Walter Brueggemann. God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of Common Good. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016.
Chapter Four: Law: The Summons to Keep Listening (107–142)
Beginning with the story of Daniel 6, where the prophet encounters the conflict between Jewish faith and Persian law, Walter Brueggemann begins to demonstrate the uniqueness of Torah, especially in a world of empire. What is emphasized in this account is the unchangeable decree issued by Darius, which brings about the inability for even the king to stop Daniel from being thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6:8, 12, 15). By contrast, Daniel 6:21–22 speaks of God changing times and seasons, and also kings. “There is something inherently revolutionary about this God!” (108).
And so, “there is an alternative to the unchanging laws of the Medes and Persians, because the Torah of Yhwh is nestled in the zone of fidelity marked by mispat and sedeqah, hesed and ‘emeth and raham” (112 … these are the words of fidelity – justice and righteousness, steadfast love and truth and mercy – found throughout the book, notably on pages 12–13). And so, it is stated, “Torah is rooted in the grace of transformation and is enacted in neighborly justice as an insistent alternative to Pharaoh’s predatory game” (112).
Before we go any further, suffice it to say that there are many aspects of this particular chapter that deserve attention to themselves, especially in any nuanced conversation regarding the role of the law in Israel and the Christian life . A review of this nature will certainly not be able to capture the fullness of the topic, or the author’s overall discussion. This is certainly true of any book, and so the reader is encouraged to further exploration beyond this overview. Out of necessity, the following comments will be selective of the abundant material.
Although there is a very brief nod given to the more ‘uncomfortable’ aspects of the law, Brueggemann is more focused on the overall dynamic of Torah. He speaks in terms of Yhwh’s commandments having “trajectory” (114) in that they are part of the narrative context (he wants to pull away from a ‘history of religions’ perspective), specifically the Exodus. Through the giving of the law Yhwh is set apart and Yhwh’s people are set apart from the other nations, and this is accomplished uniquely through this special relationship. “The Exodus was a disruption of the immutable” (116).
Torah demonstrates that this God is not like the other gods. And the repeated emphases on ‘listening’ and ‘obeying’ as a means of keeping the covenant, which defines this relationship with Yhwh: “Everything will be about hearing and trusting. This does not sound like immutability. This sounds more like a continuing conversation” (118).
The idea of Torah as continuing conversation seems to be the heart of this discussion of law, that this God comes to his people not in a static and emptied liturgy (see previous post on Chapter Two), but in the messiness of daily life, where real justice is brought into situations of injustice. This conversation is the means by which Yhwh facilitates his relationship with humanity, by means of establishing a society that will operate counter-Pharaoh and empire. Brueggemann surveys the Ten Commandments as counter commands to the commands of Pharaoh, with the basic tenets on “singular loyalty to the emancipator” and “sustainable neighborliness” (119–123).
And so, says Brueggemann, “The Torah is a witness to God-authorized possibility” (123).
The remainder of the chapter works out the dynamics of this relationship, with an eye on what it means for the people of God to work this out in our own neighborhoods. It presents Torah in a new light (at least, for most average readers), not as a set of rules but rather as a conversation that continues to work itself out as humanity wrestles with God’s law and imperial force in our world – and this has been going on throughout the generations, just like in Daniel’s day.
In reading Torah and the prophetic texts (even through Jesus), we see a God who “is capable of altered response, not as one who give dictums from on high, but as a partner who is deeply saturated in a bilateral relationship” (125). Hence, we see a redemptive movement running through Israel’s narrative, through which God’s people are increasingly opened to the possibilities of redemption: “The move from neighbor to stranger (widow, orphan, immigrant, poor) is on the way to enemy” (127–128) (this is completed in places such as Matthew 5:44, 47–48).
This is the law that was given to a unique people by a unique God, setting in course a kingdom of priests who would enact a society of justice and righteousness on the earth. Their way of life originates in the character of Yhwh, and the divine fidelity to covenant that is always present. Torah plays its role in this: “In context, obedience to Torah is not a rule for rewards … It is not a cause of fidelity; it is not a consequence of fidelity. It is itself the enactment of fidelity” (137).
When Matthew presents Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount there is the shadow of the Torah-giving at Sinai that gives shape to the scene. And here we see the ongoing conversation between Yhwh and Yhwh’s people – in a surprisingly new way! – that may be described in similar terms. The commitment to discipleship and the presence of the Spirit are not the causes or consequences of our fidelity, but rather the enactment of fidelity into the world. And the same themes of justice and righteousness abound – the same world that God desire is still in view, for the world is growing increasingly desperate for this sort of restoration and redemption.
To continue this conversation in the context of the church will require an “immense and daring imagination” (141) that sees magnificent possibilities only through the eyes of this creating and redeeming God.