Old Testament Theology: An Introduction

  • Walter Brueggemann
  • Mar 16, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Brueggemann, Walter.  Old Testament Theology: An Introduction.  Library of Biblical Theology.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2008.  viii + 433 pages.  Paperback, $34.00.  ISBN 13: 978-0-687-34090-3.

Bruggemann here attempts to summarize the major themes of Old Testament theology for one beginning study in the field.  In so doing he seeks to respect both the academic world of historical critical scholarship and the ecclesiastical world of faith confession and interpretation.  This study interacts with the cultural environment behind the Old Testament and remains sensitive to the degree to which it appropriated, transformed, or rejected that material.  If the mid-twentieth century emphasized how Israel rejected its environment, then the last forty years have considered how much Israel’s faith was part of that context.  Brueggemann also seeks to espouse the “critical consensus.”  This is apparently characterized by a view that the biblical texts are written much later than the events they purport to describe.  Thus the existence of David is contested and there is nothing historical in the text up to the seventh century B.C.  This ignores the ninth century B.C. Tel Dan stele that mentions the “house of David” and the 925 B.C. invasion of Shishak (shortly after the death of Solomon) that is clearly attested in the Bible (1 Kings 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:2-9) and in contemporary Egyptian inscriptions.  But for Brueggemann, God’s acts in history are an ideological confession, not one based on any sort of eyewitness account.  Indeed, the question of revelation becomes crucial for the author as he seeks to provide a means to appropriate a text with strong, explicit, and repeated claims to having been authored by Yahweh and yet to fundamentally ignore the impact of these faith statements, as critical scholarship does. 

A final dynamic that Brueggemann identifies in his work is that of the orientation of Old Testament theology.  Historically, this has been a German Protestant male oriented task.  However, Judaism in particular has challenged this direction and sought to engage in the methods of Old Testament theology.  Further, in a post-critical reaction against these modern methods, James Sanders and especially Brevard Childs separately identify canonical criticism as a means to reflect on the meaning in the final form of the text and to follow the rule of faith and “plain meaning” of the text.  All this represents the work of Childs which Brueggemann rejects as too much evidence of artificial imposition. 

For his paradigmatic example of an account of faith in the Old Testament, Brueggemann chooses God’s three encounters with Moses in Exodus (chapters 3-4, 19-24, and 32-34).  In the first encounter God’s fearful and ominous presence contrasts with Moses’ need to respond in a submissive manner.  Yet this does not preclude the strongly dialogical nature of Old Testament theology that Brueggemann repeatedly emphasizes.  This is found in the objections of Moses and in the responses of God.  God’s presence is promised although how this will happen and what the result will be remain unstated.  God’s personal name, Yahweh, appears to refer to his (although Brueggemann would never use the masculine pronoun to reference God, unlike the Bible) freedom to become and act.  In this case, God hears prayers and responds to them with words (followed by deeds) of promise and release.  Other objections touch on God’s power: to overcome the “imperial slavery,” to enable Moses to speak, and to appoint Aaron to assist him.  Brueggemann makes the link between God as creator and redeemer with an important emphasis on divine holiness and self-glorification and yet also full engagement in the world.  God responds to human need with wonders that save and deliver Israel, and from this derives the praise of his people.  In the midst of this is the picture of God as “fully embodied.”  In contrast to modern spiritualities God appears here and through the Bible as unseen but no less corporeal.  In this Brueggemann rejects the old theological option of anthropomorphism in favor of a divine spirituality that goes beyond the physical without renouncing it. 

Exodus 19-24 moves us beyond “personal summons to communal formation.”  Here Israel experiences first the awesome presence of God that provides for the direct revelation of the Ten Commandments.  These emphasize both the absolute holiness of God who is Israel’s new sovereign and the need for an order of life in a set of community ethics.  Such direct demands to Israel leave the nation fearful so that it calls on Moses to function as mediator from that time forward.  Such mediation forms a symbol of the ongoing tradition of interpretation of God’s Word that takes place in later generations.  It represents that to which the people are called to swear loyalty to God. 

The last scene in this collection, that of Moses and Yahweh after Israel’s sin with the gold calf, provides an amazing example of the manner in which Moses appears to provide a “curb” to God’s anger and his threatened destruction of Israel.  Although Moses himself will become angry when he learns of the details of Israel’s sin, he serves to mediate mercy for the people by engaging God in dialogue and thus preventing the unleashing of destructive forces of anger against the people at the base of the mountain.  Yahweh’s new initiative, the production of another set of covenantal tablets, serves to underscore one of the key descriptions of his character in Exodus 34:6-7.  With terms such as compassion, grace, patience, covenant love (hesed), and faithfulness, God demonstrates that these qualities will ultimately win out over the judgment that is also part of his character.  Thus grace lies beyond judgment in the story of the broken tablets of the covenant that are now renewed.  This theme of brokenness followed by divine restoration becomes a dominant pattern through the history of God’s actions with his people in the Old Testament. 

