Home > Fisks, Theology > Episode 4: Brueggemann Strikes Back, by Rolin Bruno

Episode 4: Brueggemann Strikes Back, by Rolin Bruno

15 December 2009

Episode 4: Brueggemann Strikes Back
Review of Theology of the Old Testament, 1997
Brueggemann is breaking the rules again. I don’t see why it’s so hard; the rules are simple: 1) he writes and 2) I critique, occasionally throwing in a sardonic comment. However, while still in his chapter four (Verbal Testimony), his section on verbs of command threw

me seriously off my sardonic track, and occasioned some earnest re-evaluation.

Specifically, his essay “Social Justice and Purity: Two Trajectories” (pp 187-196) brings forth a thought-provoking challenge to the ways that Christians look at Old Testament commands, and occasion an explicit focus on the current turmoil in our midst regarding the ordination of unmarried non-celibate persons of various sexual orientations. (His thoughts might also apply to the issue of same-sex marriage, but that was not a presenting theological issue in 1997.)

Let’s take a short Rabbit Trail into the subject of Old Testament commands for Christians. I’m adding a few endnotes for those who want to take a deeper look.

I have never been satisfied with the Reformation’s division of the 613 commands (*1) in the Old Testament into the categories of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws (*2), and even less satisfied with the idea that some commands remain binding while others may be disregarded (*3).

Support for such division can be found neither in Jesus nor in rabbinic thought. Jesus and the rabbis are aware of only one divisor, that of a sliding scale between “heavy” commands such as Deuteronomy 5:16 and “light” commands such as Deuteronomy 22:6–7. But Jesus and the rabbis are in agreement that even the lightest command must not be overlooked (Matthew 5:19). Even Paul hints that the law resists any process of subdivision (Galatians 5:3).

I will not attempt here to resolve the tension between Matthew 5:18, which claims that “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law,” and Hebrews 7:12, which explains that “when the priesthood is changed, there must take place a change of law also” (*4). Rather, I’m just trying to set the backdrop for Brueggeman’s reevaluation of the so-called “ceremonial” laws.

End Rabbit Trail; let’s see what Brueggemann says about the twin trajectories of Justice and Purity. Here are some highlights from his essay:

One trajectory is aimed at the practice of social justice and is found primarily, though not exclusively, in the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy most consistently contrasts the recommended modes of Israelite obedience with the ways of the Canaanites.

The separation from the ways of the Canaanites, however, is most clearly found in the purity (holiness) laws. Take a supposed dietary law of not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk. This reflects a Canaanite practice of sympathetic magic which might seem harmless enough, yet would be one step on a path toward a syncretism that would ultimately find the Israelites undifferentiated from the Canaanites, and not “set apart” for Yahweh.

At the center of this tradition of command is the sabbatic principle …rooted in the Decalogue. The sabbatic principle holds that, on a regular basis, the rhythms of a life of faith require a cessation of all activity as an act of acknowledging the rule of Yahweh and handing one’s life back to Yahweh in gratitude.

If the Sabbath command is indeed central to Yahweh’s system of command, it presents a challenge to those who would build a moral system of law based on the Decalogue. There is hardly a Christian that hasn’t noticed that we give short shrift to the principle of cessation from all activity, and even less to the observance of the Seventh Day—Saturday.

In the command tradition of Deuteronomy, Deut 15:1–11 may be proposed as the central and signature affirmation of Yahweh’s rule.

The passage is rooted in the reminder that “The poor will never cease to be in the land” (15:11).

The basic command (15:1) perhaps reflects an older command in Exod 21:2–11 concerning a remission of debts granted every seventh year. The seventh-year provision allows that members of the community in bondage for nonpayment of debts can be held in lieu of payment for only six years, no matter how large the debt or what the circumstance may be. Thus the cause of bondage is indebtedness, and the end of bondage consists in debt cancellation. … In effect, Israel refuses the permanent underclass that long-term indebtedness is sure to produce.

