussed above) and not seeking an easy smoothing out of the tensions in the text but rather allowing them–even those concerning God’s character–to stand and have meaning.
What are your thoughts on Eichrodt? Von Rad? Childs? Brueggemann? What do you take from each? And, most importantly, how do you (or, how should we) do OT theology?
. . . . who would it be and why? In other words, what single scholar most captures the essence and meaning of the biblical text; who is asking the right questions, or giving the right answers? Whose methodological, theological, or historical presuppositions and conclusions do you most share? Put most simply . . . . for you, who most gets it right?
Here is a list of why:
* his reading of the difficult and troublesome texts, as well as his view on the characterization of God in the biblical text, are unabashedly honest.
* his desire to maintain tensions within the text rather than to smooth them out is not only postmodern, it is biblical, and again, honest.
* his emphasis on the Jewishness of the text is spot-on; this represents another tension – the ability to hold together the Jewishness of the text with the ‘Christian-ness’ of the text (see his OT theology).
*his attempts to make the Hebrew Bible relevant for contemporary communities of faith is to be applauded; from discussing the ‘scandalous’ character of God to how one may pray the lament psalms, his seeking to bring the Hebrew Bible into the life of Christian faithful is wonderfully motivating and enriching.
How about you?
I’ve got some catching up to do on reviews. Several new volumes have arrived on my doorstep:
I hope to post a few reviews of other books in the next week or two so I can get on to these beauties!
Any suggestions on which you would like to see first?
Video: Walter Brueggemann Preaching on the “Disruptive Conjunction” (Holy Week 2009, Duke University Chapel)
For all you Brueggemann-philes (of which I am one), here is a sermon he preached in April 2009 at Duke University Chapel . . . . which I have attended, and where my masters hooding at Duke took place . . . .
It is a very fine sermon, and vintage Brueggemann. Do watch and comment!
Do check out this short video of an interview with Walter Brueggemann in which he discusses the characterization of God, Jesus, and (re-) reading the Bible. His discussion is quite germane to the two posts immediately below on What Kind of God Do You Believe In (HERE and HERE). Do share your thoughts on Brueggemann’s words.
A common question I get when some find out I am a religious academic is something along the lines of “do you believe in God?” (For those who don’t know how I would answer this question . . . . yes, I do believe in God). But the more important question I try to stress is not do I believe but what kind of God do I believe in?
Some may assume this is a ridiculous question. God is truth, life, love, not to mention omni-everything. This may indeed be the case–I don’t claim to know the inner recesses of God’s mind or being!–but biblically it does not seem to be the portrait. Not all the time, at least. Take for instance God’s question in Gen 3:9 to the hiding Adam and Eve: “where are you?” Take the image of God throughout the Primeval History (Gen 1-11), who tries effortlessly to ‘get it right,’ moving from the failure of Adam and Eve to Cain killing Abel, to the righteousness of Noah amid the abominations of his household, to his selection of Abraham, who along with his descendants prove to be an especially rascally bunch. While some may aver that the emphasis should be placed on humanity’s failings here, one still needs to look at the opposite yet complementary side: what of God in all of this? If God is omni-everything, then he would have known of the debasement of humanity, foreseen the flood, and likely, in good and compassionate concern for creation, not gone that route. If God is omni-everything and went that route, God is then no different than traditional ancient Near Eastern conceptions of deities (see the Atrahasis Epic and The Gilgamesh Epic) and is responsible for not only knowing but also fore-ordaining the death of nearly the entirety of creation. Is that the type of God you believe in?
I first read Terry Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective some seven years ago, and I have described it as ‘exploding my paradigm’ of God. In a way, much of my subsequent scholarship, writing, and publishing has struggled with this issue.
God is, to my eye, quite unpredictable. Walter Brueggemann has argued as such:
In its core testimony, Israel has uttered [YHWH] as a God who is straightforward in dealing with [YHWH's] partners. In Israel’s cross-examination, [YHWH] emerges not only hidden as in wisdom theology but also on occasion as devious, ambiguous, irascible, and unstable . . . . These voices of witness, nonetheless, constitute a part of Israel’s countertestimony, and while these texts are commonly disregarded in more formal theology, they are important data for our understanding of who [YHWH] is said by Israel to be (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 359).
