This is a small piece I wrote about why I read Walter Brueggemann. He is a significant voice for Old Testament studies and has been a significant voice that I have come to value in my own studies and development as a pastor and theologian. His social critique has been helpful in many regards, as well as, his imaginative interpretations for our context. For your viewing pleasure: http://www.walterbrueggemann.com/2013/11/07/levi-jones-why-i-read-brueggemann/
James Payton’s purpose in writing this book is to make Irenaeus’ Against Heresies more accessible and less cumbersome to engage. His primary method for achieving this end is shortening Books 1 and 2, which sets out the Gnostic doctrine as it is taught. Although large sections are removed from these two books, enough is left to provide a brief and succinct overview of the Gnostic thought and Irenaeus’ primary objections to it. Payton does a good job of maintaining the key ideas in Irenaeus’ assessment of the Gnostics while presenting an abridged version.
Irenaeus is often described as a polemical figure. Undoubtedly, he tackles the Gnostic problem head on without much reservation. However, it should be noted, by Irenaeus’ own words, that this is not the primary motivation. Irenaeus is polemical only in the sense that he is trying to preserve something. Irenaeus describes the situation with his opponents as such: “This is how the adversaries with whom we have to deal act: like slippery serpents, they try to escape at all points. Consequently, they need to be opposed at all points, so that possibly, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth” (57). The preservation and proclamation of the Truth is at the heart of Irenaeus’ purpose in writing. As such, he hopes that by writing even the Gnostics might come to know Truth that has been handed down from Christ to the apostles for the Church.
After reading the way that Irenaeus re-orients the Old Testament in light of Christ, I find John Lawson’s categories for Irenaeus untenable. Lawson states that Irenaeus did not know or adequately comprehend the history behind the Old Testament. However, I believe that Irenaeus has a rich understanding of the Old Testament, which he reads in light of Christ. He does not read the Old Testament in isolation from its preparation for Christ. Thus, the importance does not sit upon the historical context but on the way that Christ fulfills and completes that which is in the Old Testament. For instance, Irenaeus re-functions the Old Testament texts that talk about swords being beaten into plowshares to bring about a fuller comprehension of the cross. An instrument intended for violence becomes God’s instrument of peace through which the harvest of the eschaton will be gathered. Irenaeus does not ignore the historical context but says that the purpose is realized in Christ.
This is essential for Irenaeus’ argument against Gnosticism. After all, Irenaeus wants to maintain the continuity between Jesus and the Creator God of the Old Testament. What better way to do that than showing how Christ corrects and fulfills the Law and the Prophets. Irenaeus is not allegorizing every Scripture and twisting it. Rather, his exegesis is quite stunning in many respects. For instance, Irenaeus employs the stories of the patriarchs in appropriate ways to the promised hope that is embodied in Jesus.
Recapitulation or ontic participation is scattered all throughout Irenaeus’ writings. Although they are slightly different, they cannot be separated from one another. Christ takes on the fullness of humanity so that through Christ humanity might enjoy all of God. Jesus becomes the second Adam by treading the same ground that Adam tread but was found obedient, even unto death. And, it is through Christ’s obedience that we see the fullest intentions and purpose of humanity! We are able, at every stage, to see what it means to be a fully mature human: Christ! In this way, Christ is the exemplar of what it means to participate in the very life of God. In fact, Irenaeus states: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (116).
The main purpose for Irenaeus in salvation or recapitulation is that humanity might finally achieve its end: “join[ing] the end to the beginning – that is, humanity to God” (114). He also views ontic participation as a relational ontology (to use modern vernacular), stating: “Without life it is impossible to live, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God. But fellowship with God is to know God and to enjoy his goodness” (115). And, this fellowship of love is demonstrated as obedience. Which highlights the value of Christ’s recapitulating obedience.
Irenaeus’ concept of the Triune God working simultaneously and spontaneously together is intriguing. We can learn a lot from him here. In all ways, the Father, Son, and Spirit are working in unison and cooperation toward a common telos. There is not a true sense of hierarchy or modalism that pervades the Trinity. Instead, there is a relational mutuality that is inherent in God. Now, Irenaeus typically talks about the “Two Hands of God” (Son and Spirit, Word and Wisdom). However, by separating these out, Irenaeus only moves to put them back together again. There is a constant tension that shows the continuity of God both in the old covenant and the new covenant. As opposed to Gnostic thought, Irenaeus maintains that God is both God of Creation and God of salvation.
In fact, it is only through this cooperation that God is fully revealed. He states, “God the Father was shown forth through all these operations, with the Spirit working and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving – and that salvation for humankind was being achieved” (115). This is important given the tension between God’s transcendence and immanence. Gnostics held that God could not truly be known and that the Pleroma were not God. Irenaeus maintains God’s transcendence but maintains that God can be known because of the Son and the Spirit. Most specifically, it is the Son’s flesh that reveals the invisible God in visible ways to humanity. This is a brilliant tactic in dispelling his opponents’ arguments.
