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Old Testament Theology

Old Testament Theology

by Walter Brueggemann

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In this first volume in the Library of Biblical Theology series, Walter Brueggemann portrays the key components in Israel's encounter with God as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Creation, election, Torah, the divine hand in history; these and other theological high points appear both in their original historical context, and their ongoing relevance for contemporary


In this first volume in the Library of Biblical Theology series, Walter Brueggemann portrays the key components in Israel's encounter with God as recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Creation, election, Torah, the divine hand in history; these and other theological high points appear both in their original historical context, and their ongoing relevance for contemporary Jewish and Christian self-understanding.

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Abingdon Press
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Old Testament Theology

An Introduction
By Walter Brueggemann

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-687-34090-3

Chapter One


The aim and task of Library of Biblical Theology series is to offer a coherent, wholistic presentation of the faith claims of the canonical text in a way that satisfies the investigations of historical-critical scholarship and the confessional-interpretive needs of ongoing ecclesial communities. That same aim and task of course pertain to a subset of biblical theology: Old Testament theology or, alternatively, theology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the subject of this present volume. From the rich ferment of recent and current study of Old Testament theology, it is evident (a) that there are many alternative legitimate ways of enacting such an aim and task, (b) that there is no one single right way to perform such a task to the exclusion of other presentations, even if a particular perspective receives passionate and high-minded advocacy, and (c) that in order to offer such articulation, one must adopt an interpretive perspective that has some particularity to it. It is not possible, so present study would evidence, to proceed in a given way without some antecedent interpretive perspective. Thus it is proper that we begin with a recognition on some viable alternatives that have claimed some significant adherence.

We may identify three general variables that are characteristically present in efforts at Old Testament theology. First, it is clear that the Old Testament did not originate in a historical-cultural vacuum, but was formed fully within the matrix of ancient Near Eastern culture and history. The archaeological gains of the past 200 years have given scholarship what seems to be a reliable sense of that culture and history that in large sweep consisted in a series of empires to the north of the land of Israel that rose and fell through various political encounters and military ambitions. To the south, the several dynasties of Egypt maintained a coherence and stability that anchored the southern end of the Fertile Crescent. The land of Israel that primally concerns the Old Testament is endlessly an arena of contestation between Egyptian power in the south and the sporadic imperial ambitions of the powers in the north. In the Old Testament period, this latter concerned the sequence of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires, culminating at the end of the Old Testament period with the conquest of Alexander and the cultural domination of Hellenism.

It is clear, moreover, that these significant political-cultural establishments over the many centuries were not simply concentrations of power; they were, at the same time, of necessity, centers of artistic and cultural reflection, for human communities are inescapably symbol-constructing and symbol-practicing enterprises. As a consequence, the cultural-liturgical legacy of these centers of power and meaning produced an important and abidingly influential literature. In addition to a legacy of law and wisdom, the great political centers were also the great liturgical centers that generated, practiced, and preserved great liturgies through which the ruling regime was made legitimate and, derivatively, through which the world was made safe. Such liturgies that are at the same time theologically serious and politically interested regularly celebrated the ruling God as creator and preserver of the world, and the ruling king (dynasty) as the proximate regent and shepherd of the realm.

A specific subset of this general liturgic-mythic practice that pertains especially to the Old Testament is the Canaanite religion evidenced by the ancient library at Ugarit (Ras Shamra) that details the liturgic-mythic practice of religion of Israel's closest neighbors whereby, Baal, the God of generativity, presides over the well-being of the agricultural economy (Hosea 2).

This liturgic material is now reasonably well known. There is no doubt that in context the practice of such liturgic generativity was taken with great seriousness. There is also no doubt that over time, the community that produced the Old Testament appropriated much of this common material and made use of it in its liturgic practice and in its theological self-understanding. The issue for Old Testament theology is the question of the extent to which Israel appropriated such material, the extent to which it radically transformed the material, and the extent to which it rejected the material that it found inimical to its own theological commitments. The answer to these questions determines the extent to which the Old Testament reflects common theology that was generic in the ancient Near East and the extent to which Israel's faith is distinctive and without parallel in its cultural environment. The issue admits of no single, one-dimensional answer, because it is clear that appropriation, transformation, and rejection were all strategic possibilities in any given point in the theological articulation of Israel. This cultural-liturgical reality amounts to a crucial issue for Old Testament theology, because it concerns what is definitive in Old Testament faith, that is, what are the core claims that characterize the God of Israel and Israel as the people of that God. Over the stretch of the twentieth century—largely due to the confessing situation of the church in Germany and the decisive influence of Karl Barth mediated through Gerhard von Rad and G. Ernest Wright—Old Testament theology placed the accent characteristically upon Israel's distinctiveness, and so emphasized the contrast between the faith of Israel and the religious claims of its cultural environment. Since the 1970s however, much of Old Testament scholarship has retreated from the boldest claims of theological distinctiveness and has more or less accepted that Israel's faith is best understood in close relation to that cultural-religious environment. It is evident, moreover, that one might acknowledge decisive accent points in Israel's faith, that is, God as Creator, and nonetheless recognize in such a theological theme a common theological heritage that is widely shared in the ancient Near East.