Brueggemann turns to consider the nature of God as sovereign.  He is sovereign over creation as it belongs to him.  He is sovereign over all kingdoms and empires, including Israel but also all its enemies and other nations.  His sovereignty cannot be thwarted by human pride or other self-interested aggression.  God is sovereign in a manner that allows him to create what Brueggemann calls “new futures of well being.”  Thus Israel is called as God’s “treasured possession.”  They are chosen as his people but also expected to respond in loyal obedience to the covenant.  On the other hand, the future will be a time when other nations will also be chosen for God’s favor (Isaiah 19:24-25) in addition to Israel.  This both confutes attempts to define a religious monopoly but also demonstrates how Yahweh uses his sovereignty for the purpose of relationship with his people. 

Brueggemann considers metaphors of Yahweh’s authority.  As a warrior, God does not need anyone to fight for him.  He will fight for his people, using even his traditional enemy, the chaotic sea.  When Israel fights, it does so much more violently as in the attack on the Promised Land.  And yet this violent judgment can be turned against Israel when it disobeys the covenant.  The danger of this is that it has legitimated all sorts of military adventurism.  At Sinai Yahweh has become king, a second metaphor in addition to that of warrior.  He rules over other gods or spirits, he rules because he has created heaven and earth, and he rules to bring order out of chaos.  As king Yahweh gives land and provides justice for Israel.  The metaphor of God as judge reconsiders the role of judge on behalf of those most in need of it rather than as a means to maintain power elites.  Fatherhood is the final model where Israel serves as God’s firstborn son and heir to what the father has. 

Although the confession of the oneness of God (as in Deuteronomy 6:4) may indicate a unity of will and purpose, Brueggemann prefers to build on the alternative interpretation that it emphasizes worship of Yahweh alone.  This worship is one that he connects with the violence perpetrated by the acquisition of Israel especially when it occupies the Promised Land.  Rejecting an evolutionary explanation that this reflects a primitive Israel before they learned how to treat others with civility, Brueggemann seems to accept a view that monotheism breeds violence and so we cannot help but accept this conclusion.  There are certainly examples of this but the whole theory needs to be tempered by works such as that of Miroslav Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” pp. 1-17 in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twentieth Century (eds., R. S. Hess and E. A. Martens; BBR Supplement 2; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008).  On p. 137 Brueggemann speaks about how the Christian U.S. takes vengeance “against Muslims who subscribe to an alternative faith that the President of the United States has termed evil.”  I have tried to find this apparent denigration of Islam by the President of the U.S. (in 2008 that would have been George W. Bush).  I have only been able to uncover quotes where he condemns terrorism as evil but carefully distinguishes it from Islam.  I invite Brueggemann to cite the example to which he refers. 

The remainder of this section examines the conditional and promissory nature of various biblical covenants.  Brueggemann correctly observes that these are two tracks that move through the Bible and avoid both “works righteousness” as well as “cheap grace.”  He goes on to stress the goodness of creation.  The Sabbath and the divine blessing on creation invite the doxological response of praise for all that God has made.  This in turn invites us to look at the order and reality of the world as a miracle to be celebrated; rather than searching for and expecting other kinds of miracles that (for Bruggemann) lead to fanaticism and violence.

The key theme of Israel as a community before God is discussed in three major areas:  election, coming into the Promised Land, and holiness and justice.  For Brueggemann Israel is not chosen because of any value inherent in it, but as a free decision of God.  He opts for the Gottwald model of early Israel as emerging from within Canaan (rather than entering from without as the book of Joshua suggests) and uses this to argue that Israel sought to provide a political alternative to the surrounding and exploiting states.  Yet this model has been abandonded by most archaeologists and historians, and remains popular primarily with theologians.  Understanding holiness and justice to form core values within the community, Brueggemann goes on to find the former in modern Evangelical Christianity and the latter in liberal Christianity.

The nature of God in the Old Testament is the manner in which he constantly elicits a response in obedience.  In the prophets this takes the forms of calls to holiness, justice, and inclusiveness.  In the Wisdom literature it is dominated by a call to choose the right way of the two ways, and especially to avoid “arrogant autonomy.”  The Psalms move from obedience (Psalm 1) to praise (Psalm 150).  They interact with God through dialogs dominated by lament and praise. 

When Brueggemann turns to the role of God as king over all the nations, he affirms that Israel has a special role in the mediation of that rulership.  There is also a natural law by which all nations are judged and they remain subservient to divine purposes.  There are many provocative pages on U.S. military aggression and the arrogation of power in the corporate world to the destruction of the value of the human person.  One can only wonder what Brueggemann would make of the current, unprecedented acquisition of power by the present U.S. government with questionable regard for its own citizenry; and on the use of that power for the benefit of earthquake victims in Haiti and elsewhere.  The applications appear simplistic. 