I particularly found Irenaeus’ concepts of recapitulation and ontic participation refreshing. His emphasis that the Incarnation was going to happen even before the Fall, not because of it, was powerful. The purpose of Creation from the beginning was to enjoy fellowship with God. This shapes the understanding of the cross in significant ways that push back on the penal substitution so popular in our churches. It pushes back on the Gnostic idea that Creation is bad and spirit is pure. And, it challenges our separation of Christ’s work from the purposes of the Creator. Our end is in our beginning. Creation is salvation and salvation is creation, because it is God that works both.
- Irenaeus: An Introduction by Dennis Minns (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
- “Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy” by Sara Parvis and Paul Foster (kingdomcruciformity.wordpress.com)
Written in poetic prose, Genesis 1 contains a rhythm and rhyme that provide a certain meter to the content. This rhythm strengthens the overall sense of orderliness inherent in God’s ordering of tōhû wābōhû. Other creation narratives from the ancient Middle East contain many parallels with the Hebrew narrative. Arnold maintains that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical in nature to these other narratives. He does recognize the parallels and suggests that it is implicitly polemical. At this point, Arnold seems to be splitting hairs. First, nobody can really know if this was or was not the intent of the author. Second, we can recognize that it is polemical, whether that is the intention or not.
Fretheim agrees with Arnold by stating that God acts in entirely different ways in Genesis 1 than does Marduk and the other gods of ancient Middle Eastern creation narratives. The gods of the other nations are violent, whereas Genesis 1 describes God as merely speaking to simultaneously command and invite Creation into being. God does not struggle with chaos. The watery deep is not like Tiamat, but is invited to cooperate with God. Fretheim also uses science to back up his position concerning chaos. Although chaos is randomness, that randomness falls within certain boundaries. There is orderliness that proceeds from chaos, although it still may not be predictable.
Arnold states: “What God has created in vv. 3-5 is time, which is more important than space for this chapter” (39). Although time may be an important part of the Creation (i.e., seasons and days), space plays an equally important part in the process. Day 1-3 is the creation of space, which is then filled on days 4-6. Day 7 can even be framed as a creating of “space” for rest. Life does not happen without the proper “space” in which life can be sustained. Fretheim contests that light and space are inseparable dimensions, contra Arnold. Both are vitally important aspects of Creation that enable life.
Fretheim employed the imagery of the cosmos being formed in the likeness of the tabernacle. Each day moves you closer to the Holy of Holies, embodied in the Sabbath. Although I had thought about the tabernacle being a microcosm of the Creation, I had not considered the reverse in Genesis 1. This is a powerful image in that all of Creation is gathered in this symphony of worship, where life is created, blessed and sustained. Thus, space seems to be equally important!
In connection with this imagery, Genesis 1 revolves around the number seven. The first sentence is made of seven words, the second has fourteen, and the third sentence has thirty-five. Overall, there are 469 words, which is a multiple of seven. “God ‘saw and pronounced creation ‘good’ seven times; ‘earth’ or ‘land’… appears twenty-one times; ‘God’ is repeated thirty-five times. There are also seven days of Creation. Seven is a significant number in this passage, connoting wholeness or completion. Fretheim notes the differentiated order that is represented in this number’s use and how that reflects the character of the whole passage.
The phrase “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” has been interpreted in a number of ways. Typically, the Christian faith has understood this in Trinitarian terms: Father, Son, and Spirit conversing. Another way to understand this is to say that there is a heavenly host that is being referred to here. I have heard both of these positions before; however, I was unaware of a third possibility. Arnold suggests that God is simply deliberating with God’s self “about the creation of humankind… God himself decisively steps in to make humankind” (44). This seems only mildly different than the Trinitarian formulation.
Fretheim, on the other hand, understands this to be a heavenly host rather than God’s inner dialogue and deliberation. Fretheim bases this interpretation on other passages in the Old Testament that record the “heavenly council.” According to Fretheim, the heavenly host has been replaced by humanity as “God’s new pantheon.”
Overall, both Arnold and Fretheim have strengths and weaknesses in their interpretations of Genesis 1. Fretheim couples his interpretation with scientific undergirding to help shed light on the complexities of creation. This also happens to be the weakness of his argument, especially given the changing nature of science. This potentially limits some of its future usefulness.
Arnold offers a less holistic view of the passage. Most of his commentary on Genesis 1 focuses on its similarities and dissimilarities with the ancient creation stories (i.e., Enuma Elish). Although this is an important thing to consider, his argument is weak in trying to show that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical. As noted above, that is not something that can be proven. We only have the text as it is now… which is polemical when read with the other ancient creation stories. This detracts from Arnold’s interpretation. However, Arnold does provide some contrasts to Fretheim that allow you to see other available options.
“Historians have provided thorough and irrefutable documentation that the century just lived through (the twentieth) has been the most murderous on record.” This violence is in some way attributable to our lost sense of living in covenant community. Covenant is the premise of Creation; Creation is the context of covenant. Simply put, all of life is relational which can only be sustained in covenant. Let us examine this premise further.
The distinctive Christian doctrine of Trinity lays the foundation for understanding all of reality as covenantal and relational.
Trinity understands God as three-personed: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in community, each ‘person’ in active communion with the others. We are given an understanding of God that is most emphatically personal and interpersonal. God is nothing if not personal. If God is revealed as personal, the only way that God can be known is in personal response.
