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The Earth is the Lord's
It is clear that land is a central issue in biblical faith. We are learning this afresh about the Bible as it is read by communities of liberation that have been denied land they know to be their birthright. We are learning it afresh as Christians and Jews think together in new ways about our common faith.
We are learning, critically, that much of our reading of the Bible has been in the wrong categories which conceal from us the central thrust of the faith. We are learning, positively, that when read with reference to God's promise and gift of land, the Bible has important contact with the central public issues of our world. Attentiveness to the land causes us to hear the faith in new ways and finally to discern God differently as the one who takes and blesses and breaks and gives land as well as bread and wine.
The Bible concerns God's foundational gift of the earth. When translated from Hebrew, the word 'erets means "earth," which belongs only to God and may not be denied God (Leviticus 25:23). That claim is at the heart of creation faith. At the outset of all creation, heaven and earth are called into being by God's speech and exist only to praise and obey God. The Bible has very little interest in heaven, but focuses relentlessly on earth. Earth is God's creature intended for God's purposes of fruitfulness and well-being, so that God may look at the earth and say each evening, "It is good."
In affirming that the earth belongs only to God, Israel's faith means to deny ultimate ownership to any other. No pretender or other claimant, no matter how strong or legitimate, may usurp this right of ultimate disposal. That is against every imperialistic, monopolistic, and exploitative power - a staggering political announcement in the ancient world. This sweeping theological claim excludes and finds intolerable other claims such as those made by Pharaoh, who said, "My Nile is my own; I made it" (Ezekiel 29:3). It asserts accountability and submission to Yahweh and precludes every imagined autonomy.
'Erets as "earth" offers a paradigm of an untroubled place for life which is not historically located or socially differentiated. The rendering "earth" suggests theologically pure space for living without any human concreteness. The Bible does not say with any specificity where the garden of Eden is located, because the garden is a theological model for what "earth" is everywhere when it is not located or differentiated. That model functions as a powerful symbol for what is intended and what shall finally be (Revelation 21).
Taken by themselves, the "earth stories" of Genesis 1-3 witness only to the purposes of the creator, unencumbered by the terrors and tensions of history. "Earth" functions as a non-negotiable, ultimate symbol, uncontaminated and uncomplicated. Such a symbolic vision serves to energize political and social dreamers by proposing a context for life that concerns possibilities that pragmatists regard as impossible.
We should be realistic enough, however, to concede that this model of 'erets as "earth" is also removed from all historical rootedness and historical ambiguity. Therefore, 'erets as "earth," if it is not watched carefully, can become an escapist symbol because it does not participate in any political reality.
Taken by themselves, the "earth stories" of Genesis 1-3 can escape Israel's sense of historical reality, as is evident in the widespread treatment of them as "myths." One notices that people who like the first chapters of the Bible are sometimes drawn to the creation texts because they do not want to talk about the historical ambiguity of the land. Nonetheless, the Bible does claim that the earth can be peaceable, precisely because all authority is held by God, and God does not share that glory with any other (Isaiah 42:8).
The Hebrew word rendered as "earth" is also the standard word for "land." The word functions very differently when it is rendered "land" rather than "earth." While there are, of course, some clues in context, very often the translator has a choice of rendering. How very different, for example, it would be if we understood that the Bible said, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the land."
Thus in Genesis 12, where Israel's specific story begins, Abraham is promised the land, not earth: "I will show you a land." When Abraham arrives at the place of promise, "at that time there were Canaanites in the land." Whenever we come to "land," promised or otherwise, someone else is always there ahead of us, regarding it as their own. The problem for Abraham is that the Canaanites characteristically think the land of promise is their land. Israel itself is not immune to the problems of land possession.
In the very next chapter (Genesis 13), Abraham and his nephew Lot must divide the land. Abraham and Lot were so prosperous, so blessed by God, that they had disputes over water rights. They are thrust into the specific political and economic problems of scarcity and division of goods. Such problems are not hinted at in the "earth stories" of Genesis 1-2, where the subject is "earth" and not "land."
In some interpretations of biblical notions of land, there maybe a temptation to understand the land in idyllic ways, but the Bible is not romantic. After the story of the conquest of Joshua, the Bible concedes that there were Canaanites everywhere in the land. The narrative of Judges 1 offers a litany of realism, for every tribe "did not drive out" the Canaanites. Israel did not get rid of the other peoples who also thought they were entitled to the land.