Second, Old Testament theology, in the mainstream of modern Western critical scholarship, must take into account the critical tradition of scholarship, for decisions about the date, context, and sequence of the literature will be important for theological interpretation. Whereas much theological interpretation tends to disregard these critical matters and treat the material as an undifferentiated mass, scholars within the field of Old Testament study cannot disregard these differentiations but characteristically proceed on the assumption that the date and context of a piece of literature will inescapably reflect the interpretive interests of that time and place. For that reason, it has been a primary task of critical study to locate and situate distinct pieces of literature, in the conviction that the text characteristically reflects not the situation reported in the text, but the situation of the reporting tradition.

In taking up the critical tradition that is indispensable for theological interpretation, we may begin with the older critical consensus that goes under the label of Wellhausianism. This consensus was reached over two centuries of scholarship that was largely German and Protestant, and was given its normative articulation by Julius Wellhausen. This consensus, known as the documentary hypothesis, proposed a series of redactions (editions) of the narrative and legal material of the Pentateuch that stretched from the early days of the monarchy to the exile. While that literary analysis is now critiqued and refined, the distinction of layers of literary material in the text continues to be a widely held assumption of critical scholars. But the hypothesis of Wellhausen is not concerned primarily with a sequence of literary redactions, even though such layers of traditions are readily acknowledged. Rather the important matter that is attached to the theory of literary editions was a hypothesis about the course of Israelite religion, so that the "early sources" were correlated with primitive religion, middle range sources with ethical monotheism, and later sources with punctilious legalism. That is, the hypothesis about the history of the literature was pressed into the service of a history of religion. While scholarship continues to practice some form of source analysis, the theory of the evolutionary development of Israelite religion in a unilinear fashion is now largely rejected. There is no doubt that this nineteenth-century hypothesis was deeply influenced by evolutionary categories of interpretation rooted in Hegel and maximized by Darwin. It is now clear that Israel's faith did not develop in such a unilinear way, but was in every setting of its life, complex and pluriform in practice and in expression. While acknowledging this critique of the hypothesis, it is fair to say that the most elemental assumptions of Israel's religious history in the hypothesis continue to hold great sway among scholars, even though the assumptions have been shown to be imposed upon the material in a most inappropriate way. That is, there is still a widespread assumption of the move from primitive to ethical to legalistic. Aside from the specificity of the hypothesis, the crucial learning is that the fundamental assumptions of the interpreter that may lie beneath any critical judgment that is decisive for interpretive outcomes.

It is now clear that the documentary hypothesis, of course including a hypothesis concerning the history of Israelite religion, was not an innocent scholarly matter, as our hypotheses characteristically are not innocent. This is true even though scholars in the rising modern period no doubt proceeded in what they took to be an objective manner. It is evident that the hypothesis has a distinct Christian bias with an inchoate super-sessionism implied, for the evolutionary dynamism of the hypothesis assumed that Israelite religion would keep moving until it "arrived" at a "better" faith, in the instant, Christian faith. Thus, taken at its worst, the hypothesis had an anti-Jewish tilt; for what was readily labeled as belated priestly legalism constituted what in fact was the funding of Judaism, albeit portrayed in Christian usage in a caricature. It is the case that this scholarship was largely the work of German Protestants who had a vigorous bias against cultic discipline and practice, and a great bias for ethical concerns. This bias, positively and negatively, permitted a less than critical, less than self-aware hypothesis that has dominated scholarship. The problem in critiquing the hypothesis has been to value the discernment of literary layers in the tradition, without attaching to those several layers stages in Israel's religious history.

