Oppressing the Text PDF Print E-mail
Written by Toby Sumpter   
Wednesday, 10 March 2010 09:20

So there I was minding my own business and a friend recommended I take a peek at Walter Brueggemann's The Prophetic Imagination. I like prophets, and I like imaginations. What could possibly go wrong? The book tried to warn me I suppose, in its own subtle way. The dedication page was meant to be a warning flag, as Brueggemann warmly dedicates the book to all his "sisters" in ministry. I suppose he might be only referring to all the deaconesses he knows, but somehow I doubt that.

Brueggemann jumps right in, insisting that conservatives and liberals both have problems, and we need to return to the scriptures and specifically the prophetic imagination to get all straightened out. We need to re-embrace biblical tension. We need to recover a more relational theology built on the pursuit of justice and mercy and freedom without allowing the systematizers to engineer us into a well-ordered, apathetic, and impotent straight jacket. He says he wants a covenantal consciousness to have as much of a say as systematic theology. We need faithful, honest criticism of the current establishment, coupled with imaginative and inspiring hope for the future and not allow these values to be co-opted by the ever lurking bureaucrats who want to give us a make-over and market this product on late night TV. So far so good: Down with infomercials, down with quenching the Spirit, and three cheers for embracing biblical tension.

He broadly describes this antithesis, these two realities in the Mosaic Exodus, as the freedom of God triumphing over the empire of Egypt. The orderly system of the Egyptian gods is pummeled and the demons all come crashing down, one by one, all thrown down by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And Brueggemann points out that there's a kind of "orderliness" to paganism. And this is true: Down with Pharisees.

But Brueggemann fails to do his math carefully. He adds two and two and arrives at three triumphantly, holding his paper up to the teacher, and proceeds to build the rest of his book on this miscalculated sum. The misstep is in tracing the narrative from the Exodus into the kingdom era. David is OK (though iffy), but Brueggemann pounces on Solomon as the great Pharaoh of Israel. Now I have no problem criticizing Solomon. 1 Kings is not afraid to criticize Solomon, and there's plenty to lay at his feet. Solomon was in fact trying to set up an empire like the nations around him and this was a great sin. Solomon did emulate Pharaoh and tried to lead Israel back into Egypt.

The troubling thing however is that in all of the places where the Scriptures clearly designate Solomon's failures and Pharaoh-like imperialism, Brueggemann doesn't seem to notice. And if that were not annoying enough, in place of that omission, he takes it upon himself to insist upon great sins that the text is either silent on or in some cases flatly contradicts. But Breuggemann has already decided the outcome. Two and two make three, and that's all there is to it. Don't bother him with the text (he's a scholar you know).

That 1 & 2 Kings are written as a deuteronomic history is widely recognized. There is definitely a Mosaic critique of the downhill slide of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah wound through the text. So when Deuteronomy says that kings must not multiply women, horses, and gold (Dt. 17:14-20), it doesn't take a biblical scholar to read the first twelve chapters of 1 Kings and get that "uh-oh" feeling. And the author intends that. Solomon seems sympathetic at first. He knows he needs wisdom, he knows he needs the blessing of God, but one mountain top experience and a stunning performance with a couple of prostitutes and a baby isn't enough to guarantee success. Brueggemann certainly comes close when he identifies wealth as a problem, but the reason he says that this is bad is because this necessarily implies "social oppression." The problem with a vague objection like this is that the author of 1 Kings initially presents Solomon’s great wealth as a great blessing, not an automatic curse (1 Kgs. 4:20, 25). By the time of Rehoboam there is certainly great oppression (1 Kgs. 12:13-14), but Brueggemann's analysis is too simplistic. It happens that Moses actually predicted that God would grant Israel great wealth as a reward for their obedience to the Torah (Dt. 7:12ff). Moses said the God would bless Israel with wealth and riches. Of course, he also sternly warned against a misappropriation of that wealth (Dt. 8:11ff). But this is all too complicated, too nuanced to fit with the program Brueggemann is advancing.

