Though this may be the best of Walter Brueggemann’s many books, it is not a work for the faint of heart. Brueggemann’s prose sometimes seems to overtake his meaning. One wonders at times-Brueggemann himself might say-whether there is a surfeit of meaning in this text that eludes immediate penetration, or simply a surplus of words.
At least that’s how I often feel upon first reading. A virtue of Brueggemann’s work is that it invites one back for a second reading and even more. This, I find, is often the moment when one’s efforts to capture his line of thought pay off. Because there is a notable homiletic note in much of Brueggemann’s prose, he proclaims more often than he explains. The most important observation I can make for a first-time reader of Brueggemann is that one needs to count on reading him more than once.
Always, the gems that Brueggemann scatters across the terrain are well worth the labor. His assays in search of the reflection Israel has applied to her sacred texts demonstrate his commitment to the Bible as theological material. One rarely departs a chapter empty-handed, though one sometimes leaves exhausted.
An extended preface to the second edition (pp. xi – xxiii) establishes an apologia for what the author considers his methodological naiveté in the first edition. Brueggemann provides a useful sketch of the state of Old Testament theology when he first wrote on the land. Perhaps his most important observation was that the discipline had only recently begun to turn from the `mighty acts of God’ pattern of thought often associated with G. Ernest Wright, Harvard’s late and eminent Old Testament scholar. A recognition that this intellectual movement—characterized by a search for Israel’s distinctives—sometimes played upon false antitheses (myth/history, space/time) was making it possible for scholars to recover the biblical motif of creation and, so, for Brueggemann to speak about the biblical theme of land, even if in not so sophisticated a fashion as he believes is possible some years hence.
Brueggemann finds in the land a central organizing motif for Old Testament theology, offering as it does the chance to move beyond existentialist interpretation-individual decisions are important but too, well, individual-and those interpretations abbreviated by the label `mighty acts of God’ (`Land as Promise and as Problem’, pp. 1-13). The latter notice a serious biblical concern, but fail to take into account the concrete longing for place and the power to hold on to it that runs through the biblical witness. We meet Israel in its wanderings in and out of land. This people certainly knows land as a promise, for it is so often without it. It also knows the problem of keeping it-by purity rather than by power, in Brueggemann’s construction-during its monarchic time as a landed nation. In this first of a dozen chapters, Brueggemann makes an important distinction between space and place. Space is essentially empty and often refers to the liberties that allow one to create for oneself an identity with maximum liberties. By contrast, place is storied space. It is intensively concrete, social, and shot through with remembered events and people.
Brueggemann’s second chapter (`To the Land I Will Show You’, pp. 15-25) finds in Genesis two stories about land in contraposition: chs 1-11, people `fully rooted in land living towards expulsion and loss of land’ and chs 12-50, Abraham and his family `not having land but being on the way toward it and living in confident expectation of it’. The hinge is the well-known word of promise at 12.1.
`You Lacked Nothing’ (ch. 3, pp. 27-41) is in my judgment the book’s finest chapter. Brueggemann sees that `wilderness is the historical form of chaos’ His exploration of Israel’s well-processes memory of the wilderness landedness must be quoted: `His glory is known, his presence discerned, and his sovereignty acknowledged in his capacity to transform this situation from emptiness to satiation, from death to life, from hunger to bread and meat. He acted decisively to make for landless Israel an environment as rich and nourishing as a landed people had ever known. Yahweh is transformer of situations. The surprise is that landlessness can become nourishing.’ Those charged with teaching or preaching Israel’s Scripture will linger with profit over this chapter, which achieves an almost throbbing density as it explores two Torah texts of wilderness remembrance, of scarcity and provision when there is no land to be held.
In `Reflections at the Boundary’ (ch. 4, pp. 43-65), Brueggemann takes up the listening pause at the boundary (in history and symbol, the river Jordan). At that moment—the tradition communicates it to us in the book of Deuteronomy—Israel is reminded that she lives by grace and that the gift of enlandment that she is about to receive is also just that: a gift. As she was satisfied in the desert, though precariously, now Israel must undergo a radical identify shift as she becomes the possessor of a land that is capable of satisfying in sturdier, more calculable ways.
In this context, Brueggemann can affirm what a prior generation of Old Testament scholars would have considered outlandish: that Yahweh, too, is a fertility god. He is not only that, but he is that as he promises that Israel’s satiety in the new land will endure the seasons and cycles of nature if she remains obedient to its giver. Israel is reminded that she will manage the land as temptation only if she employs her sole resource of memory. The land is also a responsibility, for it can be kept only by keeping Torah in it. Finally, the land is a threat because there are always Canaanites in it.
