Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Brueggemann, Walter, Divine Presence amid Violence (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2009). Pp. xii + 82. Softcover, US$13.00. ISBN 978-1-60608-089-4.

In this slender volume, Brueggemann applies his work of social ethics and theology to a sample reading of Joshua 11. The work is designed for those uninitiated to his methodology. He begins with a brief review of sociological and literary methods of analysis of the Hebrew Bible, drawing the interested reader's attention to major representatives of each of these fields and their primary works. He draws attention to his own approach to the Hebrew Bible as developed in his Old Testament Theology, one that mimics the courtroom with verbal expressions of testimony, dispute, and advocacy. He then provides a translation of Joshua 11, the story of Israel's campaign in the northern part of the land God had promised to them.

Reflecting on the general narrative context of this section in the book of Joshua, Brueggemann proceeds to examine the structure of the chapter. In particular, he focuses on the sixth verse, the only direct statement of God, here given to the Israelite leader, Joshua: “Do not be afraid of them, for tomorrow at this time I will hand over all of them, slain, to Israel. You shall hamstring the horses and burn the chariots with fire.”

Brueggemann understands this text as a divine authorization that permits Joshua and Israel to turn violence against the instruments and systems of violence as represented by the Canaanite cities. In doing so, he bases his understanding of the social world of Israel on the work of Norman Gottwald, especially his The Tribes of Yahweh.[1]

Early Israel is a weak and vulnerable egalitarian community whose society the autocratic Canaanite kings cannot permit to exist. They seek to destroy it. Yahweh is here seen as authorizing Israel to use military force without becoming directly involved in the operation. Israel must intervene for itself and defeat the enemy. In so doing, however, they go beyond the divine “authorization” and apply the herem, or “total destruction” as commanded through Moses in Deuteronomy 20. This is explicitly stated in Joshua 11:12, 15, 20, and 23. While God's command to Joshua is explicit and clear, the mediation of Moses, a part of the remembered tradition in the context of Joshua, must be interpreted. On the one hand, this leads to greater violence in the deaths of many without mercy. On the other hand, it provides for the acquisition of booty in the form of livestock that could be used by Israel for its own life and well-being.

From this perspective, Brueggemann turns to the question as to whether God mandates violence (p. 39). Theologically, he answers Yes in the context of God's maintenance of the holy people (Deut 7:6). In the immediate context of Josh 11:6 the answer is also in the affirmative as a means of eliminating instruments of dominion. Thus, in the context of oppression and as a means of eliminating the domination of that injustice, God mandates this violence in order to preserve an egalitarian community. In all this Brueggemann suggests that Yahweh did not participate directly in the battle but “convened” it (v. 20) by hardening the hearts of the leaders and their armies so that they would fight Israel.

Brueggemann maintains that “horses and chariots” regularly represent a monopoly of power and wealth that serves the purpose of its owners for oppression. Examples are drawn from the stories of 1 Kings 20; 2 Kings 6; 2 Kings 7; and 2 Kings 18. He notes how these intriguing and creative stories contrast with the tedious lists of kings who exercise their power and thus catalog their wealth, and its military and governing bureaucracies. Thus one may compare the stories of David and his adventures with the lists and non-narrative catalogs that comprise much of the description of Solomon's power.

As in Joshua 11, these other stories do not so much explain how God brings about the defeat of the enemy. Rather, they emphasize the manner in which Yahweh uses the weak and disenfranchised to resist and overthrow the machinations of martial power as represented by “horses and chariots.” Citing texts from the prophets, the Psalms, and even a reference in Proverbs (21:30–31), he demonstrates again and again how Yahweh's power is not found in these trusted implements of human domination but in trust in Yahweh. Thus king Joash grieves at the death of Elisha by calling out: “My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen” (2 Kgs 13:14). As Brueggemann observes, “The king acknowledges that the prophetic figure of Elisha is Israel's mode of power in the world” (p. 62).

This study provides a provocative reflection on the powerless as represented by Israel and their authorization to struggle against the “horses and chariots” of this world's oppressive systems. Without doubt, Brueggemann has captured the genius of the manner in which the God of the Hebrew Bible (for the New Testament see his reference to 1 Cor 1:25, inter alia) delights in overturning human expectations and trust in anyone or anything other than God alone. He also convincingly demonstrates that Joshua 11 can be read as a text in which the powerless are chosen by God to demonstrate his power and justice against an oppressive system of Canaanite city states such as occupied southern Canaan in the thirteenth century BCE.

This reviewer would take issue with Brueggemann's attempt to remove Yahweh from the scene of the conflict itself. The language of Josh 11:6, where God promises to “hand over” the Canaanites is identical to the promise of Josh 1:2, repeated many times in the book, where God promises to “hand over” the land to Israel. The same Hebrew root (נתן), appearing as a participle, occurs in all these texts. God is clearly involved in each step of the process of acquisition of the land, whether as exemplified in the special presence of the ark of the covenant (see especially chs. 3–4 and 6) or in directly intervening in the fighting itself (as in the actions of Josh 10:11–14). Thus the “giving” or “handing over” certainly involves Israel's participation, but it also assumes God's active engagement, whether in miraculous accounts or otherwise.

Brueggemann might also consider more closely the message of the first five verses of Joshua 11. He does mention how the Canaanite rulers cannot tolerate the existence of this “egalitarian” community of Israel. The picture deserves further development. It is one of intended genocide by the armies of Canaan. Clearly, they intend to allow nothing of Israel to remain and to do so with the most massive force they could assemble. Thus Israel fights for its very existence. This battle is not only authorized by Yahweh, it is part of a larger picture, begun in the Pentateuch and continued through the Hebrew Bible, in which the people of God are brought to the edge of extinction, and then rescued. Here in Joshua, Israel's battle is a defensive one for self-preservation.

The book as a whole is a worthwhile work to read and discuss. It avoids both the paternalism of a 21st century reader sitting in judgment on the text as simply immoral and corrupt, and the theological oversimplification that refuses to come to grips with the violence found here. The work confronts many of the difficult issues and provides helpful theological insights.

Richard Hess, Denver Seminary

[1] Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 BCE (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979). reference