Again, there are definitely some reasonable observations tucked away in a few spots of the book. Pushing the analogies between Pharaoh and Solomon is quite helpful. Moses explicitly says that the king who multiplies horses is causing Israel to return to Egypt. Fantastic. But why doesn’t Bruggemann ever cite Deuteronomy 17? The most explicit list of Solomon’s sins is found in a verse of the Bible, and yet it does not show up. Not once. Or if we’re looking for parallelism in the text, why not also notice the similarities between Moses and Solomon, particularly the fact that they both oversaw the construction of God's house in obedience to God’s command? No, we can’t talk about that; that would undermine Bruggemann’s project. And so it is overwhelmingly painful to read a work of biblical theology that purports to be based on the text that ignores so much of the text. That Solomon is unpassionate and anti-covenantal seems almost ludicrous. That Solomon breaks covenant is obvious, but that the author of Song of Songs is dispassionate? The author of Proverbs is not concerned with justice or covenant keeping at all? That the temple is a ruse concocted by Solomon to tame the people of God into submission to harsh and oppressive economic and social policies is absolutely laughable. What does Brueggemann make of the fact that God is the one who tells Solomon to build the temple? And the fact that Solomon prays in faith, expecting that God will hear His people and meet with them in the temple is not a PR stunt if God is the one who promised to dwell with His people. I don’t really know what Brueggemann means by “covenant” if it doesn’t mean God’s promise to be the God of Israel and dwell with His people.

In fact, what Brueggemann calls political maneuvering to silence opposition through a unified cult in the temple, I'd call straightforward covenant keeping and covenant community, an imperfect, of course, but legitimate and faithful attempt at some level. Solomon was a human, and sinful motives could have been wound through various acts of obedience. But the fact that these were acts of obedience is not completely undermined by human failures. The other problem is that the very idea of a place of worship, where God would meet with His people, hear their prayers, and forgive their sins began with Moses. You know that idyllic community of poverty and equality and justice? The one with the tabernacle constructed at the center, where Yahweh met with His people? I can only imagine (with my prophetic imagination) that Brueggemann probably sees that as a later redaction, an attempt to justify the empire by royalist sympathizer scribes.

Later, he distinguishes again between this Mosaic or prophetic point of view and the Egyptian/imperial point of view. He insists in the face of piles of evidence to the contrary that the prophetic consciousness is typified by imagination, creativity, and poetry while the imperial consciousness is all about uniformity, standardization, and law, intent on holding the status quo. Without denying everything he says, this is still problematic since most of the poetry we have in the Bible is written by kings and the law is from Moses. But maybe Breuggemann hasn't gotten that far in his Bible in a Year program.

Biblically speaking, "wisdom" is actually a kind of creative skill, an artistic imagination. And the Spirit is poured out for the first time in all of human history on the artisans that oversee the construction of the tabernacle. Later, the same wisdom is poured out on Solomon to oversee the design and construction of the Temple. In both cases, the Spirit comes rushing down in childlike glee at the completions of these houses of God (Ex. 40:34-38, 1 Kgs. 8:10-11). Of course Brueggemann knows better. This can't be true. Kings are stodgy rationalists. Bureaucrats only think in ones and zeros, taking orders from special interest groups. The Spirit would not allow Himself to be tamed in the rigid confines of an organized state religion. Marx taught us better than that.

The irony is that the very sort of rigid, formulaic structure and system Brueggemann so deplores in the "empires," he employs in his own way. He has a preconceived notion about what kings and kingdoms are like, and when the facts don't seem to fit, he makes them fit, he forces them into the "mold," into the program he has outlined for them. Brueggemann knows where the Spirit belongs and where He doesn't belong (so much for the freedom of God). And that really is the deep irony of it all. In the name of resisting empire and tyranny and suppression, Brueggemann forces his program, like a professional imperialist, and picks and chooses the texts, suppressing all the protesting voices in the text in an impressive feat of what one might call exegetical fascism.

Bottom of all these criticisms is a fundamental hunch that Brueggemann doesn't hold to a very high view of Scripture. He wants to be biblical; perhaps he's even trying really hard to be "conservative" in his reading. He begins the book laying out the failures of both liberals and conservatives and says he aims to correct errors on both sides. All well and good. But the choose-your-own-adventure Bible is ultimately an act of cowardice and behind the cowardice is a violent lust for power. Lots of heroic rhetoric, magic words like freedom and justice and mercy, and when we finally come charging up the mountain, and we open our Bibles, he's not really interested. Let's not bother with the text as it was written and handed down to us, he seems to say, let's start with what we already know. Or at least, here, let me tell you what we all learned from that faithful prophet of God, Karl Marx. But this results in a text that has been raped and pillaged, and so the tyranny begins, all in the name of freedom and justice.

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