Brueggemann does not like kings. His writing becomes most acidic when speaking of kings and the things kings do, perhaps because his is acutely conscious of how badly royal misbehavior wastes Israel’s promise. In `One from among Your Brethren’ (ch. 5, pp. 67-85), the author explores the different kind of land management-different, that is, in contrast to `the nations’-that was to take place under the kingly successors to the rather idiosyncratic judges that `governed’ Israel’s premonarchical league. Speaking of Deuteronomy’s reluctant (?) profile of future kings, Brueggemann is poignant and insightful: `The contrast is clear and sharp: a brother, not a foreigner. The issue is not pure blood or tribal connection but that the land must be managed by someone nurtured in the understandings and memories of Israel. If the land is not to be wrongly handled, the king must remember barrenness and birth, slavery and freedom, hunger and manna, and above all the speeches at the boundary.’ Solomon, who appears not to have remembered very well, is (again!) Brueggemann’s arch-villain, having removed by all available royal prerogatives the `if’ of obedience from the charter of kings.
Ch. 6 (`Because Your Forgot Me’, pp. 85-100) stresses the urgent complementarity of prophets and kings. The prophet accompanies kings as a component part of the insistence that Israel’s kings should not rule as the monarchs of other nations do. Prophets enforce, or at least press the claims for, Torah obedience by kings who must manage land and all its trappings. Brueggemann concedes too much to his own enthusiasm for the subject when he claims that the `language of resurrection is used’ to announce the rise of prophets and prophecy, but his interlocking of prophecy and monarchy seems to this reviewer to be spot on.
Torah and prophet are the king’s only hope to ward off amnesia. But kings forget, and divorce comes. Here, at least, Yahwistic religion is not like the cyclical rhythm of fertility cults. With Yahweh, divorce can occur and it does.
Brueggemann’s language in chapter 7 (`The Push Toward Landlessness-and Beyond’, pp. 101-122) is powerful enough momentarily to evoke in the reader the terror of a king who needs to deal with the next crisis when he finds himself faced down by a prophet who has the time-or perhaps in biblical terms, the calling-to `think unthinkable thoughts and speak unspeakable words’ about the `drift and destiny of the community’. Jeremiah is the most poignant of land-poets, arguing-in vain, in the short term-for an alternative model of kingship, approximated by Josiah, that requires a `Mosaic effort at Davidic power’.
After exile becomes a fact, `Jeremiah announces the central scandal of the Bible, that radical loss and discontinuity do happen and are the source of real newness.’ That few people might intuit that such is the Bible’s `central scandal’ is in part what makes Brueggemann a compelling biblical theologian as well as an able exegete. He has a nose for subterranean tectonic plates. A little later, this: `The Bible never denies that there is landlessness or that it is deathly. But it rejects every suggestion that landlessness is finally the will of Yahweh. Exiles, like the old sojourners, live in this hope and for this plan that outdistances all reasonable hypotheses about history.’
In chapter eight (`None to Comfort’, pp. 123-141), the author listens in as the likes of Jeremiah confront his self-deceived contemporaries about the radical discontinuities of Israel’s `second story’: the journey from life with the land to existence without it. A flood of literature pours out of this second history as Israel copes with the `no of God’ (cf. Lamentations) and gropes toward life by Yahweh’s promise rather than by a possessed land. Then Ezekiel’s roughish language dares to speak of an exiled God (banished with his Israel) and then of a Joshua-like conquest (again, God with his Israel) of a recovered land. Alongside these thickly interpretive voices, that of the Priestly writers is also heard: `not just the action of desperate people collecting historical data. It is an artistic statement designed to give a sense of serenity, order, and coherence. It is constructed with remarkable intentionality.’ Thus does Brueggemann rescue P from the appearance of mere antiquarian interests, a salvaging that profoundly needs the attention of 21st-century readers separated from such literature by a very wide chasm of tastes, preferences, and deftness with the protean language of symbol. Finally, the author surveys Second Isaiah’s convergence of traditions in the interest of land-rescue.
It must require enormous discipline for Brueggemann’s to domesticate his quasi-liberal (the quasi is extremely important) instincts sufficiently to discover sympathy for Ezra and Nehemiah (chapter nine ‘Jealous for Jerusalem”, pp. 143-156). That he does so is to his credit, for he can see the dangerously ‘careful’ and covenant-constructing work of these reformers and land-recoverers as something other than shallow legalism: ‘It is not our intent to confine the reconstruction under Ezra to a concern for the land. However, such a consideration invites us to understand the movement in a fresh way. The work of Ezra is often seen as a legalistic cultic sectarianism, and no doubt it has that dimension. But the data can be differently understood if we consider the powerful memory of land-loss through syncretism and the passion for covenant as a way to survive in history.’ With Solomon and Ahab’s internationalistic syncretism as a precedent for land-loss, it is not difficult to understand why an Ezra might have risked a kind of social tyranny in order to avoid that ‘other” extreme.
