The National Catholic Review

Walter Brueggemann has written over two dozen books on nearly every section of the Hebrew Bible. Professor emeritus of biblical studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, he is a widely acclaimed scholar who constantly applies new methods of reflection to explain the richness of biblical texts. In the process, he seems to have surveyed most of the professional literature in the vast field of biblical studies. He employs the historical-critical method typical of modern exegesis with recognized expertise and a great deal of insightfulness; but his real contribution to Old Testament study has been his consistent and relentless concern with how the issues and questions of our contemporary social and political order confront central theological insights of the biblical text. This would not in itself be unusual for a biblical scholar; what is unusual is his consistent focus on how contradictory viewpoints can regularly stand together, sometimes in contrast but often enough in partnership.

As one example of Brueggemann’s approach, we can consider his early reflections on the Wisdom traditions in the historical traditions of the monarchy and prophets, in his book In Man We Trust (1973). He finds that the authors, presumably priestly students of the Book of Deuteronomy, drew a strong contrast between David and Solomon as models for Israel. The first was resourceful and willing to risk new steps in his life, because his trust in God was firm and he was willing to accept his sin and start again. The son, on the other hand, relied on the power he amassed and his coercive state system to move from being an independent and compassionate leader to become gradually an oppressive despot who focused on maintaining his wealth and power.

This same concern for the tension between established power and independent thinking is apparent a decade later, in Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms (1984) and Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (1988), in which he distinguished a dynamic tension within the collection of psalms among psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation. He has also written many books and articles on the prophets, especially Jeremiah, in which he accents their gifts of imagining God’s freedom to act anew as a way of breaking the petrification and oppressive obedience to the past that all too often can become the mantra of a static institutional religious ideology. In this sense, his book The Prophetic Imagination is the key work to understanding Brueggemann’s theological outlook.

Brueggemann’s masterful new work, An Introduction to the Old Testament is intended as an overview of the entire Old Testament, written for pastors and church groups. He has drawn together for the ordinary Christian believer many key insights into how to read the Old Testament as a whole, drawn mostly from his own previous studies. He states clearly that he is combining sociological, canonical and rhetorical methods of interpretation along with the traditional historical-critical method.

He gives particular emphasis to the “traditioning” process, which includes the formation of materials, its transmission and its history of interpretation within and outside of the text itself. He calls this complete process “imaginative remembering”—not preserving the historical record of the way things really happened. Every text is permeated with the ideology of the traditioning community. But by combining ideology, imagination and the role of divine inspiration, biblical interpretation remains always a living and dynamic process. Brueggemann shows how the canonical order of the Scriptures allows historical story and imaginative reading to enrich each other, and how conflict and faith-based ideology can coexist to help us discover the God behind both. He guides the reader through each part of the Old Testament canon, pointing out both the literary beauty and the theological insights in each book, then in each grouping of books and then in the expanded vision we acquire as we read these in connection with still more groupings of books.

An Introduction to the Old Testament offers a rich reading experience. Insights abound on every page, because Brueggemann regularly turns trite assertions upside down and views texts in new ways. He balances the great diversity, and even contradictions, of the biblical tradition with its core insights into the one God and his presence to Israel in the vast array of human imaginative formulations that make up our Bible. Despite the complex and mostly unknown ways by which the Bible received its final shape, this introduction provides a very helpful path to exploring its organization and whatever theological unity we can discover. The author also provides a clear and readable description of the literary unity and message of each book, something difficult to find elsewhere. His writing style is easygoing and quite comprehensible, even though he does not shrink from mentioning all the technical critical problems and terminology discussed by scholars.

Because the author centers on the way the text was shaped by the canonical process, he gives much less attention to current issues posed by proponents of deconstruction and postmodern interpretation than in past books, and provides a reading of the text as it was literarily created. This approach serves to highlight elements of unity over disharmony, and reveals that for Brueggemann, as for us readers of his ambitious overview, the Old Testament is not a hodgepodge of contradictions, but a unique and extraordinary portrait of the living God, who is always speaking anew through the church and to the church through the richness of its texts.

Lawrence Boadt, C.S.P., is professor emeritus of Scripture at Washington Theological Union, Washington, D.C.