Archive for the ‘Walter Brueggemann’ Category


The Song of Solomon – Walter Brueggeman

December 3, 2010

African Icons: Psalter, Song of Songs, Night Prayers above: King Solomon, Parchment, 15th century.

This love poem is introduced in canonical form as the “song of Songs” – that is, the superb Song of King Solomon. The linkage to King Solomon that vouches for the book as Scripture perhaps attests to Solomon’s reputation for “wisdom,” for it is possible to situate the text among wisdom teachings, as does Brevard Childs (1 Kings 3:16-28; 4:29-34) (Childs 1979, 573-79). Or perhaps the connection to Solomon is that he himself is reported to have had among his wives “seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines” (1 Kings 11:3), suggesting his sexual prowess:

If Solomon is evoked in the Song, thus giving it a legendary flavor, it is not so much Solomon-the-Wise that the author is calling to the bar, as Solomon-the-Don-Juan. With his thousand wives (1 Kings 11:3), Solomon appears as one who has known love in all its forms, as the paragon of love. (Lacocque and Ricoeur 1998, 237)

In either case, the connection of the book to King Solomon is surely secondary and, at the most, resituates the book in the royal apparatus and the timeline of Israel. The love poetry itself articulates common and recurring themes of romantic love that are known in every culture in every season. Indeed, it is most plausible that the song of Solomon has connections to Egyptian love songs

In any case, the book is love poetry of an unrestrained, passionate kind in which the erotic interaction of a man and a woman are brought to daring and imaginative speech. It is commonly assumed that the speaker is a man, a point exploited by David Clines in his argument that the poetry has an indulgence in male sexism (Clines). Conversely, Andre Lacocque has argued strongly that the voice heard here is a woman (Lacocque and Ricoeur 1998, 240-46). Tremper Longman judiciously observes, against Clines, that a judgment about the identity of the speaker is a highly subjective one.

The discussions of the gender of the author of the Song reveals more about us as commentators than it does about the Song. It relies on a theory of literature and of gender that believes that women and men are typecast in the way that they write. The irony is that the arguments on both sides are not coming from social conservatives, but they certainly feed the agendas of those conservatives. The most honest appraisal is that we do not know for certain who wrote the songs of the Song, man or woman, and in anv case it is a collection of love poetry, whether by men, or women, or both. It strikes me, though, that Clines is the most egregious of these commentators since his view relies on the supposition that no woman could have the interest in the kind of love that the beloved articulates
(Longman 2001, 9)

We know very little about any historical-critical data concerning the book. Great attention must be paid, however, to the long practice of interpretation of the poetry. On the one hand, it is clear that this is human love expressed erotically and without restraint. It is love of an innocent kind unrestrained by morality or even a suggestion of matrimonial context. It voices the most elemental delight in the presence with and embrace of the beloved. Indeed, Phyllis Trible has shown a way in which the Song articulates a “redeemed” love lyric that is a contrast with and correction of the brokenness of the narrative of Genesis 2-3, wherein the human couple failed to actualize this creaturely delight:

Thus far we have studied two portrayals of male and female in the Old Testament. Genesis 2-3 depicted a tragedy of disobedience; the Song of Songs, a symphony of eroticism.
(Trible 1978, 162)

Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a reference now lost to me, has suggested that the Song is a superb articulation of “creation theology,” for it celebrates the unquestioned “goodness” of creatureliness.

That human marking of the Song is without dispute. The reader of the book, however, must take into account, on the other hand, a second reading of the book that began very early in both Jewish and Christian interpretation, namely, that this love poetry concerns love between God and Israel or, derivatively, Christ and the church. This reading — long well-established — moves beyond the plain meaning of the poetry and finds in the poetry a daring theological articulation of the character of God and God’s inclination toward God’s creatures, read in an allegorical way. This reading has raised important methodological questions from a historical-critical approach, for such a mode of interpretation is disinclined to allegorical approaches in principle. Beyond the issue of method, moreover, this second reading assigns to God lustful inclinations that do not come readily to the thinking of conventional theology.

Paul Ricoeur, in his characteristically subtle and dense way, has understood the problematic of such an allegorical reading and seeks to escape the “plain meaning” of the text (Lacocque and Ricoeur 1998). That said, however, Ricoeur champions a “plurality of interpretations” (267) that takes the form of a “metaphorization” of the poetry (301). When a reader takes the book as a theological disclosure of the character of God, one is drawn to the prophetic images of YHWH as a husband who woos Israel, as a lover who woos Israel and becomes Israel’s husband, as in Hosea 1-3 and Jeremiah 2-3 or in pornographic distortion in Ezekiel 1 6 and 23. (See the verb of passion credited to YHWH in Deuteronomy 7:7; 10:15.) These prophetic texts open up, as Abraham Heschel has seen, a wide range of possibilities for the “passion of God,” a passion for Israel that may express itself in suffering love but that also is articulated and enacted in rage and wrath, most extremely in Ezekiel 16 and 23 (Heschel 1962).

Ricoeur, however, is quick to insist that the passion of YHWH for Israel in the prophetic texts and the erotic sense of God’s inclination in the Song Of Songs are quite distinct from each other and not to be equated. They are, however, interrelated, and the interaction between them illuminates both:

First of all, the metaphorization at work takes place in two opposed directions, in a mirror-like relation. For the Prophets, it is the love of God that is spoken through the nuptial metaphor. In the Song of Songs, the nuptial dimension of love first loses its erotic cloak thanks to those virtues of the poem discussed earlier, so as to reinsert them in new discourse situations, thanks to a shift in the place of utterance (the baptismal liturgy, for example). In this sense, bringing these texts near to one another gives birth to what we might call an intersecting metaphor: on the one side, the prophets “see” the love between God and his people “as” conjugal love; on the other side, the erotic love sung in the Song of Songs is “seen as like” the love of God for his creature, at least if we interpret it with reference to the Prophets’ language. This “seeing as” is the organon (vocab: a system of principles for philosophic or scientific investigations; an instrument for acquiring knowledge) of every metaphorical process, whether it works in one direction or the other.
 (Lacocque and Ricoeur 1998, 301)

The articulation of such romantic passion means that we are invited in the poems to move even beyond the ethical perspective of the prophets to the erotic hunger of the Song as a disclosure of God. That is, if this text is theological disclosure, then it must be taken without weakening the force of the passion or diminishing the delight that God takes in God’s beloved, either by moralism or by institutional constraints. What is given us here is a God who is a true lover, one who loves with unrestrained delight and unqualified lust that constitute the fullness of self-giving.

It is no wonder that this reading of the text has been most fully appreciated in theological traditions informed by and open to a mystical dimension in which the “union” of Creator and creature is thinkable, conversely, this theological reading of the text is most resisted in a tradition that remains determinedly ethical (and resistant to the mystical) and insists on the sharp contrast of Creator and creature. The sharpest articulation of this contrast of which I know is the classic work of Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (1969). In this enormously influential work, the Lutheran bishop has classically argued that Agape (God’s utter self-giving love without avocation from the beloved) is totally and utterly distant from and opposed to Eros, which is characterized by the seeking for something for self from the beloved:

Already in the Old Testament there are suggestions that God’s love is not bound by the value or importance of its object “The LORD did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all peoples: but because the LORD loveth you. . . hath the LORD. . . redeemed you” (Deuteronomy. vii.7 f.).

Judaism, it is true, never dared to apply any such principle to God’s dealings with the righteous and the sinner; but Jesus goes the whole length. According to Him God’s love is sovereign in this matter also; indeed, it reveals its sovereignty most clearly of all in the fact that it directs itself to sinners. We only obscure the real nature of the fellowship with God, and make the relation between God and man less truly a relation of love, if we seek a basis for it in the idea that the sinner is better than the righteous.

We have therefore no longer any reason to ask about either the better or worse qualities of those who are the objects of Divine love. To the question, Why does God love? There is only one right answer: Because it is His nature to love.

We look in vain for an explanation of God’s love in the character of the man who is the object of His love. God’s love is “groundless”– though not, of course, in the sense that there is no ground for it at all, or that it is arbitrary and fortuitous. On the contrary, it is just in order to bring out the element of necessity in it that we describe it as “groundless”; our purpose is to emphasize that there are no extrinsic grounds for it. The only ground for it is to be found in God Himself. God’s love is altogether spontaneous. It does not look for anything in man that could be adduced as motivation for it. In relation to man, Divine love is “unmotivated.” When it is said that God loves man, this is not a judgment on what man is like, hut on what God is like.
(Nygren 1969, 74, 75—76)

Nygren’s simple and succinct affirmation of the matter is that “God is Agape” (1 John 4:16) and any compromise of this claim is dangerous and destructive of the claim of the gospel:

The idea of Agape can be compared to a small stream which, even in the history of Christianity, flows along an extremely narrow channel and sometimes seems to lose itself entirely in its surroundings; but Eros is a broad river that overflows its banks, carrying everything away with it, so that it is not easy even in thought to dam it up and make it flow in an orderly course. When the Eros motif invades Christianity however, its endeavor is to drive out and supplant the Agape motif.

The mistake is commonly made of representing Agape as a higher and more spiritualized form of Eros, and of supposing that the sublimation of Eros is the way to reach Agape. The thought of “the heavenly Eros” reminds us that that is not the case; for heavenly Eros may be a sublimation of sensual love, hut it is not itself capable of further sublimation. The heavenly Eros is the highest possible thing of its kind; it has been spiritualized to an extent beyond which it is impossible to go. Agape stands alongside, not above, the heavenly Eros; the difference between them is not one of degree but of kind. There is no way, not even that of sublimation, which leads over from Eros to Agape.
(Nygren 1969, 49-50, 52)

There is no doubt that Nygren’s thesis is congruent with the classical tradition of theology, especially in a Protestant trajectory. It is nonetheless clear that an important and continuing practice of theological interpretation in the church has not ceded everything over to that singular insistence. And therefore if the Song of Solomon is taken as seriously revelatory, we may entertain the thought that this literature bespeaks something of God that has been lost in what Nygren characterizes as the “small stream” of Agape. This alternative tradition, rooted in the voicing of human, creaturely, lustful innocence, dares assert that God’s self-giving finds in God’s beloved a deep delight for God. While such a claim can hardly be normative in Christian theology, it may be an important counterpoint to a theological accent that easily becomes excessively severe in the name of God who gives God’s self.

Thus it is likely, given the history of interpretation, that taking this poetry as a human love song (which it is) or to take it as divine disclosure is not an either/or. We read both at the same time precisely because, as John Calvin has seen, “knowledge of God” and “knowledge of man” are deeply intertwined. “Knowledge of man,” as Freud in his Jewishness unmistakably understood, is not available apart from sexual giving and receiving. For that reason, the truth of God’s self-giving love and the truth of human delight remain profoundly connected:

Many deeply religious works are to be read with the whole of our sensibility, including physical love, and great love poems call for a spiritual reading as well. For that matter, whether we adore with our hearts or souls is a matter for endless speculation. We do not know how we cherish, but only that we cherish. And the Song, with its great affirmation of love’s immortality, is a love poem that calls upon our deepest responses, on every level The more its authors sing of love, the more they whisper of God.
(Schulman 1989, 359)

In Jewish liturgical practice, the Song of Solomon is utilized in the Passover celebration, used as a resource to mediate the unmitigated joy that arises from YHWH’s profound commitment to Israel in the act of the exodus. That connection to Passover is of course broken in the familiar canonical sequence the Christian Bible. In the latter usage, the book is grouped alongside Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, a triad that is all (a) poetic, (b) linked to Solomon and (c) associated with wisdom instruction. When attention is paid to canonical placement, it is clear that the two situations in Jewish and Christian canon suggest very different interpretive perspectives.


The Suffering Servant of Isaiah by Walter Brueggemann

November 2, 2010

Michelangelo Isaiah, 1509

We may notice in particular one element of this poetry upon which many interpreters comment. There is no doubt that in this poetry “Israel” as the addressee is named and regarded as YHWH’s “servant,” as the one in covenant with YHWH and so bound in obedience to YHWH. Scholars have, however, identified four poems dubbed “Servant Songs” that came to be regarded as distinct from the usage of the term “servant” in the rest of the poetry (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12).

Because these four poems have been singled out by scholars, it has been thought that the person designated as “servant” in these poems (and only in these poems) is a special figure with a special relationship to YHWH and a special vocation from YHWH, quite different from Israel as “servant.” Scholars have used much energy to offer various hypotheses concerning this “special agent,” and, of course, Christians have found it convenient to suggest that the character in the poetry is Jesus in anticipation.
(North 1956; see Childs 2001, 422-23)

More recent scholarship, however, has moved to a consensus that these four poems are not to be separated from the rest of the poetry, and are to be taken in context along with the rest of the poetry. The important implication of this critical judgment is the conclusion that the “servant” in these four poems, like the “servant” elsewhere in the poetry of Second Isaiah, is none other than Israel (Mettinger 1983). It is to be recognized, moreover, that Israel with its special relationship to YHWH is also given a special assignment:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
(Isaiah 42:6-7)

I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
(Isaiah 49:6b)

That mandate, however, is not in fact a novum in Israel’s self-understanding, but is fully congruent with the mandate already given to Father Abraham to be “a blessing” to the nations. (See Genesis 12:3; Isaiah 51:1-3.)

Given that emerging interpretive consensus, it is nonetheless important to recognize that Isaiah 49:6 constitutes something of a problem for that interpretation

It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel.
(Isaiah 49:6a)

The verse is a problem because if “Israel” is servant, it as servant has a mandate to “raise up, restore” Israel. Thus a commission for Israel to serve Israel. it is possible, while keeping this identity of the servant, to imagine a “pure, obedient, faithful Israel” with a mandate to a more inclusive Israel that needs rescue and restoration, While the point is awkward and leaves a hit of an enigma, this problematic is not an obstruction to the identity of the servant in these four songs as Israel. Childs has recently rearticulated the connection made in the tradition between this text and the church’s claim for Jesus.
(Childs 2001, 420-23).

It is sufficient in general to know that Israel now displaced and soon to be restored is the primal subject of Second Isaiah. The hints of a larger mandate to Israel in 42:6 and 49:6 situate Israel as a vehicle and agent in the service of YHWH’s larger governance of all peoples. Thus the anticipated restoration of Israel is for the well-being of Israel, but an Israel always related to the larger intentions of YHWH for the world.

It is clear, according to critical judgment, that Isaiah 40-55 constitutes a quite distinct literature. It is equally clear, however, that this distinct corpus is to be related, in the final form of the text, to Isaiah 1-39. That relationship is clearly a literary achievement. That artistic achievement of the final form of the text is not only literary, however, for the twinning of chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-55 constitutes a core Isaianic assertion concerning inescapable judgment reliably followed by generous restoration. Thus the two themes together constitute both Israel’s lived memory and Israel’s defining theological conviction. The shape of the book of Isaiah, as Clements and Childs have shown so clearly, is a theological shaping (Clements 1982; 1985; Childs 1979, 325-38). It is nonetheless a theological shaping that is completely resonant with Israel’s lived memory.

