Theology of the Old Testament

By Walter Brueggemann


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Bibliographic Data


Walter Brueggemann. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Min.: Augsburg Fortress, 1997.

ISBN: 0800630874 
Pages: 736.


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1 Retrospect 1: From the Beginning to the End of a Generative Period 
2 Retrospect 2: The Contemporary Situation 
3 Israel's Practice of Testimony 
4 Testimony in Verbal Sentences 
5 Adjectives: Yahweh with Characteristic Markings 
6 Nouns: Yahweh as Constant 
7 Yahweh Fully Uttered 
8 Cross-Examining Israel's Core Testimony 
9 The Hiddenness of Yahweh 
10 Ambiguity and the Character of Yahweh 
11 Yahweh and Negativity 
12 Maintaining the Tension 
13 Israel's Unsolicited Testimony 
14 Israel as Yahweh's Partner 
15 The Human Person as Yahweh's Partner 
16 The Nations as Yahweh's Partner 
17 Creation as Yahweh's Partner 
18 The Drama of Partnership with Yahweh 
19 Mediating the Presence of Yahweh 
20 The Torah as Mediator 
21 The King as Mediator 
22 The Prophet as Mediator 
23 The Cult as Mediator 
24 The Sage as Mediator 
25 Modes of Mediation and Life with Yahweh 
26 Interpretation in a Pluralistic Context 
27 The Constitutive Power of Israel's Testimony 
28 Some Pervasive Issues 
29 Moving Toward True Speech 
Index of Scriptural References 
Index of Names 




Review by Tjerk Muller


Special Disclaimer: the Foundation European Apologetics does not agree with the statement that Arafat be a terrorist.


Copyright © 2000 Tjerk Muller, Utrecht, The Netherlands

As the philosophical and cultural tides rift onward in time, so does biblical scholarship. These days, most Old Testament Theology is under suspicion. It seems no scholar seems able to avoid infringing some system on the sacred literature. In writing his 'Old Testament Theology' Walter Brueggemann makes a worthy attempt at achieving this. Whether it has been successful, time will tell. In the meantime, we have our own prose to spin.

Not many scholars are as gifted as Brueggemann is, in correlating thorough biblical scholarship with contemporary issues from ethics and epistemology. This ability colors every page of his writing, and is the fundamental strength of his work. It also shows some fundamental dangers, as we shall see.

The job Brueggemann sets out to do, is writing an Old Testament theology well based within the broad contemporary academic climate. Doing so, Brueggemann hopes to create a possible grid for readers today in getting grip on the text of the Tenach. Before taking up the task before him, Brueggemann first gives an overview of the last decades of Old Testament study back into the nineteen hundreds, showing the different discussions and their various historical and systematic backgrounds. He does this in order to mark the continuity and breaches between the work of former scholars of Old Testament Study, like Not and von Rad, and Brueggemann's own thinking.

The academy today: a courtroom model

Positioning himself well within today's philosophical climate, Brueggemann's sets out to outline a model in which he can do justice to 'the different voices of the Old Testament'. To achieve this he proposes a model after analogy of the courtroom. In the courtroom different witnesses are heard. The listeners must decide for themselves which testimony makes a reasonable truth claim.

In doing so, Brueggemann not only creates an intellectual surrounding in which the modern reader finds himself at home, but can also do justice to the verbal nature of the Old Testament. In the past to much emphasis has been laid on the historical parts of the Old Testament, as if the nature of Israel's religion was primarily historical in the modern sense of the word. Such a view however, did not account for the prominent place of hymn and wisdom literature, as well as poetry as such have in the Old Testament. The sacred literature is evidently not all made up out of narrative and chronicle, and where it is, meaning and message are more important than historical detail.

Brueggemann views Old Testament literature therefore primarily as testimony; the verbal account, sometimes celebration of the salvatory deeds towards Israel and their divine actor, Yahweh. Clearly Israel's faith is one grouped around Gods deeds and doing, constantly shaping Israel's view of it's Benefactor.

Brueggemann rightly criticizes the older biblical scholarship for unwittingly pressing some or other system or principle, originating from the cultural or academic milieu of the scholar, on the Old Testament text. Brueggemann does not however, provide Paul Ricoeur or Jacques Derrida with the necessary critical notes, in order to escape this fate himself.

