Cadences of Home: An Excerpt
by Walter Brueggemann. An excerpt from Chapter 7, "Rethinking Church Models Through Scripture"


"I have elsewhere proposed that the OT experience of and reflection upon exile is a helpful metaphor for understanding our current faith situation in the [west], and a model for pondering new forms of ecclesiology..

"The exiled Jews of the OT were of course geographically displaced. More than that, however, the exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral and cultural."

.. to put it positively, models of the church must not be dictated by cultural reality, but they must be voiced and practiced in ways that take careful account of the particular time and circumstance into which God's people are called. Every model of the church must be critically contextual.

Posing the question about models in this way at this time requires us to think about "Christ and culture," to think about the place where God has put us and the appropriate modeling for our time and circumstance. It is my intention and hope that my exploration in the Old Testament will suggest larger lines of reflection and other characterization of the church far beyond the Old Testament. My reflection is in four parts: the Israelite monarchy, Israel before the monarchy, postexilic Israel, and from temple to text.

The lsraelite Monarchy

In the center of the Old Testament, in the center literarily, historically, and theologically, is the Jerusalem establishment of monarchy and dynasty. It is the royal mode of Israel from David in 1000 B.C.E. to 587 B.C.E. that gives us the core model for the people of God in the Old Testament. This model dominates our thinking even as it dominates the text itself. It is this phase of Israel's life that provides the core of the time line around which we organize all of our thinking about the Old Testament. The test of that reality for me as an Old Testament teacher is that people regularly say, "Well, of course, the Old Testament model of faith and culture does not apply to us, because Israel is both state and church." That statement can only refer to the monarchical period, but it is thought to be "the model." In fact that convergence of "state and church" holds true for only a small part of the Old Testament, but it is the part that we take for granted and the part that dominates our interpretive imagination.

My thesis concerning this season in the life of ancient Israel is that as this model dominates our reading of the Old Testament, it has served well the interests of an established, culturally legitimated church.3 I will identify four features of that model for the people of God:

1. There were visible, legitimated, acceptable, stable, well-financed religious structures with recognized, funded leadership. The temple and its priesthood played a legitimating role in the ordering of civil imagination, and the role of the stable temple for this model of church can hardly be overaccented.

2. There was civic leadership in the role of the kings that was at least publicly committed to the same theological discernment as was the stable religious structure of the temple. Indeed, the temple functioned as the "royal chapel." To be sure, the kings of Jerusalem were not so zealous as to enact that theological discernment in concrete ways, except for Hezekiah and Josiah; however, they were at least pledged to it, so that a critical two-way conversation was formally possible. It did not seem odd for the priest to be in the palace, and it did not seem odd that the king should respond seriously to the finding of a temple scroll (cf. 2 Kings 22).

3. There arose in this model of the people of God an intelligentsia that was in part civic bureaucracy and in part the lobby of higher education. The sapiential tradition, the sages of the book of Proverbs who permeate and pervade the literature of the Old Testament, likely were influential in establishment thought in this period. This intellectual opinion accepted the formal presuppositions of temple religion; that is, the rule of Yahweh and the moral coherence of the world were assumptions of this community of reflection. This intelligentsia, however, exercised considerable freedom and imagination that drifted toward (a) autonomous reason and (b) support of state ideology.4 Established religion thus served well the stabilization of power and knowledge for some at the expense of others.5

4. Exactly coterminous with stable temple leadership (priesthood) and with civic government that accepted the presuppositions of temple religion (king and sages) was the witness of the prophets who regularly voice a more passionate, more radical, and more "pure" vision of Israelite faith. It may indeed give us pause that the career of the prophets lasts only during the monarchy. That is, this voice of passion is viable only in a social circumstance where established powers are in principle committed to the same conversation.

This pattern of stable religious institution, sympathetic civic leadership, secularizing intelligentsia, and passionate prophecy all come to us as a cultural package. (I dare suggest that this is, mutatis mutandis, the governing model of modern, established Christianity in the West.) As is well known, this entire model in ancient Israel was swept away in a cultural-geopolitical upheaval. Moreover, the reason given for its being swept away is that the model had defaulted in its God-given vocation and was no longer acceptable to God.6 Obviously I focus on this crisis because I believe we are in a moment of like cultural-geopolitical upheaval that undoes us personally and institutionally. That upheaval in our own time is jarring and displacing, and may be why we now reflect on alternative "models." It is worth noting that the collapse and failure of this model in 587 B.C.E. generated in ancient Israel enormous pluralism and vitality as the community quested about for new and viable models of life and faith.

