The Prophetic Imagination, A Review

The following review by Adam T. Ross is on Goodreads (with comments by Doug Jones):

I had a lot of trouble with this book. I wanted to like it given how many people in so many corners have commended it to me. And there is true insight here, but I feel those insights are concealed by a theological project that cannot be maintained. Suffice it to say that when I read the prophets I do not see what he sees. This is likely my own failing, and if he is right I want to know it.

Nevertheless, his position is that the Kingship in Israel was a step backwards from the Mosaic “revolution” and that the Prophets and then later Jesus called Israel away from Kingship back to the original vision of Moses. An interesting thought for sure, and an intriguing one, but I was left unconvinced. I was thus unconvinced in three areas, 1) Kingship as regression, 2) affluence is bad, 3) the social vision of the Prophets.

(1) As regards the first, that the Kingship in Israel as a regression from the Mosaic establishment, I cannot but think Bruggemann is missing the big picture. He regards all Kingship, Kingship in itself, as bad. He tells us that “by the time of Solomon in 962 . . . there was a radical shift in the foundations of Israel’s life and faith. . . . the shift has no doubt begun and been encouraged by David . . . the entire program of Solomon now appears to have been self-serving achievement with its sole purpose the self-securing of king and dynasty” (pp. 30) and goes so far as to claim that the “Jerusalem temple” was “surely the Canaanization of Israel” (31). Strong and, most importantly, universal claims.

It was not the sinful Solomon of later life that did these things, but Solomon from beginning to end. How this is squared with clear Scriptural testimony to the contrary is beyond me, for Bruggemann never addresses the fact that building the Jerusalem temple was God’s idea in the first place (2 Sam. 7). Wisdom, at least in Solomon, according to Bruggemann, is “an effort to rationalize reality, i.e., to package it in manageable portions” (31). This simply is not the case. Granting the fact that Solomon was a fan of wisdom, the portrayal of Wisdom personified in Proverbs is completely positive, and nowhere else in the Bible can be found the slightest suggestion that this presentation of her is wrong. Further, wisdom was always encouraged by God, and in fact Solomon’s achievement of wisdom is not a regression away from the Mosaic institution, but is instead its fulfillment (Deut 4:6; 34;9; 2 Sam. 14:20).

Further still, Solomon’s request for wisdom is portrayed positively and his wisdom is said to be governing Israel to “do justice” (1 Kings 3:28). In the narrative, Solomon is the first fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, something which Bruggemann quotes but apparently does not realize. He quotes 1 Kings 4:20-23, which includes mention of “Judah and Israel were as many as the sand by the sea,” a clear allusion back to God’s promise to Abraham (Gen. 22:17-18). This passage in Genesis also says that through Abraham “shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice” (22:18). This too finds its first fulfillment in Solomon, whose wisdom was greater and more famous than any in the Gentile worlds (1 Kings 4:30-31); his wisdom brings the glory of the Gentiles in, a direct fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (1 Kings 4:34). Far from being a regression, Solomon’s reign is a fulfillment of the older order.

(2) Bruggemann’s second point to which I object is that affluence is bad. It is, however, necessary to temper my point here by saying that obviously an affluence which is self-serving and inwardly focused is no good – but to say that is to say no more than what God Himself has said. There is nothing wrong with wealth and riches and affluence, but when affluence becomes consumerism, then the problem begins and then my own denunciations are initiated. To establish the (obviously evil) affluence of Israel, Bruggemann quotes 1 Kings 4:20-23 and notes that “never before had there been enough consumer goods to remove the anxiety about survival” (32), and apparently our response to this terrible state of affairs is to shake our heads sadly and say “darn!” It really is too bad the “world of scarcity” (32) and daily struggles for survival that exemplified the “counter-culture of Moses” (32) have been eliminated. He does not seem to understand that the two incidents he points out (manna from heaven and unleavened bread – taking only what is needed for the basest of survivals) were both incidents as Israel wandered futilely in the desert as punishment for cowardice. Scraping for survival is not conducive to domesticating the world (taking dominion) or the advancement of culture.

Bruggemann also clearly believes in the zero-sum fallacy, arguing that “eating that well means food is being taken off the tale of another” (33). This too is not true, for the text clearly tells us that this great affluence was among “every man” of Israel: “every man under his vine and under his fig tree” had safety (1 Kings 4:25), telling us they had their own properties and gardens. Not only, but “all who came to King Solomon’s table, each one in his month. They let nothing be lacking” (1 Kings 4:27), and all Israel “ate and drank and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). The whole land dwelt in peace and safety (1 Kings 4:24). This is not a narrative of evil consumerism. These are clear fulfillments of the promised blessings for faithfulness given to . . . Moses (Deut. 28). Notice how much affluence God promises to Moses, by the way; if Israel is faithful God will bestow her with economic affluence and political influence (Deut. 28:4-5, 8, 10-13), just as came about under Solomon’s reign. The writer of Kings is clearly alluding back to Moses and Abraham in depicting the rise of Solomon’s kingdom. Nevertheless, all of this wealth was a temptation, and thus God warned Israel through Moses (!) that the riches they will aquire could be their downfall if they were not received in faith (Deut. 8:17-18), and it is precisely this that Solomon forgets later in his reign. If we relegate some of Bruggemann’s comments on the dangers of affluence to the sinful end of Solomon’s reign, then I can begin to agree with him more. It is not kingship that is sinful, but rather sinful kingship; it is not affluence, but ungrateful affluence that is evil. We must not forget to share with one another in our bounty (2 Cor. 8:13-14) in an imitation of the self-giving of the Triune fellowship.

(3) Bruggemann’s reading of the prophets, I think, also loses sight of what they were really getting at. They were not pre-modern hippies, wandering around spreading alternative communities, subversive narratives, and anti-imperial sermons. They were not criticising the Kingship as such, nor were they there to give the people hope (in fact, most of the time just the opposite). Rather, the prophets came to announce to Israel their sin before God by going after other gods, playing the harlot to God-their-husband, revealing their liturgical and corruptions, and laying before them their sins. They were God’s covenantal lawyers bringing to bear upon Israel the lawsuit of the covenant (much as I loath the law-categories). Insofar as Bruggemann emphasizes elements that come as part of the rejection and turning from (mostly) liturgical (but also social, it must be admitted) sin is to the extent that he has confused the prophetic role in my estimation.

Happy to be corrected, of course.

A.T. Ross

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