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Fr. Kurt's Reviews: Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament (part II)
by Fr. Kurt Messick   

Last edited: Tuesday, February 11, 2003
Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2003

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A review of Walter Brueggemann's major work, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy


Please see the first part of my review

Beyond the issue of ballot-box politics or intelligence analyses, religion does not feature in much of politics today. Politicians rarely mention God, save to gain support from voters or to use the reference for other political purposes. A reference to religion is usually a reference more to ethnicity than theology. Not so with science today. Particularly in the realm of physics, science seems to be pushing toward the same questions that many religions have grappled with in the past. Many prominent physicists publish books (often more popular than scholarly) on broad philosophical and theological ideas. Rarely, though, to they address theology, except to say which past answers were wrong. However, religion is resilient. ‘Religion can probably outlive any scientific discoveries which could be made. It can accommodate itself to them.’ (Stace, TD, p. 420)

Brueggemann does not get into the quantum physics/cosmological debates much, as these are not in the testimony of Israel. However, there are hints at it, at which our unsequestered jury may wonder as they consider the character of Yahweh.

The purpose of creation is never made clear. Nor is the reason why this particular creation is made, rather than some other. ‘No reason is given for Yahweh’s unutterable act of forming an earth that is viable for life.’ (p. 528) As a largely pragmatic people, Israel was not so concerned with cosmic purposes as some other cultures of the same and future times. Brueggemann states, however, that ‘Israel’s horizon of creation is not ex nihilo. ... Rather, Yahweh so ordered the “preexistent material substratum,” which was wild, disordered, destructive, and chaotic, to make possible an ordered, reliable place of peaceableness and viability.’ (p. 529) That creation is ex nihilo or not is actually not so readily discernible from the text of the Old Testament, but Brueggemann's continues to a statement which can be accepted -- that the primary concern is not the process of creation, but rather the result of creation. For Israel, ‘...creation is not to be understood as a theory or as an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.’ (p. 533)

Whether matter and energy were created or shaped has no practical relevance to many, apart perhaps from particle physicists and theoretical cosmologists. It is the order, the shaping, the obedience of creation to the will of Yahweh that concerns a conscious creation. ‘All creation, including human creatures but not especially human creatures, are looked after, cared for, sustained, and protected by the generous guarantees that the Creator has embedded in the creation.’ (p. 530)

Science has become the domain for thinking about creation in the modern world. ‘Only nature can be treated by itself as a closed world; only natural science can abstract with unbroken consistency from everything spiritual and investigate nature purely as nature.’ (Husserl, p. 271) However, there is a crisis in science in some ways in which philosophy and theology begin to impact. The historical development of physics showed a continuing removal of God and divine forces from the patterns of nature, until suddenly it looked as if the universe does in fact need a first cause. Patterns were becoming traceable and predictable to the removable of the possibility of miracles, until a fundamental level of uncertainty began to appear. ‘Now that physicists and cosmologists have made rapid progress toward finding what they regard as the “ultimate” laws of the universe, many old questions have resurfaced. Why do the laws have the form they do? Might they have been otherwise? Where do these laws come from? Do they exist independently of the physical universe?’ (Davies, p. 73)

Thus, God can be both a divine watchmaker and one who tinkers with the mechanism without contradicting science. This fits the testimony of Israel as well, which believe ‘in the sovereign act of creation, whereby Yahweh orders chaos, Yahweh provisionally defeated the power of Nihil but did not destroy or eliminate the threat of chaos.’ (p. 534) Science has only recently rediscovered chaos. In the testimony of Israel, ‘...creation requires for its durability the special act and special solicitude of God.’ (p. 536) Without order, chaos ensues. One of the principles of explosives is the disruption of order, unleashing chaos.

Science in other forms (biology, for example) also have come to recognise the importance of order and structure. Whether or not Yahweh was the 'manufacturer' of the double helix of DNA for all creatures, or set general principles in place that guided evolution to produce the current state of creation, Yahweh is the exemplar of order that is necessary for a continuation of life, and indeed all creation. In biology the consequences of such a disruption of order is perhaps most apparent and most personally felt, through illness and death. ‘...the onslaught of negation is due to the power of death still on the loose in creation, which may at any time cause havoc. ... it is an assertion of how urgently indispensable Yahweh is to a viable life in the world.’ (p. 537)

Brueggemann speaks of Yahweh's obligation to creation, in terms binding on Yahweh. Perhaps ‘Yahweh is unable or unwilling to “go the whole way” with the termination of creation.’ (p. 544) Indeed the covenant with Noah would seem to indicate that Yahweh has decided that the termination of creation is no longer an option he is willing to consider. ‘ is this odd and unexplored relation to Noah, perhaps in righteousness, perhaps in graciousness, that leads to the restoration of blessing in a cursed earth and eventually to a promise of “everlasting covenant”...’ (p. 544)

This does not mean, however, that all things will remain in perfect order. Perhaps it is significant that the more order is discerned in the fabric of creation, the more terrifying a disordering seems to become. Each generation in creation has had to deal with its own particular threats of chaos and disorder, just as each has had to deal with its own threats to justice and mercy. ‘...There are no causes of the destabilization of creation except the will of Yahweh, who in freedom and sovereignty can indeed destabilize the world, when Yahweh’s sovereignty is excessively mocked and sufficiently provoked.’ (p. 538)

However, there seems to be a fundamental, underlying stability to the order of creation ‘Yahweh is, perhaps at great cost, resolved to maintain creation as a system of blessing, and so will not give in, even to Yahweh’s own propensity to enraged destruction.’ (p. 546) The stability of physical laws, of the underlying patterns that guide the earth, may speak to the fundamental love of God for creation more firmly than anything else. Also, would Yahweh remain Yahweh in the midst of chaos? ‘ is perhaps suggested that creation is in the very character of Yahweh.’ (p. 550) Just as creation ceases to be what it is in the absence of Yahweh -- ‘When creation is abandoned by Yahweh, it readily reverts to chaos’ -- so to may Yahweh cease to be Yahweh in the absence of creation. (p. 551) Yahweh is primarily the character he is through relationships, and chaos affords no such relationships.