Israel before the Monarchy

Happily, the temple-royal-prophetic model of the people of God is not the only model evident in the Old Testament. That mode was fitting and appropriate for a time of stable, established power. Israel as the people of God in the Old Testament, however, is not normatively a body of established power. Indeed, one can argue that such power as the Davidic monarchy had was a brief (400 years) passing episode, not to be again ever replicated in the life of this people of God.

Thus my second point is that Israel, prior to the time of David, did very well with another model of its life. If Moses is dated to 1250 B.C.E., then we may say that for the period from Moses to David, 1250-1000 B.C.E., Israel ordered its life and its faith very differently. Five characteristics may he identified for this model:

1. The life and faith of Israel lived and was nurtured and shaped by the Exodus liturgy that confessed that God called for moral, urgent, concrete disengagement from the power structures and perceptual patterns of the day (in this case Pharaoh, but later the Canaanite city-states), in order to he an alternative community. That liturgy regularly battled for the imagination of the community, which was vulnerable to seduction by the dominant social reality and which often succumbed. (Thus the perennial attraction of going back to the fleshpots of Egypt.) There is no way to soften or accommodate the sharp break that stands at the heart of Israel's self-identity, which must always be "re-nerved" for new situations of domestication. The community understands itself, so the liturgy attests, to be a community birthed in a radical and costly break.

2. The meeting at Sinai and the endless process of reinterpretation of Torah is an enterprise whereby Israel continues to think and rethink and rearticulate its faith and practice in light of its liberation. That practice required endless adjudication among conflicting opinions. If we take Leviticus to be more or less conservative and Deuteronomy to be more or less radical, then the ongoing tension between Leviticus and Deuteronomy already sets the guidelines and perimeters for policy adjudication that is still required of us.7 This continued Torah interpretation exhibits the church seeking to discern the mind and heart of God. It is only agreed that this community (a) is shaped in something like a holy covenant, (b) is a community liberated by God for new life in the world, and (c) refuses the sustenance of Pharaoh. All else remained and remains to be decided.

3. Early Israel from 1250 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. had none of the features outlined above for the period of the establishment. It had no stable institutions; no sympathetic, stable civic leadership; no secularizing intelligentsia; and no prophetic voice. Imagine Israel without temple, without king, without sages, without prophets'. That is how it was. Early Israel had much more modest means and modes. Indeed, Israel in this period had to make up everything as it went along. It was a community that had to improvise. Its daring, risky improvisation can, on the one hand, be seen as a practice of enormous borrowing from the culture around it. On the other hand this was a process of deep transformation of what was borrowed, transformed according to Israel's central passion for liberation and for covenant.

4. Unlike Israel in the monarchical period, Israel in this early period was not unified, or we may say, not rigorously "connectional." It was, as the sociologists say, a segmented community of extended family units and tribes. These units had no central authority or treasury, nor were they blood units. They were communities bound by a common commitment to its central story and its distinctive social passion. It is fair to say that the story of liberation and covenant was inordinately important, but it became much less important in the period of establishment when the temple made the story less palpable and less urgent. In the early period, lacking visible props, the community depended on the story being regularly heard and told.5

5. The community of early Israel was a community that was socioeconomically marginal. Its central metaphor is either the "wilderness" or the occupation of marginal land that no one else wanted. In the "wilderness," the community lived by bread from heaven and water from rock, without guaranteed or managed resources. In its marginal land, it depended in its times of threat on the move of the spirit to give energy, courage, and power sufficient for the crisis. This was a community that lacked the capacity (or perhaps the will) for more stable resources but managed by a different posture of faith and witness.

I suggest then that in the most radical way possible, Israel was indeed a new church start. A new church start here means the planting of an alternative community among people who were ready for risk and who shunned established social relations because such resources and patterns inevitably led to domestication and to bondage. It is a new church start that specialized in neighbor priorities and that had at its center the powerful voice of Moses-and Joshua-and Samuel, whose main work is voicing and revoicing and voicing again the liturgy of liberation and the covenant of reshaping communal life, power, and vision.

It may give us pause that the temple model grew increasingly impatient with the voice of Moses, whose leadership was kept in endless jeopardy and under abrasive challenge. It is likely that the narrative of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), wherein Moses rebukes Aaron, is a partisan assault made by the "new church start" model against the established church model that is too busy generating structure and icon.

