Quick Book Review: 1-2 Thessalonians (BECNT)

weimathessaloniansTitle: 1–2 Thessalonians

Author: John Byron

Bibliographic info: 736 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2014.

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With thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

The author, Jeffrey A. D. Weima, is professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has taught for over twenty years. He has also published An Annotated Bibliography of 1 and 2 Thessalonians (co-authored with Stanley Porter; Brill, 1997), and contributed the section on 1 and 2 Thessalonians in Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary series (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus; Zondervan, 2011).

There are at least a dozen good English commentaries one can find on 1–2 Thessalonians, including Gene Green’s PNTC volume, Charles Wanamaker’s rhetorical study in the NIGTC series, F.F. Bruce’s WBC volume, Leon Morris’ NICNT volume, and Ben Witherington’s socio-rhetorical volume. While it is common now for epistles to be looked at by rhetorical analysis, a distinctive feature of Weima’s commentary is how he opts to examine the epistles in light of ancient epistolary structure. I haven’t read the entire volume yet, but what I have read so far is a fine commentary in the BECNT tradition.

Weima begins with the obligatory introductory section in which he discusses the historical, social, and cultural contexts of the epistles. Like all BECNT volumes, this commentary provides the Greek text (with transliterations), in a verse-by-verse exegetical approach. As he makes his way through the text of the Thessalonian correspondence, Weima first discusses the literary features of the text, followed by the exegesis proper. There are three excurses scattered throughout the volume: the first is on whether 1 Thess. 1:9b-10 is pre-Pauline, the second is on the textual reading of 1 Thess. 2:7, and the third is on the restrainer of 2 Thess. 2:1-17.

Weima’s contribution to the body of scholarship on Paul’s Thessalonian correspondence seems very up-to-date and explores the sociological and historical features of the epistles. It also discusses the theology of the epistles, thus making this volume useful for those reading it from a more pastoral perspective. Overall, Weima follows traditional positions regarding various issues of interpretation and authorship (it is common to deny Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians nowadays). Yet he is thoroughly aware of the debate surrounding these issues and ably weaves his way through it.

One final note: I have the Kindle version of this book and, thankfully, it was properly formatted and the Greek letters came through without errors. That was a welcome relief considering the egregious formatting of some Kindle books I have read lately.

Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Part IV)

Since the Bible was written in various imperialist contexts and interpreted by those living in the current Western system, the mission of postcolonial biblical criticism is to decolonize the biblical text and how it is read. Postcolonial biblical criticism addresses the limitations of other universalizing approaches and provides the means for wholly fresh perspectives on the biblical text, including ways of analyzing privilege, power, domination, exploitation, and identity in diverse contexts, including the whole interlocking system of gender, patriarchy, race, and so forth.

The only shortcoming of postcolonial biblical criticism that I have encountered in my readings is that it is not an entirely intuitive method to employ. This is due not only to how its interdisciplinary nature merges various subjects together, but also due to the fact that it simply does not provide a singular methodology of application to the biblical text; in fact, postcolonial criticism has been described as “a mental attitude rather than a method.”[1] Nevertheless, despite this abstruse nature of postcolonial criticism, it can undoubtedly be an illuminating approach to the biblical text.

Despite its benefits, however, I doubt that postcolonial criticism will turn out to be a dominant approach taken by those involved in biblical studies, especially in a non-Western setting. For while it does provide a convincing analysis of unexamined attitudes existing in the Western intellectual world that can all too easily go unchecked, I suspect that the majority of scholars in non-Western settings who are examining the biblical text will be doing so from more of a theological perspective where they are attempting to derive Christian doctrine and praxis from the biblical text, not from the more privileged Western academia setting where biblical studies and theological studies are separate disciplines and it is common to study the text without such an end in sight.

On the other hand, perhaps postcolonial perspectives will gain momentum in the Two-Thirds World, for it could mean a virtual resurrection of formerly colonized peoples who are emerging from the margins, by allowing them to inquire into the way Western interpretations of biblical texts contribute to an imperialistic view of other peoples, cultures and religions, and to instead seek out alternative readings of these texts.

Postcolonial readers of the Bible have shown me that a postcolonial hermeneutic contributes to a growing awareness of how the biblical text has been used in various ways to sustain and justify various imperialist and colonialist agendas, whether it be the imperialism of an ancient empire or the patriarchy of the institutional church. It is critical to examine colonial power dynamics of the text, for the Bible was written under the aegis of empire, and without being mindful of this implicit imperialism underlying the biblical text, as well as that of our own socio-cultural contexts, a genuinely liberative theology and interpretation of the Bible is impossible.