Preconceived notions of God that one brings to a text are ultimately unhelpful if used as a grid within which the text must fit tidily. It won’t fit. Indeed, the text should not be expected to conform. Nor should God. Fretheim writes:
God’s appearance in human form reveals God’s vulnerability . . . . It suggests an entering into the life of the world that is more vulnerable, where the response can be derision (see Gen 18:12-13) or incredulity (Judg 6:13-17). It is to put oneself concretely into the hands of the world to do with as it will. It is revealing of the ways of God that the word is enfleshed in bodies of weakness within the framework of commonplace, everyday affairs, and not in overwhelming power. For, even in those instances where the vestments of God’s appearance are threaded with lineaments of power, they clothe a vulnerable form. There is no such thing for Israel as a nonincarnate God (106).
As I write this, and as I note that I agree very much with Brueggemann and very much with Fretheim, I continue to wonder how these two strands–these two very distinct (and conflicting?) views of God can be held together. Obviously ancient Israel had little problem doing so. I also have little problem doing so. But it is striking to look at how God is “imaged,” as I have heard Fretheim say, in the Hebrew Bible. I have more to say on this, but that will be another post.
This brings up some related questions:
1) The relationship between the Testaments: I reject the neo-Marcion tendency that seems still to pervade scholarship and the life of faith, drawing a sharp distinction between a wrathful, murderous God of the Hebrew Bible and a kind, loving God in the NT. Ummmm, crucifixion, anyone? Let’s not whitewash the crucifixion. And let’s not whitewash God. Please.
2) What role does the Hebrew Bible play in one’s faith? What role should it play? And should (or does?) the Church employ it properly?
3) Is God’s unpredictability ever tempered by predictability? Constancy?
So who is God in the Hebrew Bible? I would answer as follows . . . .
God is . . . . a trickster, deceptive, cunning, and unpredictable figure.
God is . . . . the one who elects Israel and chooses her for covenant relationship.
God is . . . . steadfast in the covenant with Israel.
God is . . . . intimately and deeply affected by creation to the point that God at points changes His mind, repents, withdraws, mourns, etc.
God is . . . . one who suffers because of, with, and for creation.
God is . . . . a paradox. Vulnerable yet powerful. Tricky yet faithful. Present yet absent.
In re-reading through Walter Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, I must admit I am quite taken still by his theology of rhetoric. Brueggemann writes:
I shall insist, as consistently as I can, tha the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way. This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel.” (66)
For Brueggemann, and for myself, the locus of ancient Israel’s theological reflection and meaning lies solely in the text, more particularly, how the text narrates what it does about God. What is said is far more important for Brueggemann than attempting to reconstruct either what happened or how the text came to be. On the so-called historical task of OT theology, Brueggemann says:
“Note well that in focusing ons peech, we tend to bracket out all querstions of historicity. We are not asking: ‘what happened?’ but ‘What is said?’ To inquire into the historicity of the text is a legitimate enterprise, but it does not, I suggest, belong to the work of Old Testament theology. In like manner, we bracket out all questions of ontology, which ask about the ‘really real.’ It may well be, in the end, that there is no historicity to Israel’s faith claim, but that is not a position taken here. And it may well be that there is no ‘being’ behind Israel’s faith assertion, but that is not a claim made here. We have, however, few tools for recovering ‘what happened’ and even fewer for recovering ‘what is,’ and therefore those issues must be held in abeyance, pending the credibility and persuasiveness of Israel’s testimony, on which everything depends” (118).
What do you make of Brueggemann’s insistence on rhetoric as the means of approaching Old Testament theology? What of his ahistorical approach? As you may suspect, I am quite on board. But for a variety of reasons.
The task of OT theology has long been seen as an historical one. Eichrodt’s seminal two volume theology stressed a “double aspect”: 1) investigate and analyze a given text agains the backdrop of ancient Near Eastern religion; 2) trace out how this text has been fulfilled in Jesus and the NT [a terribly reductionist and triumphalist reading the way Eichrodt presents it]. Similarly, von Rad’s two volumes–from which I still learn very much–see OT theology through the lens of tradition history. For von Rad, the task of the OT theologian is to trace the development of these traditions, thus emphasizing the diversity of the task. Erhard Gerstenberger’s more recent Theologies of the Old Testament seems to carry this strand forward, arguing (correctly) that there are multiple theologies in the OT (although he and I would disagree on what these multiple theologies are). Gerstenberger, though, is also purely historical, discussing the theology of various institutions within ancient Israel. And there are countless others who have seen the task of OT theology as an utterly historical one. In fact, reading some of these early OT theologies is quite similar to reading early introductions on the OT for me. Both were largely doing excavative work and writing history, with theology peppered in.
