Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament. Fortress Press.

It is always dangerous to write a theology around “a unifying theme.”  Still, everyone does it. Brueggemann suggests “rhetoric” as a device that evokes an alternative reality (Brueggemann 57).  To quote current sociologies of religion (Charles Taylor), it is a rhetoric that challenges the world’s social imaginary with a new and even more impossible one. 

“At the center of Israel’s imaginative enterprise are Yahweh’s impossibilities (Heb. pela’), which regularly transform, reverse, and invert lived reality, either to the delight or dismay of other participants in the narrative” (Brueggemann 68).

Brueggemann’s thesis:  God lives in the text via rhetoric (66).  Advocacy is seen in the witness to Yahweh’s sidqoth (triumphs, righteous deeds) that defies challenge and construes a new reality (133, 135).  

What is Imagination?

It is the capacity to evoke alternative plausibility structures, a new social imaginary.

“A Yahwistic version of reality refused to be monitored or tamed by safer, more controllable, more credible givens” (68).


Brueggemann introduces another category for understand old testament.  

  • Yahweh is not tamed by classical ontology but is subject only to the rules of the narrative.

Part One: Israel’s Core Testimony

Israel’s Practice of Testimony

If our subject is speech about God, then the subject of rhetoric is inescapable.  

What Israel says about God is taken by the text to be a reliable description of God’s character. Yahweh is characteristically the subject of the active verb (123).  Causative verbs in the hiphil stem.  This means Yahweh acts in decisive, transformative ways.    The active verb has a direct object, the one on whom Yahweh has acted.

God binds himself to Israel, but in an asymmetrical way.  Yahweh initiates and acts (125).  

Normative Structure of Israel’s Testimony

todah = thanksgiving.  This is the standard context for Israel’s testimony (127).  The substance of Yahweh’s action is Yahweh’s sdqh, “which is the way Yahweh is present to this needy Israelite” (127).  

Key PointThe beginning point of an “Old Testament theology is in the liturgical, public acknowledgement of a new reality wrought by Yahweh (128). 

  • This testimony (Psalm 111) is also political, since it is addressed to the nations.
  • It is also political because it is addressed to any outside observer of the todah who is neutral and reserves judgment about this rhetorical claim.

The Righteousness of Yahweh

righteousness:  “Yahweh’s ready capacity to be present in situations of trouble and to intervene powerfully and decisively in the interest of rehabilitation, restoration, and well-being” (130).  


  • Judges 5:10-11 (“triumphs” is the cognate sidqoth)
  • 1 Sam. 12:7
  • Micah 6:5

All of these memories are consolidated into the plural term “righteousnesses.”  The interplay between todoth and sidqoth is Israel’s way of construing “reality and utilizing its narrative grammar.”  Further, “The reference to Yahweh cannot be removed without disintegrating Israel’s testimony.”  


The Kantian turn to the subject has meant a turn away from the divine “Thou” to the “I.”  As a result, our suspicions continually decode the Thou until it becomes an object, not a subject.

Wrong Utterances

The Old Testament doesn’t really worry about atheism.  The real danger is idolatry. It is a wrong utterance about Yahweh.  

  • Jeremiah 5:12 and Zeph. 1:12 attack wrong speech about Yahweh.
  • right speech = Yahweh’s power to transform, create, and renew. (Isa. 44:9-20, 44:24-45:7)
  • Psalm 113:5 combines the large scope of Exodus 15 with the intimate concern of Psalm 35:10.  

Testimony in Verbal Sentences

The God who makes Promises

Yahweh creates the world by royal utterance–speech.  All ancient regimes sponsored a creation narrative. Israel’s witness about creation was heightened in Babylon.  Babylon legitimated its political authority by appealing to its gods.  

“The effect of liturgy is to create an alternative world of ordered life, made possible by Yahweh’s powerful word and will” (153).

Yahweh, the God who makes promises

The exile is the arena for which Yahweh utters new promises (171).

The newness that Yahweh intends for his people does not arise from within human agency (172).  Yahweh’s identity in the Old Testament can never be divorced from concrete events (176).

As Yahweh is the subject of these transformative verbs, he is often seen as the agent of social newness (179). 

Key Point: Holiness is linked to the concreteness of material existence in the world (169)

The God Who Delivers

“Yahweh, as the subject of these transformative verbs, is characteristically said to be an agent of social newness” (179)

Yahweh, the God who Commands

Commands are God’s way of warding off the Pharaonic system.  God deabsolutizes every other claim to political allegiance. Sabbath: at the core of creation is an invitation to rest.

“The conduct of Yahweh on the seventh day is in sharp contrast to the world of pharaoh, in which there is no rest but only feverish productivity” (185).

“The true appearance of nihilism, however, is not in some philosophical argument, but in the brickyard of Pharaoh where human life is completely exploitable, a deep, deathly disorder” (186).

“What Yahweh does in the wilderness tradition is what Yahweh does cosmically in creation” (204).  



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s