In light of his radical criticism, it is all the more surprising he does not seem to be aware that his courtroom-model for interpreting Israel's testimony involves pushing Israel's speech into two categories: positive and negative testimony. This becomes evidently clear in the weight Brueggemann posits on Israel's so-called 'counter-testimony'.

Negative testimony

Brueggemann points out how Israel's speech of it's God is not always so celebrative. God is sometimes said to be absent, even aggressive and abusive. It seems there rests a grim ambiguity in Yahweh. Brueggemann lets a number of passages pass the review, to which we shall now attend.

Brueggemann is quick to show how in many Psalms, Yahweh is felt to be the absent God. Fredrik Lindström has vividly described how in existential need, Israel complains to God for not being there to deliver from enemy and affliction. It seems however, too much emphasis can be laid on the accusational tone in the expressed pain, felt in such Psalms. Does the complainant dirge in Psalm not much more express the desperation, than negative feeling towards Israel's God?

Surely then, the book of Job could be noted having a negative stance towards Yahweh? And so Brueggemann notes it. Although Job get firmly rebuked by the Eternal, it seems the divine Judge also vindicates Job's negative testimony of Him against Job's accusers, when Yahweh proclaims Job spoke rightly of Him, unlike Job's friends.
Its seems however Jobs words were as content is concerned, not all that unlike that of his friends. Both seem to view divine righteousness as retribution of sins and rewarding good deeds. Job's partners in discussion, maintaining Divine justness, argue that since God cannot be wrong in punishing Job, the latter must have done some awful crime. Job, maintaining his own innocence, argues that since he is impeccable, God is acting violently towards him for no reason at all, and so doing Job wrong, against which legal actions would be justified. 'Too bad I can't drag God into court', Job reasons. In short, both Job and his friend hold on to the view that crimes are punished and good deeds rewarded in a harmonious system of cosmic retribution.

So the content of Job's speech is not that much different from that of his discussion-partners, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Sophar. However, while his friends expound with cold logic how the Divine retribution-machine works, Job seeks passionately to restore the good relationship he had with Yahweh. The reason Job feels hurt is because God and he used to be on good terms with each other. In Chapter 14:13-15 Job pleas to be hidden in the abode of the dead until God's wrath has vanished. After this, Job proposes to God  'You would long for the making of your hands again'.
The reason Job is vindicated by Yahweh in speaking rightly of Him, is not because of what he has said, but how he has said it: desperate to restore his relationship with God. Therefore, a strong negative stance towards Gods righteousness is too much to make of the book of Job. The author of 'Job' is, in writing the elaborate rebuttal of Job by the Eternal Judge', obviously on the side of Yahweh, although very much aware of the painful questions life poses, unjust as it is.

Despair out of a passionate love for God , not a longing to vilify the God of Israel, seem to mark both Job and the complaint Psalms. The same goes for yet another passage Brueggemann shows in his attempt at proving Israel's ambiguous feelings toward that same God.
According to Brueggemann, Jeremiah 19:7 accuses Yahweh with sexual abuse. Verbs like 'to entice' and 'to overpower' have according to Brueggemann, sexual overtones written all over them. Be as it may, the ones being accused if one regards the larger frame of the passage, obviously are those to whom the prophet is enticed in bringing Gods word. The shocking language is therefore, not directed to affront God, but as bitter rhetoric regarding those who disfavor listening to the word of Yahweh, the prophet has to proclaim. Again, it is not accusation, but despair that brings out the strong complainant language, in grim and sometimes painful colors. The passage is not about God's guilt, but about the prophet's desperation for God to act. Yahweh forced the prophet to talk, and now the prophet tries to compel his God to act.