More recently (1985 to be exact, some 12 years prior to Brueggemann’s volume), Brevard Childs sought a paradigm shift. In his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, he argues (correctly) that OT theology has long been too taken with matters of history. One must ask precisely what the task itself is, writes Childs. Is the task to do OT theology, a history of traditions/religion, or some mutation of both?
I don’t believe OT theology should be utterly ahistorical. But I also don’t think Brueggemann is wholly ahistorical (as Norman Gottwald points out in his essay in God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, of which see my review HERE). But Brueggemann is not historical in the way Eichrodt or von Rad were historical. Brueggemann is concerned with what ancient Israel says, regardless of any concerns for the authenticity of the utterance or its development into that utterance. I remain quite agnostic about the historical critical method of reading. And thus, I think Brueggemann’s discussion outlined above presents a refreshing way forward for how one does OT theology. One is not writing a history. One is writing a theology, from ancient Israel’s perspective, about her views on God. That, I would argue, is the task of OT theology. It is literally a “word about God.” And only as such can it be called OT theology proper.
And you? What do you think of Brueggemann’s method? How do you see the task of OT theology?
While it may be a bit overdue, I am indeed reporting for duty, responding to the challenge posed by Michael Whitenton to name the five books that have had the most significant and profound effect on me as a student of the biblical text (N.B. see also my similar posts on “Five Books on Genesis I Could Not Do Without” and “Five MORE Books on Genesis I Could Not Do Without . . . “). So, I present, the five books that have most influenced me as a biblical scholar.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
No single volume has more influenced how I read the biblical text than Alter. In light of my growing agnosticism about the success of the historical-critical enterprise within scholarship, Alter came along at just the right time and filled a gap for me. I am deeply appreciative of not only the care with which I feel he reads texts, but also with the fact that his methodology–quite unlike historical-critical ones–allows for not just an appreciation of Hebrew art but also a) preserves and finds great meaning in the tensions of the text; b) a recognition of contemporary meaning and relevance for the text as well.
Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.
I have discussed this volume in the past. It absolutely exploded my (naive) paradigm of God as omni-everything. Fretheim focuses upon divine suffering, arguing that God has entered so intimately into relationship with creation that God is deeply impacted by the choices of humanity. The idea of divine vulnerability and pathos is one that has, for those that are familiar with my work, greatly affected my conception of God. I have not read this volume in a number of years, but it still sits on my shelf in a prominent place, heavily marked up from my earlier readings of it. And when I think of volumes that have had a bearing on how I read the Bible and, more specifically, how I read God, this is surely one.
While not explicitly a book about the Bible, I cannot underestimate the impact Night has had on how I read Scripture. I am greatly influenced by Wiesel’s work, and I have a keen interest in Holocaust study and theology. Wiesel taught me the value of questions, not accepting ‘pat’ answers, and, perhaps as is to be expected, very much about the character (or lack of character?) of God. I still recall my first reading of Night in my intro to religion course freshmen year of undergrad; we read it alongside the biblical book of Job, and then literally staged a trial of God, indicting him for crimes during the Holocaust and crimes in Job. I, interestingly, was selected by my professor to be God. And yes, God was found guilty on both counts . . . and rightly so.
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
No big surprise here, right? Brueggemann’s massive tome stands out to me for a variety of reasons: 1) the emphasis on rhetoric as ancient Israel’s means of communicating theology, which correspondingly results in his near utter-dismissal of history as the lens through which to view the task of OT theology; 2) his desire to struggle deeply with the tensions in the biblical text and to let them stand where necessary; 3) his portrait of God. I am excited to be meeting with Brueggemann in a tentative ‘sit down’ meeting at this year’s SBL.
Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
Alan Segal’s Rebecca’s Children was in close contention here; in fact, I could likely call a tie. Wilson introduced me to the intricacies of the Jewish roots of Christianity, while Segal’s volume gave that view greater precision. This has greatly impacted my reading of not only the NT (in line with Boccacini, Segal, Boyarin, all of whom claim a twin birth for Jewish Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism from Israelite religion) but also the OT. The overriding message of this book has been one that has interestingly been carried forward in each of my academic contexts . . . undergrad (Augustana), masters program (Duke), and now Ph.D. work (Baylor). It has been an issue constantly at the fore for me, and one with which I have consistently struggled.
Well, there you have it. I will tag my Genesis buddy, Chris Heard, Bryan Bibb, Jim West (since I don’t think he has posted up such a list yet . . . plus he needs the traffic), Mark Goodacre, and Richard from Tehillim and YHWH Malak.