Footnotes

[1] R.S. Sugirtharajah, “A Postcolonial Exploration of Collusion and Construction in Biblical Interpretation,” in R. S. Sugirtharajah (ed), The Postcolonial Bible (The Bible and Postcolonialism, 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 91-116 (p. 93).

Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Part III)

Though I have for several years now become familiar with the conversation of Horsley, Carter, and others concerning the presence of anti-imperial sentiment in the New Testament, it is only relatively recently that I have really encountered postcolonial biblical criticism. The literature in this field that I have encountered so far has sparked a serious interest because it ably shows the versatility that such an approach offers to not only biblical studies, but also theology. I occupy a privileged position in today’s world and postcolonial criticism compels me to search for ways to read the Bible in the face of the deeply established structures of oppression and exploitation that exist on both local and global scales, for raising one’s awareness in regards to the silenced (and often ignored) resistance of the colonized and the powerless is a task which is much needed in theological undertakings of the Bible.

Postcolonial criticism invites a re-visitation and re-examination of various biblical texts that have been employed to inform Christian praxis, doctrine, and church polity, with an eye open for any liberating readings that prevail over those leading to subjugation. I am reminded here of the following quote from Jürgen Moltmann:

Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes–promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit–come alive.[1]

An example of how postcolonial criticism can inform Christian praxis and doctrine is how, in the past and present, Christian missionary efforts have been part and parcel of the imperialist expansion of the colonizing powers that entered into the foreign lands of Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas. For instance, the theology behind the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine in the early history of the United States relied upon texts such as the exodus and conquest narratives of the Hebrew Bible, leading to the belief that the dislocation and great loss of Native American lives is only a natural part of the process of expanding the Christian gospel to the heathens. Donald Pease succinctly states:

Manifest Destiny solicited belief in the fiction that US soldiers and Mexican peoples were acting out a moral allegory that divine providence assigned them as the way to realize the fate of both nations.[2]

However, the purpose of Christian missions is not to replicate one’s own culture abroad, and postcolonial biblical criticism provides an effective hermeneutic of suspicion for approaching the biblical text that calls into question one’s own socio-cultural privilege and how it plays into one’s reading and application of the text.

A final observation in regards to postcolonial biblical criticism and theology is the relatively small list of theologians who engage postcolonial thought, with some notable voices that I have encounter being Kwok Pui-Lan, Joerg Rieger, and Mayra Rivera. This is not necessarily a fault of postcolonial thought itself, but is perhaps more of an indictment of the entrenched academic hegemony in the developed world where knowledge is produced and disseminated.

Furthermore, when postcolonial criticism is employed in theological conversation, it is often (almost derisively) labeled as a “third-world” theology. This classification thus effectively portrays postcolonial theology as atypical, alien, and merely an interesting supplement to the conventional Western style of theology. In turn, this only maintains a colonial attitude in theological studies by predetermining what is suitable theological dialogue with the bifurcated notions of “normal” and “marginal.” I think it is imperative that the theological enterprise must discover those living on the margins—the colonized of whatever form—and appreciate that their voices complement, not merely supplement, theological discourse.

 Footnotes

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (trans. from 1975 German Original; New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977), p. 17.

[2] Donald E. Pease, ‘US Imperalism: Global Dominance without Colonies’, in Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray (eds), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 203–20 (p. 207).

Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Part II)

An example of how postcolonial criticism has brought insights to my reading of the biblical text is seen in how the Gospel of Matthew presents Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus. The author of Matthew goes out of their way to depict the key local figurehead of imperial power with an aura of innocence and his wife as having a halo (Matt. 27:19, 23–24). Musa Dube observes that Pilate is “absolved from the guilt of crucifying Jesus” and his wife is “characterized as a divine instrument who receives dreams regarding the innocence of Jesus.” Indeed, Pilate is implicitly depicted as recognizing the innocence of Jesus (vv. 11–23), yet he still has Jesus flogged and tortured (v. 26). While these characters are treated delicately, the mother of the key victim of imperial power—Mary the mother of Jesus—goes unnoticed. So why the focus on Pilate and his wife?

Looking at this question through a postcolonial hermeneutic provides a convincing answer: by employing the notion of ambivalence—which refers to the conflicting desires of the colonized to be both attracted to and revolted by the colonists, thus vacillating between clear mimicry of the colonist, on the one hand, and the hybridizing of the colonists and colonized, on the other—the author’s portrayal of Pilate is an ambivalent way of showing that the Christian community is not a threat to the Roman imperial order, yet this order is still an adversary.