Postexilic Israel

At the other end of the Old Testament, we may identify yet another model for the community of faith. The temple model came to an abrupt end in 587 B.C.E. To be sure, there was a second temple built after 520 B.C.E., but it never came to exercise a dominant place in the community, nor to capture the imagination of subsequent interpreters. Clearly with the events of 587 B.C.E., the symbiotic relation of king and prophet collapsed. This new circumstance began in exile under the Babylonians and then continued under the patronage of the Persians and finally faced the coming of Hellenization. It is worth noting that characteristically, Christians know very little about this period, pay little attention to it, and care little for it. Very likely this lack of interest reflects our stereotypes of "postexilic Judaism," which go back at least to the caricatures of Julius Wellhausen. Our systemic neglect reflects the anti-Semitic tendency of our interpretive categories. There is at the present time great attention to this period among scholars that requires us to move well beyond our dismissive stereotypes. Recent scholarship suggests that there was a greatly variegated practice of Judaism bespeaking pluralism in this period. It was a pluralism that was theologically serious, with enormous imagination in its practice of faith and vitality in its literary inventiveness.

My suggestion is that this exilic, postexilic period after the collapse of the temple hegemony is one to which we must pay considerable attention, for it may, mutatis mutandis, be echoed in our own time and circumstance. Three facets of this model may be noted:

1. The community of faith had to live in a context where it exercised little influence over public policy. It is debatable the extent to which the imperial overlords exercised benign neglect so long as they received tax payments, and the extent to which they were hostile in an attempt to nullifv the scandalous particularity of the Jews. The stereotype we have is that the Babylonians were hostile and the Persians were benign, but that may be an ideological construct put together by those indentured to the Persian government. In any case, after one considers the drama of Elijah versus Ahab, Amos versus Amaziah, and Jeremiah versus Zedekiah, one notices that there is no such confrontation model now available. The reason is, I submit, that there is no one on the side of power interested in such a confrontation, for this community of faith had become politically innocuous and irrelevant.

2. The temptations to cultural syncretism and the disappearance of a distinct identity were acute, particularly in the Hellenistic period. The Maccabean period offers us an example of Jewish boys who were embarrassed about their circumcision and who tried to "pass." In the monarchical period, while there was indeed syncretism, there was no danger of losing an Israelite identity, because public institutions supported that identity, and one could afford to be indolent about it. Now, because such institutions are lacking, and because the pattern of social payouts tended to invite people away from this community of peculiar identity and passion, the deliberate maintenance of a distinctive identity required great intentionality.

3. In the face of political irrelevance and social syncretism, a main task of the community was to work very hard and intentionally at the cultural-linguistic infrastructure of the community.9 Daniel L. Smith has called that work the development of strategies and mechanisms for survival, because the threat was in fact the disappearance of the community of faith into a universalizing culture that was partly hostile to any particularity and that was partly indifferent.10 Among these strategies for survival, three seem crucial for our reflection.

First, this community, in the face of sociopolitical marginality, worked at the recovery of memory and rootage and connectedness. The primary evidence of this in the Old Testament are the extended genealogies, most of which are articulated in this later period. The purpose of genealogy is to connect the threatened present generation with the horizon of reference points from the past. A studied recovery of the past intends to combat the "now generation," and the disease of autonomy and individualism that imagines that we live in a historical vacuum.

A second strategy for survival in a community at the brink of despair is the intense practice of hope. The rhetoric of the community filled its imagination with the quite concrete promises of God. In its extreme form, this rhetoric of hope issues in apocalyptic. In our study of apocalyptic, there is much for us to learn about the sociology of our knowledge. When the church is safe and settled and allied with the status quo, it is impatient with apocalyptic. Indeed, most critical scholarship has dismissed apocalyptic as "bizarre." Among the communities of the marginal, however, who find the present laden with hopelessness, apocalyptic is a rhetorical act of power. Thus this literature and this rhetoric belong rightly on the lips of the "world weary" who see this rhetoric as critically subversive of every status quo. It is telling now that apocalyptic rhetoric in our culture appeals to apparently well-off people who are beset by despair.

I believe this is important because satiated young people in the United States (including some of our own children) mostly do not know that something else is yet promised by God. That future is not to be wrought by our busy, educated hands, but by the faithfulness of God. The community at the margin, when it functions at all, is a community of intense, trustful waiting.

The third strategy of survival worth noting is that the postexilic community became an intensely textual community. It was busy formulating the text, so it is widely believed that the period around the exile is precisely the period of canonization, the making of normative literature. It was also busy interpreting the text. This is the period of the emergence of the synagogue, which is the place of the text, the formation of the Beth Midrash, "house of study," and eventually, the appearance of the rabbis who are teachers of the tradition. Textual study was focused on the imaginative construal of a normative text. This imaginative construal of the text that so characterizes Judaism did not drive toward theological settlement or moral consensus, but believed that the act of construal of this text itself is a quintessential Jewish act. Such an act in the midst of marginality did not need a controlled outcome.

With a high and passionate view of Scripture, we must not miss the point concerning social power. The point of sustained textual study is not objective erudition, information, or conclusion. THe point is rather to enter into and engage with a tradition of speech, reflection, discernment and imagination that will prevail over the textual constraints of Persian power and Hellenistic hostility. A textless Jew is no Jew at all, sure to be co-opted and sure to disappear into the woodwork. And my sense is that a textless church is no church at all....