I look forward, as always, to your comments!
Any biblical scholar is well aware of the name Walter Brueggemann. He is no doubt one of the towering giants in biblical studies during the twentieth century, writing prolifically and touching on virtually every topic in the Hebrew Bible for nearly four decades. It is thus quite fitting that this volume honor him with essays by former students (Beal, Lee, and Linafelt), a former teacher (Terrien), past colleagues (Gunn, Hulet, and O’Connor), authors in Brueggemann’s series Overtures to Biblical Theology (Fretheim, Crenshaw, Moberly, Patrick, Rendtorff, and Trible), as well as those who have engaged Brueggemann in conversation throughout his career (Barr, Blumenthal, Clements, Clines, Gottwald, Miller, and Westermann). One can easily see that the contributors to this volume constitute a veritable ‘who’s who’ of biblical scholarship over the last fifty years. Here, they all come together to engage Brueggemann’s understanding of God as a character of “tensions” and “ambivalences” (3) and as One that is intimately involved in history (hence the title, God in the Fray).
In the Introduction, Linafelt and Beal state that this tribute is meant to stand alongside Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy as a companion volume, evidencing how others have engaged Brueggemann’s thought. The essays are divided into five parts: Part One (Engaging Brueggemann’s Theology); Part Two (God in the Torah); Part Three (God in the Prophets); Part Four (God in the Writings); Part Five (Continuing the Dialogue). Given the richness of this volume, and the shear number of its contributors, this review cannot hope to be all inclusive (there are a total of 22 essays). What I will hope to do here, however, is provide the briefest of summaries for each essay (some more thorough than others), noting simply its main thrust, thesis, and conclusions.
Part One: Engaging Brueggemann’s Theology
The first essay is by Norman Gottwald and is entitled “Rhetorical, Historical, and Ontological Counterpoints in Doing Old Testament Theology.” Gottwald begins with great praise for Brueggemann’s emphasis on rhetoric as a fruitful entrance point to and basis of OT theology, yet he questions Brueggemann’s jettisoning of history and ontology from the enterprise of OT theology. Gottwald argues, however, that Brueggemann’s Theology is not ahistorical; among the evidence he adduces is Brueggemann’s claim that the final shape of the OT is a response to exile and the notion of “power and justice in the public realm as the locus of Israel’s theology” (16). Gottwald also notes that Brueggemann’s theology is not without ontological concerns. In the end, Gottwald praises Brueggemann for underscoring the caution with which one must approach OT theology, yet also notes that historical and ontological questions are still likely to be asked and occupy a place of importance given that the readers of these texts are “meaning-seeking and time-enmeshed humans” (23).
Terence Fretheim‘s “Some Reflections on Brueggemann’s God” discusses the issue of divine “ambiguity” as endemic to God’s own being and not simply God’s acts or Israel’s understanding of them. Fretheim also treats the “will” of God, a point which he sees lacking in Brueggemann’s theology. In conclusion, Fretheim advances three specific areas of emphasis that he sees lacking in Brueggemann’s theology: 1) Point of view: no distinction is made by Brueggemann between Israel’s words about God and God’s actual speech to Israel; 2) Character: does not the divine character differ from other characters in terms of what is said textually about him/her and what exists as real/true about God/other characters?; 3) Genre: what import might genre designations play in discussing divine speech (i.e., Fretheim writes “People . . . . say all kinds of things about God when they are in dire straits, but would never so speak in a carefully formulated theological statement” ).
David Blumenthal, “Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis” begins by discussing instances where God “swears” to do something in the Hebrew Bible. He next focuses on a text from the Zohar (1.50b-51b) as a means of defining and describing God. Lastly, he moves into a discussion of his own book, Facing the Abusing God, where he describes God as an “Abuser.” The book, though, is also preeminately about healing, about the ability to speak boldly to God, even when one is afraid to do so. Such, he argues, is the basis of the covenantal love between God and humanity.
Part Two: God in the Torah
James Barr, “Was Everything that God Created Really Good? A Question in the First Verse of the Bible” analyzes three options for how one is to comprehend Gen 1:1: 1) a first act of creation prior to the creation of light in v. 3; 2) a temporal expression ["in the beginning of God's creating . . . . "]; 3) summary of entirety of creation serving as a preface, and the subsequent description of creation explicates this basic statement. Discussion of these issues conjures up two larger religious questions: 1) what is the relationship between the initial goodness of creation and religious confidence in which one lives; 2) creatio ex nihilo. In the end, Barr labels his discussion of these matters “an exercise in hermeneutical complications” (65).
