John Nugent’s The Politics of Yahweh: John Howard Yoder, the Old Testament, and the People of God [Theopolitical Visions series] is an important contribution to the study of Yoder’s work, as well as a provocative survey of the political development of Israel in the Old Testament. Yoder’s take on the OT is helpful in many regards: He treats the OT as theology, reading it in the light of Christ and as progress toward Christ; he thinks the OT essential to Christian ethics and to the church’s life; he wants to show the logic of Israel’s maturation in a way that makes Jesus the natural outcome of Israel’s history. The book should put to rest the charge (which I have implicitly repeated) that Yoder’s pacifism rests on a Marcionite reading of the Bible. Nugent shows that Yoder’s intentions are just the opposite, that he challenges Marcionite readings.
This is not to say that I find Yoder’s analysis of the OT persuasive in very respect. Tracing the development of culture from the garden through the flood, Yoder summarizes by saying “Adam makes the transition from nature to culture; Cain from culture to war. Culture (whose root meaning, we remember, was agriculture), is already morally ambivalent. It is close to nature, but not natural. It scratches open the soil, wounds the breast of Mother Earth, in order to wrest sustenance from it . . . . It thus becomes the occasion for fresh sin and the multiplier of damages.” Nugent goes on to summarize:
“After being banished from the soil . . . Cain’s descendants quickly yielded the basic elements of fallen history and culture: the protective threat of revenge (the state), the city (civilization), the arts (Jubal’s music), technology (Tubal-Cain’s metallurgy), and Lamech’s escalating vengeance (war). All of these unfold from the first murder and all of them result from the estrangement with nature that began with Adam and multiplied with Cain and his descendants.”
I don’t have Yoder’s essay from which this argument is taken, but from what Nugent offers this sounds as if culture is itself a post-lapsarian phenomenon. Culture is per se “morally ambivalent”? But wasn’t Adam commanded to “subdue and rule,” that is, to engage in cultural activity? Was culture “morally ambivalent” in Eden? I don’t believe Adam was going to remain in the garden forever; even unfallen, Adam would have moved out from the garden to “scratch open the soil” and “wound the breast of Mother Earth.” Perhaps Yoder only means to say that after the fall even the most basic cultural pursuits are perverted. But that “morally ambivalent” makes it sound like a stronger claim. Nugent’s summary too supports this stronger interpretation: One can see how revenge and war “unfold from the first murder,” but music and metallurgy ? In fact, the first city was founded on a brother’s blood; but unfallen humanity would have found it advantageous to gather into cities.
These questions are significant in themselves, but I am also interested in understanding the effects of Yoder’s account of created order for his thought as a whole.