Review: Divine Presence Amid Violence (Walter Brueggemann)

Divine PresenceFollowing on the heels of my review of EisenbraunsWar in the Bible and Terrorism in the 20th Century (Part One, Two, Three), I read Walter Brueggemann’s Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua (Published by Cascade Books, a division of Wipf and Stock Publishers). Can you detect the theme of some of the books I am reading? Violence, especially when it touches on areas of religion, is a very hot topic when we consider current events in the news. It is a dilemma to condemn a present-day issue of violence when a similar type of violence seems to be condoned in some parts of the Hebrew Bible.

In this book, Brueggemann takes a brief (the text of the book is only 65 pages) look at an “exceedingly difficult text” (p. 11) in the Hebrew Bible: Joshua 11.

In the introduction, Brueggemann discusses how the conviction that Scripture is revelatory (by communities of Jews and Christians) is necessarily appropriated differently because of differences of contexts and cultural settings. He believes that the current state of hermeneutics convinces many (including himself) that there is “no single, sure meaning for any text.” Thus, the “revelatory power of the text is discerned and given precisely through the action of interpretation which is always concrete, never universal, always contextualized, never ‘above the fray,’ always filtered through vested interest, never in disinterested purity” (p. ix). If this is true of the interpretation process, then, according to Brueggemann, it should also be true of the process that forms, shapes and presents the text. Brueggemann suggests that because of this, revelation is never “simply a final disclosure, but is an ongoing act of disclosing that will never let the disclosure be closed.”

Chapter 1: Revelation, Interpretation, and Method
Here Brueggemann discusses two methods of interpreting Scripture (from the late 20th century) and their relation to the revelatory character of Scripture: sociology and literary analysis. Brueggemann has tried to meld of these methods with the result of seeing Scripture as revelation that is not offering a flat, obvious conclusion, but “is an ongoing conversation that evokes, invites, and offers” (p. 7). He also reviews the terminology that he employed in his Theology of the Old Testament of testimony, dispute and advocacy. These juridical terms (and juridical metaphor) are used by Brueggemann to argue “texts are like witnesses that trace out the character of Yahweh against other characterizations of Yahweh, and thereby advocate a certain rendering of reality” (p. 9). This method, thus, recognizes that every text makes a claim that must be “recognized and weighed alongside other texts with other claims” (p. 10).

Chapter 2: Discerning Revelation from God
In light of the text of Joshua 11, Brueggemann asks these questions: “How are these texts of violence to be understood as revelation? What is it that is disclosed? And how shall this disclosure be received as serious, authoritative, and binding as the only rule for life and faith?” (p. 11). Most of this chapter summarizes the pericope and focuses attention on the only speech, which happens to be from Yahweh (v. 6), in this section of narrative. Brueggemann also notes that there is little here that is explicitly Deuteronomistic, with the exception of the formula of obedience in v. 10.

Chapter 3: Divine Permit
Brueggemann begins by defining monarchy (“political concentration of power and an economic monopoly of wealth”) and characterizing the Israelites of Joshua 11 as “antimonarchic.” He identifies the initiative of the king of Hazor as “preemptive, perhaps not unlike the Bush administration’s initiative against the alleged growing threat of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq” (p. 20). Thus, we have a description of competing social systems, with the Canaanite monarchy identified by the multiple occurrences of the phrase “horses and chariots.”

He then focuses on Yahweh’s statement in verse 6: “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring the horses and burn the chariots with fire.” This speech, addressed only Joshua, includes assurance, promise, and command. Brueggemann notes that all the action of the events is done by the Israelites and that Yahweh takes no direct action here. The three mentions of the “horses and chariots” are centered around Yahweh’s mandate for their destruction. Brueggemann draws attention to the fact that it is only the weapons (i.e., horses and chariots) that are to be destroyed. Brueggemann sees this as permission of Yahweh for a liberating movement by the Israelite community against an oppressive, monarchic adversary. So, what does this reveal about Yahweh? “Yahweh is allied with the marginalized, oppressed peasants against the monopoly of the city-state” (p. 24). This means that the disclosure of Yahweh given in this passage is not intervention, but rather authorization.

