Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Davis, Ellen F., Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Pp. xvii+234. Softcover. US$ 23.99. ISBN 978-0-521-73223-9.

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible consists of nine independent and yet related essays that each engage in a reading of selected biblical texts from the perspective of agrarianism. Six of the essays originated as lectures by this leading Hebrew Bible scholar. Davis is concerned with both the ancient meaning(s) of the text and the contemporary theological implications and applications of the text. Davis is clear that she is not using a method, but employs the practice of putting texts in conversation with one another and with contemporary writers. Thus, she does not argue for a systematic manner of “agrarian reading,” but the result of her work produces a reading focused on agrarian issues. Throughout her analysis, the presentation is accessible, well-written, supported by careful scholarly research, and constructive in its approach.

The first chapter introduces the issues, as Davis identifies a current ecological crisis and puts this reality in conversation with selected biblical texts, especially from the prophets, who speak of interrelated ecological and theological crises. While laying the foundation, this chapter lacks a clear presentation of methodology, as Davis clearly admits.

The second chapter connects selected biblical texts (Genesis 2; Genesis 6–9; Psalm 85; and others from Proverbs and Isaiah) with contemporary agrarian authors (Robert Zimdahl, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Coleman), arguing for a consistency between the Hebrew Bible's concern for the land and the perspectives conveyed by these more recent voices. This chapter serves an excellent, yet brief, introduction to several of the key texts in the Hebrew Bible and to some of the leading writers on agrarianism and land use, and would serve well for an assigned reading for students to expose them to the general topic.

The third chapter offers a reading of Genesis 1 that focuses on the depiction of the land and how divinity, humanity, and other aspects of creation relate to it. Davis attempts to show the Priestly concern for order as one that promotes considerable respect for the creation and the sobering responsibility that humanity bears as the imago Dei. Working with many complex ideas and insights from a variety of scholars, Davis is able to articulate a coherent view of Genesis 1 as a poem. Understanding Genesis 1 as poetry, she suggests, changes the way that the chapter should be read, i.e., as a more creative and imaginative text with a “surplus of meaning” (p. 45). Her treatment of the imago Dei and the discussion of “dominion” are particularly insightful and help to expose the various conceptions of the relationship between humanity and the rest of creation (pp. 53–63).

The fourth chapter contends that the incident of the manna in Exodus 16 promotes a “wilderness economy” that is satisfied with restricting one's (or a community's) consumption to what one needs rather than self-indulgence. While this view may be correct, the argument is not as developed as the one in the previous chapter and at times the conclusions seem strained, in my opinion.

The fifth chapter examines the concern for the land evident in Leviticus, especially in chapter 19. Biblical scholars will not find much new information in this analysis that has not already been presented many times in many other publications. Nevertheless, the treatment of “land theology” in Leviticus is accurate, succinct, and accessible.

The sixth chapter presents an argument for a “local economy” as a biblical perspective that contemporary readers should embrace. Davis draws on the episode of Naboth's vineyard in 1 Kings 21 and the theological views of Psalm 37, but her argument is not persuasive, in my opinion. While the theological concern for land use may be valid, these particular texts do not seem to support such a position. A “local economy” model may be appealing to some readers, but there is little in the Bible to either support or deny its appropriateness.

The seventh chapter discusses the perspective of the land presented by two eighth-century prophets, Amos and Hosea. Davis distills the relevant texts and provides clear exegetical work to understand the theological and ecological views that they convey in the midst of social change under Jeroboam II. Davis' insightful analysis reveals the content of their messages and their concern for appropriate land use and the related issue of social justice.

The eighth chapter surveys the view of productivity presented in Proverbs, with special attention to the “woman of valor” (אשׁת חיל) in Proverbs 31. Davis addresses its presentation of the “regular activity of an ordinary person” (p. 148) in light of the Persian imperial context and economic policies that would have been the context for understanding the images this acrostic uses. While the chapter title mentions both wisdom and sloth, the chapter itself is more a discussion of Proverbs' view of productivity than either of these two terms in more expansive ways.

The ninth and final chapter addresses the city, especially Jerusalem as Zion and as the eschatological telos in the prophetic literature. While many of the agrarian authors that Davis cites would wish to dismiss this biblical material and often present the city as an aberration and as a reality inconsistent with God's vision for shalom, Davis helpfully presents the case for the importance of taking these positive images of the city in the prophetic literature seriously. This is a well-argued and reasoned chapter that does not say more than it should, while not shying away from the diversity of views in the Hebrew Bible. In many ways, this chapter and the one on Genesis 1 are the two best essays in the book.

This book will be essential reading for anyone interested in what the Hebrew Bible may say about ecological issues. While it is more theological than historical or literary in its approach, Davis' book provides helpful and engaging treatments of key biblical texts that are put in conversation with contemporary agrarian authors. While many will take issue with some of her arguments, the book stands as a testimony to the need to do this type of work carefully and creatively. There is certainly more to be done, but Davis has moved the conversation forward by both the scope and accessibility of this collection of inter-related essays on a topic of vital importance in our time.

Steven J. Schweitzer, Bethany Theological Seminary, Richmond, Indiana