In this chapter, the author adeptly helps his reader understand why Hellenism-as a distinct type of a universalism not so distant from what today we call ‘globalization’-might have represented an insidious threat not so much to Judaism per se as to a kind of Ezra-shaped Judaism that saw in Hellenistic values the seeds of a particularistic Judaism’s demise. As an extreme reaction, Apocalyptic would return the most particularist and radical strains of Judaism, sick beyond limits with ‘world-weariness’ (P. Hanson’s term, quoted here by Brueggemann). Thus, whether Jerusalem was experienced as possession or hope, emerged a particular and not very persuadable jealousy for Zion.
Brueggemann ventures some daring polarities in chapter ten (`Blessed are the Meek’, pp. 157-172), beginning by seeing the `movement around Jesus’ as an alternative to the dominant `scribalism’ of the Judaism of his time. Further, `grasping with courage’ is counterpoised to `waiting in confidence for the gift’, a binomial that the author uses to envisage Jesus’ message as a kind of return by the dispossessed to a species of landedness. What is more, the Western Wall and Masada stand in for opposite modern Israeli stances, with some lamentation of Masada’s role in what Brueggemann sees as that nation’s unwarranted militarism.
Even Jesus’ crucifixion is brought into the orbit of this motif, it being a landlessness par excellence. If Brueggemann outpaces his texts here, it must be conceded that he has at least cast a helpful light on the fact of land concerns in the New Testament, even as he wrestles with the complexities they inevitably present.
In chapter eleven (‘Land: Fertility and Justice’, pp. 173-196), Brueggemann turns to the nature of humankind as an earthly and covenant-keeping creature, playing on the well-known ‘adam/’adamah relationship. He finds implications in several directions: ‘The mystery of an adequate relationship with a woman (which we do not often realize) is to hold so loyally as to preclude promiscuity, but to hold so freely as to respect her rights. It is the same with the land. They mystery of faithfulness is to hold the land loyally so as not to reduce it to a commodity, but to hold so freely as to honor its rights as partner and not as possession’.
The author finds the American economic context as a large violation of this principle of covenant-keeping landholding. Some of Brueggemann’s deliberations in this respect are properly thought-provoking, though few of them approach the kinds of socio-economic hardheadedness that might produce a workable alternative. Such is the paradox of this man’s writing: he is at his most helpful when he is not concrete, for seminality is the stuff of his prose. Yet just here is he at his most frustrating, for it is not clear that he is competent at moving from critique to proposal. This is far from a fatal flaw, but it is a limitation that frequent returnees to Brueggemann’s work—like this reviewer—must come eventually to appreciate and to embrace with the requisite sympathy. Though Brueggemann brings to social critique a profoundly theological voice, he prefers ‘inversion’ where ‘reshaping’ might have been achievable. Yahweh is, for him, a socialist in a world where socialisms have manifestly not proven to be exemplary providers of opportunity or functionally covenantal society. One must wonder whether the kinds of oppressive management that Brueggemann decries are more often features of command (by whomever) economies or of those driven by the myriad individual, family, and otherwise collective decisions that we abbreviate as ‘the market’. History, it seems to me, places the burden of proof upon those who support the other, particularly on those who do so without having lived in one of them.
Economic calculation is, for Brueggemann, a chief among sins rather than a productive feature of worldly stewardship. Yet those whose preferences—or, dare we say, calculations—run in more market-oriented directions ought not to do without Brueggemann’s covenantal critique of their social vision. Capitalism with no soul, it has sometimes been observed, is a dark and empty promise. Brueggemann knows this, even if he must in the end stand with the rest of us who know little.
Characteristically, Brueggemann’s wrap-ups leave one hungry for more. ‘Concluding Hermeneutical Reflections’ (pp. 197-208) keeps the pace. It is difficult to explain the academy’s lack of attention to the concept of land in the biblical literature, though the intellectual history of a culture that has for some time accelerated in the direction of the individual accumulates some mileage towards providing an answer. By any account, Walter Brueggemann has moved us closer to a remedy for that deficiency, stating-with his characteristic risk of overstatement-that the land may well be the Bible’s most central concept. Even if he is wrong, the decision to read this peerless contribution to biblical theology is bound to be right.