This example (and there are innumerable others) demonstrate that postcolonial biblical criticism is an appropriate means for tackling the intricacies that emerge from colonialism. This is true not just for New Testament studies, but also for the Hebrew Bible. For example, Uriah Kim has provided a postcolonial reading of 2 Kings 22-23 in which he argues that a postcolonial hermeneutic of the Bible is to see the history contained therein as the “history of the other”, which he uses to show that the Deuteronomist’s story is to provide a unifying “history of their own” for Judah and Israel in resistance to the Assyrian hegemony.[2]

By utilizing concepts such as mimicry and hybridity, postcolonial biblical criticism is able to offer up a means for understanding the development of identities that have been shaped by colonialists. Mimicry, as the term suggests, is a repetition of colonial behaviors and attitudes by the colonized that blurs the lines that would normally distinguish the colonists and the colonized. This is tied in with the idea of hybridity which denotes that the resultant identity is a mixture, not an exact replica. Those who have been colonized in some form or another may very well internalize the attitudes of the colonizers, and it is a postcolonial lens that supports the struggle for liberation by assisting in changing the ways in which the colonized reflect upon and judge themselves.

In my studies, postcolonial biblical criticism has made me aware not only of the colonial setting of the text and the colonial reception history of the text, but also how one’s own global context impacts one’s reading of the Bible. For instance, over the past decade the issue of the United States’ imperial power has been renewed in the public square due to the long foray into Iraq. Having lived here in the United States since 2008, it is clear to me that for many who were born and raised in the United States, the narratives of “American exceptionalism” and “American innocence” undercut the ability for national self-reflection, even leading to the point where any effort to contemplate the colonial and imperial history of this nation is an affront to (and assault on) this nation’s supposed Christian heritage. Donald Pease provides discerning remark about “American exceptionalism”:

The disparity between the United States’ imperial policies and the refusal to acknowledge them bears powerful witness to the power of the doctrine of US exceptionalism which authorized the refusal. US exceptionalism is a political doctrine as well as a regulatory ideal assigned responsibility for defining, supporting, and transmitting the US national identity.[3]

This all goes to show that while the Bible may have indeed exerted a considerable influence in the history of the construction of the American identity, this by no means promises that the general populace will be able to critically view their country’s involvement with colonialism and imperialism critically in light of the biblical narratives.

Footnotes

[1] Musa W. Dube, ‘Go Therefore and Make Disciples of All Nations’, in Fernando F. Segovia and Mary A. Tolbert (eds), Teaching the Bible: The Discourse and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), pp. 224–246 (p. 231).

[2] Uriah Y. Kim, Decolonizing Josiah: Toward a Postcolonial Reading of the Deuteronomistic History (Bible in the Modern World, 5; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005).

[3] Donald E. Pease, ‘US Imperalism: Global Dominance without Colonies’, in Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray (eds), A Companion to Postcolonial Studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 203–20 (p. 203).

Postcolonial Biblical Criticism (Part I)

Throughout the reception history of the Bible, particularly from the era of Constantine in the fourth century onwards, the biblical text has been utilized to support the colonialism and imperialism of empires rather than as a means of resisting and challenging such endeavors, despite the fact that all of the constituent writings of the Bible—both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament—were forged in the crucible of imperial contexts and written under the shadow of empires that existed in the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean Basin (including the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, and Roman empires).

It is only relatively recently that the field of biblical studies has produced methods that attempt to extricate the biblical text from its merger with imperialism, leading in recent decades to the slow but sure erosion of the historical-critical method’s hegemony in biblical studies. New methodologies and insights, such as reader-response criticism and literary-critical methods, have undercut the complete domination of the historical-critical method, clearing the way for fresh contextual methods, including ecological, feminist, and liberation hermeneutics, as well as postcolonial criticism.

Postcolonial biblical criticism developed from postcolonial studies, a discipline that presents a critical investigation of colonialism and its aftermath, itself arising out of the geopolitical realities that had been ushered in throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the dissolution of empires and the subsequent arrival of individual nation-states. It aims to understand not only how colonial powers rationalize and defend their subjugation of peoples, but also how the colonized regard their own identity in view of their subjugation; postcolonial criticism analyzes how power is utilized by those in control and how it is responded to by those under its control.