Some conservative Christians strongly teach that all debts must be repayed, no matter how small or how large or how old. But the bankruptcy laws surely reflect the Old Testament concern that eternal indebtedness means eternal bondage, and that in some cases only a remission of debts will effect a release from bondage.

The second trajectory of command, also derivative from the exclusive claim of Yahweh, is that of purity. … This material is found largely in the Priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, especially but not exclusively in Leviticus; articulations of it occur in Deuteronomy as well. 

Here he tips his hat to the JEDP “source theory” of the Old Testament. But more importantly, along with Gerhard von Rad he notes that these commands are given by “direct address of Yahweh to Moses rather than the address of Moses to Israel.”

The God who commands at Sinai is a God of order, who wills that all of life should be lived, according to this tradition, in an orderly way. It is plausible that the tradition of debt cancellation… reflects the theological needs and sensibilities of the economically disadvantaged. In complementary fashion, it is plausible that this tradition of purity in the Book of Leviticus reflects the theological sensibilities and needs of those who experience life as profoundly disordered, and who have no doubt (and so testify) that Yahweh has provided concrete disciplines whereby the life-threatening disorder may be overcome.

To say that I have experienced life as profoundly disordered would be a definite understatement.

If we imagine that this tradition of command is Yahweh’s response to such disorder, we may suggest that the disorder experienced as life-threatening can take many forms. It may be viewed as the surging of chaos on the grand scale of the cosmos, to which the liturgy of creation is an antidote of order. …

If we tune “grand scale of the cosmos” down a bit to, say, the country going to hell in a hand-basket or the disintegration of a once-great denomination, we’re still shopping for antidotes.

… Or it may be experienced more immediately as a moral disintegration in which life is deeply marked by behavior that is felt to be contaminating, thereby placing everything in jeopardy.

Bingo. The moral Left wonders why the moral Right is so concerned about their private, consensual behavior. They see that concern as legalistic and condemning. Could it be instead a reaction to chaos and disorder? Could it be a concern for purity in the face of the holiness of God?

More specifically, it is plausible that the ordering activity of Yahweh, in the face of such a threat, should be activated in public worship, where life may be experienced in order, symmetry, coherence, and propriety. The enactment of such worship serves as a powerful counter-act to the threat of disorder. …worship becomes an environment for a God-given order available nowhere else. … it is important that one should come properly before the Guarantor of order (Leviticus 1–7).

I have found that attendance to liturgical worship seems to put things back in order, not to mention providing at least a respite from the disorder of life. The more disorder that I feel, the more that worship in a “high church” setting seems to put things aright than a “low church” setting. But more than either of these, worship in a familiar setting—where I know what is going to happen next and can recite the words from memory—seems to calm the world, or at least calm myself in the world.

Thus much of the “command of order” is given as an instrument to the priests, so that the priests can wisely and rightly order worship space, time, and activity…

The authorization and empowerment of these priests, now held accountable for a right ordering of life, is to be carefully done in an act of ordination, so that the action of the priests may be trusted as reliable and valid (Leviticus 8–10).

If the disorder and chaos of life begins to produce disorder and chaos in the choosing of our priests and their supervisors, then the only reliable port in the storm of life becomes threatened itself. One may expect alarm and dismay, with immoderate reactions.

The focus of this tradition of holiness, which we may find rooted in the first three commands of the Decalogue, is that those zones of life that are inhabited by Yahweh in an intense way must be kept pure and uncontaminated. Thus this material is instructional and has a status not unlike canon law to protect such zones of holiness…

Leviticus as canon law: If holiness and purity are at stake, then the fervent protests of those who point out canon law violations in The Episcopal Church may be better understood. Disorder and chaos threatens our relationship with a holy God.