Nancy Lee, “Genocide’s Lament: Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the Former Yugoslavia” argues the exodus story offers a human response to genocide through four social elements: 1) critique of a social arena where a leader employs rhetoric to the detriment of another people [exod 1:9-10]; 2) human response to suffering in lament speech [2:23-25]; 3) significant, bold action taken by individuals for the aid of others; 4) oppressed community’s telling of the story. The divine response, however, differs; YHWH’s vow to kill the Egyptian firstborn, notes Lee, stands in stark opposition to his desire to preserve Hebrew children. She expresses great concern at this co-opting of God; such a view runs the risk of precisely what the text states: that the death of children is part of the divine purpose.
James Crenshaw, “The Sojourner Has Come to Play the Judge: Theodicy on Trial” investigates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19 as one in which a figure decries the injustice of the present situation to a “culpable (?) deity” (87). Crenshaw then mentions a hsot of other instances in which YHWH is addressed as the accused: the Deuteronomistic History seeing exile as a divine action responding to covenantal infidelity, Isaiah, Jeremiah as one seduced and raped by the deity, among others. In the contemporary situation interpreting these texts, however, Crenshaw avers that theodicy has been replaced by anthropodicy (92); the deity is often (problematically) exonerated, and humanity alone deemed at fault.
Dale Patrick, “God’s Commandment” looks at the Pentateuchal laws as having a “concept of ‘commandment-ness,’ of some essence or iea that transcends and includes all particular prohibitions, prescriptions, judgments, and so on” (93). At bottom, what does it mean that the law is advanced by God?
R.W.L. Moberly, “God is Not a Human That He Should Repent: (Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29)” attempts to make sense of texts stating YHWH does not repent against the backdrop of texts stating explicitly that YHWH does indeed repent. What emerges from such an investigation is, reminiscent of Brueggemann’s Theology, a sustained tension that will nto give way to any simple reduction or harmonization. Moberly lists three conclusions: 1) the OT struggles as a whole “with that faithful commitment of God, of which ‘God does not repent,’ whent he cirucmstances of life seem most clearly to deny it” (122); 2) while God’s repenting is absent in the NT, God is still there both “relational and responsive” (123); 3) Paul in Rom 9-11 speaks of God’s election of Israel as that which is “not to be repented of” and perhaps demonstrates that Paul was thinking of Num 23:19 or 1 Sam 15:29.
Part Three: God in the Prophets
David Gunn, “Colonialism and the Vagaries of Scripture: Te Kooti in Canaan (A Story of Bible and Dispossession in Aotearoa/New Zealand)” examines how the Bible was “implicated” in the European settlement of New Zealand. Gunn holds that there are three parts to the implication of the Bible: 1) 19th century British ideology employed the idea of “the chosen people;” the settlers were also supported by this ideology in reference to their own experience; 2) the notion of “the land” as a place to be colonized and inhabited; 3) dispossession and the Promised Land.
Ronald Clements, “Who is Blind But My Servant? (Isaiah 42:19): How Then Shall We Read Isaiah?” seeks to answer the question posed in the subtitle of the article. As many are likely aware, Clements takes a redactional approach, tracing the development of the book of Isaiah over three centuries into a literary whole. Much of this contribution rehearses Clements’ own theses (see the many footnotes to his own articles). For Clements, the redactor of the entirety of Isaiah is “the first interpreter and a true disciple of the prophet” (153). One of Clements’ most poignant insights is the recognition that “belief in the sovereign divine freedom to create and perform new things (Isa 43:19) within the historical process was central to the Israelite understanding of prophecy” and thus provides “the essential hermeneutical key toward understanding the editorial freedom with which new prophecies lend new directions and possibilities to earlier ones in the creation of the great prophetic books” (155-156). At bottom, prophecy does not equate with divine determinism
Samuel Terrien‘s “The Metaphor of the Rock in Biblical Theology” examines how the metaphor of the “Rock” may inform a bipolar theology of the Bible, which Brueggemann advances both in his Theology and in his earlier pair of CBQ articles. Terrien focuses specifically on Isaiah, identifying the Rock with the cosmic acts of God. Moving forward, he notes the Qumran community associated the Rock with the community, and in the NT it is Jesus who is the cornerstone, evident in texts such as Matt 16:18, which carries the theme of the Rock from the OT (as identified and concerned with God) forward into the NT; Jesus as the Rock is the visible manifestation of God on earth. And in an interesting concluding point, Terrien muses on whether the designation of Peter as the rock is a polemic against Petrine supremacy given that it is in dissonance with the wider NT portrait of Jesus as the Rock; Matthew’s statement “get behind me satan” may evidence this polemic.