The very character and nature of God testified to in Scripture is dialogical. God initiates dialogue, calls out, and speaks into being. This calling out and speaking enables and invites response from both the larger Creation and from humanity. Again, God is relational.
As a dialogical Person, God is not merely transcendent but imminent within our world. The “pathos” of God is intimately engaged in our world. Not only does God act, but can be acted upon. There are several ways that this is true, not least of which is prayer. Most profoundly, this is seen through the drama of the crucifixion in which the Father and the Son both suffer. The Son dies and the Father experiences Son-less-ness. God’s commitment to covenant ultimately leads to the cross. True dialogue requires risk and the potential for both dialogical partners to be changed.
As may be obvious, dialogue is not one-sided. Israel, human persons, the nations, andCeation ultimately are invited into this divine dialogue. “Praise-thanks and lament-complaint bespeaks of Israel as a fully engaged dialogic partner who plays a role vis-à-vis YHWH in which a profound drama of fidelity and infidelity is regularly performed.”
Israel, and by extension other persons, is called into genuine relatedness in which open and honest communication might occur. This is primarily done through covenant. First, God loves Israel. God brings into being this nation as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” set apart for God’s purposes (doing). YHWH is committed to Israel. Thus, YHWH chooses Israel, though not because of any particular strength, value, or individual quality that sets it apart.
In response to God loving, choosing, and setting God’s heart upon them, Israel is called and even commanded to love God alone and to live in obedient faithfulness to YHWH. Both God’s wrath and grace must be understood in terms of its connection with covenant. Israel is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, to hear and obey (do justice), and to be holy as YHWH is holy. In other words, Israel is continuously called (whether from fidelity or infidelity on their part) to reflect God’s character and nature back in the world through sustained communion with the Lover. Even in the midst of exile, death, and destruction, Israel dares to trust and hope in this God of covenant fidelity.
The second of God’s dialogical partners is humanity. Humanity is entirely dependent upon God. They are creatures and God is Creator and the creature must remember this connection. Because God is sovereign, humanity is called to live obediently toward YHWH. Yet, God allows freedom in the human person because God is not coercive. This allows a genuine response, even in the form of complaint, from the human agents. Brueggemann says it thus, “What full humanness requires and expects in this tradition, moreover, is the courage to assert and the confidence to yield.” As such, humanity is called to act in three ways: listening (obedience), discerning (“response to hidden generosity of God”), and trusting (in God’s faithfulness). Likewise, humanity is enabled to bring complaint, petition, and thanksgiving before God. This full confidence in YHWH leads to praise and hope. Again, it is a life lived in “glad obedience, trustful freedom, and venturesome relatedness.”
The nations are also a dialogical partner with YHWH. Four nations stand out in this partnership in Israel’s testimony: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. A typical pattern emerges in these relationships. First, God covenants with all creation and all nations through Noah. As such, YHWH makes a claim on all nations, not only Israel. God commands the nations. The nations respond but eventually overstep their boundaries of power, lacking mercy. Finally, God responds in wrath toward those nations that fail to live by the covenant (living justly). However, God also promises to deliver and restore them, if they turn from their wickedness.
Creation is the final dialogical partner with YHWH. YHWH blesses creation to provide an abundance that provides and sustains life. However, creation is “relinquished to the power of chaos and curse when human agents, charged with the well-being of creation, renege on their caretaking responsibility.” Yet, YHWH’s does not allow death and destruction to be the last word in the conversation with those dialogical partners. Instead, God restores creation to life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining potential.
“To speak of ‘the structures of covenant life’ can be a helpful way to speak of the law. The language of structure catches up the theme of creation; the ordering of community is in tune with God’s ordering of the cosmos. Just as the law and structures, more generally, were an integral part of God’s work in creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15-17), so God, in giving the law to Israel, provides structure for society. The law is good, a gracious divine gift, and is given for the sake of a well-ordered community.”
Birch, Bruce C. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.
Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005.
 Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 9.
 Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 45.
 Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 13.
 Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 65.
 Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 90.
 Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 166.
 Birch, Bruce C.. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, 127.
Thesis of the Book
The affluence of Western missionaries creates a communicatory and relational barrier between missionaries and those to whom they serve with the Gospel. The result is a Gospel misunderstood or not received by indigenous populations. There is a dissonance between the missionaries’ “medium” and “message.” Bonk seeks to uncover the costs of affluence for missionaries, establishing guidelines for living as “righteous rich.”
Evaluation of Sources Used
Bonk uses a plethora of sources, which definitely helps the case he is trying to make. Initially, Bonk uses financial sources to show the relative wealth of Western nations versus other nations (i.e., Third World Countries). Since many of the missionary agencies are in Western countries and are being sent to impoverished nations, this helps us see the distance between affluent and impoverished countries. Although the Gross Domestic Product is difficult to accurately assess, it does provide a general overview of wealth.
This first chapter’s sources concerning missionary affluence were probably the weakest. Although Western countries are affluent when compared to Third World countries, that does not then entail that missionaries are affluent when they come from the West. In some contexts, they might not be affluent. And, supporting the argument on the fact that one missionary family received $60,000 per year (which might be considered substantial in America), does not then mean that every missionary is allotted the same. In fact, it is quite possible that a missionary would be on a poverty level in a particular country in which they serve.