Perhaps inevitably, order is not maintained, impurity enters into the life of the community, so that processes need to be initiated in order to overcome the threat to the community. Profaned elements of the community must be sanctified, made holy, so that they are congruent with the Holy God, for “You shall be holy as I am holy.”

In Leviticus 16, the process of making holy that which has failed to be holy “culminates in the provision for the Day of Atonement (yôm kippur).” In Anglican life, the weekly process of confession followed by absolution culminates in the provision for a holy Lent and Good Friday followed by the celebration of the risen Christ, who alone makes us holy.

The tradition of justice concerns the political-economic life of the community and urges drastic transformative and rehabilitative activity. The tradition of holiness focuses on the cultic life of the community and seeks a restoration of lost holiness, whereby the presence of God can again be counted on and enjoyed.

The maintenance of the tension between these two interpretive trajectories, I suggest, is crucial in Israel’s testimony that God is “for us,” but that God is also jealously “for God’s own self”  and takes with dreadful seriousness every threat of profanation to God’s own life (cf. Ezek 36:22–23).

“So what?”  one might fairly say, “This is Leviticus, right? These are ceremonial laws, right?”  Or as Brueggemann puts it,

There is a very old assumption among Christians that the ethical commands of the Old Testament continue to pertain to Christians, while the cultic commands can be left behind.

What does this have to do with us? Brueggemann bids us ponder “three reasons for resisting the diminishment of the holiness commands.”

First, at least in Hebrews 7–10, it is clear that the Christian community continued to value the holiness commands, for the rhetoric of these chapters finds the imagery of sacrifice and atonement crucial for a fair articulation of the significance, authority, and identity of Jesus.

He finds this also in Pauline Christianity, citing Romans 3:25.

Second, ample evidence shows that the tradition of justice commands, by themselves, can move in the direction of a purely political program. … It is credible that it is the tradition of holiness that keeps the life of obedience from becoming a self-propelled human crusade in the world. Taken together, the two trajectories reflect the internal disciplines of identity that balance the external disciplines of transformative activity.

In contrast, the holiness commands by themselves lead to an insular community.

Third, it is evident that the current and freighted dispute in the U.S. church concerning homosexual persons, especially their ordination, indicates the continuing felt cruciality of the tradition of holiness, even after we imagine that we have moved beyond such “primitiveness.”  [my italics]

That was his view in 1997. Thirteen years later, this has become a freighted dispute for the global church.

Here it is my point only to insist that under the general rubric of holiness, the sacrificial system in the text is of theological significance and that this attestation on Israel’s part has contemporary significance in the practice of faith that must push behind moral resolution to the enigmatic, where Yahweh’s holiness is faced in all of its ominous, generous, enigmatic reality.

Now comes the part where his conclusions depart from mine.

I do not suggest that the contemporary issue should be adjudicated in those terms or categories. But I do believe that the practice of holiness provides the category whereby we may understand pastorally what is being sensed and felt in the massive hostility to homosexuals and their rights, and may help us see how a useful, responsible response to homophobia is to be made.

Oh, help me. He feels that the “equal rights and privileges for homosexuals (in civil society as in the church) is a matter that may be adjudicated on the grounds of justice.” And the other trajectory—the holiness one? That is to be understood as the source of “homophobia.”

It is my judgment that the adrenaline mobilized around this issue concerns much larger issues of disorder than simply issues of sexuality, as most of the old reliabilities in our social world are now in jeopardy. As a consequence, large measures of social disorder, completely unrelated to the issue of homosexuality, are displaced and heaped upon this issue where uncleanness is felt to be operative.

So we need to have more understanding and compassion for all those poor, misled, mistaken homophobes? I still need some help here.

Undoubtedly the tension between the felt threat of disorder (as currently expressed in the church around issues of homosexuality) and the voiced urgings of justice (as concerns full rights and dignity for homosexuals) will continue to be a disputed, vexed issue.

No kidding. More than you knew.