The third section of the book of Isaiah is chapters 56-66, which for reasons now obvious are termed by scholars “Third Isaiah.” It is the judgment of most scholars that this material reflects a community occupied with issues very different from those in chapters 40—55, and so it is judged to be a later literature. The apparent context of this literature is after the return and restoration anticipated in Second Isaiah, in a context where the community had to work out disputed internal questions of social life and religious practice It is common to locate this literature somewhere between the building of the Second Temple (520-516), on which see Haggai and Zechariah, and the restoration of Ezra and Nehemiah after 450 B.C.E. Commonly scholars prefer a date earlier rather than later, thus soon after 520. That date is not very long after the hypothetical date of Second Isaiah, but places the literature in a very different social-historical circumstance

Whereas Second Isaiah is preoccupied with emancipation from Babylon, Third Isaiah is concerned with internal communal life and the tensions that must have arisen among the parties that we might label “liberal and conservative “In chapter 56, for example, there is a dispute about inclusion and exclusion in the community and in chapter 58 there is a debate about what constitutes a proper practice of religious “fasting.” The chapters apparently reflect disputed negotiation in the community that became the earliest form of Judaism after the great restoration from exile had been accomplished.

It turned out that the “facts on the ground” in restored Jerusalem were modest and shabby when contrasted with the lyrical anticipations of Second Isaiah. The community reflected in Third Isaiah had to deal with the frustrations and disappointments that so sharply contrasted with the earlier lyrical expectations. In the midst of’ Third Isaiah, special attention might especially be given to chapters 60-62, which voice a lyrical power that compares favorably with that of Second Isaiah. These chapters in grand lyrical fashion anticipate future well-being for Israel. These chapters include familiar formulations, most especially 61:1-4, which is reiterated in Luke 4:18-19:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
     because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
     to bind lip the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
     and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
     and the day of vengeance of our God;
     to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion –
     to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
     the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will he called oaks of righteousness,
     the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
     they shall raise up th.e former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
     the devastations of many generations.
(Isaiah 61:1-4)

Beyond these expectations, the lyrical promise of 65:17—25 voices the most sweeping anticipation of the “new age” when YHWH’s rule is fully established, a promise that is the basis for the immense and final promise of the NT in Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelations 2 1:1-2)

While the cosmic scope of “new heaven and new earth” is the furthest reach of biblical hope, along with them is the promise of a “new Jerusalem” that will be ordered by YHWH’s presence in terms of justice, compassion, and neighborliness. The culmination of the book of Isaiah with “new Jerusalem” (65:17-25; see 66:10-13 as well) brings closure to the Jerusalem theme that dominates the entire book of Isaiah. Thus First Isaiah, in sum, bespeaks the destruction of Jerusalem as the judgment of YHWH; Second Isaiah anticipates restoration of Jerusalem, and Third Isaiah struggles with the shaping of the Jerusalem to come.

The sequence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah attracts the interpreted memory of Jerusalem as destroyed, expected, and reorganized. The traditioning process thus has ordered material into a coherent interpretive pattern that has risen out of and with respect to many different circumstances. Having noted the sequence of First, Second, and Third Isaiah, however, it is equally important to notice that in the final form of the book an overture articulates all of these themes at the very outset:

How the faithful city
     has become a whore!
     She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her –
     but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
     your wine is mixed with water.
Your princes are rebels
     and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
    and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
     and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you;
     I will smelt away your dross as with lye
     and remove all your alloy.
And I will restore your judges as at the first,
     and your counselors as at the beginning.
Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,
     the faithful city.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
(Isaiah 1:21-27)

This brief précis traces the entire history of Jerusalem as it is to be lined out in what follows in the book. The entire book of Isaiah concerns YHWH’s “love-hate” relationship with Jerusalem, a city punished by YHWH in anger and then (but not until then) loved to newness by this same YHWH.

Critical study of the book of Isaiah characteristically attends to the details of specific texts that have arisen from many hands in many circumstances. Such critical study, however, offers an understanding of the book of Isaiah that is fragmented and piecemeal. As a consequence, the major and demanding interpretive issue of the book of Isaiah concerns the relationship of the parts to the intent of the whole. The parts show the community of Israel in a series of crises. The whole brings all of those parts into coherence in terms of YHWH’s governance. When taken all together, it is clear that the gap between 39:5-8 and 40:1-11 is the pivot point between YHWH’s judgment and YHWH’s generous mercy. When taken in this way, we are able to see that the book of Isaiah is an unmistakable embodiment of Clements’s thesis concerning the thematic shaping of prophetic books:

In such fashion we can at least come to understand the value and meaning of the way in which distinctive patterns have been imposed upon the prophetic collections of the canon so that warnings of doom and disaster are always followed by promises of hope and restoration…

We must see that prophecy is a collection of collections, and that ultimately the final result in the prophetic corpus of the canon formed a recognizable unity not entirely dissimilar from that of the Pentateuch. As this was made up from various sources and collections, so also the Former and Latter Prophets, comprising the various preserved prophecies of a whole series of inspired individuals, acquired an overarching thematic unity. This centered on the death and rebirth of Israel, interpreted theologically as acts of divine judgment and salvation.
(Clements 1977, 49, 53)

The relationship between critical attentiveness to the parts and canonical attentiveness to the whole constitutes a major interpretive opportunity. Having said that, I conclude by commenting on three texts that have exercised important influence on Christian interpretation of Jesus. As Sawyer has made clear, the book of Isaiah has been an important biblical textual source for Christian interpretation (Sawyer 1996). It is for that reason important to notice the particular reinterpretive moves characteristically made in Christian interpretation:

  1. The text of Isaiah 7:14 has been an indispensable basis for the NT assertion of the “virgin birth” of Jesus that has loomed so large in Christian tradition. The text, of Isaiah 7:14 itself concerns Isaiah’s word to King Ahaz in a particular political-military crisis. The prophet wants to communicate to the king that within two years (the time when the baby born to the “young woman” can tell right from wrong) the threat to Jerusalem from the north will pass. In context, the prophetic word has no particular interest in the young woman or in the mode of the birth of the child, but only in the age of the baby in order to indicate the passage of time.As is often noticed, the Hebrew term for “young woman” in the verse does not of itself indicate “virgin” so that the text itself is not germane to the later theological claim of “virgin birth.”
    It is the case, however, that the Hebrew term ‘almah (“young woman”) was rendered in the Greek translation (in a translation well before the Christian era) as parthénos, that is, “virgin.” From that rendering it was an easy step for the Gospel of Matthew to take up the Greek version and reread the text with reverence to Jesus and his birth from a “virgin.”The move from the OT to the NT via a Greek translation means that the text has taken on new, Christological meanings that are nowhere present in the intent or on the horizon of the eighth century prophet. As a consequence, the text has taken on a quite different “second meaning” that has served the church in powerful ways, but that stands at a distance from the Hebrew of the book of Isaiah.

    It is important to appreciate that the text is capable of a “second meaning,” but especially important to distinguish that “second meaning” from what is appropriately a “first meaning” in the crisis of King Ahaz. It is not necessary to deny the force of such a “second meaning,” but great confusion and mischief has been wrought by an uninformed propensity to merge these two quite different meanings into one, whereby “doctrinal” needs have blatantly overridden “historical” readings. By honoring such “double meanings” it becomes unnecessary (a) to have “doctrinal” readings that override “historical” meanings or, conversely, (b) to have “historical” readings that deny “doctrinal” meanings. The text is deep enough to carry both options, provided we are thoughtful and critical enough to host them both.

  2. Isaiah 40:3-5 stands at the very beginning of Second Isaiah with its promise of return and restoration, just after the gap of destruction following 39:5-8. These verses in 40:3-5 are a part of the initial act of poetic imagination whereby it is declared that Jerusalem has “served her term” of punishment (40:2). In order to move the imagination of Israel beyond exile in Babylon, the poet imagines a great triumphal procession home on a newly constructed road (already anticipated in Isa 35:8-10).The procession led by the victorious YHWH who has just defeated the gods of Babylon is a procession out of exile and into well-being. The metaphor of procession bespeaks a complete reversal from suffering to well-being, from displacement to homecoming, a turn in historical circumstance effected by the powerful reality and intentionality of YHWH.It is remarkable that this vision of homecoming is taken up as an introductory formula for all four Gospels in the NT (Matthew3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23). In each case the quotation is used to situate John the Baptizer as a forerunner of Jesus. By placing this text at the beginning of the Gospel narrative, it is clear that the tradition interprets the coming of John and then of Jesus as a mighty reassertion of the rule of God (= Kingdom of God) who will lead God’s people out of exile into well-being. There is, of course, no question that Isaiah 40:3-5 had the NT figures in purview. In the reuse of the text in the NT nonetheless, the church’s testimony to Jesus attests Jesus as the one who will lead God’s people safely to well-being In that movement, moreover, all flesh will see the glory of YHWH disclosed in the person of Jesus
  3. The so-called “Servant Song” in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, as argued above, features Israel as the one who suffers and who saves through suffering. The identity of the servant, however, is covert and enigmatic enough to allow for another reading. This emancipated possibility of alternative interpretation was, not surprisingly, taken up by the early church which found in the text an anticipation of Jesus (Acts 8:32-33):The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
     (Acts 8:34-35)The faith of the early church, here voiced through Philip, found the Servant Song to be an acceptable characterization of the person and vocation of Jesus. The early church exercised immense interpretive imagination and was able to make connections between the compelling reality of Jesus and the poetic openness of the Isaiah text. The resultant interpretive use of Isaiah 53 went well beyond what might have been intended in the “historical” articulation of the text.

    All three of these texts, 7:14; 40:3—5; and 52:13-53:12, have particular meanings in “historical” context that are reasonably clear. In canonical usage, nonetheless, the text moves readily beyond such “historical” intentionality to make illumination of Jesus that the early church found credible in terms of Jesus and available in terms of the book of Isaiah. Thus it is clear that in the canonical shape of the book of Isaiah itself, and in subsequent appropriation by the early church in the NT, the book of Isaiah is particularly generative of new waves of interpretation, each of which has been received in the interpretive community as a legitimate future from the text. It is clear that the text itself provides some of the impetus for such generativity, an impetus readily seized upon by the community of the continuing interpretive process.

    Even though the text itself is boldly venturesome in new meanings and even though the subsequent Christian community moved even further in new meanings, it is clear that on the whole the interpretive tradition has not moved far from the initial intentionality of the Isaiah tradition itself. That tradition is focused on YHWH’s judgment against Jerusalem and against the people of Israel and then is focused on the restoration of Jerusalem and the reconstitution of the people of Israel as the people of covenant. This twofold tradition of judgment and promise appears in many modes in subsequent interpretation but continues with the fundamental conviction that the judgment and rescue of YHWH continually impinge upon the historical reality that is lived in the world over which YHWH the Creator presides.


The Book of Isaiah by Walter Brueggemann

November 1, 2010

The Prophet Isaiah by Rafael

Reading the Book of Isaiah can be a wonderful exercise in Biblical structure and development. Walter Brueggemann is the best guide one could ever hope for. May I suggest that you read through this overview and then come back to it after your first pass through Isaiah. I have another post following that will deal with just the Suffering Servant sections of Isaiah and how the interpretations of the NT have subtly (or not so subtly, depending on your point of view) influenced its readings. I always need help when I read the Bible and Walter Brueggemann is one I am greatly indebted to.

About the painting: Perhaps not so well known then as his Madonna’s or his magnificent Vatican frescoes, Raphael Sanzio also executed a stunning fresco of The Prophet Isaiah in Sant’Agostino in Rome in 1511-12. The donor patron of Isaiah was the Head Chancellor of the Papal Court, Johannes Goritz of Luxemburg. Ruffled by what he considered to be an exorbitant price for the painting by Raphael, Goritz solicited Michelangelo for his opinion of its worth. Michelangelo looked at the painting of his chief rival with its powerfully rendered figure of the prophet. Rarely one to acknowledge the genius in others, Michelangelo simply replied, “For that knee alone, it is worth the price.”

The book of Isaiah is the beginning book of the Latter Prophets. Consequently it stands, in the Hebrew ordering of the books, back-to-back with Kings, the last book of the Former Prophets. That interface, not visible in the conventional ordering of books in the Christian Bible, is fortuitous because the books of Kings and Isaiah are together preoccupied with the destiny of Jerusalem. The books of Kings end with an account of the sorry end of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and the ensuing deportation and exile. The book of Isaiah, in its turn, is a meditation, albeit in complex configuration, about the destiny of Jerusalern into the crises of exile and the promise of Jerusalem out of exile into new well-being.

The book of Isaiah, according to most scholars, is rooted in the actual prophetic personality, Isaiah, “son of Amoz,” whose conventional dates for life in Jerusalem are perhaps 742 to 689 B.C.E. (1:1):

It is difficult to locate the prophet in the context of Jerusalemite society The superscription of the book (Isaiah 1:1) places the prophet in the Jerusalemite prophetic traditions by referring to his prophecies as a vision (hazôn), but the title “visionary” (hazeh) is not applied to him. Isaiah’s father, Amoz, is otherwise unknown, so there is no evidence that the prophet inherited a priestly or prophetic position. There is some support for the traditional scholarly view that Isaiah was an upper class Jerusalemite who grew up in the city.

The prophet seems to have known and had access to members of the royal court (Isaiah 8:2; 22:15-16), and he apparently had no difficulty gaining an unofficial audience with the king (Isaiah 7:3). The location of Isaiah within Jerusalem’s central social structure may also he suggested by the “wisdom” language that he sometimes uses. At the very least this language may indicate that the prophet was educated at the royal court or in the temple, although our knowledge of Israelite “wisdom circles” is not presently sophisticated enough to permit us to assume that there was a Jerusalemite “wisdom group” of which Isaiah was a member.

In addition to seeing Isaiah as part of the central social structure, some scholars have argued that he was actually a cultic prophet. These arguments are usually based on the prophet’s temple vision (Isaiah 6) and on his general upper class Jerusalemite background, but the book provides insufficient evidence to establish a cubic setting for his activities. It therefore seems best to accept the traditional view that Isaiah was an upper class Jerusalemite who was part of the city’s central social structure but not necessarily a part of its religious establishment.
(R. Wilson 1980, 271)

If we accept such a conventional judgment, Isaiah lived through a series of public crises in Jerusalem related to the pressures of the rising and then powerful Assyrian Empire, and he had important access to the royal establishment in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s work there, in both harsh judgment and buoyant promise, was to insist that the public life of Jerusalem could not be properly understood or practiced except by reference to YHWH who is the ultimate sovereign of public history, the pretenses of Assyrian imperialists notwithstanding.