The enticing God returns in I Kings 22, where Micah ben Jimlah confronts king Ahab with the incompetence of his courtroom-prophets. In a vision, Yahweh, shows how he demanded a divine volunteer to entice Ahab into war with Aram over a piece of land. To Brueggemann this is evidence Israel sees it's God as easily bending morality if necessary to 'have Yahweh's way'  As devious as the passage may seem at first glance, however, a thorough examination shows nothing could be more from the truth.
First of all, it seems obvious the main point being made in I King 22 is not about God at all, but about the incompetence of Ahab's official prophets. Led in by the ironic confirmation of their prophesy, Micah shows the blindness of these courtroom officials with biting rhetoric: Although the king's prophets pretend to know what Yahweh has decided in his counsel, Micah's vision shows how they are the very instrument of Ahab's ruin.

We know from material from the Ancient Near East one of the main methods of the gods to convey their decisions was thought to be a view in the divine counsel. So we understand  Jer 23:18 when it asks 'who has stood in the counsel of the Lord'  to seriously question the authority of the prophets it criticizes. So it can boldly say: 'Don't listen to the prophets that prophesy you, they'll make you surrender to an idle delusion', and 'They say continually to those who despise me: "The Lord has spoken. You'll have peace", and to everyone who walks in hardness of heart, they say: "no harm will happen to you".
In the same way, Micah's vision questions the authority of the prophets appointed by Ahab. Surely they have not stood in the counsel of the Lord: They did not even know the decision was made 'up there' that they were to be deceived.

Secondly, the author of Kings 22 places Micah's vision before Ahab's defeat, which is to be understood Yahweh granted him the opportunity to throw out his prophetical personnel, and recall the attack on Ramoth. If the writer wanted to depict Yahweh as a devious manipulator with immoral traits, surely he would not have painted Him so merciful.
Thirdly the author of Kings makes no attempt to hide his disfavor of king Ahab. So even if Yahweh would be depicted as not always being civilized - which is not the case - the author's favor would still be on His side, giving no reason to make a negative testimony out of his writing.

The same goes for the stories surrounding Saul and David. Brueggemann argues Yahweh firstly manipulated Samuel into agreeing into giving the people a king, then setting up Saul, and finally giving him no chance whatsoever to be a good king. In the end Saul is ruined in favor of David.
Such seems a rather simplistic approach of the dramatic portrayal we find in the books of Samuel. It seems Brueggemann makes to much in identifying exegesis instead of remaining the objective viewer. What strikes Brueggemann as unfair most is that David and Samuel can get away with or are prompted to do exactly the same as what Saul is punished for. Saul is renounced because he listens to the people, while at the same time Yahweh orders Samuel to listen to the people. Saul is renounced for taking spoil from the Amalekites, while David can do so without even the slightest warning.

The whole point Brueggemann fails to see, however, is that the main theme in the Samuel stories is about obeying God. Surely Samuel listens to the people, but he does so in direct obedience to God. Saul does so in direct opposition to God. Surely David captures livestock from the Amalekites, there is nothing that forbids him to do so (not even the to passages Brueggemann thinks do: Ex.17:8-16, Dt.25:17-19). Saul however, when directed to launch an attack against the Amalekites, gets the explicit order to kill everyone and everything. In his insolence, he not only takes livestock, but also keeps the Amelekite king alive. So Yahweh says to Samuel: 'I regret installing Saul king, for he has turned from me and not executed my commands'. According to Brueggemann, Sauls plea for forgiveness and ready admittance of his mistakes make him an honest man. However, it seems the author of Samuel doesn't quite agree, since he depicts Saul making exactly the same mistake, and the same confessions a few chapters earlier.

From the narrative in Samuel it becomes clear, Saul is to be seen as an obstinate man, insensitive to the word of Yahweh. Even his own son is depicted as publicly denouncing him. Clearly, not only Yahweh is on David's side. So is the author of Samuel. It seems strange to think, therefore, that the author would label Yahweh's favoritism for David 'unfair'. We find nothing that would indicate that. On the contrary, we find the constant painting of Saul as an unfit king; rebellious, unthinking, delusional, malicious and pitiful.

In spite of all the evidence brought, we do not feel Brueggemann has no point to make at all. He makes a strong case in showing the God of the Old Testament is prepared and willing to make his hands dirty if necessary. The Old Testament makes no secret of the fact however, that the world is a sordid place. Brueggemann seems to make to much of negative tones in the sacred literature, overplaying his hand mainly because of his need,- arising from his courtroom-model,- to show a negative 'counter-testimony' existing in Israel. In this, he has not succeeded, for the simple fact that Israel remains, in all it's complaint and for all it's grim rhetoric, on Yahweh's side.