Brueggemann sees this as an example of how revelation does not “come down to intrude in the community” but rather “arises up out of the hurt and the hope of [the] community, so that the dream is understood as certified from heaven” and thus, has credibility on earth (p. 26).

Chapter 4: Revelation in Ancient Context
Brueggemann addresses other instances of violence in the pericope (e.g., ḥerem) as “remembered revelation” (v. 12, 15, 20, 23) and not recorded direct speech of Yahweh. Therefore, this revelation refers to an older torah, and the community must interpret. After looking at Joshua 11 on three levels—theological, sociological, and methodological—he returns to the governing question, “Does God mandate violence?” His conclusion, based on this passage, is “yes” but one that is “tightly circumscribed” and “in the interest of ending domination.” For Brueggemann, this means that the community “was utterly persuaded that the God of the tradition is passionately against domination and is passionately for an egalitarian community” (p. 39).

Chapter 5: Revelation and Canonical Reading
This chapter asks “What would we know of the ways and character of God if we had only this particular rendering? Or what would be lost if we did not have this text?” (p. 43). Brueggemann continues to build his case for a hostility to the “horses and chariots” kind of monarchic domination, in large part, because of the system of oppression and subservience that its sustenance necessitates. Brueggemann concludes that “Israel knows it is not to emulate royal modes of power, knowledge, or language” and that alternatives are available that “permit freedom and justice” (p. 54).

Chapter 6: Yahweh versus Horse and Chariot
Brueggemann leaves the Joshua text and expands to other biblical texts to demonstrate that the “power of Yahweh will defeat oppressive kings who have horses and chariots.” He discusses “prophetic assertions” (e.g., Hos 1:7; Isa 31:1; Mic 5:10, Isa 43:16-17; Zech 4:6), “psalmic doxologies” (Ps 20:7; 33:16-17; 76:6-7; 147:10-11), and “sapiential discernment” (Prov 21:30-31) to distill theological statements which do not contain the “problems” of the Joshua text, but which share the same warrant for Yahweh’s sovereignty over horses and chariots.

Chapter 7: Despite Chariots of Iron
Brueggemann summarizes, again, the implications of his interpretation of Joshua 11 for the context of the Israelites, as a community assaulted by superior force. He sees the fundamental claim of Joshua 11 to be the disclosure that Yahweh is “a God who will invert the historical process and give land to the landless” (p. 62). Only a brief amount of text is devoted to our own cultural context, which Brueggemann describes as “more fully embedded in communities of horses and chariots, more fully committed to domination” (p. 64).

I appreciated the amount of time Brueggemann devoted to explaining his hermeneutic and methodology. While some of his phrases (taken out of context) are sure to ignite people who desire an absolute truth with only one interpretation in scripture, he nonetheless demonstrates that contrary to what you want to believe, the fact of the matter is that there are a lot of sincere, intelligent believers who read the same passages and come to different understandings. That says something, and needs to be accounted for. Brueggemann does that by demonstrating that both the formation and the interpretation of Scripture are necessarily contextualized.

This book doesn’t give answers for to how to deal with violence in our present-day biblically. But then, I don’t think that is its purpose. Rather, Brueggemann illustrates his hermeneutic by showing how to understand the texts of violence in the Hebrew Bible within their own context.

If you are intrigued, challenged, or dismayed by what you find in this short book, there are 8½ pages of a very worthwhile bibliography to direct you to further reading.

Many thanks to James Stock of Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing me with a copy of this book to review. I appreciate the opportunity.

One thought on “Review: Divine Presence Amid Violence (Walter Brueggemann)

  1. John Murphy

    “He believes that the current state of hermeneutics convinces many (including himself) that there is “no single, sure meaning for any text.” Thus, the “revelatory power of the text is discerned and given precisely through the action of interpretation which is always concrete, never universal, always contextualized, never ‘above the fray,’ always filtered through vested interest, never in disinterested purity” (p. ix).”

    One difficulty with Mr. Brueggemann’s hermeneutic is that by making the statement he does not adhere to his own standard. Are we to assume that Mr. Brueggemann had anything other than one single, sure meaning when he wrote that there is “no single, sure meaning for any text”?

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