In the long book of Isaiah, however, the actual words from the eighth-century prophet arc judged by scholars to be relatively few; no critical scholar, moreover, believes that the book as a whole is “authored” by the eighth-century prophet. Rather, the book of Isaiah, while rooted in the person of Isaiah, has emerged only through a long, extensive, and complex traditioning process, perhaps through a continuous succession of “disciples” of Isaiah who continue to articulate the general interpretative trajectory of the person of Isaiah (see 8:1), but who in fact were themselves powerful interpreters capable of generating new articulations. To some extent the literature of the book of Isaiah is simply a continued meditation upon the destiny of Jerusalem, a meditation that occurred in something like separated, random acts of responsiveness to new issues of faith in new circumstances; at the same time, however, it is clear that the final form of the text has some rough intentionality that gives the whole of the book a suggestive coherence.

Once the notion of the “authorship” of the eighth-century prophet is given up as it is for most interpreters, critical scholarship for over a century has held to the view that the book of Isaiah is constituted into three quite distinct parts that reflect different historical circumstances, different modes of literary articulation, and consequently, different theological vistas.

In this discussion I will review that long-standing critical discussion because an intelligent read of the book is served by these well-established distinctions. At the same time, however, the reader will want to notice that in more recent scholarship this threefold distinction in the book of Isaiah has been understood in a much more coherent, dynamic, and intentional way. As a result, we will consider in turn the longstanding critical consensus in the book of Isaiah and more recent holistic understandings that depend upon the critical consensus but move beyond it in important ways.

In the critical consensus, it has long been held that the literature pertaining to Isaiah of the eighth century (then called “First Isaiah”) is limited to Isaiah 1-39, because after chapter 39 there is an immense break — literary, historical, and theological — before chapter 40. In sum, we may say that chapters 1-39, rooted in the eighth-century prophet, is concerned with the crises of pre-exilic Jerusalem in the period 742-701. As soon as we have said that, however, it is clear that the material is much more complex than such a historical connection, for chapters 1-39 contain many other matters as well that are not linked to the eighth century.

In rough outline, we may see that First Isaiah consists in six quite distinct textual units, of which only three are directly connected to First Isaiah, chapters 1-12; 28-31; and 36-39.

The most important materials for the eighth-century prophet are found in chapters 1-12, which harshly anticipate YHWH’s judgment upon Jerusalem for Torah disobedience (1:2-6; 2:6-22; 3:1-4:1; 5:1-7, 8-30). Two features in this material are especially noteworthy. First, the harsh judgments announced by the prophet are roughly matched by promises that anticipate that after the judgment of YHWH upon the city, there will be a renewal and restoration. That renewal and restoration does not in any way soften or diminish the judgment to come, but asserts that judgment is not the ultimate prophetic word to YHWH’s city.

The promises in 2:1-4; 4:2-6; 9:1-7; and 11:1-9 are voiced around a series of different images concerning the Holy City, the temple, the monarchy, and new creation; all of them, however, testify to YHWH’s capacity to make new immediately upon judgment. Thus we may imagine that chapters 1-12 are organized in a pattern whereby these four promises become the antidote to the condemnations that precede them.

Second, in chapters 7 and 8 it is to be noted that King Ahaz is treated as a model of unfaith. The famous dictum of the prophet in 7:9 articulates faith as readiness to trust YHWH in desperate circumstance, in this case the threat of war against Jerusalem by its nearest neighbors. Ahaz is portrayed as a distrusting king who does not have faith in YHWH, but who imagines he can, by his own policies, secure himself. Thus the king stands in total antithesis to the radical form of well-being voiced and offered by the prophet.

It is important to recognize that chapters 1-12 with the patterned variation of judgment and promise constitutes, in nuce, the theology of the final form of the book. The whole of the book of Isaiah provides the scenario of the descent of Jerusalem into exile and death and the promised ascent of Jerusalem to new life and well-being. This pattern is already evident in chapters 1-12, in either the prophet’s own sense of hope beyond judgment or, more likely, an editorial pattern of the completed tradition.

The second unit of text commonly assigned to the eighth-century prophet is chapters 28-3 1 with an addendum in chapters 32-3 3. This text, usually assigned to the time of Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son, again features the prophetic voice speaking in the midst of great public issues urging the king to practice policies rooted in YHWH’s rule. It is especially to be noticed that the series of oracles regularly begin with hoi, conventionally translated “woe” but in NRSV variously rendered as “Ah, Oh, Alas” (28:1; 29:1; 30:1; 31:1; 33:1; see the same usage in 5:8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22; 10:1).

The term is portentous of coming death. Thus when the oracles are introduced with this startling term, the intent is to place the listening community in jeopardy. This corpus of text, then, concerns the community of Jerusalem when it is not responsive to the will of YHWH. Likely chapters 28-31 represent the rule of Hezekiah in crisis as a counterpoint to the same tone used during the rule of Ahaz.

The third text that is closely linked to the eighth-century prophet is chapters 36-39, a unit of text that is closely linked to the parallel narrative of 2 Kings 18-20 and is, perhaps, appropriated from there with only slight variation. This third unit of text linked to the eighth-century prophet, however, is not a series of oracles as are the other two, but a narrative that exhibits quite intentional editorial work. The unit consists in powerful prophetic theology offered as three speeches in the mouths of Assyrian diplomats (Isa 36:4-10, 13-20; 3 7:8-13). In response to these three political-theological challenges, the text offers a prayer by King Hezekiah (37:15-20) and an oracle by the prophet Isaiah that offers assurance to Israel that the Assyrian threat is no match for the assurance of YHWH (37:22-29; see also vv. 6-7). The outcome of this exchange is an insistence upon YHWH’s rule, the specific expression of which is the wondrous rescue of the city of Jerusalem from the Assyrian armies (37:36-38), a rescue rooted in YHWH’s loyalty to David as voiced by the prophet:

Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not conic into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.
(Isaiah 37:33-35)

This oracle is the most complete expression of YHWH’s commitment to the Jerusalem establishment and apparently expresses Isaiah’s own deep commitment to that theological claim. It is, of course, impossible to know whether these words are from Isaiah or represent the theological intention of the traditioning process. In any case, Christopher Seitz has considered the function of this material in the developing tradition of Isaiah (Seitz 1991). He has proposed that AEaz and Hezekiah form, for the traditioning process, a contrast of bad king and good king. Seitz has, moreover, suggested that Isaiah’s commitment to “Zion theology” — the conviction that YHWH will stay faithful to the Temple City through thick and thin — has provided the impetus for the continued force of the Isaiah tradition beyond the life of Isaiah and beyond the crisis of Hezekiah:

The growth of Isaiah tradition was not the consequence of some internal suitability that distinguished Isaiah from other pre-exilic prophetic collections or made secondary supplementation intrinsically more appropriate. Rather, it was the existence of Heilsprophetie in the form of oracles (1) limiting the role of Assyria as agent of divine wrath and (2) expressing final divine concern for Zion, that set Isaiah traditions off as unique among pre-exilic prophetic collections.
(Seitz 1991, 146)

It is clear in all three units of text (1-12; 28-31 plus 32-33; and 36-39) that the tradition of Isaiah insists upon the powerful rule of YHWH in the midst of deeply problematic public affairs. As much as any of the prophets of ancient Israel, Isaiah is the voice of an insistent “public theology,” an assertion that YHWH’s rule matters consistently to policy and to practice.

Alongside these three sections of First Isaiah that are connected to the person of Isaiah, the corpus also includes three other units of text that may he understood as growths in the tradition that are congruent with Isaiah’s perspective, in particular the conviction concerning YHWH’s commitment to Jerusalem. It means that judgment is not the last word, but that YHWH will bring shalom in the environs of Jerusalem:

1.  Chapters 13-23 constitute a distinct corpus, which, as we shall see, is closely paralleled by “Oracles against the Nations” in the other prophetic hooks as an assertion of YHWH’s sovereignty over all the nations. The pattern for this genre of text is the naming of a number of nation-states and the pronouncement of a prophetic lawsuit against them, thus insisting that even non-Israelite peoples are fully subject to the rule of YHWH and are under judgment when they do not conform to that rule. John Barton has nicely suggested that such “Oracles against the Nations” assume that all nations know about YHWH’s rule and demands, and need not appeal to the commands of Sinai, thus issuing some form of “natural theology” (Barton 1979).

The ground for judgment against the nations appeals to the knowledge of all concerning the will of the Creator God without reference to Sinai, a tradition that in later Judaism is connected to the covenant of Noah. (See Isaiah 2:1-4 as the “Torah of Zion” as distinct from the “Torah of Sinai” as a guide for all nations.) The corpus of Isaiah 13-23 concerns a range of nations, but the most important is the oracle of chapters 13 and 14 concerning Babylon. The oracle is an assertion that even Babylon, that great superpower, is subject to the will of YHWH.
This is of particular interest because Babylon was not and could not have been on the horizon of eighth-century Isaiah. In a later dine (the sixth century), however, and in the latter part of the book of Isaiah, Babylon is the great oppressor against Israel (Chs. 46 and 47) and the great defier of YHWH. Thus chapters 13 and 14, already in First Isaiah, look ahead to the later part of the book and offer the passionate assurance that even barbaric Babylon is subject to the will of YHWH. Thus the oracle, along with a series of poems concerning other peoples, asserts YHWH’s rule and thereby offers hope for Israel that the God who loves Israel is the God who will judge all barbarian nations, including especially those who abuse Israel.

2.  The second textual development beyond the eighth-century Isaiah is in chapters 24-27, often termed “Fourth Isaiah” or the “Little Apocalypse of Isaiah” (commonly thought to be the latest development of tradition in the book of Isaiah) The distinguishing feature of this material is that it lacks all reference to context and dating and makes sweeping cosmic claims for YHWH, the effect of which is to assert YHWH’s sovereignty both as harsh judgment (24) and then as hope (25-27) While the rhetoric is well beyond that assigned to the prophet himself, it is easy to see how this radical insistence on sovereignty is congruent with the claims of the prophet himself even though the material surely comes later.

The most remarkable feature of this material is that it articulates a conviction of the resurrection of the body, thus the sure vindication of those who suffer faithfully, so that not even the reality of death can match the power and fidelity of YHWH in 25 6-8, YHWH is portrayed as the great rival of “death” who will defeat and swallow death

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
     a feast of rich food, a feast of welt-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
     the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
     the sheet that is spread over all nations;
     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
     and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
     for the LORD has spoken.

In Isaiah 26:19, moreover, the poetry anticipates joyous resurrection:

Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise.
Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
 For your dew is a radiant dew,
and the earth will give birth to those long dead.

These assertions constitute a novum in Israel; they are, however, consistent with the Isaianic conviction that YHWH’s sovereignty finally cannot be defeated, not even by the enemies of YHWH in the world or the enemies of YHWH in the cosmos.

3.  The third unit of text in Isaiah in 1-39 that goes beyond the prophet is found in chapters 34-35, which anticipate the recovery of Jerusalem and the glad return of exiles from the deportation. It is clear that the envisioned return of chapter 35 has parallels to Isaiah 40 and following, so that the material is regularly seen as an introduction to the material of 40-55 that celebrates restoration and the homecoming of Israel.

It is clear in these latter texts (Isaiah 13-23; 14-27; and 34-35) that the tradition has moved well beyond Isaiah of the eighth century. That prophet had evoked and voiced the miraculous deliverance from Assyria in 701, but this belated section has moved well beyond the cries of 701 to the greater crisis of 587:

One approach to understanding the growth of the book of Isaiah as a whole involved the possibility that a correlation was seen to exist between 701 and 587 events    It is appropriate at this juncture to return to the puzzle of Isaiah’s growth, with the possibility that a correlation between 701 and 587 events gave rise to the extension of Isaiah tradition beyond the lifetime of the prophet to the events of the exile and beyond.
(Seitz 1991: 118)

The prophet in the eighth century had shown that the deliverance of Jerusalem in 701 from the threat of the Assyrians was a gift of YHWH. Now the faith of the prophet is turned to the more difficult case of 587. Even here, insists the tradition of Isaiah, YHWH’s will for the good of Jerusalem will last through the crisis of 587 to effect a coming glorious well-being. Thus the crisis of 701 is taken to prefigure in an inchoate way the greater crisis of 587. While the loss cuts deeper in the latter crisis, as Israel generally conceded, the assurance is the same; the same God who was faithful in 701 stands faithful yet again.

It is this deep conviction that evokes the extension of the book of Isaiah beyond the dire prediction of 39:5-8 concerning the power of Babylon. The good news of 40:1 that follows immediately after 39:5-8 in the text did not come soon or immediately. It did, however, come next as divine promise after the oracle of threat. It was spoken because YHWH’s ultimate will for wellbeing in Jerusalem is pervasive in the tradition of Isaiah. The hook in its final form does not dwell ultimately on judgment; it looks beyond judgment to coining well-being that is the gift of YHWH. The anticipation of that coming gift of well-being from YHWH is the work of the remainder of the book –  well beyond the eighth century — to which we now turn.

Thus First Isaiah (chs. 1-39) is a complex body of text, rooted in Isaiah of the eighth century (1-12; 28-31; 36-39), but with an ongoing tradition that moves past the crisis of 587, anticipating homecoming for exiles (34—35), the reassertion of YHWH’s rule over the nations (13—2 3), and ultimately the vigorous exercise of YHWH’s sovereignty over all recalcitrant forces . . . including the power of death (24-27). While the tradition rooted in eighth-century Isaiah concerns the judgment of YHWH upon Jerusalem, the developed tradition looks beyond that judgment to the rule of YHWH that assures shalom for Jerusalem and for the entire earth over which the God of Israel — the creator of heaven and earth — reigns.

This developing tradition of anticipated well-being prepares the way for “Second Isaiah” (also termed “Deutero-Isaiah”), the middle portion of the book of Isaiah in chapters 40-55. It is a long-held view of scholarship that these chapters constitute a quite distinct tradition,

different in literary style and genre wherein this text is much more lyrical in its articulation than First Isaiah,
different in historical circumstance as this text is preoccupied with the fall of Babylon (46—47) and the rise of Cyrus the Persian (44:28; 45:1), and
different in theological vista as this text moves decisively toward monotheism, voicing the God of Israel as the sole God, the creator of heaven and earth.

The scholarly title Second Isaiah recognizes that this material is in the book of Isaiah and perhaps is connected to First Isaiah. The title also asserts by “Second,” however, that this is very different material addressed as the word of YHWH to Israel in very different circumstance.