However, Bonk’s basic assertion that there is a gap between the affluent and the impoverished carries weight, especially when considering missionaries, even with a meager salary, serving in Third World contexts. Furthermore, many of the sources in this section were close to thirty or more years old. The financial state of things could have, though not necessarily, changed since then.
Bonk traces the history of missionaries’ wrestling with affluence through primary sources. Many of these sources are from the 19th century into the early 20th century. Although there are a few contemporary sources employed, they probably should have been integrated more to show that there is still an existing situation.
The theological section was good. Minimal commentary was made; Bonk allowed Scripture to speak (without merely proof texting). The final three chapters were written by noted theologians. Justo L. González focus on historical theology strongly supplemented Bonk’s material position of the “righteous rich.”
Development of the Main Idea
Bonk begins by showing the overall affluence of Western civilization in comparison to non-Western nations. Using various instruments, such as GDP, Bonk makes strong case that affluence is an ever-expanding chasm between Western and non-Western nations. It is not merely growing; it is exponentially widening.
Since most mission agencies are stationed in the Western nations, many of the missionaries from these agencies experience this gap firsthand. Although missionaries may not be wealthy in a Western context, they often are very affluent when entering foreign nations. This is especially true of Third World countries. Bonk recognizes the many positive things that affluence can provide for missionaries and their families. One of the greatest arguments for affluence is longevity in the mission field. However, the Gospel is often misunderstood as primarily a way to acquire wealth or the missionaries are perceived as hypocritical to the Gospel message when the medium and message do not line. The result is a tremendous barrier between the missionary and the indigenous people.
Bonk then looks at Scripture’s stance on wealth and poverty. Walking through Old and New Testaments, he highlights the overall importance of stewardship of God’s resources. God definitely sides with the impoverished, especially where the rich take advantage of them. However, riches can also be a blessing from God! Scriptures notes the difficulty of being righteous and rich. The more goods one has, the more opportunity for temptation exists. Yet, resources can be employed in godly ways for the benefit of those less fortunate. In this way, we serve God by serving others. Riches are not ours to hoard, but to bless others. Bonk concludes that it is difficult, but possible to be righteous and rich.
Christopher J. H. Wright and Justo L. González argue a similar position for the righteous rich. Wright frames his position in light of the Old Testament traditions, showing how riches bring both blessing and curse. Ultimately, God is Creator and we are stewards of the good gifts we are given by God. Losing sight of God’s place as Lord over everything usually ends with the rich being judged for their oppression of the poor. González frames his argument by first looking at Acts and describing the partnership the Church enjoys with God and with each other. The resources each one has are gifts from God that are to be shared with one another and especially with the poor. In his final chapter, the issue of riches is looked at for the sub-apostolic church. Shortly after the first century, writings (i.e., Didache) were composed to help the early Church discern proper living as a community of believers. Following the tradition of the Church in Acts, the sub-apostolic Church condemns close-fisted living. Instead, Christians are to be generous with their resources as a reflection of Christ’s generosity to us!
Personal Evaluation of the Book
I found the book challenging. I work within the context of the American church, which is very affluent. There is a temptation for many pastors, including myself, to pursue “bigger and better.” Mega-churches are in abundance in many of our cities. Large incomes and benefits packages are more about thriving than surviving. Some churches have abandoned the urban poor for more suitable and safe places to serve. There is a great deal of temptation to climb the ladder and play the political game of Church hierarchy. Yet, this is not an Incarnational model.
Bonk’s evaluation of the effects of affluence on communicating the Gospel are sobering. Riches have a way of numbing us to the plight of the poor and the marginalized. How can we communicate the Gospel to those people if we cannot identify with them and proclaim the Gospel in ways that speak into their context? If mission agencies are a strong secularizing force within the world, we have to ask if the Church in the Western world is doing the same within our context. Are we merely re-packaging culture under a thin veneer of Christianity? Consumerism, rather than a cruciform life, often governs us.
Riches create a great temptation for us. It is easy to become blind to its allure. Yet, I believe that God is able to sanctify those resources and our desires. There can be a “righteous rich” person, but one must be extremely careful. The medium and the message cannot be separated! We are blessed so that we might be a blessing and so glorify God among the nations.
Although Isaac is not necessarily a major character in the narratives of Genesis, he is still an integral part. Abraham and Sarah had been unable to have children. Sarah’s womb was barren. And, although they had a son, Ishmael, through Sarah’s handmaiden, God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son and the promise would be fulfilled through him.
The promise did not come to fruition immediately. In fact, Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years when God visited them again. God assures them that they will have a child within a year’s time. Abraham is silent and Sarah laughs at the impossibility of having a child in their old age. Yet, that is exactly what happens. Isaac is born! Isaac embodies the promise from God to Abraham. Abraham’s son is very precious to him.
