Our God the Emancipator | A Reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s Visit

By Jordan Yeager

Walter Brueggemann came to Belmont yesterday. Walter Brueggemann, as in, the guy who wrote half the books I cited in my Old Testament paper last week. Brueggemann, as in, the internationally known Bible scholar and exegete who has published commentaries on multiple books of the Old Testament.

Ok, I’m done.

But seriously, go look on the shelves of the library sometime and see for yourself. He’s a pretty cool guy.

And when I sat down to hear him speak during convo hour, I had entirely no idea what he was going to say. His topic was “God’s Justice for the Poor,” which couldn’t be more vague, and all I could think to ask myself was how in the world we roped him into coming to our little Neely Dining Hall when he could be over at Vanderbilt or Yale or somewhere.

Not that I’m equating Vanderbilt with Yale. But I digress.

He started by noting, quite profoundly to me, that the Bible is concerned about economies because it is concerned about the material world: about money, and people, and social interactions. Everything in there in some way is concerned about God and the material world colliding. And in that way, the Bible does in fact speak to our economic and social justice climate today.

In the Hebrew language, said Brueggemann, writers and speakers save the best for last. And the last of the Ten Commandments says not to covet, aka, not to have a desire to acquire things.

In the Exodus narrative, we read about Pharaoh’s accumulation of surplus goods. Where do surplus goods come from? Cheap labor. Who supplied the cheap labor? The Israelites. Enslaved and harshly treated. But as soon as they left Egypt and entered the wilderness, God himself provided for them. The Egyptians’ fate was much less fortunate.

The prophet Micah spoke of trouble for those with cheap labor policies, because they live in God’s world of righteousness and equality, and eventually their system is going to be the end of them. Hey, just like Pharaoh.

Brueggemann pointed out that when the Israelites were in the wilderness in Exodus, right before God gave them the Ten Commandments, they promised to obey everything He would command them… before they knew what that would be. It seems like they knew that ANY commandments from an emancipatory God were going to be better than the commandments they had received from Pharaoh (“make more bricks”). The offer of faith is that they – WE – don’t have to live in that unjust system. God has better commandments for us.

The book of Deuteronomy discloses God’s rules for Israel’s society and economy. Chapter 24 says the Israelites were to leave behind goods in the fields for orphans, widows, and immigrants. This, said Brueggemann, is arguably the first social economic safety net in history!

So the real question, as we look at these competing economic models in the Old Testament, is the contest between Pharaoh’s economy of cheap labor and excess goods and the economy of Mt. Sinai. We are living in both simultaneously today. We are watching a replay of Nehemiah the prophet, who realized the connectedness of all people in the economy. We are all starting to come awake to the injustices in our society and mobilize toward a better world. We are “occupying Wall Street” and rejecting big businesses and choosing alternative ways to view politics. Some of us are even choosing voluntary poverty or other forms of lifestyle protest. “Protests are a monitor of the failure of our economy,” said Brueggemann.

At the same time, we are watching acts of corporate greed and militarism, which operate under the assumption that a more/less paradigm is the way to organize the world. And so the great quest of our day is the contest between these two: recognizing the legitimacy of our neighbors v. living to satisfy our acquisitive desires.

In Exodus, Israel cried out in pain and God answered in a social revolution. Wouldn’t it be great if we got to see an Exodus on our world? Perhaps an emotional Exodus, in which we choose, as a society, to detach from the search for more. Or perhaps a political participation Exodus, in which we all abandon our stakes in the game of money-obsessed government.

These are not Brueggemann’s words, but I will add them: I’m convinced the way to arrive at an Exodus is by doing what the Israelites did: crying out in pain. To see the pain around us, to feel that pain as our own, and to raise it to the ears of heaven is the beginning of change. And the next step is to say, like the newly freed nation of Israel in Exodus 19:8, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do,” even before He speaks.

Our God is emancipatory. I think it’s time to trust that, and leave the Egypt of our own world.

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