The text likely reflects the great upheaval in the Fertile Crescent as the Neo-Babylonian Empire (present-day Iraq) of Nebuchadnezzar came to its rapid demise at the hand of the rising eastern power of Persia (present-day Iran) under the leadership of Cyrus. This text is conventionally dated to 540 B.C.E., with the claim that the Persians will defeat Babylon and that consequently Cyrus will soon thereafter permit the first Jerusalem deportees to return home (in 537; see 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:2-4).

Thus the theological anticipation of this poetry that YHWH would enact a mighty miracle that permitted the end to exile is fully commensurate with the historical occurrence of Cyrus, who initiated new colonial policies that restored aspects of local autonomy and local governance. This convergence of theological claim and historical happening is characteristic of the Bible. In this case, moreover, this literature, in poetic assertion, makes the claim that it is precisely YHWH who has summoned, evoked, authorized, and dispatched Cyrus, so that the new Persian policy is said to be at the behest of YHWH’s own intentionality for the restoration of Israel after exile (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1). As Childs has suggested, the “new thing” that YHWH does here is restoration after the “former thing” of destruction and deportation (see 43:16-2 1) (Childs 1979, 325-33).

The poetry of Isaiah 40-55, in a variety of daring rhetorical strategies, gives voice to the new historical intervention of YHWH. Thus we may understand Isaiah 40:1-11 as an assertion that YFRVFI, in divine counsel among many angels and other heavenly messengers, has declared of Jerusalem that “her penalty is paid” (40:2), and so dispatches a “herald” — perhaps the poet, Second Isaiah — who will announce the “gospel news” that “your God” is taking an initiative (40:9), that “your God reigns” (see 52:7). Thus we are to understand that between 39:5-8, which anticipates deportation to Babylon, and 40:1-11, which anticipates restoration from Babylon, there has been a long historical caesura.

In the gap between these texts have come (a) the destruction of Jerusalem anticipated by the prophet already in the eighth century, and (b) the deportation of Jerusalem citizens. The gap between 39:5-8 and 40:1-11 is deeply freighted with the reality of loss, suffering, and dismay; that gap, moreover, is elemental for understanding the book of Isaiah, for it is the dramatic, dynamic connection between displacement and restoration that gives structure to the book of Isaiah (respectively in chapters 1-39 and chapters 40 and following) and that articulates the fundamental message of the book, namely, that the judgment of YHWH is real but penultimate and is followed by YHWH’s will for restoration that will follow according to YHWH’s “plan.” (See Isaiah 5 5:6-9 on the “plan” of YHWH that entails restoration and well-being.)

The poetry of Isaiah 40-55 is designed, with immense imagination, to give credible lyrical articulation to the resolve of YHWH to enact restoration for Israel and well-being for Jerusalem. To that end, the articulation of 44:21-45:7 is perhaps the centerpiece, focusing upon Cyrus as YHWH’s agent for rescue. Prior to this text, the poetry includes great doxologies that celebrate YHWH’s singular power as Creator (Isaiah 40:12-23; 42:10-13; and 43:16-21), lyrical assaults upon and humiliation of rival gods who are shown to be impotent (41:21-29), presumably the gods of Babylon, who would keep Israel enthralled but who are unable to do so, and pastoral assurance of YHWH in the form of salvation oracles guaranteeing that YHWH will he with and for Israel (41:8-13; 43:1-7).

The cumulative effort of this poetry is to establish YHWH as powerful and compassionate toward Israel, and to expose the other gods who will ill for Israel as impotent and irrelevant. The poetry creates a world of stunning possibility for Israel, a world that counters in powerfully imaginative ways the presumed world of Babylon that seeks to keep Israel helpless and in despair.

After the pivotal “Cyrus texts” of 44:21-45:7, there are vigorous assertions of YHWH’s power and sovereignty, celebrations in anticipation of the defeat and humiliation of Babylon (46) and the defeat and humiliation of Babylonian gods (47), and a vigorous announcement of YHWH’s fresh resolve to act boldly and in new ways on behalf of Israel after a time of dormancy, silence, and absence (51:9-16; 54: 1-17). The upshot of the whole is to arouse Israel in exile to new hope and possibility (51:17-23; 52:1-12), and to initiate a departure from Babylon that will match the earlier exodus departure from Egypt (52:11—12). It is conceded that YHWH has indeed abandoned Israel (54:7-8), but now, after that hiatus, YHWH is back in engagement on behalf of Israel.

It is worth noting that in 40:9 and 52:7, the poetry uses the term hasar (“good tidings”) which became the decisive term for “gospel.” It is in this literature related to this particular historical crisis that the poet begins usage of the notion of “gospel,” that is, news of the reassertion of YHWH’s governance, news that is good for this community, helpless and in despair, now enlivened by God’s intended intervention. This usage, of course, is fully congruent with the usage made in the New Testament concerning Jesus’ announcement of the new rule of God (Mark 1:14-15) and Jesus’ persistent enactment of that new rule of God.


The Flood Narrative — Walter Brueggemann

September 1, 2010

The Genesis Flood, ceiling Sistine Chapel

The flood narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17 occupies both a disproportionate amount of space in the larger text of Genesis 1-11 and a pivotal theological position in that corpus. Three critical concerns should be acknowledged at the outset:

There is perennial interest in the question of the “historicity” of the flood, expressed especially in recurring claims that the ark of Noah has been found (Bailey 1989). These questions are at bottom fertile, because it is probable that in many different social contexts there were experiences of floods that evoked “flood stories,” but no one of which can therefore claim to be the flood that is remembered in our text. Thus even the discovery of the ark would only indicate the confirmation of “a flood,” which in any case is not in doubt, but such a find would still be well short of “the flood.”

There is no doubt that the flood narrative, as presented in the book of Genesis, has important literary antecedents in the Near East, especially in the Gilgamesh Epic. The recognition of such literary antecedents re-contextualizes the “historical” question, and permits us to focus instead upon the intention of the interpreters who took over the extant flood tradition and utilized it as a means of voicing Israel’s faith.

The flood narrative has been a primary arena in which scholars have traced distinct literary sources, one source using the name of YHWH and one clearly avoiding that name. Thus most of the commentaries dissect the narrative into two literary sources, and no doubt there is ground for such distinctions. Bernhard Anderson, however, has shrewdly shown how the final form of the text weaves the sources into an artistic whole with 8:1 at its pivot point in an intricate design: “But God remembered Noah” (Anderson 1994, 56-74). It is that divine remembering that turns the narrative away from the destructiveness of the flood toward restoration and renewed fidelity on the part of God.

Anderson’s analysis provides a way to move beyond these several critical questions that have claimed a disproportionate amount of interpretive energy to the theological exposition that bears Israel’s canonical intentionality. Indeed, it may be argued that the flood narrative articulates the primary claims of Israel’s faith in nuce.[vocab: In a nutshell]

1.  The theological premise of the flood narrative is YHWH’s speech of judgment consisting in an indictment of a failed creation (Genesis 6:5, 11-12) and a divine judgment whereby God resolves to “blot out” all creation (6:6-7) and “make an end of all flesh” (6:13). The release of the mighty floodwaters is a function of the divine resolve to terminate. The waters are the forces of chaos (see Genesis 1:2) that in this narrative function as obedient tools of God’s negative intention. Thus the narrative begins as a conventional account of judgment enacted.

2.   The speech of judgment and its ensuing enactment are, however, decisively disrupted by God’s notice of Noah (and his family), who stands in God’s favor (6:8) and who is rescued because of Noah’s righteousness (6:9). Noah and his family constitute a decisive exception to the general destruction. Thus the identification of the righteous remnant becomes a decisive qualification in the general destruction. The chaotic waters are eased and withdrawn as “God remembers Noah.”

3.  God’s willingness to nullify the threat of the flood and to reestablish well-being in the earth as God’s creation arises from the presence of Noah. As a consequence, God promises “never again [to] curse the ground” (8:21). Indeed that curbing of the negation is matched by a positive guarantee of the rhythms of creation:

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.

It is astonishing that the turn from divine judgment to divine assurance is not accomplished by any human repentance or resolve; the inclination of the human heart as “evil” at the outset (Genesis 6:5) continues to be “evil” at the end (8:2 1). Nothing has changed in the inclination of humanity. All that has changed, decisively changed, is God’s resolve to remain the faithful creator in spite of the condition of creation. That is, God is shown to be more fully gracious and positively inclined toward the earth.

4.  The second conclusion to the flood narrative in 9:8-17 also revolves around God’s promise that “never again” will the flood destroy the earth. The rainbow as a reminder to God who might otherwise forget, assures creation of God’s “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16). Patrick Miller writes of this text:

The natural environment is secured in covenant with human and natural creatures. The covenant with Noah restores and secures the creation for the benefit of the creatures, animal and human. Human treatment of the natural world, therefore, is a matter not only of the attitude toward the creation, but also how humankind receives the promise, which it shares with the animal world.  The nations are a part of the created order, the outcome of the blessing of God in the completion of creation. The restoration of the creation after the Flood involves also the restoration of humanity as a part of that creation and of the renewal of the blessing (Genesis 8:17; 9:1, 7) through the lineage of Noah (Genesis 9:19). So also the establishment of covenant with Noah is an establishment of covenant with all of humankind. ‘The text makes this point repeatedly and thus with much emphasis. The universal covenant with humankind as a way of perpetuating and maintaining the creation incorporates the nations of which Israel is a single part.
(Miller 1995, 165-67)

Thus in both proposed literary sources (identified as J and as P), the dramatic movement is the same:

  Judgment Assurance
J: Genesis 6:5-7 Genesis 8:21—22
P: Genesis 6:11-13 Genesis 9:8-17

The dominant story line concerns God’s change of mind, and God’s readiness to nullify God’s plan to destroy (see Jeremiah 18:1-11:  “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.  Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.)

The mitigating factor is Noah, who is perhaps a harbinger of faithful Israel, but such an identification of Noah with Israel of course is nowhere explicit (see Ezekiel 14:12-20; Hebrews 11:7). It is impossible to overstate the cruciality of Noah for the dramatic movement of the text. In the end, however, the decisive and most interesting character is not Noah but the God of Israel who freshly embraces creation.

In its present location in the text, the flood narrative is hardly less than another creation narrative, because of the way in which God reorders the world away from chaos, just as happened in chapter 1. The flood narrative, thus, is a crucial text for articulating the deep tension and defining contradiction between the recalcitrance of creation and the will of the Creator. Rolf Rendtorff comments:

Chapter 9, in particular vv. 8-11, serves as a solemn confirmation of that promise. What God has just declared will be the content of his berith (The Hebrew word “covenant” is berith): not to bring a flood over the earth again and not to destroy living beings again. But before that confirmation, God makes it clear that this world is no longer “very good.” God reconfirms his blessing of fertility (v. 1), but immediately he adds that peace no longer prevails between human beings and animals (v. 12), or among human beings, so that a strict commandment is needed to prevent murder (vv. 5-6).
(Rendtorff 1993, 127-28)

The flood story culminates in a recognition that God’s faithful commitment to creation and to human community has prevailed, thus assuring that the world has a future. The genealogies before and after the flood narrative are articulations of continuity that survive even through the chaotic disruption. While the story of the world as God’s creation is momentarily disrupted by the chaotic waters, that disruption does not and cannot prevail against the intention of YHWH to maintain the “family line” of humanity. This reassurance of continuity in the face of threat in Isaiah 54:9-10 later becomes an assurance cherished by exiles in Israel who faced a threat and a dislocation of their own.

It is evident that the process of interpretation in Israel has been able to articulate, through these diffuse materials, a steady theological affirmation concerning the interface of God’s good sovereignty and the sustained recalcitrance intrinsic to creation that resists the purpose of God and that recurringly places the world in jeopardy. Given the peculiar “mythical.” antecedents of this text and given the large themes now carried by these texts, it is not surprising that these texts, over long generations of interpretation, have become fertile materials for rich, diverse interpretation. The transposition of these ancient materials into a relatively coherent theological statement is unmistakably a powerful act of imagination, that is, canonical imagination. It is evident that while the continuing act of communal imagination is decisive, that definitive act did not terminate imaginative interpretation that continues, perforce, in both Jewish and Christian communities.


The Creation Texts by Walter Brueggemann

August 31, 2010

Hieronymus Bosch, The Creation. c. 1504-1510.

While Genesis 1-2 draw a lot of interpretive attention because they stand first in the biblical text, in fact they need to be understood in terms of an older, already extant liturgical tradition on creation. The primary and proper context in which Israel articulated its creation faith is in doxology, the public, liturgical practice of lyrical, poetic utterance whereby Israel sings its awe and wonder about the glory and goodness of God’s creation (see Psalms 19, 104, 145, 148). Our term “creation stories” is to be understood in the context of that exuberant liturgical tradition.

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
This text is a solemn, stately, ordered, symmetrical text that is more like a liturgical antiphon than it is a narrative. It has close affinities to the well-known Enuma Elish, an older Mesopotamian account of creation.. As indicated, however, the creation text with which the Bible begins has been shaped and reshaped as a vehicle for Israel’s faith. Among the many possible interpretive dimensions of the text, we may call attention to the following:

1.  It is widely agreed that Genesis 1:1-2 constitutes a remarkable premise for creation, namely, that disordered chaos (expressed in Hebrew onomatopoetically as tohu wabohu) was already “there” as God began to create:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:1-2)

That is, God did not create “from nothing,” but God’s act of creation consists in the imposition of a particular order upon that mass of undifferentiated chaos. For much of the Bible, the energy of chaos (antiform) continues to operate destructively against the will of the Creator, and sometimes breaks out destructively beyond the bounds set by the decree of the Creator (Levenson 1988). It is an interesting example of “imaginative remembering” that much later, in 2 Maccabees 7:28, the tradition finally asserts “creation out of nothing,” a view that since then has predominated in later church traditions of theological interpretation. The insight of the text as we have it, however, is a recognition of the intrinsic contradiction to God’s will, that is present in the “stuff” of creation itself. Thus the Creator makes creation possible, not by a single act, but by the endless reenactment and reassertion of a sovereign will over the recalcitrant “stuff” of chaos.

2.  The peculiar role and character of human persons in creation has been especially important to the derivative theological traditions:

The “male and female” together are created to govern creation (1:26-28). This elemental assertion of the equality of men and women is at the tap-root of the Bible. This assertion has of late been an important claim for the emergence of theological feminism in an effort to subvert longstanding and deeply entrenched patriarchal assumptions that fail to recognize a God-given equality.

The “male and female” together are in “God’s image” (1:27). This latter phrase is not at all developed in the Old Testament, but has become central in subsequent articulations of theological understanding of human personhood. While the phrase “image of God” is open to many interpretations, it is plausible that it refers to the exercise of human sovereignty over creation as a regency for God’s sovereignty (Barr 1968-1969; Bird 1997, 123-54; Børresen 1995). This role for human persons bespeaks both human freedom and human responsibility for the care of the earth.

