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October 1982 · Vol. 11 No. 4 · pp. 38–39 

Book Review

The Land

Walter Brueggemann. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1977. 203 pages.

Reviewed by Elmer A. Martens

“So Jeremiah tells the whole story of Israel as story of land.” And Brueggemann, Dean of Academic Affairs at Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri, prolific author in the field of the Old Testament, tells the story of the entire Bible as the story of land.

It is not a book on prophecy, for the matter of Israel’s return to the land, while mentioned, is marginal. Land is a more frequent term than covenant, yet little attention has been paid to the subject. There is not even an entry “land” in the highly acclaimed four-volume Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon).

Brueggemann identifies three movements of history and thought related to land. First, from a position of landlessness, Abraham and his descendants are promised the gift of land. Drawing on a field of images, Brueggemann enlarges on the theme of land by discussing the crisis of the human spirit which in his opinion is not so much alienation as rootlessness.

Secondly, after Israel is in the land, she moves almost at once to a future of landlessness (exile) partly because she fails to understand that management of land is along lines quite opposite to that of the nations around her. Brueggemann discusses kingship as a failure to offer an alternative in land management. Israel’s king was not to multiply horses or silver but to live on the land receiving it as a gift rather than the product of his grasp. “The prophet warns against self-indulgence and points to the difference between ‘royally secured land’ and ‘covenanted precarious land’.” Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel depict Israel as failing in her response and so becoming landless. “Have we to learn from Marx that being in land without caring for community ends history?” asks Brueggemann.

The third movement is one from landlessness (exile) to landedness. Brueggemann offers a sympathetic view of the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah which others frequently treat with little appreciation because of the perceived “parochialism” and “legalism.” But Brueggemann notes that the reformers urged the putting away of foreign wives and stressed Sabbath keeping, because it was due to earlier syncretism and disregard of covenant that they had lost the land. The intertestamental literature—wisdom writings and apocalyptic—are interpreted as attempts to resist hellenistic paganization and to keep alive the alternate method of landholding set forth in the Torah {39} as the ideal. On this note Brueggemann moves to the New Testament observing that the two major events in Christ’s life follow the familiar scheme of landlessness (crucifixion) and landedness (resurrection). Though the term land is infrequently, if ever, employed by Paul, the concept of inheritance is prominent. The New Testament as a whole teaches that the old age has ended and the new age has come. That message is couched in the language of kingdom, terminology linked to the theme of land.

The strengths of the book are several. The collection of data on the subject of land, though not exhaustive, is extensive and impressive. The author is in touch with current Old Testament studies, issues of hermeneutics and concerns in Old Testament theology, but he also incorporates material from pertinent studies in psychology, sociology and the literary arts. The writing style is crisp and forward moving. The mood is sometimes sermonic, for the preaching relevance of the subject as he treats it is obvious. He has succeeded, I think, in looking at the Christian faith through the prism of land. Helpful as the categories of history/event may be, they have their limitations. Land is a category in which to describe life and faith and, as the last chapter notes, offers several discussion possibilities such as the concern for the dispossessed and dialogue between Christians and Jews. His treatment of kingship is choice, of New Testament and land very provocative.

Direction readers will be bothered by Brueggemann’s acceptance of the historical critical method. The results of that discussion are hardly utilized, however, since Brueggemann works from the canonical record rather than the critics’ statements on sources.

While Brueggemann chides existentialists, one wonders whether his freedom in moving from land as turf to land as symbol is not subject to similar criticism as in the statement, “Israel’s central temptation is to forget and to cease being an historical people, open either to the Lord of history or to his blessings yet to be given. . . . And if one is not addressed, then one does not need to answer. And if one does not answer, then one is free not to care, not to decide, not to hope, and not to celebrate.” Brueggemann will be faulted no doubt for the theological abstracts by means of which he connects the New Testament and land. He can be defended, I feel, for he has taken the theological thrust of the land motif in the Old Testament and shown how it is mirrored in the New Testament. I find him more compelling than W.D. Davies (The Gospel and the Land).

The book offers many insights, is informative, devotionally helpful and worth the purchase. The brief but meaningful statement on “gift and grasp” is characteristic: “Kings who grasp lose, Pilgrims who risk are given.”

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