Old Testament scholar draws parallels between ancient Israel, U.S. today

03/29/2014 7:09 AM

08/08/2014 10:23 AM

“Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks” by Walter Brueggemann (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 165 pages, $15)

When comparing the ideology of Israel at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. with the ideology of the United States after the 9/11 attacks, a similar crisis in both nations’ sense of their exceptionalism and entitlement is exposed. That’s the thesis of Walter Brueggemann’s “Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.”

In America’s case, the long-held belief in exceptionalism (“a peculiar God-given mandate for democracy and freedom ... pursued with messianic zeal’) was shaken by 9/11, he maintains, and the nation’s decline is a result of “unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege, and superiority.” Focusing on the Old Testament prophets, Brueggemann asserts that acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God (Amos 6:8) is the only path to take to avoid the inevitable fate of a privileged nation.

Brueggemann, professor emeritus of the Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary and a prolific author of theological works, contends that a “prophetic ministry” is needed by churches to reverse the destructive path we’re on. That prophetic task, however, will be no easier for current prophets than it was for the prophets of biblical Israel. But it is “indispensable for the future viability of our society,” Brueggemann writes. “It is, moreover, work that is likely to remain undone until it is undertaken by a faithful, courageous, emancipated church.”

In reviewing the story of ancient Israel, Brueggemann contends that the covenants God made with Abraham and Moses were subsumed by the nation’s religious and political leaders. They delegated to themselves the power, privilege and entitlement of Jerusalem and directed the people’s life and worship for their own benefit.

When the prophets came along speaking a word of judgment, those in power consistently ignored or silenced their voices. “(King and temple leaders) imagined that their life was so good, so successful, and so guaranteed that it would not be interrupted,” Brueggemann says. Their belief in exceptionalism and entitlement and their denial of looming destruction were shattered when the Babylonian army arrived to tear down the temple and exile the people to Babylon. Denial quickly gave way to despondent grief.

For those in exile, hope was possible only when their false sense of exceptionalism was abandoned. The prophets then had a new message, Brueggemann says. “In the midst of near-despair, the prophetic task is to articulate hope, the prospect of fresh historical possibility assured by God’s good governance of the future.”

How does this scenario compare with that of the United States?

“Since the time of the early Puritans, U.S. self-understanding has been saturated with biblical phrasing and allusion that portrayed the United States as God’s chosen people,” Brueggemann says. And that belief in chosenness and entitlement has corrupted our nation, setting it up for an ominous future.

Examples of corruption include racist treatment of various minorities, the militarism of our society and the use of power and wealth for the benefit of the few, Brueggemann maintains. Not that the story of Israel’s fall in 587 B.C.E. equates to a similar invasion of our country, but it does provide a clear warning, he says: Our nation is facing the same end to its dominance, and it will take contemporary prophets such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who articulated the dream of a new reality for this nation, to begin to reshape our society into the human community that God intended.

Reaction to Brueggemann’s interpretation, which is overly pedantic at times, will depend in part on one’s political persuasion. His critical asides about the tea party and the religious right clearly show his political bias. But going in with that understanding, the reader is still challenged to consider the keen insights that this noted biblical scholar is presenting, particularly to those who believe in the divine mandate to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, the prophets’ consistent message to Israel’s stubborn leaders.

Brueggemann, a United Church of Christ clergyman, acknowledges that his book will not please everyone. “(S)ome will find my analogue to the Old Testament unpersuasive, upsetting or irritating. I have no wish to confront or to persuade, but only to consider that in the interpretive trajectory of the prophetic tradition this is an issue that will not go away, one that requires of us our best critical, faithful thinking.”

For those within the Christian fold who are unafraid to consider with unflinching honesty this nation’s current direction, especially in light of the biblical message, the task of examining where we are and where we may be headed, with the aid of Brueggemann’s book, is clearly worth undertaking.

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