Genesis 22 is initiated by God’s desire to test Abraham. God calls to Abraham and commands him to take Isaac and to sacrifice him. There is no protest but simple obedience from Abraham. Isaac is old enough to understand that they have not adequately prepared for the journey. Upon asking his father about a sacrifice, Abraham simply states that God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice. It is the picture of unclouded faith.
Abraham had seen God’s ability to provide in the past. After all, Isaac was a miracle by God alone. Abraham and Sarah’s bodies were as good as dead. They were unable to fulfill God’s promise on their own. Despite the overwhelming odds, God provided the elderly couple with a son. That experience confirmed Abraham’s faith and trust in what God was asking him to do. Thus, Abraham obeyed without reservation.
The underlying basis for Abraham’s trust is God’s faithfulness. After all, God had specifically told Abraham that it would be through Isaac that the promise would be fulfilled. Although we can merely speculate at Abraham’s thoughts about sacrificing his son, we can clearly see that God is powerful enough to fulfill his promise, even if Isaac is sacrificed. God has fully demonstrated the divine power and goodness. Abraham moves ahead in obedience.
When Abraham and Isaac arrived at the mountain, the preparations for the sacrifice were made. Isaac was bound and placed on top of the wood. Abraham grabbed the knife and was prepared to plunge it into his son. At this moment, an angel appears and stops Abraham from killing Isaac. God tells Abraham that he now knows that Abraham is faithful.
This suggests God limits God’s knowledge of the future or that the future is not something that is not fully knowable because it does not yet exist. There is a real freedom of decision for humanity. Thus, God tests Abraham to see how he would act when asked to give back to God that which is most precious to him. Abraham is shown to be faithful.
God values human decision. Abraham has the capacity to choose not to sacrifice Isaac. Yet, it is his difficult decision that ultimately proves to God that Abraham is faithful to him alone. It seems like God desires to know if God’s people have a singleness of heart for God alone! God has created the cosmos in such a way that there are real choices with real consequences. God is far from being a divine tyrant. Rather, God invites response and waits to see the result.
It is at this point that Abraham notices a ram that is caught in a nearby bush. Abraham takes the ram and sacrifices it to God. Abraham names the place “The Lord Will Provide.” That is the theological “kernel of truth” for this passage. God is shown to be faithful and to provide in ways that might not be readily apparent in the beginning. This is a lesson that Abraham has learned well in his journey with God. Our assertion should be: “God’s grace is enough!”
God speaks. The Spirit of God hovers of the waters of pre-creation chaos. In the midst of that chaos a word is breathed, ordering the chaos and separating the waters from the waters. Space is created. Space in which life is possible, sustained by God’s life-giving blessing: “It is very good.” God speaks and the Creation responds.
Chaos seems to be quite the wily serpent for it rears its ugly head to strike. Humanity questions God’s goodness and clenches the fist of rebellion, grasping the fruit of knowledge so that they might “be like God.” Humanity becomes both perpetrator and victim to the sin that so easily corrupts. Humanity does not engage in dialogue with God, merely speaks to the serpent about God. In the end, they find themselves naked, ashamed, and hiding themselves from God’s presence.
God enters the Garden calling out for humanity to respond, as if God did not already know where they were. Yet, God calls inviting genuine response. God initiates the relationship again, despite the infidelity of the couple. However, the rupture is severe. Adam blames God, blames woman, and she blames serpent. Right-relationship between God, humanity, and creation has been severely disrupted. Of course, we know that God does not immediately punish them with death, but there is death (animal skins). And, God does not curse humanity, although their labors increase. God kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden. However, even this can be seen as a merciful act of a God that does not desire to be forever separated from humanity in their sinfulness.
Yet, the story does not get any better. Cain kills his brother, Abel, due to jealousy. Violence enters the story. The watery chaos of destruction is making itself visible. Lamech, a descendent of Cain’s, kills a young man and claims he will be avenged seventy-seven times to Cain’s seven times. Violence has escalated to astronomical levels. The hearts of all humanity is constantly bent toward wickedness and God repents of having made humanity. This change of direction means that God will no longer sustain the life-giving space of creation but will allow the chaos to swallow up creation in its destructive wake.
However, Noah finds favor with God. For this reason, God tells Noah to build an ark, a space where life can be preserved. Although the waters separated in the Creation narrative collapse in on themselves, Noah, his family, and the animals are preserved. God again separates the waters from the waters, re-creating the space where life can be sustained through blessing. Although humanity is still wicked, God covenants never to destroy the earth through a flood again, chaos will never prevail.
This covenant with Noah shows God limiting God’s power for the sake of relationship. God will maintain fidelity, even when God’s people and creation do not. However, God, as we see in Noah, is disposed to “salvation” and re-creation. Thus, God begins to call, inviting and initiating response with humanity and creation. Terah, Abram’s father, responds to God’s call minimally, moving his family to the land of Ur. He becomes a resident rather than remaining a resident alien. Thus, God calls to his son, Abram, to leave everything behind and follow him.
Abram listens and begins to follow God, who covenants with him. God will make Abram a great nation, will lead him to a land (space for life), and make him a blessing to all nations. The blessing of a new creation is being initiated here with this Adam of the nations. If curse came through the one man, so will the blessing. God will again make the fruitfulness of creation a reality, even in the midst of barren possibilities. God is committed to this project.