While biblical scholars have long attempted to situate the biblical text in its proper historical and socio-cultural contexts, such as the Roman imperial cult for New Testament studies, postcolonial criticism goes beyond this by analyzing how the text has been used to assist and resist various imperialistic activities throughout its reception history, examining various aspects such as how a colonized community works out an identity in both a resisting and accommodating manner. There are multifaceted dynamics in play between the powerful and the powerless, and it is postcolonial criticism that “offers a space for the once-colonized. It is an interpretive act of the descendants of those once subjugated. In effect it means a resurrection of the marginal, the indigene and the subaltern.”[1]

Footnotes

[1] R. S. Sugirtharajah, The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial, and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 250.

Select Bibliography

Stephen D. Moore. Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (The Bible in the Modern World, 12. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006).

R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed). The Postcolonial Bible (The Bible and Postcolonialism, 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).

______ The Bible and the Third World: Precolonial, Colonial, and Postcolonial Encounters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

______ Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

______ Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: History, Method, Practice (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell 2011).

Robert Young. Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).

______ Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Brief Reviews of a Few More Books

Important note: All of the following review copies are digital copies I received from Westminster John Knox and all are jam-packed with formatting errors. I received the review copies through the Edelweiss review program, so it may just be the digital copies that come through there that are bad (and not the actual digital copies you can buy from Amazon), but I don’t know. I do know, however, that every single digital copy I’ve received from WJK through Edelweiss has had formatting errors. And one of the books I received for review, Political Theology: Contemporary Challenges and Future Directions was so bad that it was literally unreadable, so I just deleted it from my Kindle and will not be reviewing it.

Honestly, reading a terribly formatted ebook is so annoying that even getting the book for free doesn’t seem to make it worth the effort.

hiddenrichesTitle: Hidden Riches: A Sourcebook for the Comparative Study of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East

Author: Richard B. Hays

Bibliographic info: 288 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

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The author, Christopher Hays, is an Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary.

This volume is one of many available that seeks to illuminate the Hebrew Bible by exploring the history, culture, and literature of the Ancient Near East. The aim of such an endeavor is, of course, to provide the reader with a better understanding of the history and theology of the Hebrew Bible, as well as demonstrate how Israel’s sacred scriptures were in fact shaped by such texts.

Throughout the volume, Hays provides translated sections of various Ancient Near Eastern texts, introductions to them, a select bibliography for further study, and, of course, the meat of the chapter: a comparison of the text to a text from the Hebrew Bible. For example, Hays discusses literary genres (e.g. oracles, treaties, hymns) and how they help clarify the text of the Hebrew Bible.

One chapter, to pick one at random as an example, provides a comparative analysis of Leviticus 16:1-34 to Ashella’s Ritual Against a Plague in the Army, The Ritual of Ambazzi, and Day Five of the Babylon Akitu Festival. The chapter then goes on to discuss such pertinent issues such as the separation of clean and unclean, atonement for sin, and the need to purify our spaces from sin.

All in all, this volume is an scholarly yet accessible treatment of the ancient context of the Hebrew Bible, and definitely one of the more useful ‘Scripture in context’ volumes I have read.

macabeesmishnahTitle: From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Third Edition

Author: Shaye Cohen

Bibliographic info: 328 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

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The author, Shaye J.D. Cohen, is a Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University.

This updated and expanded edition of Cohen’s classic work–originally published in the 1980s–provides a very useful overview of the history of Judaism from about 200 BC to 200 CE, including aspects such as culture, religion, society, politics, and so forth.

Most of the updates to this third edition is updated footnotes and rewritten sentences. But the biggest change is the addition of a chapter on the parting of ways between Christianity and Judaism. In this chapter, Cohen contends that the separation that took place between the two faiths was a gradual process, rather than some clear-cut happening. Additionally, he says that this parting was really between Jews and Jewish Christians, as there wasn’t really a time of unity between Gentile and Jewish Christians.

If you’re a student of early Christianity and the New Testament, this volume is definitely a recommended book to read. It provides a lot of background information of Jewish life that really does help in understanding the New Testament writings. This is especially needed considering that some of the ‘common’ knowledge of the average person-in-the-pew Christian is false, e.g., depictions of Pharisees found in the Gospels are known to be stereotypes moreso than faithful historical representations.

As a random example of interesting tidbits the author provides: at one point he discusses “Hellenistic Judaism”, noting that in the post-Persian period there is not really such a thing as non-Hellenistic Judaism. Instead, Cohen views the term only as a useful chronological indicator of Judaism post-Alexander the Great.

