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Examining the evidence
on 1 September 2003
This work by Walter Brueggemann is perhaps his most comprehensive view of the Old Testament to date. As the title implies, this is a Christian reading of the Old Testament scriptures (for scholars who approach the collection from a more objective standpoint prefer to avoid the use of the term 'Old Testament' in favour of the term 'Hebrew Scriptures'). However, Brueggemann is sensitive to the contemporary context of the scriptures and places them firmly in their rightful place for analysis.
Brueggemann concentrates on Yahweh -- there are other formulations of God in the text (Elohim, for example, or El-Shaddai in Job) but these don't tend to be dominant, so Brueggemann doesn't treat them so. As the subtitle suggests -- Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy -- Brueggemann uses an overall framework of a jury trial, with the presentation of evidence, argument, interpretation, and witnesses.
The first and final sections of the book are analytical and place this book in proper context of the history of OT research and writing, and where this is likely to continue, particularly with the idea of interpretation in a pluralistic context, which is fitting considering the plurality of voices present in the scriptures.
The first witness, of course, is Israel. Israel's experience in the scriptures, however, provides it with both a core testimony of God, as well as a counter-testimony of God. Brueggemann is good about maintaining a tension between poles in his writings, and here he has Israel's testimony pitted against itself, looking for Yahweh in the tension between.
Then there are components of unsolicited testimony, those of creation, humanity, the nations. Following are the concepts of mediators -- Torah, King, Prophet, Cult, Sage -- each of these things mediates the way in which God interacts with the community, and how the community receives and perceives God.
God is seen as a verb, a doer, Yahweh is the one who ... And yet, to have God fully uttered, fully named, a complete grammar must be built.
Perhaps this small bit has given you a flavour of the nearly 800 pages of this work. Brueggemann looks to provide a way of looking at God, without becoming rigid and inflexible. As a companion to this work, I would recommend 'God in the Fray' which is a tribute to Walter Brueggemann published shortly after 'Theology of the Old Testament', and has scholarly reactions to some of his major points.
Perhaps it is a feature of being part of a military-consumerist culture, to which might be added, media-saturated, but the idea of truth coming forward from the text and only the text seems unsatisfying in some regards. A failure of the courtroom method can be easily demonstrated. Testimony does not create reality in the ontological sense -- imagine an archaeologist finding, 5000 years from now, reports of courtroom proceedings with reports that juries returned not-guilty verdicts. In what sense would this non-guilt be a reality? While the defendants would be de jure not guilty, in fact they might have been guilty, and the testimony was simply unconvincing. The resolution to this problem, the link between testimony and more basic, ultimate reality, is not very clear. Perhaps it has no place in Old Testament theology, but that requires a fairly narrow definition of the field.
Also, is it indeed true (as Brueggemann intends) that there are no categories which are appropriate for all cultures and times? After all, there are certain universal principles in the physical world, and there are certain universal principles in language, such that while each retains a unique flavour, they can all be interpreted (albeit imperfectly) by other languages (Linear B and such illusive language bits notwithstanding). Of course, with regard to Old Testament theology, the universal constant will be the text itself.
Brueggeman warns against reductionism, saying that conventional systematic theology cannot seem to get a grasp on the polyphony of voices in the Old Testament text. He warns against coming to narrow, flattened conclusions, and does not accept the possibility of ontological arguments vis-a-vis knowing the Yahweh behind the text, stating that, like a courtroom drama, truth is constructed and made real through testimony. The key element in Brueggemann's character seems to be justice, and it is a very communitarian approach.
Of course, this makes the ultimate knowledge of God a never-ending quest. The text will always be subject to re-reading with cultured eyes and renewed interpretation (realising that 'literal' reading is itself an interpretation, and the 'literal' reading of the text today is quite different from the 'literal' reading of the text a thousand years ago, and will be different a thousand years from now).