Kathleen M. O’Connor, “The Tears of God and Divine Character in Jeremiah 2-9″ examines the “multiple and unstable” (172) characterization of God in Jeremiah. She contends that one can discern three characterizations of God in Jeremiah: 1) YHWH as “angry, jealous, petty, and abusive” Divine Husband [2:1-4:2]; 2) YHWH as military general behind the decimation of creation [4:5-6:30]; 3) YHWH as weeping and grieving God, greatly troubled by the destruction of Israel [8:18-9:22]. Seminal to O’Connor’s reading is that each of these three characterizations sees YHWH responding to the community defined metaphorically/symbolically as a female. Furthermore, point #3, YHWH weeping, reveals a shift in the book of Jeremiah, tethering YHWH to the community in a way that brings about meaningful healing. At the close of Jeremiah, one sees God and Israel engaged in “a common suffering” (184).
Rolf Rendtorff, “Alas for the Day! The ‘Day of the Lord’ in the Book of the Twelve” looks at the way in which yom YHWH contributes to a unity for the Book of the Twelve. He begins by focusing upon the theme in Joel and Amos, and then moves to Obadiah, arguing that Amos is framed by Joel and Obadiah. This frame creates a unit of three writings concerning with the day of YHWH in the Northern Kingdom, despite Joel and Obadiah speaking to Judah. Zephaniah expands this theme, offering unique terminology (1:18; 2:2, 3). Lastly, the final chapter of the Twelve, Malachi 4 returns to this theme, which again has resonances with Joel, serving to solidify all the more the unity of the Twelve under this theme.
Phyllis Trible, “Divine Incongruities in the Book of Jonah” emphasizes the inconsistency of God in Jonah. She divides the book into two scenes: chapters 1-2 and chapters 3-4. Ultimately, she argues that YHWH’s repentance concerning Nineveh’s punishment is not to be attributed to Nineveh’s repentance but rather is a response to Jonah’s own pitying of the withered plant; because Jonah pitied the plant, YHWH pities Nineveh. This pity, says Trible, is ad hoc and highlights the utter freedom and arbitrariness of the deity. Within this short, four chapter story, “sovereignty, freedom, retribution, vindictiveness, violence, repentance, mercy, and pity” (208) all exist as part of the divine characterization.
Part Four: God in the Writings
Patrick Miller, “Prayer and Divine Action” explores the relationship between the pray-er and the deity. Nine points are emphasized: 1) God’s involvement arises by means of prayer; 2) Petitionary prayer is an art of persuasion of the deity; 3) Intercession seeks to accomplish a change of heart in YHWH; 4) Scriptural prayers both expect and often receive a miraculous word from God; 5) Trust in God is both an aspect of the prayer and a vital part of the transformation; 6) God’s providential activity involves blessing, preservation, and enhancement of human life; 7) In Job, human questions are met with divine questions, underscoring YHWH’s inscrutable activity; 8 ) prayer as plea presupposes the existence of a moral foundation underlying creation; 9) God ruling from the divine council and enacting judgments and decrees differentiates God from humanity, and it is God who rules for and in the world.
Claus Westermann, “The Complaint Against God” deals with the human complaint against the deity as an example of a theological tension in the text. Westermann first analyzes the historical development of this complaint in the history of Israel’s traditions. Concerning specific aspects of this complaint, Westermann avers that these complaints reveal nothing about God’s essence or character but rather speak of Israel’s experience of this God (i.e., Moses’ statement in Exod 5:22 that YHWH is mistreating the people). As one may expect based upon Westermann’s other works, the complaint against God only ‘works’ due to the close relationship between plea and praise in Israel’s prayers. Despite the complaint, praise of God persists.
And now . . . very, very briefly . . .
