American Protestant Old Testament Scholar and Theologian
American Protestant Old Testament Scholar and Theologian
Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now.
Pharaoh is clearly a metaphor. He embodies and represents raw, absolute, worldly power. He is, like Pilate after him, a stand-in for the whole of the empire. As the agent of the empire of force, he reappears in many different personae.9
Prophetic preaching is dangerous work, not only because it has a subversive edge but because it requires an epistemological break with the assumed world of dominant imagination. This epistemological break makes us aware of our assumptions we have not recognized or reflected upon.
Such utterance staggers and offends among the listeners. But it also opens vistas of possibility where we had not thought to go and where in fact, we are most reluctant to go.
The first commandment is a declaration that the God of the exodus is unlike all the gods the slaves have known heretofore. This God is not to be confused with or thought parallel to the insatiable gods of imperial productivity. This God is subsequently revealed as a God of mercy, steadfast love, and faithfulness who is committed to covenantal relationships of fidelity (see Exod. 34:6?7).
The first commandments concern God, God?s aniconic character, and God?s name (Exod. 20:3?7). But when we consider the identity of this God, we are made immediately aware that the God who will brook no rival and who eventually will rest is a God who is embedded in a narrative; this God is not known or available apart from that narrative. The narrative matrix of YHWH, the God of Israel, is the exodus narrative. This is the God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery
The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.
The shock of such a partner destabilizes us too much. The risk too great, the discomfort so demanding. We much prefer to settle for a less demanding, less overwhelming meeting. Yet we are haunted by the awareness that only this overwhelming meeting gives life.
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.
The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power. The governor, on behalf of the empire, will continue to ask, What is truth? And the apostles will continue to give answer, uncommonly unintimidated: ?We must obey God rather than any human authority? (Acts 5:29).14
The withdrawal of the king from the narrative exposes the king as an irrelevance. The one with all the power can do nothing to save. Because it is only my God who saves.
Anomie is not a danger only for the young; it may surface in what is now conventionally called the crisis of mid-life or anywhere else.
Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.
Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.
When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God. If you find some part of your life where your daily round has grown thin and controlling and resentful, life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God?s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to live and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined
It is astonishing that critical scholarship has asked forever about the identification of these store-house cities, but without ever asking about the skewed exploitative social relationships between owner and laborers that the project exhibits. The store-house cities are an ancient parallel to the great banks and insurance houses where surplus wealth is kept among us. That surplus wealth, produced by the cheap labor of peasants, must now be protected from the peasants by law and by military force.
It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. The theological crisis in the church?that shows up in preaching and in worship as elsewhere?is that the church has largely colluded with the totalism of the National Security State. Or more broadly, has uncritically colluded with Enlightenment reason that stands behind the National Security State that makes preaching Easter an epistemological impossibility.
Moses knows that prosperity breeds amnesia.
At the center of the requirements of the scroll is the provision for “the year of release,” the elimination of debt after seven years (Deut. 15:1–18).5 This teaching requires that at the end of six years, debts that remain unpaid will be cancelled. This most radical teaching intends that the practice of economy shall be subordinated to the well-being of the neighborhood. Social relationships between neighbors—creditors and debtors—are more important and definitional than the economic realities under consideration and there should be no permanent underclass in Israel, so that even the poor are assured wherewithal to participate in the economy in viable ways.
Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.
We know about the exodus deliverance, but we do not take notice that slavery occurred by the manipulation of the economy in the interest of a concentration of wealth and power for the few at the expense of the community.
We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.
We now know that human transformation does not happen through didacticism or through excessive certitude, but through the playful entertainment of another scripting of reality that may subvert the old given text and its interpretation and lead to the embrace of an alternative text and its redescription of reality.
We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: — first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; — second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; — and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”
What a commission it is to speak a future that none think imaginable! Of course that cannot be done by inventing new symbols for that is wishful thinking. Rather it means to move back into the deepest memories of this community and activate those very symbols that have always been the very basis for contradicting the regnant consciousness. Therefore the symbols of hope cannot be general and universal but must be those that have been known concretely in this particular history. And when the prophet returns with the community to those deep symbols they will discern that hope is not a late tacked on hypothesis to serve a crisis but rather the primal dimension of every memory of this community. The memory of this community begins in God's promissory address to the darkness of chaos, to barren Sarah, and to oppressed Egyptian slaves. The speech of God is first about an alternative future.