My own judgment is that… the justice trajectory has decisively and irreversibly defeated the purity trajectory.

Except that thirteen years later, the battle is still being urgently fought. Today a case may be made that the traditionally mainline U.S. denominations have succumbed, or will soon succumb, to the homosexual agenda, with the calls for holiness defeated by the calls for justice and dignity. The other thing that is apparent is that there is and will be a remnant church, calling for holiness, that is not going to disappear—not ever.

Thus the purity trajectory of the text may help us understand pastorally the anxiety produced by perceived and experienced disorder, but it provides no warrant for exclusionary ethical decisions in the face of the gospel.

I must respectfully disagree.

Brueggemann has demonstrated a consummate command of exegetical principles, to determine what the text clearly says. He has also followed the same hermeneutical principle that I recommend, along with Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. That is, when reading texts such as Leviticus, stay mindful that the texts were not written to us, but to the ancient people of Israel—but nevertheless, since this is still the Word of God for us, read them more deeply, looking for underlying, eternal principles.

Brueggemann has correctly identified two essential and complementary principles in the text—justice and holiness. These two factors, applied properly, balance out the life of a person of God and the life of the Church of God. With too much emphasis on justice above holiness, the church will become just another social welfare working group and will become irrelevant to the relationship between an individual and his God. With too much emphasis on holiness above justice, the church will become an insular society which will become irrelevant to a broken and hurting world.

Where I part with Brueggemann is not on his hermeneutic but his application to the current state of the church. A greater awareness of the value and necessity of holiness on the part of the church should under-gird the orthodox community in their resistance to the further disorder brought in by appointing non-celibate homosexuals to the ordained ministry.

Other positions in the church are a judgment call, with non-celibate homosexuals to be provided equal status with non-celibate unmarried heterosexuals. However, the ordained ministry is the red line that must not be crossed, so that a holy Church may stand before a holy God.

Br_er Rabbit.
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.
How to Read the Bible, Book by Book, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

End Notes:

 (*1) The 613 commands in the Old Testament range from “Know that God exists” to “Destroy the seed of Amalek.” A complete list may be found here
(*2) Deciding which command fits in which category is not always straightforward, and many of the commands overlap categories. Here is a Messianic view. 
(*3) The full range of the “moral” commands is usually elided into the Ten Commandments, which are taken as a “summary” of the moral law–a view which has some support in the BCP.  The Reformed tradition, and particularly the Westminster Confession, holds that the moral laws are to be obeyed, whereas the others have been “fulfilled” and are therefore no longer binding, as explained here.

 (*4) A good overview and a proposed solution may be found as a pdf file here.

Categories: Fisks, Theology
  1. 15 December 2009 at 3:15 PM

    I have attempted to give a fair hearing to Brueggemann, but the excerpts above comprise perhaps 10% of his full essay. To dig deeper, check out his book from the library and give it a scan.

    I would be interested to hear any responses to the issues I raised above, especially in viewing the homosexual activity problem from the aspect of holiness-compromise rather than the aspect of commandment-breaking.

    Investigation along the holiness lines should open up a whole new set of scriptures that are relevant to the current turmoil in The Episcopal Church.

    The Rabbit.

  2. Elder Oyster
    15 December 2009 at 5:20 PM

    Hi Rolin,

    This is an important issue no matter how it is sliced. It causes divisions among conservatives as well.

    My own take on the three laws is that some don’t apply because they are fulfilled in Christ’s first coming, and that some don’t apply now because they will be fulfilled at Christ’s second coming. Others would probably apply now.

    The question of “how does the state deal with the adulterer,” can be addressed by the state; but in a state that is a Theocracy ( a true one, where the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob resides alongside everyone), there would necessarily have to be standards of purity for the human citizens.

    It seems to me that Brueggeman throws those away too easily.

    What is especially distressing as I read this is the hermenuetic of “trajectory,” which I have also heard coming from orthodox Anglicans.

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