David J.A. Clines, “Quarter Days Gone: Job 24 and the Absence of God” is a powerful essay on divine absence in Job, reading the text from four different ‘perspectives’: Job, the Narrator, the Author, and the Reader. Clines sees Job as a “danger” to theology namely because it depicts, in its questions, not only a specific, difficult portrait of God but also one of Job–he is the asker of uninteresting questions, evident in God’s response from the whirlwind that there is an order to creation, yet it does not function the way Job and his friends presume it does. Sam Balentine, “What Are Human Beings that You Make So Much of Them? Divine Disclosure From the Whirlwind: Look at Behemoth” reads YHWH’s response to Job from the Whirlwind not as a chastisement aimed at Job but instead as a revelation of a new understanding for what it means to be created in the the image of God. Rather than being the objects of a subdued creation in which YHWH is disinterested, the Joban revelation confirms that, created in the imago Dei, humanity should–indeed, is expected, to address God boldly and confidently, yet all the while remembering their place as “dust and ashes.” Tod Linafelt, “The Impossibility of Mourning: Lamentations After the Holocaust” and Timothy Beal, “C(ha)osmopolis: Qohelet’s Last Words” close out the final section of essays.
Part Five: Continuing the Dialogue
The final part of this volume includes a thoughtful essay by Brueggemann–one he wrote without having read any of the papers in this collection–entitled “Theology of the Old Testament: A Prompt Retrospect.” Here Brueggemann reflects upon the task of OT theology and his impact upon it. First, he notes that OT theology must move beyond the monumental contributions of Eichrodt and von Rad in the twentieth century, all the while still retaining a deep appreciation for the contributions made to the discipline by these two scholars. In the second part of his essay, Brueggemann outlines six contributions he sees as evident in his work:
1. OT theology, in light of von Rad, is not to concern itself with history.
2. A response to (1) above is an emphasis on rhetoric or what ancient Israel narrates about her faith.
3. A “verbal process” is emphasized as opposed to a thematic treatment and organization for OT theology.
4. Juridical language of testimony, Brueggemann hopes, will be the main take-away from his work.
5. The juxtaposition of core- and counter-testimony is novel and important in Brueggemann’s work.
6. Pressing Eichrodt’s notion of covenant further, Brueggemann has seen God as related (unsolicited testimony).
Brueggemann next notes several points of continued dispute and debate emerging from his work:
1. A nonfoundationalist perspective
2. The nature of historical criticism
3. Jewish and Christian readings and avoiding supersessionism
4. Toward the Church (or, the necessity of relating OT theology exclusively to the NT).
Brueggemann clarifies his understanding of OT theology as a process of testimony, dispute, and advocacy in which Israel and God both are engaged in disputation with one another, and it is this perspective alone that allows for a pluriform view of the OT witness.
The final contribution to this volume is a nearly exhaustive bibliography of Brueggemann’s writings and publications (up until 1998, running 18 full pages!) by Clayton Hulet.
This volume, in my estimation, succeeds in the goal Linafelt and Beal set out for it: to be an accompanying volume to Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament. God in the Fray contains over 20 essays by some of the most renowned biblical scholars of the twentieth (and twenty-first!) century that engage Brueggemann’s thought–indeed, Brueggemann’s God–in a way that does not cut Brueggemann any slack. Some essays are critical and seek to fill a gap (i.e, Gottwald on history, or Fretheim on the will of God), while others are more applications of Brueggemann’s categories of OT theology or endeavors to make sense of tensions in the divine character. While there are obviously aspects of several of the essays with which I would take some issue, this is no doubt to be expected, and should not be seen as detrimental to the overall quality of this work. In my own personal work, Brueggemann has proven to be seminal; not only do he and I share a similar view of the task of OT theology, we also share a similar understanding of the God of the Hebrew Bible. If you are at all interested in Brueggemann’s work, then this volume is a must read. No where else will you find such an impressive cast of scholars engaging the thought, critically and respectfully, of one of the most important figures in biblical scholarship today.
Regular readers of this blog will know that Walter Brueggemann is one of the “heroes of the faith” (to borrow a phrase from my teacher, Bill Bellinger) for me. Not only do I find his work engaging, powerful, and relevant to contemporary communities of faith, but I also feel he struggles with some of the most poignant and troublesome questions in the Hebrew Bible; he does not shy away. Of course, I do not agree with Brueggemann on many things, but his work–on Genesis specifically–is seminal for the work I am doing.
I recently finished re-reading Brueggemann’s commentary on Genesis, and I must say it still impresses, especially for the Interpretation series (which is a very fine series, to be sure, but Brueggemann’s volume is especially astute in my view). Foundational for Brueggemann is the notion that the Genesis narratives, Jacob cycle included, are highly theological (which challenges the notion of von Rad in his OT Theology vol. 1, where he says very little theological shaping or insight is evident in the ancestral narratives). I, obviously, agree with Brueggemann. It seems ill-conceived to discuss Genesis without discussing the central role God plays in the text. And those who have read my article know, God plays some quite interesting roles in the Jacob cycle.