. . .

It is readily more clear that the early monarchal and the last postmonarchal have more in common, and both are easily contrasted with the security and stability of the monarchal model. Finally then, we may reflect on the dialectic relation of early and late models that had so much in common.

There is no doubt, on the one had, that the late community went back to the early community (Italics Mine). It in fact jumped over the monarchical period to find resources in the early sources that could sustain it. It did not find in the period of the establishment what it needed, but was driven back to more primitive and less stable models. This is poignantly evident in Ezra, the founder of Judaism, who is the second Moses and who replicated the early Moses.

On the other hand, however, and much more delicately, the late community not only used the early materials but intruded upon those materials and preempted and reshaped them for its own use....

(a large section left out here. . . )

The point of this linkage of late and early is to suggest that in doing textual work (which became a primary activity of the marginated community), the late community must recast what the early community had done for the sake of its own crisis. This means that after the establishment, as before the establishement, this was essentially a "new church start." Postexilic Jusaism is a vibrant act of new generativity, not enslaved to its oldest memories, and not immobilized by its recent memory of establishment power. Ezra is the great "new church start" leader. A new church means reformulating the faith in radical ways in the midst of a community that has to begin again. For Ezra, as for Moses, new church starts do not aim at strategies for success, but at strategies for survival of an alternative community. What must survive is not simply the physical community; what must survive is an alternative community with an alternative memory and an alternative social perspective rooted in a peculiar text that is identified by a peculiar genealogy and signed by peculiar sacraments, by peculiar people not excessively beholden to the empire and not lusting after domestication into the empire... (Italics Mine)

. . . (three paragraphs omitted)

A move from temple to text, a move that I have stated in the boldest form, requires a reconsideration of our social location, of the resources on which we can and must count, and the work we have to do about the infrastructure that has largely collapsed. While we may find wilderness-exile models less congenial, there is no biblical evidence that the God of the Bible cringes at the prospect of this community being one of wilderness and exile. Indeed this God resisted the temple in any case (cf. 2 Sam. 7:4-7). In the end , it is God and not the Babylonians who terminated the temple project. In the face of that possible eventuality in our won time and circumstance, the ways for the survival of an alternative imagination in an alternative community call for new strategies.

Brueggemann closes his work..

"We can only stand in readiness for what God may do.. that standing requires the use of intentional disciplines that in every case are marked by danger.."

DANGEROUS MEMORIES reaching all the way back to our father Abraham and our barren mother Sarah. Israel was tempted to substitute more reasonable and respectable memories rather than embrace the ambiguity and embarrassment of such stories and such heroes.

DANGEROUS CRITICISM that mocks the deadly Empire. We must practice critical and reflective distance from our context. As in Isaiah, we need two kinds of critique. First, we need an ongoing religious critique of the tamed gods of the Empire. Second, we need the political critique of entrenched power, wherever we find it, whether in the church or outside it.

DANGEROUS PROMISES that imagine a shift of power in the world. Assimilated exiles who accept the claims of the Empire see it as an unmovable force. This makes critique impossible, and it becomes impossible to imagine a time when things will be different. But the promises of God are fresh, joyous, and sovereign. The kingdom of God will come. The poem of Isa.54:1-3 is first despairing, but then affirms a wild and outrageous hope.

DANGEROUS SONGS that predict unexpected newness of life. The people with dangerous criticism and dangerous promises have an odd stance toward the way things are. They gather to sing a new song and to affirm a reality they have not fully experienced. As in the first century, worship is a political statement.

DANGEROUS BREAD free of all imperial ovens. The manna in the desert, the food of Daniel, the feeding of the five thousand, the recognition of Jesus when he broke the bread by the fire.. Certain kinds of bread enslave us, and certain kinds bring freedom. But we know that the food God gives is reliable. Hardness of heart comes when we think the Empire controls all the resources.

DANGEROUS DEPARTURES of heart and body and mind, leavings undertaken in trust and obedience. Israel looked forward to a time of freedom from exile. Similarly, we need to imagine a time when we leave behind consumerism, ambition, and militarism for other territory.

DANGEROUS ACKNOWLEDGEMENT of how life really is. In the "glory" church that worships health and wealth it is easy to embrace a theology of the Spirit; less welcome is a theology of the Cross. But the kingdom of God opposes the comfortable religious claims of modernity where everything is neat and tidy, managed and controlled and we serve a tame God. Our God is good; but He is not safe. We sometimes cry out for the elusive Presence, and acknowledge like the early Apostle that we are "hungry and thirsty, homeless and ill treated."

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