The notion of “image of God” is reinforced by the imperatives that follow, “subdue and have dominion” (1:27-28). These verbs have often been understood to mean that the man and woman in the image of God are free to use the earth as they wish without restraint (White 1967). Contrary to that notion that the Bible is thus a warrant for environmental abuse and exploitation, Wybrow has shown that the “rape of the earth” has emerged, not from the Bible and this imperative, but from the impulse of Enlightenment autonomy that lacks any covenantal restraint (Wybrow 1991). More plausibly than that misconstrual, which has been given wide articulation, this pair of imperatives intends that human persons in human community should be responsible for the care of the earth and its boundless, God-given fruitfulness for the benefit of all creatures. Thus the imperatives bespeak not unrestrained, indulgent freedom, but a mandate for the community to take responsibility for the well-being of the earth.

3.  The sustained affirmation of this liturgy of creation is that the world (all of heaven, all of earth) is willed by and seen by God to be “good,” that is, lovely, beautiful, pleasing (1:10, 12, 18, 21). This reiterated affirmation that we imagine to be a congregational response to a priestly litany, culminates in verse 31 with the intensified phrase “very good.” This affirmation of the goodness of creation has been decisive for the Jewish and Christian traditions as a foundation for a life-affirming, world-affirming horizon with a determined appreciation of the good of the material world in all its dimensions . . . including sexuality and economics. This tradition will have nothing to do with world-denying, world-denigrating, or world-escaping religious impulses that characterize too much popular faith in U.S. culture.

4.  The liturgical characterization of creation in Genesis 1 culminates in Genesis 2:1-4a with the authorization of Sabbath as a God-given, God-practiced, God-commanded observance. The day of cessation from work declares that God’s creation is, at root, an unanxious environment for life that is not defined by energetic productivity or self-preoccupied consumption, but is defined by the peaceableness that has confidence in the reliability of the world as God’s creation without excessive exertion on the part of God or of humankind.Thus Sabbath is the discipline of pause that celebrates the world as God’s good place for life, and that relishes the human role in creation as “image of God.”

5.  The creation narratives appeal to a common stock of cultural myths and liturgies, with particular reference to Babylonian materials. The use of these materials, however, is an act of powerful subversion whereby the narratives of dominant culture are utilized to voice a claim alternative to the claims of the dominant cultural materials.

The Sabbath became, in the developed traditions of Israel, a primary mark of Jewish life even as it continues to be. Because this text is commonly dated to the exilic period, it is likely that Sabbath became a distinctive mark of Jewishness in the exile when faith was practiced in an alien or hostile cultural environment. Sabbath became the lived testimony of Judaism that the “rhythms of cessation” as trust in the Creator constitute a mighty alternative to the frenzy of production-consumption that marks the world when it does not know that the world belongs safely to the God who has called it “very good.”

It is a widely held assumption of scholarship that this text — along with the Pentateuch — reached its final form during the sixth-century exile. In that context, the claim that the world belongs to the God of Israel is a mighty and daring alternative to the dominant, easily visible claim that the world is governed by Babylonian gods. Thus the liturgy of YHWH’s goodness connects the character of the world to a particularly Jewish vision of God, articulated through the various interpreted points noted above. The text makes large theological claims to be sure, but it functions in and through these cosmic claims to sustain the specific community that relies on this imaginative tradition. That is, its purpose is concretely existential. Given that canonical reality about the final form of the text, it is self-evident that the text is not about “the origin of the world” as that phrase is usually employed, and thus it has no particular connection to the “creation versus evolution” debate or, more broadly, to the issue of “science and religion.” Such expectations of the text, in my judgment, completely miss the point and function of the text in its original setting or in its durable canonical articulation.

Genesis 2:4-25 (together with 3:1-24)
It is clear that this “second creation narrative” is quite distinct from the first, and that it characterizes the origin of the world in a very different way. The two accounts have in common an accent on YHWH’s originary enactment of the world, and on the human creature as the “chief creature” who is responsible for the well-being of all creation.

This text, as the first creation text, has been material that has generated an immense amount of imaginative tradition. We may note three matters in particular from that imaginative tradition.

1.  Unlike Genesis 1:26-28, the male and female creatures in this second narrative are not created “equal in the image of God.” Rather, the man has priority and, according to this tradition, the woman is derivatively formed from his “rib” (Genesis 2:21-22). As might be expected, this narrative account has given grist for a compelling notion of “female subordination,” which has then been translated into model social relationships that privilege men and legitimate patriarchy. It is not surprising that this narrative point has attracted great interpretive attention with the rise of feminist consciousness. Phyllis Trible in particular has made a winsome case against “subordination,” a case that is of immense importance even though her analysis has not been received everywhere as persuasive (Trible 1978, 72-143). In any case, the contrast between 1:26-2 8 and 2:21-22 is noticeable and has provided impetus for ongoing interpretive engagement.

2.  Chapter 3 is to be read along with chapter 2, In chapter 3, the key character alongside the man and the woman is the serpent who utters the “sly voice” of temptation that triggers disobedience and, consequently, exclusion of the human creatures from God’s garden. The particular dramatic development of the narrative is possible only because of the “commanding voice” of the serpent; and yet the narrative expresses neither curiosity about the serpent nor explanation for it. The serpent is a given in the narrative and consequently in the garden. . . a voice that seeks to contradict and counter the compelling, commanding voice of the Creator God.
The serpent, by verses 14-15, stands under a curse. What interests us, however, is the narrative affirmation that the serpent belongs to the creatures of the garden. Rendered theologically, this affirmation means that the seductive voice of evil is intrinsic to the creation; that is, the creation in principle is under siege from evil that contradicts the intention of the Creator. And this in a world called “good” many times in Genesis 1. Taken all together through a combination of antecedent sources, Genesis 1-3 asserts that the good world of God is in potential contradiction to the Creator, a reality sketched more fully in what follows in Genesis 4-11.

3.  As many church people will know, Genesis 3 is the denouement of the creation narrative of Genesis 2. That narrative is understood in Christian interpretation as “the fall” whereby human creation (and ultimately all of creation) has fallen hopelessly and irreversibly into the power and into the habits of sin, so that human persons are irreversibly alienated from God and helpless to alter that condition. In this classical interpretation, human sin is not a series of specific, discrete acts, but it is a continuing strand of related decisions that cumulatively produce alienation from God and helplessness.

This understanding of the “fall” of humanity into the power of sin — a fall that prepares the way for the good news of the gospel — is rooted in the interpretive authority of Paul, especially in Romans 5:12-21, but see also 1 Corinthians 15:2 l-22, 45-49. Paul is paralleled in a recognition of the sorry state of helpless humanity in the near-contemporary Jewish apocalyptic of 2 Esdras (4 Ezra);

It would have been better if the earth had not produced Adam, or else, when it had produced him, had restrained him from sinning. For what good is it to all that they live in sorrow now and expect punishment after death? O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants. For what good is it to us, if an immortal time has been promised to us, but we have done deeds that bring death? And what good is it that an everlasting hope has been promised to us, but we have miserably failed? Or that safe and healthful habitations have been reserved for us, but we have lived wickedly. Or that the glory of the Most High will defend those who have led a pure life, but we have walked in the most wicked ways? Or that a paradise shall be revealed, whose fruit remains unspoiled and in which are abundance and healing, but we shall not enter it because we have lived in perverse ways? (2 Esdras 7:116-124 [v46-54])

That interpretive venture, deeply rooted in experience and deeply insightful of profound helplessness, received in turn more systematic articulation in Augustine, powerful exposition in Luther, and lyrical voice in Milton’s Paradise Lost. This common interpretive enterprise has impacted Western culture in powerful ways and has evoked profound probes of human character in both religious and secular modes.

This interpretive history is of interest for our study, however, precisely because the Old Testament itself features no such teaching about “the fall,” nor does the textual tradition of the Old Testament refer again to the narrative of Genesis 3. To be sure, the prophetic teaching of Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel assert that their contemporaries are hopelessly locked into recalcitrance against God; but nowhere in the Old Testament is that judgment articulated beyond existential disappointment about contemporaries into an ontological principle. The more characteristic view of the Old Testament concerning human sin and human capacity for obedience is expressed in Deuteronomy 30:11-14:

Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too fir away…No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. The Old Testament of course knows about profound sin (see Psalms 32, 38, 51, 130). In these same Psalms, however, there is complete confidence in the readiness of God to forgive. Thus a great accent is placed on repentance with the characteristic affirmation that human persons can repent and that God is ready and able to forgive such repentance, without any lingering disability or alienation. In particular circumstances Israelis said to be beyond hope, but this is regularly a concrete, situational judgment, one never transposed into a more foundational theological claim.

Thus the dominant trajectory of interpretation around this question of sin is very different in Judaism and in Christianity. It is not the case that either interpretive trajectory can be said to be wrong. It is, however, worth noting that the dominant Christian interpretation has entailed an immense act of imaginative exposition beyond the narrative itself that makes no such universal claim out of the narrative of a particular case. In recent time, moreover, there are now probes among Christian scholars suggesting that the decisive interpretation of Paul by Augustine and Luther misconstrued Paul’s intention (E. P. Sanders 1977, on “covenantal nomism”). In any case, it is clear that interpretation is not finished, but is an endless, open-ended project for those who take the text seriously and authoritatively.


A Brief Theological “History Of The World” (Genesis 1-11)

August 27, 2010

1921 Latin Bible Illustration

Continuing with a series of reading selections from Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament

The materials in Genesis 1-11 constitute an especially rich theological resource in. the Old Testament and are at the same time a particularly problematic section of the text. In their final, canonical form, these chapters function to frame the more concrete “historical” materials of the Old Testament in a cosmic perspective and, in sum, they constitute a brief theological “history of the world.” As such, they provide the complex, problematic environment in which Israel’s faith and life are to be understood.

Two long-standing critical problems need to be noted at the outset. First, it is evident that these materials have been appropriated by Israel from older, well-developed cultures. In some cases, we have available parallel texts that are older and which evidence the antecedents to the biblical texts. These texts, moreover, have been formed, used, and transmitted in the great cultic centers of major political powers. They functioned in those contexts, surely liturgically, as founding statements for society, authorizing, legitimating, and ordering certain modes of social relationships and certain forms of social power.

For a long period, since Hermann Gunkel, scholars have referred to these materials, both in the Old Testament and in their cultural antecedents as “myths.” The usage of that term does not imply “falsehood,” as the term might be taken popularly. Rather, after the manner of Joseph Campbell, the term refers to founding poetic narratives that provide the basic self-understanding of a society and its raison d’être, foundational formulations of elemental reality that are to be regularly reiterated in liturgical form in order to reinforce claims of legitimacy for the ordering of society.

The poetic narratives characteristically portray great founding events in which “the gods” are the key actors and the actions undertaken are primordial in that they precede any concrete historical data. The Old Testament clearly emerged in a cultural world where founding myths were commonly shared from one society to another. It is evident that Israel readily participated in that common cultural heritage and made use of the same narrative materials as were used in other parts of that common culture.

Second, as elsewhere in Pentateuchal studies, scholars have been able to detect several strands of tradition that, in the terms set by Julius Wellhausen, are recognized as the hypothetical Priestly (P) and Yahwist (J) sources (Wellhausen 1994). The entwining of these two interpretive strands operates in two quite distinct ways in this material. On the one hand, in the creation materials the two strands are kept distinct from each other, each complete in itself, so that Genesis 1:1-2:4a is assigned to the P source and Genesis 2:4b-3:24 to J.

The two creation traditions stand alongside each other, each with its own integrity. On the other hand, in the extended flood narrative of Genesis 6:5-9:17, the two strands are interwoven into a remarkable literary coherence with Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-12; 8:20-22 forming the basis of J and 6:9-22; 7:13-16; 8:14-19; 9:l-17a the primary articulation of P. It is not necessary for us to delineate the two traditions in detail. It is enough to recognize that the final form of the text is complex, the outcome of a long-term traditioning process wherein different interpretive moments and perspectives rearticulated the ancient memory in terms usable in different contexts.

The prehistory of these canonically shaped chapters in terms of (a) antecedent materials and (b) diversity of sources of tradition is well established and is not in dispute. That prehistory while interesting, is not especially important for theological interpretation of the final form of the text beyond the important awareness that biblical literature did not exist in a cultural vacuum, but in lively engagement with its context.

The materials of these chapters are rich and varied and, no doubt, come from a variety of sources. The easiest distinction to make is between narrative and genealogy. The genealogies are present in chapters 5, 10, and 11. They reflect kinship groups as a way of establishing rootage and legitimacy. It is clear, however, that these genealogies are not to be taken simply as reportage on kinship, but that kinship is used in them metaphorically to characterize many other relationships, social, political, and religious.

Thus “kinship” is a way of speaking about networks of power, legitimacy, and loyalty. In some phases of scholarship these genealogies were unfortunately misunderstood when taken with uncritical literalness, when in fact they are reflective of many serious and defining relationships that are not those of either family or kin. The shockingly long life spans assigned to ancestors in chapter 5, moreover, strikes us as fantastic. When those ages are compared with the older sources, such as the Sumerian King List, it is evident that Israel’s version of these genealogies is sobered and drawn more closely to lived reality; as the life spans are radically shortened in Israelite versions.

The narratives of these chapters include a variety of materials, some of which have not been especially important for subsequent interpretive reflection. Some materials are “aetiologies,” that is, stories told in order to explain the cause or origin of something extant in culture (see Gen 4:17-25; 9:18-28). The brief narrative of Genesis 6:1-4, which seems to reflect a mythical tradition left in its quite primitive form, became, in a later time, a rich source of speculative reflection, but that reflection was not much connected to the normative traditioning of the faith community.

Primary accent in theological interpretation has been placed especially upon the creation texts of Genesis 1:1-2 :4a and Genesis 2 :4b-2 5 with its related narrative in 3:1-24, the narrative of Cain and Abel (4:1-16), the great flood narrative (6:5-9:17), and the account of the Tower of Babel (11:1-9). Each of these narratives reflects older ancient Near Eastern traditions, so that it is impossible to ask questions about “historicity.” Rather, these materials may better be understood as complex, artistic attempts to articulate the most elemental presuppositions of life and faith in Israel, attempts that understood the world in a Yahwistic way. The end result of the interpretative process is a text that provided an imaginative context for the emergence of Israel in the midst of older cultural claims, visions, and affirmations.