The story seems well on its way through the rest of Genesis. There are times where the promise seems perilously close to failing, yet God makes a way through barren wombs, family intrigue and deceitfulness, and even world-wide famine. However, the story of Exodus seems to put a screeching halt on this hope. A pharaoh that does not remember Joseph comes to power and begins an anti-creational campaign of holocaust. All males are to be drowned in the Nile’s chaotic waters.
Yet, the Hebrew midwives act subversively to the empire. Pharaoh remains nameless while the heroes of the story, those seemingly without power, the midwives, find themselves successful in subverting Pharaoh’s diabolical schemes. However, Pharaoh will not cease and tries to apply more pressure to see that his regime remains in power. Moses is born in the midst of this tumult. Although his parents try to keep him, they finally find that he is too difficult to keep from being heard. His mother weaves a basket of reeds, a little ark, which carries Moses upon the waters of destructive chaos into the welcoming arms of Pharaoh’s daughter.
Of course, we know the story. Moses eventually must flee Egypt and finds himself in exile in the desert. There God calls him to lead God’s people out of Egypt. It is difficult to get Pharaoh to submit to God’s plan, but finally Pharaoh relents. Israel journeys out of Egypt to the Sea of Reeds. Pharaoh does not take long to change his mind and begins pursuing the Israelites. Israel, encamped by the waters, finds themselves trapped between “the devil and the deep blue sea.”
The people cry to Moses and Moses prays to God. As in the beginning of creation, God separates the waters from the waters and dry land appears for the emancipated slaves to cross over. A space of salvation is made. Pharaoh and his army pursue the Hebrews, but the waters of chaos come crashing in upon Pharaoh and his army. The same watery grave that Pharaoh had intended for the Hebrew males becomes his own grave. The entropic reign of death destroys itself.
God leads the people to Mount Sinai where Moses is given the Decalogue and issues God’s call to the community. They are to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation.” They are called to reflect God’s character and nature back into the world, to the nations. God’s creational agenda can further be seen in the construction of the tabernacle (sacred space for life), which is construed in creation language. In this way, Israel is constituted to be a microcosm of God’s reign in the world, in which space is created in the midst of chaos and life can happen.
By this embodied existence, the nations will also know that YHWH reigns over the heavens and the earth. The gods of the other nations will be exposed as impotent and lifeless. Those that rule in anti-creational ways will find themselves the victim of their own wickedness and God’s justice will be enacted for the “widow, orphan, and foreigner.”
Of course, ideally Israel would fulfill their vocation with fidelity and obedience. It would remember the great deliverance they had received by God’s hand. And, they would be a people consecrated to God alone, by which the nations would come to praise YHWH as king and sovereign over the whole earth. After all, God instructs Israel that they will not in turn become just another Egypt!
This, however, is not the picture we typically see displayed in Israel’s political and spiritual life. Rather, “every man does what is right in his own sight.” Although there are some spiritual high points, even within the monarchy, Israel is continuously wrestling with becoming like the nations rather than becoming more like God. The prophets whom God sends, reminds the people of their vocation and their call to enact justice and mercy. Yet, they quite often continue to pursue greed, idolatry, and exploitation.
Despite warnings of judgment, Israel largely ignores the God of dialogue. They rather turn it into a monologue about themselves, exploiting the poor and downtrodden. God’s wrath and judgment are poured out upon Israel in the form of Exile. The great deportation of Babylon’s victory swept the people away into a strange land. Once again, the waters of chaos threatened to overwhelm God’s people, utterly destroying them in the process. They wept bitterly and cried out in the midst of their anguish. In the midst of that struggle, Israel remembered God’s deliverance from Egypt and the ordering of chaos in the creation. If YHWH had created this world from such destructive forces, the Lord could raise these dead bones to life.
God’s word comes to the exiles promising freedom, sight, and hearing despite a situation that had brought bondage, blindness, and deafness. God had not forsaken them. Israel is called to newness in the midst of Babylonian hegemony. They are called to live in the subversive narrative of God’s new creation even in the midst of Babylon’s (and Persia’s) claims of sovereignty. A shoot would come from the stump of Jesse; new life was possible in the midst of the regimes of death. The day of the Lord was coming in which all would be made right, justice would be enacted, and all things would be made new. Although it had not yet happened, Israel could even now begin to participate in a foretaste of that coming Kingdom.
“In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Sam. 3:1b). This is the context for the story of Samuel’s training under Eli. In fact, the Book of Judges assesses Israel’s spiritual life by saying, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Jdgs 21:25). The moral landscape was bleak, dark, and desolate.
This problem was no isolated incident but saturated and infiltrated every part of Israel’s life including its religious life. Eli, a priest and the moral leader of Israel, lives no differently than his contemporaries. Although he should be one who continuously helps Israel navigate the moral and ethical hazards of life, we find him to be quite an inept leader.
Eli’s two sons, Phineas and Hophni, serve as priests. Yet, they use their role as priests in order to manipulate, control, and overpower others. They sleep with the young women at the Tent of Meeting. They also take the choicest of meat from those who come to offer sacrifices. The religious office has become a means by which they might line their pockets, enjoy the high life, and satiate their lust.