I really enjoyed this book. Rather than being a background to early Christianity, it is an introduction to Second Temple Judaism that is cognizant of nascent Christianity, but which is ancillary to the book’s main thrust.

theologicaltermsTitle: The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded

Author: Donald K. McKim

Bibliographic info: 352 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

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This updated edition contains almost 7,000 theological terms and their definitions—which is about 1,000 more terms than the first edition. The entry for each term is succinctly written, and the terms cover such topics as church history, ministry, philosophy, biblical studies, and theologies (whether it be liberation, postcolonial, Reformed, Catholic, etc).

As an example, here are a couple entries I picked at random:

infinite qualitative distinction A phrase associated with the early writings of Karl Barth (1886-1968) and drawn from the thought of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). It distinguishes between God and humanity by indicating that God is infinite and holy whereas humans are finite and sinful.

reification (Lat. res, “thing”) The fallacy noted in philosophy of treating a psychological or mental entity as though it were a thing. Also called “hypostatization.”

Even though I read theological works every single day, I still regularly come across terms and concepts that I am unfamiliar with, or have perhaps forgotten exactly what they mean or which figures are associated with it. The entries in this volume are short and do not go too deep, but they contain enough information to provide the reader with a basic understanding. I would, however, recommend the print edition over the digital edition for this book (due to having to use the search function in order to find an entry).

Quick Reviews of Two Books by Brueggemann

Sabbath_as_ResistanceTitle: Sabbath as Resistance

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Bibliographic info: 109 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

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With thanks to WJK Press for the review copy.

This is a very small book containing a preface and six studies on the Sabbath. What is the Sabbath according to the purpose of this book? These two snippets should suffice:

Sabbath is the practical ground for breaking the power of acquisitiveness and for creating a public will for an accent on restraint. Sabbath is the cessation of widely shared practices of acquisitiveness.

Sabbath is a school for our desires, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed that have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us. But Sabbath is the chance for self-embrace of our true identity.

An example of how Brueggemann explores the Sabbath is the chapter in which he draws upon Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Amos to convey how the Sabbath is a resistance to the modern vices of anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. While I agree with some much of what the author says, there did seem to be a focus in the book on free-market economics to such an extent that one might come away thinking that anything associated with this (e.g. labor, competition, etc) is an inherently negative thing. While I don’t necessarily disagree with the picture painted of the wealthy banksters and the captains of industry as being the ones most resembling the slave-driving Pharaoh, this needs to be balanced out by the fact that we as consumers are willingly enslaved to such giants.

Additionally, I find it odd that people turn to the bureaucracy of government as some sort of panacea to the ailment. Brueggemann says that the “gods of commoditization for the most part go unchallenged in our world. As a result, the exploitative systems go unchallenged an unnoticed.” Sure, while the titans of industry, business, and banks may commoditize us all, you’ve got to be kidding if you do not see similar problems in the biggest possessor of power: government. I think this book needs to be a more balanced view of the exploitative systems that plague society. One can rightly argue, in my opinion, that the sort of governmental solution of a more redistributionist government is just a different means of bowing to the idol of covetousness. It isn’t tackling the heart of the problem: the covetousness of our own hearts. Despite some qualms I had with this book, it was an interesting study on the Sabbath.

truthspeakspowerTitle: Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Bibliographic info: 178 pp.

Publisher: Westminster John Knox, 2013.

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With thanks to WJK Press for the review copy.

In this short work, Brueggemann aims to show the reader the subversive messages to be found within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament by discussing various biblical narratives where the authority of power is undercut (often in unobvious ways). He begins with Jesus’ discussion with Pontius Pilate on the issues of authority and power, and then covers other figures such as Moses and Pharaoh, Solomon, Elisha, and Josiah. The underlying narrative that Brueggemann is intending to highlight is that the Church is to identity the moanings of the world and live out an alternative that leads people to freedom. Rather than limiting the Christian faith to one’s own private sphere, Brueggemann contends:

the church is, in my judgment, called to its public vocation to practice neighborliness in a way that includes both support of policies of distributive justice and practices of face-to-face restorative generosity.

In face of global inequalities, Brueggemann advocates a return to Scripture. In fact, he goes so far as to say this about Deuteronomy:

Indeed, it is not a stretch to say that Deuteronomy, in it context, became a charter for what we now call liberation theology, namely, the insistence that faith concerns the sustained enactment of public economic justice.

Brueggemann has been my favorite commentator/theologian to read when it comes to the Old Testament, and despite disagreements with aspects of both of these books, they are both good examples as to why I enjoy his writings.

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