The key issue in reading these texts according to the central traditions of church interpretation is to see that the canonizing process of editing and traditioning has taken old materials and transposed them by their arrangement into something of a theological coherence that is able to state theological affirmations and claims that were not intrinsic to the antecedent materials themselves. It is useful to recognize and know something of the antecedent materials; the character of the antecedent materials, however, is not primary in the theological interpretation of the church. Rather interest for such interpretation focuses upon the materials as they have been transposed into a coherent and intentional theological statement, a coherence that is clear in its main lines, even though the transposition has not fully and everywhere succeeded in overcoming all the markings of the earlier versions of the materials.

We may suggest that the materials have been shaped in order to make the following statements possible:

  1. The two creation narratives, in very different modes, articulate that the world (“heaven and earth”) belongs to God, is formed and willed by God, is blessed by God with abundance, is to be cared for by the human creatures who are deeply empowered by God, but who are seriously restrained by God. The creation narratives are an affirmation of the goodness of the world intended by God (see below).
  2. The narratives of Genesis 3:1-24 and 4:1-16, immediately after the affirmation of creation, attest to the profound problematic that is inherent in creation. Creation is said to be recalcitrant and resistant to God’s good intention for the world. This deep, elemental disorder, narratively instigated by the serpent and rooted in disobedience, is enacted as human violence; it is, moreover, reinforced by the odd distortion reported in 6:1-4 wherein the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” entangle inappropriately.
  3. The flood narrative sits at the center of this material as the great disruption of creation. The waters of the flood are understood to be the great primordial power of chaos that now endangers life on the earth at the behest of the creator God. That is, the chaotic waters are here not opposed to the will of the creator, but are an instrument of the will of the creator. It is a remarkable and deeply freighted (vocab: Be laden or burdened with: “each word was freighted with anger.”) moment when God is “sorry” for creation and resolves to “blot out” human beings, thus promptly proposing to abrogate the initial endowment of human creatures in the creation story (Gen 6:6-7).
    ‘While the flood itself is an assertion of God’s wholesale judgment against creation, the biblical narrative is primarily interested in the “exception” of Noah, “a righteous man.” With his family Noah becomes the survivor of the flood and the first of the new humanity that appears post flood and, according to Genesis 9:6, is still “in the image of God” (on which see 1:26; 5:1-2). Thus the deep disruption of the flood is not a total disruption. The flood narrative, for all of the destruction that it articulates, culminates in the divine promise that guarantees the working of creation in life-giving ways (8:22), and the divine promise of covenantal faithfulness toward the creation for all time to come (9:15-I 7).
  4. The narrative material ends in the narrative of 11:1-9, a final statement of human arrogance that challenges God, and that evokes God’s harsh response. The four “narratives of contradiction”-Genesis 3, 4, 6:5-9:17, and 11: 1-9—articulate a steadily intensifying recalcitrance against the will of the Creator that each time evokes God’s harsh response (Miles 1995, 128-46). The generous will of the Creator will not finally be mocked and will not be overcome by creaturely recalcitrance.
    For all of that narrative assertion of resistance to the Creator God, it is to be observed that, alongside a response of anger from God toward the disobedient, in these narratives God also acts graciously and protectively to curb the destructiveness enacted and evoked by the human creatures. Thus after the harsh judgment on the man and woman, God clothes the two of them in order to cover over their newly felt shame (Gen 3:21). After the expulsion of Cain, the murderer, God marks Cain in order to protect him from murder in turn (4:15). As noted, the destructive force of the flood willed by God is unexpectedly concluded with divine promises (8:22; 9:8-17).
    This sequence of narratives ends stunningly with the concluding judgment of 11:1-9 without a compensatory counterpoint from God. As Gerhard von Rad has seen, it is as though the entire narrative complex is designed so that the reading community of faith is left waiting for the appearance of Israel into the world, an appearance accomplished by Abraham and his barren wife Sarah (Gen 11:30; 12:1-3) (von Rad 1966, 67).
    The sum of these narrative parts constitutes a remarkable theological statement. What may have been various “myths of origin” is now transposed into a theological statement of divine judgment and divine rescue, rescue and judgment being the defining categories for the God of Israel and for God’s impingement upon the world in which Israel lives. In that transposed form, then, this material is no longer interested in “origins” and in the sort of generic religious questions that are endlessly fascinating. Now, rather, the text is an attestation to the main themes of Israel’s faith in God.
    Having noticed that judgment and rescue form the focal points for God’s presence and activity in this material, it is important to recognize that while God readily enacts both judgment and rescue in completely free ways, alongside this theological pairing the sum of the material attests as well to the recurring disobedience, arrogance, and violence that profoundly contradict God’s way in the text.
    The capacity to state in this (for Israel) “originary text” this elemental recalcitrance is an astonishing interpretive achievement. Thus the eleven chapters, taken all together, attest that the will and purpose of the Creator God is sovereign, but that sovereignty is deeply and categorically under assault from the outset. This assertion draws close indeed to the lived reality of the world, then and now, in which it is unmistakably clear that creation is in contradiction.
    This way of beginning the Bible, moreover, by appeal to creation, prepared the way for the primal drama of the Bible, namely, redescription or the restoration and mending of a scarred, broken creation to the intent of the Creator. These chapters thus make a fundamental theological affirmation, but they also prepare the way for what is to come. In God’s own way God negates recalcitrant power present in creation to bring human creatures to obedience that makes the world livable.
    It is to be noted that the canonical traditions managed to make this claim precisely by the utilization of older, “mythic” materials that in their antecedent functions were remote from such claims and affirmations.

The Book of Job: An Interpretation by Walter Brueggemann

August 26, 2010

What is the price of Experience do men buy it for a song
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath his house his wife his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the witherd field where the farmer plows for bread in vain
William Blake

The Genre Of The Book Of Job
The book of Job lives — rhetorically and theologically — at the edge of the Old Testament. Rhetorically the book takes up older genres and patterns of speech, and fashions them into the most artistic and urbane statement of faith in the Old Testament. Theologically the book takes up old covenantal and sapiential presuppositions, challenges basic premises of Israel’s faith, and refuses any easy resolution of the most difficult theological questions that appear on the horizon of Israel’s faith. It is, moreover, appropriate that the book of Job should follow the book of Psalms in the canonical order, for the book of Job takes up the primary genres of the book of Psalms, especially lament and hymn, weaves them into a new coherent dialogue, and pushes both lament and hymn to an emotional, artistic, and theological extremity. Concerning the genre of the book of Job, Westermann has suggested

that the basic material is that of lament that characteristically engages three parties, the speaker, YHWH, and the adversary;

that the lament has been arranged in the book of Job as a dialogic disputation, a disputation that stands “within the lament”; and

that the dialogic dispute (expressed in forensic language) amounts to a drama wherein we are offered “a dramatizing of the lament”
(Westermann 1981, 11).

Such an analysis of genre indicates that we are dealing with an immensely sophisticated artistic work that is removed from any particular historical context or crisis, and that it stands on its own as a daring explication of the most difficult questions of faith. The book of Job is not for “everyday use” among the faithful, but is an artistic extremity that is peculiarly matched to the extreme crises of life lived in faith. In this artistic achievement, it is clear that the “dramatist” who produced the book of Job did not start from scratch, but was informed by and drew upon already well-established cultural reservoirs of Job-like materials from elsewhere in the ancient Near East.

The centerpiece of the book of Job is the long poetic work of chapters 3:1-42:6, a dispute in two parts that are connected by an extended soliloquy in chapters 29-31. In the dispute in two parts, the several speeches of disputation engage the most unbearable questions of faith While it is commonly said that the poem of Job deals with the “problem of evil,” or the “problem oil theodicy,” it is important at the outset to recognize that the issues taken upç here are not speculative or cerebral, but in fact concern the most intense and~ immediate existential issues of faith, mora1ity and fidelity that grow out of Israel’s older traditions of Torah (as in the book of Deuteronomy) and wisdom (as in the book of Proverbs)

The first part of the dialogic dispute concerns Job’s engagement with his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who are representatives of older settled, traditional faith The literature of chapters 3-27 is not in fact a “discussion,” but rather a series of speeches — alternating between Job and friends — that deal with the same issues but do not directly engage each other. In chapters 3-27, the pattern is to have Job’s utterances alternate with speech by his three friends

                Job 3                       Eliphaz 4-5

                Job 6-7                   Bildad 8

                Job 9-10                 Zophar 11

This series of speeches constitutes one “cycle” of exchange, and the process is repeated two more times, though in the third cycle of speeches, the pattern is left incomplete.

Characteristics of Speech: Job and His Friends
In this exchange, it is the case that Job and his friends in fact talk past each other. Job speaks existentially of his dismay and despair due to the unquestioned reality of his obedience to God’s requirements and yet he suffers unbelievably without being able to understand why. His passionate articulation concerns the unbearable interface between obedience and suffering, an interface that ought not to occur according to conventional categories of Israel’s faith. Partly, Job is adamant to state his innocence, more precisely, he wants to kill the reason for his suffering for he, like his friends, can only imagine that suffering is rooted in guilt.

Whereas Job speaks with existential passion, albeit in measured artistic cadences, his friends do not in fact engage him, but simply reiterate the primary claims of Israel’s covenantal-sapiential tradition that the world governed by God is morally reliable, wherein obedience yields prosperity as disobedience yields adversity. The impeccable logic of his friends leads inescapably to the conclusion that Job suffers, and his suffering can only be grounded in disobedience. .Job, for the most part, accepts this premise himself, but then insists that he is entitled to know the charges of disobedience made against him.

Characteristics Of The Dispute
And of course his friends do not answer, because they do not know. Thus the dispute concerns an unbearable mismatch between lived reality and traditional explanations that proceed by their own logic without reference to lived reality. For his part, Job’s integrity is such that he will not deny his own lived reality in order to preserve the tradition of “orthodoxy” or to maintain the reputation of God (See 4 6, 27 5, 31 6 ). Job’s integrity requires truth-telling about his own lived experience, even if that truth-telling clashes with settled traditional explanations and exposes such explanations as inadequate if not fraudulent.

Canonical Job protested against such theologies of explanation which claimed that, starting with a theological premise, one might explain everything in terms of that premise regardless of experience. Israel’s experience was one of suffering, and these theologies failed to demonstrate an adequate grasp of that reality, either minimizing or denying it. By recourse to history; these theologians claimed that every terrible thing that happened to Israel had an explanation, and that this explanation relieved God of responsibility. They preserved God’s reputation by removing him from the human sphere, replacing him with a strict law of retribution The final form of the book of Job embodies a reaction against the historical interpretations of the author’s contemporaries
(Penchansky 1990, 33-34)

This exchange between Job and his friends ends, of course, without resolution, for the drama intends to make clear that there is no way in which to accommodate settled orthodoxy to the wretchedness of Job’s life. The friends finish their speech without yielding to Job’s anguish, Job finishes unpersuaded by the heavy-handed insistence of his friends:

Far be it from me to say that you are right;
   until I die I will not put away my integrity from me
I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go;
   my heart does not reproach me for any of my days
(Job 27 5-6)

The Interlude In Chapters 28-31
At the end of this dispute with “the friends,” the book of Job provides an interlude in chapters 28-31. Chapter 28 is a quite distinctive text. This poem is a meditation on the reality that human wisdom — that is, the wisdom of both Job and his friends — cannot penetrate the mystery of creation that only God knows:

The line of thought in the poem is, rather, this Wisdom, the order given to the world by God, is the most precious thing of all. But while man has eventually found a way to all precious things, he does not find the way to the mystery of creation. Only God knows its place, for he has already been concerned with it at creation If man cannot determine this mystery of creation, it means, of course—this consequence is already envisaged in the poem — that it is out of his arbitrary reach. He never gets it into his power as he does the other precious things. The world never reveals the mystery of its order. One can scarcely go further than this in the interpretation.
(von Rad 1972, 148)

The line of thought in the poem is, rather, this Wisdom, the order given to the world by God, is the most precious thing of all. But while man has eventually found a way to all precious things, he does not find the way to the mystery of creation. Only God knows its place, for he has already bcen concerned with it at creation. If man cannot determine this mystery of creation, it means, of course — this consequence is already envisaged in the poem — that it is out of his arbitrary reach. He never gets it into his power as he does the other precious things.The world never reveals the mystery of its order. One can scarcely go further than this in the interpretation.
(von Rad 1972, 148)

While the poem may have been an independent one, its function and effect in its present location is to make the dispute of chapters 3-27 quite penultimate, indicating that neither Job nor his friends can reach to the bottom of the issue they are discussing In this placement, chapter 28 functions as a harbinger of the conclusion that is to be drawn in 38 1-42:6, namely, that God’s intentionality is beyond human explanation or challenge. Consequently, chapter 28, for all of its elegance, ends in verse 28 — perhaps we should say ends notoriously — with a conventional summons to accept traditional teaching and avoid evil, a summons that is perhaps partially in agreement with the argument of the friends and; against Job, even if the verse does not grant the premises of the friends:

Truly, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom,
and to depart from evil is understanding.
(Job 28:28)

The resolution of the large question of the chapter seeks to situate human persons appropriately vis-à-vis the majesty of the Creator, in a role of obedience of the most practical kind, without access to the mystery that lies behind the tasks of daily life

Job’s Soliloquy
The other material in this interlude is found in Job’s wondrous soliloquy in chapters 29-31. In chapters 29 and 30, Job contrasts his wondrous past when he was socially significant and socially responsible (29) with his present state of powerlessness and social humiliation (30). These two chapters form a basis for the magnificent chapter 31, in which Job articulates in sweeping fashion his own innocence as a man who has singularly acted according to the best ethical norms. In making this case of innocence for himself, Job moves to refute decisively the traditional assumption of his friends that his suffering is rooted in guilt. Job’s bold self-assertion is a denial of guilt and an insistence on his right. This remarkable self-declaration is a “high point of Old Testament ethics” (Fohrer 1974, 14) The statement culminates, moreover, in Job’s defiant insistence in verses 35-37 that he be given particular charges of guilt that are, as his friends allege, the cause of his suffering:

Oh, that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! let the Almighty answer me!)
Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary! Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would hind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps; like a prince I would approach him.
(Job 31:35—37)

It is clear in this remarkable challenge to the God of heaven that Job still operates on the moral assumption of his friends that guilt follows disobedience. Job has made his most vigorous case inside the rhetoric of the courtroom. In what follows, it will be clear that according to the larger drama of the book, Job has missed the point as radically as have his friends. It is for that reason that Fohrer after full appreciation of Job’s “oath of purity;” can also critique Job’s hubris as voiced in this text:

On the one hand, Job is the righteous, pure, and perfect man who can maintain that he is without sin. On the other hand, he appears as a Promethean and Titanic man from whom God had torn away prosperity and happiness, who confronts God boldly with the conviction that he is perfect in order to triumph over Him, and who wants to force Him to acknowledge his innocence by means of his undisputed righteousness. The fact that he undertakes this with the appearance of and under the cloak of the law only increases the impression of a conflict in this chapter. In this way the formal element of the legal oath of purity in the main part of Job 31 and the legal statements in Job 31:35-37 take effect. They make it possible for Job to act like a conquering hero who is certain that he will win a legally plain and indisputable victory over God, while in reality he adopts a heretical position and on the basis of this subjective good conscience contrasts the false teaching of his friends with a view that is just as false… By means of the structure of the oath of purity and of the role which is played in Job’s appearance before God, the Joban poet calls in question the “pure” righteous conduct and the ethically perfect man, since not without further ado he must also be the trusting man, but he can also be Promethean, Titanic, and heretical.
(Fohrer 1974, 19—20, 21)

Chapters 32-37
In chapters 32-37, there is a continuation of the first cycle of disputes in ; chapters 3-2 7, this time with a fourth friend, Elihu, now introduced for the first time. It is a consensus judgment of scholars that this material is something a disruptive intrusion into the work, so that in an earlier version of the Poetry the concluding formula of 31:40, “The words of Job are ended,” may been followed immediately by the utterance of YHWH in 38:1. In any ease, in 38:1 the second dispute begins, this time between Job and YHWH, a dispute that is continued through the poetry until 42:6. (it is worth noting that in 38:1, the God who speaks is termed YHWH, a name for God that has been used in the initial prose of chapters 1-2, but withheld in the poetry of chapters 3-37. The reintroduction of the name YHWH suggests that the dramatist now wants to call attention to the claim that the God with whom Job struggles — the God of  Israel — is no ordinary God of “religion” but is the true God, Creator of heaven and earth, known in all inscrutable mystery in the faith of Israel.)