Politically correct speech

We come to another aspect in which Brueggemann seems to read his modern-day worldview back into the Old Testament. As an evangelical Brueggemann may feel he has to defend his academic integrity to politically left-wing oriented intellectuals. This would account for some of the issues and positions he favors to enter into his work.

One of Brueggemann's hobby-horses is his fierce renunciation of Christian supersessionism. It seems however, this is not an issue originating in the Old Testament literature at all. There is not a single Old Testament writer to be found giving reason to think, he has even the faintest idea about a wonder worker from Nazareth. Sure enough, there are prophesies and psalm-lines easily attributed to Jesus' personality, but they are so encrypted one can only recognize them as fitting to Jesus from an after-Easter perspective. The issue seems to be, therefore, more a matter of dogmatics than of exegesis. An exegete who is intellectually fair will not make either modern day Christian, nor modern day Jewish exegesis of the Old Testament. This is not to say Jews and Christians do not have much to learn from each other. Proper academic exegesis however, does not start from one's own religious feeling,- be it Jewish, be it Christian,- but with the scriptures themselves.

More disturbing is the pervasion of Brueggemann's desire to come to terms with the current debate on homosexuality in his work. Not only is this unnecessary, but Brueggemann deals with these issues mainly on a religio-psychological level, trying to explain why people find homosexuality offensive, a subject in which he is not at all qualified. Secondly, Brueggemann creates an opposition of holiness and purity code on the one hand, and justice on the other, which seems strange to corpus of Old Testament literature itself. He does so in order to promote homosexual tolerance, which he pars with 'justice', in trying to show the concept of holiness was more and more marginalized in time, being replaced with 'justice'.

Little allows for such a view. Although Old Testament prophetical literature clearly is hostile toward hypocrite priests and a ritualist temple service, this is simply because the God of the Old Testament is seen as viewing holiness and justice, purity and compassion as, ultimately belonging together.
One finds the temple plays an important role in both the Psalms as well as the prophetical literature. Regarding the last it is noteworthy, that when righteousness is absent, the protection of the temple is being taken away. It is obvious however, this has made up Israel's greatest trauma. Time after time in the Babylonian exile, the reestablishment of the temple and its cult is being confirmed. Just about the first thing Nehemiah is shown doing involves rebuilding the temple.

It seems therefore that, instead of letting light from the Old Testament fall on to issues Church and Society struggle with today, he Brueggemann allows issues such as homosexuality and Christian supersessionism to determine his exegesis.

Most striking in Brueggemann's attempt to sound politically correct is a list of  people who pose as witnesses against oppression, where he places Yasser Arafat next to men like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Surely, putting a ruthless terrorist on a par with men who preached nothing but non-violent presence, marks one's ignorance. Sanctifying Zionist violence against Palestinian women and children is one thing, not understanding the bitter irony of the glorification of an anti-Semitist murderer in a scientific work describing the speech of Israel is quite another.


Although Brueggemann has done well in writing a book that is readable, erudite, thorough, giving a lucid see-through of Israel's speech, inspiration for studying and rethinking Israel's speech about Yahweh, it's God, as well as affirming one's relationship with Him, the work has some major flaws, being:

This doesn't mean Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament is not worthwhile reading. On the contrary. It bravely faces up to questions within today's academic world, biblical scholars cannot and may not ignore. Although one can differ with Brueggemann on the question how contextual biblical scholarship ought to be, one cannot deny  times  are changing as we speak. Brueggemann has made a valuable attempt in getting to terms with these changes.

No one can say how influential or lasting the work of Brueggemann will be in Old Testament study. However, because of it's obvious merits it is sure to be read with great enthusiasm in a broad audience for the coming ten years. Hopefully biblical scholarship of the coming 25 years will find how to reap the best of Brueggemann's labor.



T. W. Muller, a.d. 2000

Copyright © 2000 Tjerk Muller, Utrecht, The Netherlands


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Special Disclaimer: the Foundation European Apologetics does not agree with the statement that Arafat be a terrorist.



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