The final third of the book addresses future hope as found in the Old Testament promises and prophecies.  For Brueggemann, the promises of land are best seen in the context of Israel in exile and without any land.  Promises of land address those who are presumably oppressed and in the greatest need.  It is difficult to know how to evaluate this in light of evidence that many of the exiles grew wealthy and acquired property in their diaspora life so that texts such as Isaiah 40-45 seek to convince them to return to the land.  Perhaps some of these promises go back to a time before Israel ever had land as a nation.  Such promises rise to a level of importance for all people who seek land.  Yet the caution of Levenson is that the exodus cannot be indiscriminately applied to all peoples everywhere.  Instead, Israel must be seen as having been liberated in order to come to obedience before God.  According to Brueggemann this is applied to a variety of liberation movements in a legitimate fashion because “God wants nobody landless.”  However, U.S. colonialists are condemned for their “aggressively violent stand against the native population” and the mission of bringing democracy to Islamic states is understood as a new crusade. 

Yahweh’s sovereignty over the land of Israel leads to that nation’s loss of its land.  Isaiah 53 describes the oppressed servant who is to be identified with the anti-Babylonian resistance and pro-Persian collaboration.  Jeremiah describes oracles of hope including chapter 32 where the land is again purchased and owned, not unlike Genesis 23.  Ezekiel sees the restoration to the land as similar to a resurrection from the dead and likens that new land and temple to a priestly vision of purity and order.  The emphasis is on the new thing that is happening:  a new covenant, a new temple, a new land (we could add a new heart).  These memories and promises function as a basis for hope in a suffering community.  The promises of return to the land are matched by promises of a return to Jerusalem and its exultation.  Contrast this with the hopelessness that the Psalms (and Lamentations address) in terms of human mortality (e.g., Psalm 90), guilt (Psalm 51), failure of social relationships (Psalm 3:1-2), and finally in terms of the adversarial role of Yahweh himself (Psalm 88).  Hope lies in the covenantal claims of Yahweh’s faithfulness in the midst of every test, even those that lead toward death (Psalms 17:15; 27:13; 49:15; etc.).  The confrontation with Yahweh is exemplified by Job who nevertheless remains courageous and speaks in the midst of his suffering. 

Brueggemann readily accepts the category of myth in Old Testament literature and finds it present in creation texts that were recited or enacted within ancient Israel.  While God produces life and provides for its nourishment and flourishing in Genesis 1 and in the Psalms, the powers of chaos are always threatening this life.  God overcomes these but not in a permanent fashion until the end of the age in the final pages of the book of Revelation.  However, God has mastered chaos in some sense (not clear for Brueggemann) so that even the sea monster Leviathan is a plaything for his amusement (Psalm 104:25-26; Job 41:1-8).  God’s covenantal promises keep the world in order and prevent the triumph of chaos.  All creatures know this and rejoice (Psalms 96 and 148).  Not so certain is the connection of this with an ecological agenda, albeit the preservation of the world and its creation must remain a value.  Also not so clear is the evidence these texts contain that plants have a consciousness (p. 331).  Even so, Brueggemann makes many important observations about ecology and the biblical witness.  God continues to care for and about creation.  His observations at the end reflecting the U.S. debate between evolution and intelligent design reflect conundrums that continue to plague the discussion. 

The theme of hope continues to develop with reference to the messianic hope of a Davidic king that was apparently dashed in the destruction of Jerusalem but then re-imagined with a grand expansion to include even the non-Israelite Cyrus.  Jews and Christians may dispute about the identification of Jesus as Messiah but both hope in the future coming of the Messiah and both should work together and with God for justice and peace in this world.  Although Brueggemann rightly criticizes some aspects of dispensationalism, I believe he misunderstands the nature and rationale behind the movement and the manner in which this interpretation gave hope to many in difficult times.  The biblical rhetoric of hope moves Brueggemann into discussion of the cosmic vision of apocalyptic literature and the manner in which Israel looked beyond all expectation to the restoration of its land, its king, and its city as a means for God to fulfill his covenants and to establish universal rule on earth.  While he rightly criticizes the all-too-easy connection of this hope with “U.S. military adventurism,” this reader is left to wonder how these sweeping critiques fit into the U.S. military’s work most recently (but not for the first time) in Haiti and how Brueggemann would deal with the threat of an insane political leader with nuclear capabilities and the stated intent to wipe the state of Israel off of the map. 

It is this same critique that dominates the final chapter of the book.  Clearly, Brueggemann has important observations about the openness of many parts of the Bible and its interpretation.  There are elusive aspects to God and his Word and this is something that needs to be learned by many ready to speak all too easily with misplaced dogmatism.  However, that does not mean that nothing can be known, nor does it mean that those who reject an easy going religious pluralism are therefore identified with “the sectarian account [that] seeks a ‘final solution’ that will eliminate all those who do not name the name of Jesus” (p. 380).  This approaches an accusation of a moral equivalence of Christians who do not share Brueggemann’s epistemology with Hitler.  It is sad to see such intolerant rhetoric applied indiscriminately to broad sections of Christendom.

Nevertheless, I remain as pleased with the provocative observations that cover the field of Old Testament theology as I am disappointed in some of the rhetorical flourishes that characterize applications of the same.  The work covers every major area of Old Testament theology, except that of the nature of revelation.  The book identifies matters of consensus and engages the reader in much reflection and understanding that will introduce the field and its concerns in a substantial manner. 


Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Earl S. Kalland Chair of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
Denver Seminary

March 2010