Walter Brueggemann. God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016.
A recent publication by well-known Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has caught my attention. Drawn from a lecture series presented at Fuller Seminary in 2015, this brief work explores the connections between justice, mercy, and the public good, especially in the life and law of ancient Israel. Unsurprisingly, these same connections are in desperate need of examination for our modern world as well. What Brueggemann has given to us here is a solid contextual exegesis that serves well in a foundational capacity for current dialogue coming from the church.
The book is arranged around four chapters: “The Nature and Mission of God,” “Justice,” “Grace,” “Law,” and this series of posts will take each in turn. The themes that are explored and developed by Brueggemann center around the contrast of covenant and empire: “The God attested in the Exodus narrative, the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, and the prophetic corpus stands over against the ideology of empire” (3).
Chapter One: The Nature and Mission of God: Irreducibly, Inscrutably Relational (9–38)
This first chapter begins with Hosea 2:14–15, a text that reflects a divorce suit (2:2–13) and the future remarriage between Yhwh and Israel (2:14–23). The reasons for this are due to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant, and after the consequences of judgment have occurred, it is God who promises restoration. It is from this passage that Brueggemann draws out the primary language for his overall project.
mispat and sedeqah, “justice and righteousness”
hesed, “steadfast love”
These are the words that demonstrate Yhwh’s abiding love and faithfulness for Israel, and it suddenly and unexpectedly breaks into the story at a point where the reader/listener would be expecting the finality of judgment and destruction (14). Yet this is the powerful portrait of Israel’s God in that he will remain faithful in his relationship with his people regardless of their unfaithfulness.
(Brueggemann will use the term fidelity throughout this book, which is a term that might cause the ‘average’ or ‘typical’ reader a slight bump, for it is not a term readers of scripture will encounter as much as, say, faithfulness. So, not only does this choice convey a certain nuance of his thought, it also helps force the reader to think more about the attributes of God that are coming to light.)
The language of renewal abounds in this chapter, and numerous texts are presented from Israel’s story that demonstrate the promise that Yhwh is working to establish a world of justice and righteousness (found in the repetition of the five terms, in various combination, throughout the Old Testament text). And such is the promise to which Israel clings, even in moments of distress: “Israel may despair; but it refuses amnesia” (17).
At the core of these characteristics of God’s promise to Israel is the presentation of relationship, the open dynamic between Yhwh and his people. For this part Brueggemann takes four representative texts (Hosea 2:2–23; Exodus 34:6–7; Lamentations 3:20–22; Psalm 85:10-13) for seven thesis-type deductions:
- “Life is all about interactive relationships” (21).
Brueggemann believes that this commitment to relationality makes the Old Testament text “peculiar” in its approach to theology, now carried over into the church. The biblical understanding is that being relational is irreducible – humanity is summoned to genuine relationship, first to the Creator and also to one another.Such relationality is also inscrutable, for “it defies all of our categories of explanation” (22). The means by which God shows his love to the world goes beyond the limitation of human thought, often running contrary to human expectation (as in Hosea 2). What is more, this inscrutability is also found in human-to-human relationships, whenever God’s love is working through the individual.
- “The parties to this relationally – God, self, and the neighbor – are variously called to fidelity in our irreducible inscrutable relationality” (23)
This fidelity is a face-to-face experience that makes its promise known, and then follows through with that commitment. Further, this fidelity is for the common good of all parties, coming “under the banner of shalom” (24–25). The five words of fidelity are the expression of shalom, a life that blesses the whole neighborhood in facilitating God’s holiness. And it is a “rugged commitment” that offers many second chances (cf. also McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).
- “Relationships require divine agency” (28)
These types of relationships must originate from the divine presence within the individual. As for the society of ancient Israel this originates in the boundaries and instructions of Torah, and the constant reminders to live by this law. (More will be said about the nature of Torah in Chapter 4.)
- “Now I think that divine agency is hard enough. For our purposes, however, what is even harder is human agency” (31)
The biblical text shows that “human agents, like the divine agent, have a capacity for transformative action” (32). This begins when we make ourselves available to others, being present and connected in situations where we might share this fidelity.
- “Relationality means to look to the interests of others” (32)
“The God of the Bible is primarily preoccupied not with God’s own well-being but with an interaction that evokes the well-being of the other and yields for God unending doxology” (33). Interestingly, this perspective is briefly balanced with the notion that this self-giving does not come at the expense of the giver, but may at times be tempered with the preservation of the giver – an overall view of healthy relationships, I suppose.
- “Derivatively, the summons to God’s chosen people is to reach toward the other” (33)
Here is included the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. But also there is a movement in the Old Testament picture that even for those who are excluded on the basis of purity – the eunuch and the foreigner are named – the future promise is for “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7). By way of summary, Israel’s status as chosen is for the benefit of all creation, which is connected to this idea of relationality and fidelity.
- “In Hosea 2:21–23, the new vows of fidelity by the wounded, indignant lover lead, in the final verses, to an expectation about the fruitfulness of creation that in turn concerns the renewal of covenant between Yhwh and Israel” (36)
“The culmination of both Hosea 2:21–23 and Psalm 85:12–13 is restored, renewed, fruitful, flourishing creation” (37).
This opening chapter emphasizes both relationship and fidelity as two marks of the covenant community. The people of God are defined by this relationship, and God’s character is revealed even in times of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Brueggemann sees this also as giving shape to the narrative; it is through this understanding of relationship that Yhwh and Israel move forward together. “And because we are given, in the text, relationality that concerns the one who lingers in faithfulness, this means there is no final reading, no final solution, no grand theory, no master explanation. What we are given, rather, is a field of negotiation and adjudication” (37). It may well be that life before this God is more dynamic and relational that we have often realized.