Modern physics has added yet a new element of relationship which may in the long term yield fantastic results. ‘Classical physics had always removed the observer from the phenomenon observed. ... But quantum mechanics changed all that, at least on the atomic scale.’ (March, p. 224) Modern physics requires the relationship of the observed and the observer to be taken into account. All of creation is connected in inter-relationships undreamt of by previous generations. Could the same be true of creation's relationship with Yahweh, that there is a fundamental need for relationships, that all things have their being through their relationships with each other and so, ultimately, with God?

The testimony of Israel seems to lead in this direction. ‘The very future of the world, so Israel attests, depends on this resolve of Yahweh. It is a resolve that is powerful. More than that, it is a resolve that wells up precisely in tohu wabohu and permits the reality of the world to begin again, in blessedness.’ (p. 551)

Interestingly, as central as the character of Yahweh is for Israel, Israel never seems to monopolise creation (unlike some Enlightenment historians who came to the conclusion that creation/evolution was 'naturally destined' to bring them about). Creation is for the whole world.

It seems clear that Israel thinks and speaks from its own experience outward. For that reason, however, we do not conclude that Israel “cheated” in articulating creation. In the canonical formation of this testimony, it is Yahweh's sovereign fidelity with creation that provides the arena for the life of all the partners, including Israel. (p. 555)

To be sure, Yahweh maintains his rights of sovereignty. ‘The disappearance of “wild animals...birds of the of the sea” bespeaks the collapse of the entire life-producing structure of the earth. Local disobedience, here disobedience to the Decalogue, will evoke Yahweh’s enormous power of anti-creation.’ (p. 542) But Yahweh's love for creation is stronger yet than his anger at disobedience.

At the risk of sounding like e.e. cummings, conclusions are hard to draw from the text, and from Brueggemann's treatment of the text. But several nonconclusions can be drawn, the difference being that a nonconclusion has an openness which a conclusion seems to leave out.

Brueggemann is concerned that the character of Yahweh be concerned with the relationships of Yahweh to all of the potential relationship partners. ‘First, creation requires of human persons, the ones given dominion, that they practice wisdom.’ (p. 531) This wisdom can be different at different times; it can be covenantal or not, Torah-based or not, but always has an element of underlying care for justice and mercy. ‘In the future to be given by Yahweh, it is no longer possible to keep distinct the future of Israel and the future of creation...’ (p. 547) Creation seems, especially for the Christian who carries forward the Yahweh of the Old Testament into the new testament, to be an ever-broadening field for God's action. However, this is not a uniquely Christian view. Rabbis have long discussed and debated which parts of Torah and Yahwistic obligations apply to all, Jews and non-Jews, very few (if any) deciding that none are applicable outside Judaism.

While political scientists assimilate ethics and religion into their international theories (Butterfield, Murray, Wight) or theologians investigate political issues (Niebuhr), the call of justice and a presence of grace in history issues forth from the Yahweh who is concerned with justice and the activity of the great powers. (Thompson) Yahweh is generous toward creation. ‘Yahweh, however, is seen to be uncompromising in the midst of that generosity. None of the partners is finally permitted autonomy.’ (p. 556)

Brueggemann states that ‘...the Old Testament is not a metanarrative but offers the materials out of which a metanarrative is to be construe d.’ (p. 559) There is a fullness and contradictory nature in the character that issues forth from the materials, which cautions against a narrow reading or a rigid adherence to any particular set of conclusions. But the unmistakable message is that of hope, in the light of tragedy, and the assurance that some part of creation will continue, under Yahweh's justice.

By contrast, the modern world has no such underlying hope. ‘...The alternative to Israelite hope is Enlightenment despair. In such a metanarrative, when human capacity is exhausted, all is exhausted. Ultimate trust is placed in human capacity, human ingenuity, and human technology. It is self-evident that such a trust cannot deliver...’ (pp. 561-2)

Perhaps through attentiveness to Yahweh now, in the modern world, and by an exploration of the ways in which Israel was able to maintain a relationship, even in the brokenness of creation, we can recapture some of that relationship, which ‘...affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope instead of despair.’ (p. 563)


The crisis of European sciences. Edmund Husserl. 1970: Northwestern Univ. Press.

'Man against darkness.’ W.T. Stace. From Tradition and dissent. Florence Bonzer Greenberg and Anne P. Heffley, eds. 1967: Bobbs-Merrill Co.

Masters of international thought. Kenneth W. Thompson, ed. 1980: Louisiana State University.

The mind of God. Paul Davies. 1992: Simon & Schuster.

Physics for poets. Robert H. March. 1970: McGraw-Hill.

Politics and society: Studies in comparative political sociology. Eric Nordlinger, ed. 1970: Prentice-Hall.

The rise and fall of the great powers. Paul Kennedy. 1987: Vintage/Random House.

‘Theology of the old testament: A prompt retrospect.’ Walter Brueggemann. From God in the fray: A tribute to Walter Brueggemann. Tod Linafelt and Timonty K. Beal, eds. 1998: Augsburg Fortress.

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