Eli knows all too well what is going on with his two sons. Others have told him about their evil deeds. Despite these warnings, Eli turns a blind eye to their abuses of power and allows it to continue rather than calling them to repentance. Eli is becoming blind and deaf. He lacks understanding. Is the Word of the Lord exceedingly rare or are the people of God just hard of hearing?
In the midst of this spiritual havoc and mayhem, there are some who remain faithful. Hannah, a woman who is barren, comes before the Lord seeking God’s life-giving blessing. She desires to have a child and promises to dedicate her child to God’s service. The Word of the Lord comes to Hannah and opens up the womb that could not give life. Elkanah, her husband, and Hannah remain faithful to Hannah’s promise and return Samuel to God’s service under the tutelage of Eli.
Thus, 1 Samuel 3 begins with Samuel serving before the Lord under Eli. This particular pericope locates Samuel staying where the ark of God, the tangible symbol of God’s presence, was kept. Eli, however, lies outside of that chamber in the darkness, his eyes becoming increasingly darkened. One can sense that this is more than just a physical ailment, but indicates the deeper underlying spiritual issues which plague all of Israel.
As Samuel is lying there, God calls to him. Samuel gets up and runs to Eli, exclaiming, “Here I am; you called me.” Eli responds by sending Samuel back to bed, explaining he did not summon Samuel. This cycle of God calling, Samuel going to Eli, and Eli sending Samuel back to bed occurs two more times before Eli realizes that God is calling Samuel. Samuel did not realize God was calling him because “The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (1 Sam. 3:7b).
Eli then instructs Samuel to respond, saying “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9a). Samuel obeys and follows Eli’s instructions. The word of the Lord is then revealed to Samuel. This word brings about the promise of judgment upon Eli and his household for their wickedness. The word of the Lord also brings a shift in the story. Samuel is no longer dependent upon Eli’s instruction; Eli becomes dependent upon Samuel for God’s word (1 Sam. 3:17-18).
First Samuel 3 is a birthing narrative. “Birthing” language is employed throughout the narrative. The word of the Lord, as it did for Hannah, becomes the same word that gives birth to new life for Samuel and the community. In fact, after Samuel receives the word of the Lord, he opens the doors of the house of Yahweh. In similar fashion, it is the word of the Lord that opens up the barren womb, enabling Hannah to conceive. This “bursting forth” defines the nature of God’s word. It inevitably flows out into the community. It does not remain an isolated blessing.
Yet, not everyone seemingly benefits from this word. Eli and his family have come under judgment and have been replaced. Yahweh will no longer stand for the injustice of Eli’s house. God will open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Yet, those who remain unrepentant and opposed to God’s way of life find themselves increasingly blind and deaf, unable to hear and receive the life-giving word of the Lord. However, through the creative and life-giving word of the Lord, Eli’s tomb becomes Samuel’s womb.
The story concludes: “The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. And Samuel’s word came to all Israel” (1 Sam. 3:21). This generative word cannot be silenced. Rather, where there are those willing to “hear” and “see” Yahweh makes himself known.
God’s self-revelation culminates in the Word made flesh. This Word “is life, and that life [is] the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness [does] not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). Yet, despite this revelation, not everyone recognizes the Word. In fact, those that should be able to “see” and “hear” are often those that are found “blind” and “deaf.” In juxtaposition, God’s revelation gives sight to the blind and unstops the ears of the deaf.
We, too often, are like the Pharisees, asking, “What? Are we blind too?” The Word of Life calls out to us, but we have become blind by our own greed, lust, and contempt. We assume positions of power without any reference to God’s claim upon such authority. In the process, we lose all recognition of who is truly the Lord and Giver of Life. Yet, the Word enters into the darkness and conquers it, birthing new life in those that hear and obey. The Light shatters our darkness, calling us to respond. Like Samuel we cry, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” In that moment of surrender, the Creator breathes new life into us and through us to God’s world!
Preaching is an audacious act. It is audacious because one dares to stand before a congregation and declare, “The word of the Lord.” This is especially true given that the word given is often “counter-textual” to the dominant narrative of society, culture, and world. As such, preaching offers a different world to the listener than is currently on display.
Preaching is really an act of creative imagination, seeing beyond what is to what can be. That does not mean it is fictive rumination. Rather, it is a hope-filled rendering of a textual tradition that provides an alternative to the prevailing “texts” of an entropic world. Thus, the hearers are invited to enter into a different narrative with an open future.
Brueggemann offers a theory of “triangulation” concerning the people, pastor, and text. In any family, there is a constant tension between two parts of the triangle joining together against one party of the triangle. Thus, in families, this creates often destructive tensions of us versus them. This also happens in pulpits where the pastor imagines it is them and the text against the congregation. The congregation will sometimes push back in response. However, if we see the pastor in partnership with the people against the text, this provides a new way in which to hear the text. The text remains a dangerous utterance for both pastor and people, but the pastor is no longer vulnerable but merely is walking alongside congregation as they both wrestle with the implications of the text.