So, I offer here a few snippets of Brueggemann’s conception of God in Genesis (with some brief commentary by me)–one that I am appreciative for in that it meshes well with my own understanding, but also one that I do take issue with at times. Such is the nature of our discipline. Please do weigh in; I am curious as to your thoughts (especially if you have read my article . . . how do you see the two going together?).
“The call of God places Jacob in a series of unrelieved conflicts. The entire narrative is marked by strife . . . But the dispute is not of Jacob’s making. It is evoked by God’s initial oracle (25:23). The narrative affirms that the call of God is not only a call to well-being. It may be a call to strife and dispute.” (209).
Brueggemann is here not only entirely correct, his view corroborates my reading of Gen 25:23 (which I have dubbed in my writing and dissertation a “trickster oracle). I will be presenting a paper dealing with this point at SBL New Orleans . . . if you find my article interesting or compelling, or Brueggemann here, please do attend the session. You can read the abstract HERE. I simply cannot conceive how scholarship has been able to argue the oracle in 25:23 governs the entire Jacob cycle, yet God has no role (or a whitewashed one) in Jacob’s shenanigans.
“Theological exposition will not focus on the person of Jacob. He holds our attention and warrants it. But finally the text concerns the God of Jacob . . . . Jacob is a scandalous challenge to his world because the God who calls him is also scandalous. We are not told why God challenged the legitimated convention of the community by designating this ‘heel’ of a man (25:26). But he does! It is this same God who will later struggle with Jacob and leave him crippled (32:22-32). At many points the narrative presents the inscrutable, dark site of God” (209).
Brueggemann’s words here are latently powerful and imply many of the very same questions that first drew me to this topic: why choose Jacob given his character? what does such a choice say about ancient Israel’s self-identity? what does this decision say about God? I do struggle a bit with the words “dark side;’ while they are no doubt a strong and bold designation of the divine, Brueggemann and I seem to disagree on exactly what God is doing in selecting Jacob. For Brueggemann, as he says, no choice is given, but he appears elsewhere to hint at the fact that God has an intimate concern for the ‘underdog.’ I think this is right, but I don’t know that it is the reason for God’s selection of Jacob (as I argue in my upcoming SBL paper). I also don’t believe Jacob is truly the underdog very often . . . the birthright episode (25:27-34) seems to make his cunning quite patent. And with God on his side (implicit in 25:23, corroborated in 28:13-15 at Bethel) things seem very much to turn out for the better for him (again, see my article).
“[Genesis] is not a spiritual treatise on morality” (229).
Spot on! By the very fact such texts are preserved and shaped as they are–about Israel’s namesake, Jacob, no less!–I am convinced issues of morality and ethics are foreign to these texts. ANE parallels exhibit plenty of evidence of deception and tricksterism at work; ancient Israel appears no different. All too often assumptions that ethics and morality are central and operative here, I argue, has led scholarship to advance an unnecessary (and problematic) divide between God and Jacob. At bottom, I see my task as primarily reading these texts against their own backdrop and not importing, a priori, my own modern assumptions about ethics and morality. Doing so is an unfair imposition on this ancient text.
“The blessing of God has its way whether we are attracted to or repelled by the object of hte blessing. The narrative shows God strangely at work for Jacob without regard for our emotions about Jacob. Given the oracle of 25:23 and its undoubted continuing importance for the Jacob tradition, we may dare to conclude that the real issue here is not primarily about Isaac and Esau, nor about REbekah and Jacob. It is, rather, about the power of the blessing in the service of God’s purpose of inversion. It is dynamic of the blessing that makes moral censure of REbekah irrelevant. For this narrator, Rebekah plays a role she does not know about and did not choose. There are no hints in the entire narrative that she knows what she is doing . . . The bargaining for the birthright (25:29-34) and the scheme for the blessing (27:1-45) implemented the oracle in ways unrecognized by every participant. God has evoked the conflict. The conflict causes pain or shame to every player. But God does not shrink from the conflict, for a holy purpose is underway. The way of God will not be explained. The narrative invites the listening community to marvel rather than to explain. The reality of blessing is not simply the result of human ingenuity. Nor is it a matter of good luck.” (235).
No comment is necessary. It is likely clear that I assent very much to this view.
I welcome and look forward to your comments!