The Second Dispute
In this second dispute, YHWH speaks twice (38:1-39;30; 40:6-41:34). The times YHWH addresses Job in an invitation, perhaps a taunting invitation, to engage the dispute (38:2-3;40(l-2). In response Job also speaks twice (40:3-4; 42:1-6). It is evident that YHWH’s utterance is completely disproportionate to that of Job, for YHWH completely dominates the dispute. Conversely, it is evident that before the power, mystery; and eloquence of YHWH, Job has very little to say. That is, Job’s capacity to speak in the first dispute with his three friends is now contrasted with his inability to defend his case before the ultimate disputant.

The whirlwind speeches of YHWH portray YHWH with massive power as sovereign Creator and with an artistic appreciation for the beauty and wonder of the special creatures whom God has created. The self-praise implied in these speeches is an assertion of the immense power of YHWH the Creator that lies well beyond the capacity of job .it is to be noticed that YHWH, in these lyrical utterances, pays no attention toJob~c defiant demands and exhibits no interest in job~ troubles. indeed, Job is, in fact, a profound irrelevance in the large vista of YHWH’s rule. It is not at all clear how this second dispute — a dispute between completely incommensurate parties — is related to the earlier dispute that Job has with his friends. Between the dispute of 3:1-27:23 (plus chs. 32-37) and the dispute of 38:1-42:6, there is a dramatic “disconnect.” It seems plausible, moreover, that this dramatic “disconnect” is exactly the point of the sequence of speeches.

Creature And Creator
From the perspective of the Creator God in the whirlwind, the earlier dispute is about nothing important, so that a quibble about suffering and guilt or innocence is of no significance to the inscrutable mystery of life with God that enwraps the entire human endeavor. God’s self-attestation of “How Great Thou Art” serves to resituate Job and his troubles at the margin of religious seriousness. It is as though the dramatist means to say that the characteristic calculations of covenant and sapiential traditions in Israel’s faith finally count for nothing when the world is ruled by this awesome Creator. Job’s response to the speeches of YHWH are terse and apparently submissive. The first response is one of deference to YHWH, as though job concedes the main point of YHWH’s inscrutable magnificence (40:3-5).

The second response of Job is more enigmatic (42:1-6). With particular reference to verse 6, conventional interpretation has concluded that Job submits to YHWH, and so by implication retracts his earlier defiance and settles for life as YHWH’s trusting Creature:

According to the rnajority of commentators, the general meaning of the passage seems clear: Job stands now as a creature before his God, as a child before his Father. His complaints and protests had in flict never outweighed his hope and trust. He does not now withdraw his claim of innocence, for his conviction on this count is as great as his faith in Cod. Nor does he have to withdraw it, for Yahweh has not repeated the accusations of the three friends. Neither does Job accept with resignation something lie regards as unjust. God, however, has now made known to job a plan and the meaning of a justice that cannot be contained in the straitjacket of the doctrine of retribution. Job, for his part, has come to see that his language had perhaps been disrespectful. He therefore repents and humbly proposes to do penance in dust and ashes.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 86)

But Gutiérrez himself qualifies this conventional reading:

The text in Job thus means: “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind a bout) dust and ashes.”
The phrase “dust and ashes” is an image for groaning and lamentation; in other words, it is an image befitting the situation of Job as described before the dialogues began (see 2:8-12). This, then, is the object of the retraction and change of mind of which this key verse speaks. Job is rejecting the attitude of lamentation that has been his until now. The speeches of Cod have shown him that this attitude is not justified. He does not retract or repent of what he has hitherto said, but he now sees clearly that he cannot go on complaining     his means that in his final reply what Job is expressing is not contrition but a renunciation of his lamentation and dejected outlook. Certain emphases in his protest had been due to the doctrine of retribution, which despite everything had continued to be his point of reference. Now that the Lord has overthrown that doctrine by revealing the key to the divine plan, job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that Cod was a prisoner of a particular way of understanding justice. It is this whole outlook that job says he is now abandoning     Job’s answer, of which the new translation just expounded gives a better understanding, represents a high point in contemplative speech about God. Job has arrived only gradually at this way of talking about God. At one point he had even felt God to be distant and unconnected with his life; he had then confronted this God in a hitter lawsuit. Nosi~ however, he surrenders to Yahweh with renewed trust.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 86—87)

It is generally recognized, however, that 42:6 is immensely problematic, perhaps loaded with irony, and likely intentionally ambiguous. Several words in the statement of Job admit of more than one nuance, and the grammar is elusive. As a consequence, it is possible that job’s final statement is no concession to YHWH at all, but an act of defiance that concedes nothing, but only acknowledges tile greater power of the Creator. It is possible, even likely, that the dramatist intends no clear resolution; but he offers only the disputation about insoluble matters with the inescapable Dialogue Partner as the ultimate practice of faith. Jack Miles offers “a thorough and suggestive review of the problem of 42:6 that perhaps culminates only in “a final perseverance.” Miles concludes:

What is primary is whether or not God succeeds in forcing Job’s attention away from God and back upon Job himself. If God can force Job somehow to stop blaming God and start blaming himself, God wins. If God cannot do that, God loses. In contemporary political language, the question is whether God can make his opponent the issue. Despite spectacular effort, God, in my judgment, fails in his attempt to do this, and Job becomes as a result the turning point in the life of God, reading that life as a movement from self-ignorance to self-knowledge.
If God defeats Job, in short, job ceases to be a serious event in the life of God, and God can forget about his garrulous upstart. But if Job defeats God, God can never forget Job, and neither can we. The creature having taken this much of a hand in creating his creator, the two are, henceforth, permanently linked.
(Miles 1995, 429-30)

In the end Job and YHWH, creature and Creator are “permanently linked” in an unequal relationship. YHWH is preoccupied with Job’s own grandeur, Job with his own troubles. And there they are … endlessly.

The Poem Of 3: 1-42:6 And The Prose Narrative Of 42 :7-17
The poem of 3: 1-42:6 is, of course, framed by the prose narrative of 1:1-2:13 and 42:7-17. It may be that these verses are an older folk tale into which the disputatious poetry has been inserted; or it may be that the prose material is a late literary construction designed to “contain” the poetic dispute. Either way, chapters 1-2 as a literary frame present a man who is “blameless (that is, with integrity) and upright,” who is indeed “framed” in the collusion between YHWH and YHWH’s disputatious agent, Satan (1:1, 8; 2:3). The power of this narrative mounting of the drama is, of course, found in the fact that the Job of the poetry is completely unaware of the collusion of YHWH and Satan.

The corresponding prose narrative of 42 :7-17 provides a resolution of the trouble whereby YHWH “restored the fortunes” of Job in 42:10; that verse employs a technical phrase much used in exilic literature to bespeak YHWH’s radical inversion of historical circumstance (see Jeremiah 29:14; 30:18; 32:44; 33:7, 11, 26). It is to be noted that Job is affirmed by YHWH as the one, in contrast to his “orthodox” friends, who has spoken “what is right” (42:7-8). This divine verd let may refer to job’s alleged capitulation in 42:6; or it may refer to Job’s larger defiant discourse, suggesting that this disputatious God delights in disputatious human dialogue. Either wa Job the disputer receives divine approbation.

The narrative suggests full restoration for Job by YHWH, the Creator God:

The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
(Job 42:12-17)

Fackenheim’s Dissent
The matter seems perfectly symmetrical, so that the final state of Job is fully commensurate with the beginning state of this blessed man. It is as though the long poetic disruption of his life were as nothing and Job experiences a return to normalcy. Except a dissent must be filed (to continue forensic categories) as is done by Emil Faekenheim. Fackenheim comments on Jeremiah 31:15 and Rachel who “refuses to be comforted” for her lost children. Fackenheim proposes that among the lost children of Job are six million at “Auschwitz and Ravenbruck.” And then Fackenheim, following A. S. Peake, comments that “no lost child can be replaced”:

Our “annoyance” with and “outrage” at the text — the stern refusal of Rachel to be comforted –is focused, then, on one single fact. This fact haunts, or ought to haunt, the religious consciousness of Jews and Christians alike. To Job sons and daughters are restored; but they are not the same sons and daughters. Children of Rachel have returned from exile; hut they are not the same children.
(Fackenheim 1980, 202)

Job received new children; but he never received back what he had lost. That much is true in the text itself, a truth immensely heightened by Faekenheim’s link of the tribulations of job to the Shoah and all the children lost there and never regained. Thus the restitution of 42:7-17 is crucial for the whole of the narrative; the new well-being, however, should not he overstated, because the last state is not exactly the first state recovered. The last state of restoration is marked by durable loss and Job, like mother Rachel, may do well not to he excessively comforted, even by his brothers and sisters (42:11) who apparently do better with comfort than the three friends at the outset (see 2:11-13; see also Jeremiah 31:15).

An Overview
The book of Job in its three parts of narrative-poetry-narrative is a daring, majestic fugue that renders theological trouble and submissiveness in all of its immense complexity. The whole of the drama is to be fully appreciated in its inexhaustible artistry, and not interpreted so that it is made to conform to any of our ready-made theological packages. A conventional reading of the book brings the crisis of Job to a full restoration, a resolution likely reflected in Ezekiel 14:14, 20 and James 5:11. A more likely reading of the book of Job, however, suggests no such easy resolution, it being, rather, a witness to the enigmatic dimension of faith whereby Job — the man of faith — is endlessly in a relationship with God the Creator that admits of no ready fix. The dramatic power of the book of Job attests to the reality that faith, beyond easy convictions, is a demanding way to live that thrives on candor and requires immense courage. Faith of this kind that pushes deeply beyond covenantal quid pro quos or sapiential consequences that follow from deeds is no enterprise for wimps or sissies.

If we consider the dramatic flow from narrative (1:1-2:13) to poetry (3:1-42:6) to narrative (42:7-17), it is possible to see here a pattern that we have already suggested for the book of Psalms, a pattern of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation:

1:1-2:13      a fully oriented life of faith that is moving toward disorientation;

3:1-42:6      a practice of dispute that is fully marked by disorientation; and

42:7-17       a new orientation that is wrought by YHWH that has within it persistent traces of loss.

Thus the book of Job is a large, imaginative drama of life with God that is inescapable for those who live life in full awareness and voice it with candor, for the savage reality of loss eventually spares none.

Because the book of Job is an artistic construction by artists who know the tradition of Israel and who move beyond the tradition in an enormous act of imagination, it is not possible to suggest any “historical” context for the book. There are linguistic clues to possible datings, but they are only suggestive. It is possible, for a variety of reasons, to suggest that the book of Job is a meditation upon the defining crisis of the exile in ancient Israel, so that the refutation of easy explanations of suffering as a consequence of guilt is a response to the easy “explanations” for the exile in the conventional faith of Israel, most especially on the horizon of the Deuteronomists. The connection between Job and the exile is a suggestive one, but it should not he pressed too far, for the book of Job resists any simplistic “historical” placement.

Gutiérrez’ Way For Job
It is better to say that the book of Job in an artistic way is endlessly contemporary because the inability to reduce raw life to explanation is a perennial human reality. At the outset of the twenty-first century, as things become unglued on a large scale, the artistry of the book of Job invites faith to face the dangers of a connection to a Creator God who is immense in glory but who offers no easy comfort. Such a practice of faith, if honest, may anticipate comforts and settlements here and there; mostly, however, life and faith in a disputatious mode do not shrink from truth-telling that offends friends who comfort and defies the God who self-congratulates. Gutiérrez suggests, out of his mystical sensibility, a way for Job beyond every scheme of retribution:

Inspired by the experience of his own innocence, Job bitterly criticized the theology of temporal retribution as maintained in his day and expounded by his friends. And he was right to do so. But his challenge stopped halfway and, as a result, except at moments when his deep faith and trust in God broke through, he could not escape the dilemma so cogently presented by his friends: if he was innocent, then God was guilty. God subsequently rebuked Job for remaining prisoner of this either-or mentality (see 40:R). What he should have done was to leap the fence set up around him by this sclerotic theology that is so dangerously close to idolatry, run free in the fields of God’s love, and breathe an unrestricted air like the animals described in God’s argument — animals that humans cannot domesticate. The world outside the fence is the world of gratuitousness; it is there that God dwells and there that God’s friends find a joyous welcome.

The world of retribution — and not of temporal retribution only — is not where God dwells; at most God visits it. The Lord is not prisoner of the “give to me and I will give to you” mentality. Nothing, no human work however valuable, merits grace, for if it did, grace would cease to be grace. This is the heart of the message of the book of Job.
(Gutiérrez 1987, 88—89)


Introducing “Imaginative Remembering” — Walter Brueggemann

August 25, 2010


Dr. Walter Brueggemann


I was on a discussion forum recently where someone challenged me to show that the bible was historically accurate. Having seen several Discovery channel/PBS documentaries dealing with Biblical Archaeology, I couldn’t understand how my interlocutor could believe there weren’t more than several thousand.

Well it turns out that the Bible has a significant number of deniers who lurk about the Internet and I’m not speaking about those who reject the Bible as “inspired” text. These are folks who reject any historicity whatsoever. While elsewhere I have discussed the process by which Scripture became the Word of God  but Walter Brueggemann’s explanation of imaginative remembering here also shows how the interplay of imagination, ideology and inspiration cohere in the traditioning process and allows people of faith to find a trustworthy voice.

“Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. A graduate of Elmhurst College, Professor Brueggemann went on to study at the Eden Theological Seminary, receiving his Doctorate of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from St. Louis University.

He has devoted his life to a passionate exploration of Old Testament theology, with an emphasis on the relation between the Old Testament and the Christian canonical works, the origins and history of Christian doctrine, and the dynamics of Jewish-Christian interactions. An unequaled passion for his subject has resulted in the publication of more than 58 books and hundreds of articles. This particular offering is a reading selection from his 2003 book An Introduction to the Old Testament.

Mark Thiessen Nation, program director at the London Mennonite Center (London, England) has commented of Professor Brueggemann, “No one writing on the Bible is more consistently provocative, interesting, challenging, and imaginative than Walter Brueggemann. I imagine there is no Scripture scholar in America who sells more books or informs more sermons. For those Christians who yearn for serious, biblically informed engagement with our contemporary world there is no one more stimulating to read than Brueggemann. The man rarely writes a boring page. He is thoroughly knowledgeable as an Old Testament scholar — not to mention reasonably informed on theology, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and several other fields — and yet he writes with such verve that he is a joy to read.”


The interplay of historical reportage and canonical formation is endlessly complex. The process of that interplay is the work of tradition, the defining enterprise of biblical formation, transmission, and interpretation that we may term “imaginative remembering.”

The remembering part is done in the intergenerational community, as parents tell and retell to children and grandchildren what is most prized in community lore (see Exodus 10:1-2; 12:26; 13:8, 14; Deuteronomy 6:20; Joshua 4:21; and Psalms 78:5-8). One may assume that what is remembered is rooted in some occurrence. Thus, for example, the great exodus narrative surely has behind it some defining emancipatory happening. It is, however, an occurrence to which we have no access, and we cannot make certain the claim for its “happening.” Remembering, moreover, is itself shot through with imaginative freedom to extrapolate and move beyond whatever there may have been of “happening.” Sometimes that imaginative reconstrual is intentional, in order to permit the memory to be pertinent to a new generation.

Thus, for example, the exodus narrative of Exodus 1-15 contains exilic materials in order that the later generation of the sixth-century exile might understand the exodus memory in terms of its own emancipation from Babylon. Sometimes, surely, the imaginative construal that goes beyond “happening” is unworthy and untenable. Either way, the traditioning process of retelling does not intend to linger over old happening, but intends to recreate a rooted, lively world of meaning that is marked by both coherence and surprise in which the listening generation, time after time, can situate its own life.

This act of imaginative remembering, I believe, is the clue to valuing the Bible as a trustworthy voice of faith while still taking seriously our best critical learning. Critical scholarship for a long time has tried to separate “reliable remembering” from imaginative extrapolation, thereby reducing matters to a bare minimum (von Rad 1962, 105—115, 302—305). Current scholarship is in a quite skeptical mood: on the one hand scholars increasingly judge the “historical” claim of the Old Testament to be mostly unreliable and unprovable, and often unlikely (Dever 2001; Finkelstein and Silberman 2001). On the other hand, scholars recognize that the texts are loaded with ideological freight so that they cannot be trusted as reliable (Barr 2000). The recognition of these critical judgments is important and warns against making irresponsible claims for the text.

At the same time, however, one can judge that the imposition of modernist tests of reliability on the text has been deeply wrongheaded and has asked of texts what they did not intend to deliver. Thus what parents have related to their children as normative tradition (that became canonized by long usage and has long been regarded as normative) is a world of meaning that has as its key character YHWH, the God of Israel, who operates in the narratives and songs of Israel that taken as reliable renderings of reality. Given all kinds of critical restraints and awarenesses, one can only allow that such retellings are a disciplined, emancipated act of imagination. It can of course be noted in passing that current skepticism about the text in some scholarly circles is also an act of interpretive imagination rooted in modernist positivism; I have, however, no wish to linger over that awareness.

The notion of the dynamism of the traditioning process is no new awareness in Old Testament studies. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the matrix of Enlightenment rationality; the traditioning process was worked into a defining hypothesis concerning the emergence of Old Testament historical texts according to a series of proposed documents. That scholarly era thought in terms of “documents,” but we may recognize that the proposed “documents” are layers and way-stations in the ongoing traditioning process in the formation of the biblical text.

According to that most influential hypothesis that is still reported in many books, the ongoing tradition of Israel’s “historical remembering” is marked by fixed accent points in the tenth, ninth, seventh, and fifth centuries B.C.E., represented in hypothetical documents respectively designated as the Yahwist (J) the Elohist (F), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly (P) tradition. Each stratum of tradition relied on what was remembered, took what it wanted and could use, neglected what it would not itself use, reformulated and resituated to make a new statement. The final form of the text is a combination of these several major attempts at reformulating the core tradition of that memory.

That hypothesis of documents was governed by a notion of the evolutionary development of Israelite religion that no longer pertains; but the dynamism of the process itself continues to be recognized, albeit in very different form. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that scholarship began to move away from “documents” to “traditions,” but the point of the dynamism is the same in either case. The tradition, including its final form, is a practice of imaginative remembering.

In the traditioning process of telling and retelling in order to make faith possible for the next generation, each version of retelling (of which there were surely many in the long-term process) intends, perforce, that its particular retelling should be the “final” and surely the correct one. In the event, however~ no account of traditioning turns out to be the “final” one, but each act of traditioning is eventually overcome and in fact displaced (“superseded”) by a fresher version. The later, displacing form of the tradition no doubt is assumed to be the “final and correct” one, but is in turn sure to be overcome and, in part, displaced by subsequent versions of the memory.

The complexity of the text evident on any careful reading is due to the happy reality that as new acts of traditioning overcome and partly displace older materials, the older material is retained alongside newer tradition. That retention is a happy one, because it very often happens that a still later traditionist returns to and finds useful older, “discarded” material thought to be beyond use.

The traditioning process that came to constitute the church’s Scripture is not an innocent act of reportage. It is, in each of its variations over time, an intentional advocacy that means to tilt the world of the next generation according to a conviction of faith. I may identity three facets of that intentionality that can be taken into account in our study.

  1. First, I have already noted that the tradition that became Scripture is a relentless act of imagination (D. Brown 1999, 2000). That is, the literature is not merely descriptive of a commonsense world; it dares, by artistic sensibility and risk-taking rhetoric, to posit, characterize, and vouch for a world beyond the “common sense.” The theological aspect of this imagination is that the world is articulated with YHWH as the defining character, even though this character in all holiness defies every attempt to make this character available or accessible in any conventional mode. That theological dimension of Imagination — to render a world defined by the character of YHWH — is matched by a rich artistic sensibility that renders lived reality in song, story; oracle, and law. The artistic aspect of the text is not uniform and one-dimensional; in the narratives of Samuel, for example, or in the poetry of Job or in the metaphors of Jeremiah, we are offered “limit expressions” that render the “limit experiences” of the generation that offers its testimony and that invites “limit experiences” in the listening generation that would not be available without this shared limit language (Ricoeur 1975, 107-45).
  2. Second, it is now widely recognized that the traditioning process is deeply permeated by ideology. The traditioning generation in each case is not a cast of automatons. Rather they are, even if unknown to us and unnamed by us, real people who live real lives in socioeconomic circumstances where they worried about, yearned for, and protected social advantage and property. Indeed, the traditionists surely constitute, every time, a case study in the Marxian insight that “truth” is inescapably filtered through “interest.” And while Marx focused on economic interest, it is not difficult to see in the traditioning process the working of interest expressed through gender, race, class, and ethnic distinctions (Jobling 1998; Schwartz 1997).Because the text is marked by these pressures, it is clear that the text is open, in retrospect, to critique. As David Brown has seen, the later traditioning process may indeed circle back and critique the older, established textual tradition. In doing so, of course, it is important to recognize that each subsequent critique of older tradition (including my own critique) is itself not likely to be innocent; it in turn is reflective of social location and interest.
  3. Third, the religious communities of Judaism and Christianity that take this text to be normative will affirm in a variety of ways that this text is inspired. In this affirmation, the religious communities go beyond critical scholarship that in its characteristic skepticism avoids any such claim. These religious communities make this claim not because they are obscurantist or engaged in special pleading of a decisive kind, but because over time these communities have found these texts to be carriers of and witnesses to the most compelling offer of a meaningful, responsible, coherent life.

The term inspiration of course is not without its own complexity; If we recall the mention of “artistic imagination,” we may for starters say that the biblical text is “inspired” in the way that every gifted artistic accomplishment is inspired. It is recognized that the artist is peculiarly gifted and is able to move beyond ordinary capacity in an extraordinary moment of rendering. To say this much is to say a great deal: that the singers and story-tellers and poets who constituted the Old Testament did indeed reach beyond themselves in an extraordinary way.

But of course when Christians speak of the Bible as “inspired,” we mean to say much more than that. We mean to say that God’s own purpose, will, and presence have been “breathed” through these texts. Such a claim need not result in a literalist notion of “direct dictation” by God’s spirit, as though God were whispering in the ear of a human writer; it is clear that the claim of “inspired” is an inchoate way of saying that the entire traditioning process continues and embodies a surplus rendering of reality that discloses all of reality in light of the holiness of YHWH. Through that disclosure that happens in fits and starts through human imagination and human ideology — but is not finally domesticated by either human imagination or human ideology — we receive a “revelation” of the hiddenness of the life of the world and of God’s life in the world. And because we in the church find it so, we dare to say in the actual traditioning process with trembling lips, “The Word of the Lord.. Thanks be to God.”

Now it will occur to an attentive reader that these three facts of the traditioning process — imagination, ideology, and inspiration — do not easily cohere with each other. Specifically, the force of human ideology and the power of divine inspiration would seem to be definitionally at odds. Precisely! That is what causes the Old Testament to be endlessly complex and problematic, endlessly interesting and compelling. The interplay of human ideology sometimes of a crass kind, of divine inspiration of a hidden kind, and of human imagination that may be God-given (or may not be) is an endlessly recurring feature of the text that appears in many different configurations. It is that interplay of the three that requires that the text must always again be interpreted; the traditioning process, for that reason, cannot ever be concluded, because the text is endlessly needful of new rendering. (A case in point is the way in which the biblical teaching on slavery appeared at a time to be “inspired,” and now can be seen to be ideology [see Haynes 2001].) It is this strange mix that is always again sorted out afresh. It is, however, always a sorting out by church interpreters and scholars who themselves are inescapable mixes of imagination, ideology, and inspiration.

The traditioning process is endless and open-ended. We can, however, make this distinction.

  1. First, there was a long process of traditioning prior to the fixing of the canon as text in normative form. Much of that process is hidden from us and beyond recovery. But we can see that in the pre-canonical traditioning process there was already a determined theological intentionality at work (J. Sanders 1976).
  2. Second, the actual formation of the canon is a point in the traditioning process that gives us “Scripture” for synagogue and for church. We do not know much about the canonizing process, except to notice that long use, including dispute over the literature, arrived at a moment of recognition: Jewish, and subsequently Christian, communities knew which books were “in” and which were not.
  3. But third, it is important to recognize that the fixing of the canon did not terminate the traditioning process. All the force of imaginative articulation and ideological passion and the hiddenness of divine inspiration have continued to operate in the ongoing interpretive task of synagogue and church until the present clay. In Judaism, that continuing traditioning process (which makes its own claims for normative authority) has taken the form of the great Talmuds, midrashic extrapolation, and ongoing rabbinic teaching.

In Christian tradition, we may see the New Testament as an immense act of interpretation of the Old Testament that itself of course became normative for the church (Moberly 1992), Beyond the New Testament, moreover, interpretation has continued both under church authority as well as in scholarly communities that regularly have had a wary relationship with church authority This ongoing interpretation has evoked interpreters who, in every generation and in every context of the church, have rearticulated faith in the intellectual categories and cultural environment where the church has lived. Thus, for example, the core claims of faith were articulated in terms of Neoplatonic Greek philosophy in the early centuries by the Apologists, in the categories of Aristotle by Thomas Aquinas, through humanistic “new learning” by the Reformers and, in our own time, in the categories of Karl Marx in the work of liberation theologians.

It is, moreover, the case that every so often the post-canonical traditioning process has come to exercise decisive control over the biblical text itself, as is variously evident in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, or Calvinist traditions. Post-canonical interpretation characteristically yields a certain casting of Scripture and thus on occasion — in the crisis of reform — the ongoing developed tradition is radically called into question by a fresh attentiveness to the canonical text.

It is in the very character of the text itself to require and generate ongoing interpretation that is itself imaginative and often laden with ideology. The very presence of “the book” in these religious communities bespeaks a kind of unsettled restlessness that characteristically “makes ancient good uncouth,” including ancient interpretation that is rendered “uncouth.” When we ask why the text requires and generates an ongoing interpretive tradition, we may first answer with David Tracy that it is in the character of a “classic” to be a durable source for new disclosures (Tracy 1981). While not from my perspective adequate, Tracy’s formulation of “classic” is immensely important and helpful, for it recognizes that the Bible participates in the properties of great literature that defies any single explanatory reading that is eventually exhausted.

Beyond the claims of “classic,” the faith claim of the church is that the Bible as the church Scripture is without parallel, for it is God-given — given to be sure through the quixotic work of human beings — as originary testimony to the truth of God’s presence in and governance of all creation. Because it is God-given, given as God characteristically gives through the hidden workings of ordinary life, the book endlessly summons, requires, demands, and surprises with fresh reading. The only way to turn the book into a fixed idol is to imagine that the final interpretation has been given, an act of imagination that is a deep act of disobedience to the lively God who indwells this text. The only way to avoid such idolatry is to know that the lively God of the text has not given any final interpretation of the book that remains resistant to our explanatory inclinations.

The traditioning process, when it is faithful, must be disciplined, critical, and informed by the best intelligence of the day. But it must be continued — and is continued — each time we meet in synagogue or church for telling and sharing, for reading and study, each time we present ourselves for new disclosure “fresh from the Word.” There are two postures that characteristically want to terminate the daring process of traditioning. On the one hand, there is a mood in the church—sometimes linked to what is called a “canonical” perspective — that judges that the “true” interpretation has already been given, and all we need to do is reiterate. On the other hand, Schleiermacher’s “Cultured Despisers of Religion” who live at the edge of the church often fail to recognize the “thickness” of the traditioning process, and take the biblical offer at surface meaning, run the matter through the prism of modern rationality, and so dismiss the tradition as inadequate. Either way — by confessional closure or by rationalistic impatience — one misses the world “strange and new” that is generously, with recurring surprise, given in the Scriptures.


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