Also, there is both an “implied author” and an “implied audience.” The script is from an author, often far removed from the actual author of a text. This implied author (i.e., Moses) speaks to an implied audience a particular message. In preaching these texts, we need only allow the utterance to be spoken and let it stand. When this happens, the text can remain scandalous for both pastor and people without it denigrating into a pastor-versus-people reality. The integrity of the text is preserved because it is not in service to an ideology of pastor or people. Rather, both are open to hearing the text’s voice, which provides a counter-world.
Brueggemann states, “A sustained offer of doxologies concerning the miracles of abundance, of narratives of the give-and-take of covenantal mutuality, and of commandments as preconditions for life in the world make room for prophetic analysis and articulation.” Thus, one does not need to be a “prophet” but a scribe that is submerged in the text of tradition. “To think of one’s self as a scribe ‘trained for the kingdom’ may deliver one from the excessive ‘righteous indignation’ that is connected to conventional notions of ‘prophetic preaching.’”
Preaching calls for the formation of an alternative community. The utterance establishes an either/or scenario. The prevailing culture of death, destruction, and chaos is the either. The Gospel preached provides the or of God’s life-giving activity. The or provides the alternatives for this alternative community. Of course, God’s life-giving activity is always “at hand but never in hand.”
Brueggemann suggests sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism to help us see the texts clearly. Sociological criticism notes that every text serves someone’s interest. Rhetorical criticism focuses on the linguistic arrangement, form, and structure to best discern what the underlying issues may be. Within exegesis, Brueggemann upholds three steps: rhetorical analysis, word study, and artistic imagination. In other words, the student of exegesis is to take notice of what the author is doing, not merely saying. Furthermore, the student is “situate the text in a network of other texts.” Finally, the student is to ascertain the ideology behind the text. The ideological force indicates what it is reacting to, which allows us to see the social implications.
Every text must be interpreted. Likewise, every text serves certain interests. As such, no interpretation is unbiased but serves particular interests. Sociology, with the likes of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, help us to see the ways in which community life becomes distorted. The text and the interpreters of the text must be aware of those distortions and how the text may speak into those places. For this reason, interpreting the text is not an objective endeavor. Rather, it is “world-construction” whereby the hearers are invited to enter into an alternative to those community and life distorting practices of society.
Communities are never static but undergoing continuous reconstruction. This is done primarily through interpretation. Brueggemann suggests that transformation and equilibrium are the two options that are served by interpretation. The interpretation depends on the text, context, and the community itself. As such, the preacher must “pay attention to the possible hearing of the gospel that will occur in the congregation if the text is heard as an abrasion or as an assurance.”
The Deuteronomistic and sapiential tradition found within scripture frame the world through a direct causal lens. In other words, for every sin or evil the end result is death, either because of God’s punishment or the world is simply wired to allow the natural consequences of foolish to rebound on the perpetrator. There are certainly elements of that in our world. However, the composition of a three person framework (i.e., Pharaoh, God, and Israel) moves to a more dynamic understanding of reality, which says that not everything is simply a causal relationship. This is important because preaching must always take this into consideration and not make moralisms that are far too simplistic and reduce reality down to causal consequences. Rather, preaching must also consider the full implications of a fallen world in which good people sometimes receive bad things. People are not simply the “perpetrators” of evil, they are also the victims of evil. And, ultimately, even when we have found ourselves either perpetrator, God “abounding in love and steadfast mercy” does not always give us what we deserve but forgives us.
Brueggemann makes the point that “world construction” in our society can often happen without any reference to God. Thus, preaching must often use “testimony” rather than “proclamation.” It speaks as witness on trial rather than to the consensus. Like the Old Testament, preaching is a word spoken typically against the hegemony of empire. In the midst of empire, preaching “[appeals to] a past of life-giving miracles; a future of circumstance-defying promise; and present neighbors in fidelity.”
A useful metaphor for re-imagining the Gospel for our context is exile. Although we do not experience landlessness, we do experience the demolition of our “structured, reliable world” and a dismissal of our “treasured symbols of meaning.” This is undoubtedly true in the midst of modernism’s fall and the Church’s eroding influence. Preaching speaks our loss; enables rootedness; seeks the holy, awesome presence of God that satisfies true desire; it does not “resolve, explain, or deny” the moral incoherency in which we live; and it “models… resistance, defiance, and negotiation” against domestication of the empire.
The utterance of the Old Testament “denotes rather than connotes; it points and opens and suggests, but it does not conclude or define.” This makes preaching difficult in that our culture is geared toward exact definition and conclusion rather than willing to plumb the depths of mystery that must remain open. Preaching provides a “sub-version” of the dominant narrative with its closed possibilities. Preaching supplies the imagination with the God-given possibilities of life that being opened up, even in the midst of chaos.
The ninth commandment calls for truth-telling. This truth-telling is necessary for justice to be served, truth upheld, and community to be sustained. The destruction of community and justice are found in the seeds of false-hood and lies. Thus, truth-telling is an important element in preaching. It is more important because the dominant narrative of empire tries to bribe and cover over truth, anesthetizing us to a radical call to a life that is God-centered and God-oriented. We are called to be witnesses, not only to our neighbors but to our world.