The truth of the hypothesis is that the tradition of Israel's faith that became the Old Testament is complex, multilayered, and multivoiced; that it has a dynamism that is intrinsic to the substance of faith; that that dynamism moreover changes over time and through circumstance, and each such fresh articulation in a new circumstance, while rooted in what is remembered and treasured as normative, creates something of a theological novum. The attempt to order that dynamism and to identify the layers of that dynamism—the work of the dominant hypothesis—is hazardous indeed; but it is also an inescapable effort. Thus we are left, as theological interpreters, with the residue of that erstwhile critical consensus. The hypothesis has been committed to a certain notion of evolutionary dynamism, but it is important to recognize that the developmental dynamism, voiced in the hypothesis has enough of truth in it to have given credence to the hypothesis over a long period of time. Alongside that credence, however, the hypothesis has conveniently served a propensity to explain away whatever is found to be objectionable in the tradition as superseded by what comes later.

By the 1970s, the consensus hypothesis of Wellhausianism began to collapse; by the turn of the century, the primary attention given to the hypothesis is by precritical scholars who continue to assault the hypothesis even though it now has few advocates. The collapse of the hypothesis was produced by a variety of factors and forces, but in general was a subset of the general collapse of the dominant paradigm of the West that featured the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Paris student revolt, and the rise of a liberation consciousness that refused dominant paradigms of power and truth. In Old Testament studies, the key factor has been a widespread loss of confidence in the older claims made for archaeology as having a capacity to connect, in some detail, text and alleged context. The earlier work of John Van Seters and Thomas Thompson, followed by the so-called minimalists, has made a strong case, in part embraced even by William Dever, that the claims made for the historicity of events and therefore the historicity of a context for the literature cannot be demonstrated, or in some measure even made credible. The effect of this scholarly judgment that is now widely shared—though not unanimously—is to suggest that the early history of Israel is a quite belated memory (invention, fabrication) and not reportage. The critical conclusion that the ancestral narratives in Genesis are not historical has been followed by a widely shared critical judgment that the events of the thirteenth–eleventh centuries (Moses, Joshua, Samuel) are not historical, and the existence of David and Solomon is now widely contested. More radical critics, drawn to more negative critical judgments, raise issues about the historicity of Hezekiah and Josiah, so that clear historical ground for what the Bible asserts is at the earliest, for the most radical judgments, in the sixth or even fifth centuries.

The effect of this loss of confidence in historical reportage is the capacity to make the judgment that the several traditions concerning the "early period" of Israel's biblical history are ideological constructs that are precisely designed to fund the faith of the later community in the sixth or fifth century. And what was taken as religious development over the centuries is now best viewed as side-by-side renditions of faith that evidence profound and ongoing contestation about the character of God, the nature of faith, and the identity of Israel.

The critical matters in Old Testament scholarship that surround Old Testament theology are now deeply contested and unsettled. The influence of the old hypothesis persists because it did, in its own interpretive context, make a coherent sense of the text available. But whatever persists now about that hypothesis makes its way in a new situation in which historical claims are deeply problematic. As a consequence, the older phrase, "God acts in history," is problematic as it is now is to be taken as a confessional (or an ideological) statement that for the most part is seen to be constructive and not reportage. It is clear that such constructive confessionalism was multisided in ancient Israel and certainly in the period of emerging Judaism that Christians have long preferred to view in a simplistic reductionism. These continuing and unsettling critical problems of course concern Old Testament scholars more than they do other biblical interpreters. But other biblical interpreters as well, including theologians, cannot, in present circumstance, proceed without reference to these problems. As I shall indicate below, the conviction that what was taken as historical reportage in some sense constructed still leaves open important interpretive possibilities, notably that the text is constituted as a canonical claim with immense normative authority or that it is an ideological claim with a self-serving agenda barely concealed in the formation and transmission of the tradition. If we were to agree, as the minimalists now claim, that the formative work on the tradition was to serve the community that emerged from the deportation in the sixth and fifth centuries, this makes historical critical work no less urgent. Only now that critical work is not to hypothesize about the long development of religious tradition, but to focus on the more specific context of the post-deportation Judaism to try to learn the meaning of the contestation that is reflected in the complexity of the text. Old Testament theology, even in such a context, still depends upon historical-critical judgments that we make as best we can. It is the case, I suspect, that historical critical judgments operate either openly or covertly, even among those who seek to bracket out such vexed questions.


Excerpted from Old Testament Theology by Walter Brueggemann Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. A past president of the Society of Biblical Literature, he is one of today's preeminent interpreters of Scripture.

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