Walter Brueggemann. 2001. The Prophetic Imagination (Orig Pub 1978).Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
The defining characteristic of Christian groups lies in their hermeneutic method—how they read and interpret scripture. The rampant scholarly innovation in hermeneutical methods in our time accordingly represents not only a search for truth, but also, as a deconstructionist might observe, also represents a power-play, both a rejection of past verities and a diversion of consciousness. The nature of this competition and its implication for the church appear veiled to most Christians because such cultural influences operate at the presuppositional level of our thinking—it’s just the air we breathe.
In his book, Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann enters this field of inquiry from the unlikely perspective of an Old Testament (OT) scholar. Most hermeneutic innovations today start with defining a new Jesus and discount much of what came before—that was then; this is now—is the common refrain. Brueggemann breaks the norm by developing an important OT theme, the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh, and demonstrates how this theme has continuing relevance in the role and voice of the prophet both in the OT and NT, even now.
Moses and Pharaoh
Brueggemann sees the conflict between Moses and Pharaoh as a paradigm for interpreting much of the human conflict in scripture and conflict in the church today. Moses stands out from other historical figures because he engages Pharaoh in an ideological struggle. Pharaoh rules over the people of Israel with numbing work and unpreceded prosperity, masking the reality of Hebrew slavery.
People today forget that Egypt, like the United States today, surpassed other nations with its abundant food supply, a product of innovative irrigation unknown in most of the ancient near east. Remember the temptation of the Israelites in the desert:
“We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”(Num 11:5-6 ESV)
Remember also that Jacob brought his family to Egypt originally because of drought in Israel (Gen 42:1-2; 46:4). Pharaoh offered the people food and security as slaves; Moses offered them an alternative reality that included freedom from slavery. Corporate America, the government, and, all too frequently, the established church all try to offer much the same thing today.
Ultimately, Brueggemann argues, Moses’ theology proved too radical for the Israelite people. Over the course of time, worship left the Moses’ tabernacle, a tent where access to God was freely open to all, and entered Solomon’s temple, a house devised to regulate access to God. The sovereign God worshipped in the tabernacle became a domesticated God managed by priests. And Solomon taxed and enslaved the people as much or more than Pharaoh, his father in law. Solomon’s taxes so burdened the people that when he died, the kingdom split when his heir threatened to raise taxes even more (1Kgs 12).
Freedom from slavery starts with a transcendent God, who hears the cries of His people. But how can people know to cry out to God when they have been satiated with the food and wine of kings? Brueggemann sees:
“The task of prophetic ministry [as] to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture…”(3)
The prophet must teach agnosticized people how to cry again. The problem is not unlike teaching a co-dependent person how to stand on their own two feet or convincing a drug addict to go straight.
The prophetic voice, according to Brueggemann:
“…is not carping and denouncing. It is asserting that false claims to authority and power cannot keep their promises, which they could not in the face of the free God.”(11)
This is the prophetic model of Moses as he confronts Pharaoh during the ten plagues, but “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right.”(11)
Where is God?
Although Brueggemann cites Jeremiah, known as the Crying Prophet, extensively, the model of people crying to God and God providing them a deliverer is a central theme in the Book of Judges. For Brueggemann, God is a transcendent, listening God who hears the cry of his people and acts. He is also a God who is not bashful in putting his thumb on the scale for the poor in their conflict with the rich. If Brueggemann’s insight seems far-fetched, then consider the second Beatitude:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”(Matt 5:4 ESV)
Who feels blessed in grief? In the context of the conflict between rich and poor, comfort in grief appears subversive—comfort that only God can provide. Hearing such words from Jesus, which echo Isaiah 61:1-3, suggests that Brueggemann’s Jesus both plays the role of an OT prophet and uses words that speak at a presuppositional level to undermine the dominant culture, most remarkably the Roman empire.
Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imaginationis perhaps his best-known book, one of over a hundred published works.He is a retired seminary professor and much-sought-after speaker. Although a darling of liberal Protestants, his analysis could easily be recast in more covenantal terms and appeal to Evangelicals.
The role of a covenant lawsuit prophet, for example, is to remind OT kings of their obligations under the Mosaic covenant—no Marxist dialectic need be evoked—as Brueggemann’s prophet. And his focus on the conflict between prophet and king does not interfere with the usual paradigm of salvation history—creation, fall, and redemption. Rather, it points to the failure of the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7) and the need for Christ.
I enjoyed reading The Prophetic Imaginationbefore seminary, but only understood it some years later on a second read. For anyone up to the challenge, I recommend it highly.
Brueggeman’s Prophet Imagines What Might Be
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