The reality of other peoples in the land is exceedingly problematic in the face of the great land promises already made to Israel. But the Bible does not flinch from that problem. It seeks to face the problem honestly (Judges 2:11-3:6). The analysis of social reality in Judges sounds very different from the doxological world of Genesis 1. The story of the "land" is always about rival claims and competing power. Every settlement of the land question must be a conflictive one, an uneasy one, and therefore always to some extent in jeopardy.
'Erets as "land" is always conflictive and at issue. It cannot be otherwise, because owned land is characteristically not peaceable. For when one owns land, one must do so in the presence of the many who do not own the land and who have been denied ownership, very likely by force and violence or by legal manipulation. Serious land theology is therefore always about power and counterpower. None who owns land has an absolute or obvious claim.
Israel's history in the land embodies this conflict. While it might be more palatable to be able to appeal to the "earth stories" of Genesis as the normative paradigm for faith, such an appeal would trivialize and falsify Israel's complicated life in the land. Instead, appeal must be made to the Joshua materials which, although perhaps messy and ignoble, are realistic about how the historical process works.
The Joshua materials reflect how real land problems are dealt with and regularly resolved. If one tries to investigate how it happens that some possess land to the exclusion of others, one can recover historical data. But finally one recognizes that land is acquired because of the illegitimate use of power. The Bible is both honest and critically aware of the cost and reality of land and its possession.
Every community (in the Bible and in contemporary life) has narratives giving canonical expression to a land seizure that makes the illegitimate palatable, if not glorious, to the community. Such an illegitimate act, even if it is now cast as legitimate and canonical, means that land possession is always conflictual. The relationship between the possessing ones and the non-possessing ones is always unsettled and open to review.
THE BIBLE KNOWS that possession of land has an impact on us and our perceptions of reality. Yearning for more land when one owns land is a social fact very different from the landless yearning for land. Israel's discernment of God's commandments acknowledges that God's will extends to the problem of land possession. It is exceedingly important that the culmination of the Ten Commandments is about land (Exodus 20:17). "Thou shalt not covet" has to do first of all with land-tenure policy.
The key issue in the land motif of the Old Testament is how to hold together the very different theological claims of 'erets as "earth" and 'erets as "land." Both translations are biblical. Both are theologically important. Neither must be permitted to nullify the other or the social, theological function it performs.
If 'erets is taken only as "earth," we are left with a romantic view of the Bible that does not grapple with social reality. This, I suspect, is what has happened in much of the church in the United States. On the other hand, if 'erets is always taken as "land," then the Bible is reduced to the conflictive nature of the historical process. This tends to ignore the claim of Yahweh's governance of all land and is the danger of Marxist interpretations.
When 'erets is translated only as "land," it may lead to unbridled self-seeking and to violence and totalitarianism in which "might makes right." If one's possession of land is unqualified and unlimited by the transcendent reference of "the earth is the Lord's," there is a temptation to imagine one is the absolute owner without any dimension of accountability. On the other hand, if 'erets is only "earth," and not the political reality of "land," then the territory gets withdrawn from the political process and is treated with romantic and spiritual absolutism.
A view of "earth" as God's creation may be used in two political ways under the guise of religion. First, it may be used to absolutize and ontologize present land distribution as though it were a given of God's will. When landed people prefer to speak about "earth" rather than "land," we are likely engaged in ideology which simply presumes that present land arrangements are part of the abiding order.
Second, reading 'erets always as "earth" and never as "land" will spiritualize and siphon off the energy of rage that properly belongs to the dispossessed, assuring them that sometime, somewhere, all will share in the earth of God, but not in this age. When read with critical awareness, 'erets as "earth" serves as a transcendent principle whereby present land arrangements may be critiqued.
The Bible reads the word 'erets as both "land" and "earth." To translate one way or the other is to make an important interpretive decision. How the two possible translations of the term are decided is an important issue for biblical faith.
VARIOUS MOMENTS OF DECISION in the concrete life and faith of Israel may be identified. We will learn most by paying attention to specific cases of such adjudication.
Yahweh's lordship of "earth" serves to relativize and destabilize all other claims on the earth that seem absolute. In the Bible the tendency toward absolutizing land claims is evident in the Egyptian ideology. The Egyptian imperial ideology, which claims self-sufficiency, is clearly evident in Ezekiel 29 and 30. Egypt is not alone in such pretension. In Ezekiel 28 the king of Tyre asserts, "I am a god." The mythic claim supporting these political systems is closely related to the control of territory. The ideological claim is never disinterested, but is a hidden way of displaying political power.
Such imperial arrogance is not only a mythic claim, however. It is also a political stratagem. That is, Egyptian sovereignty claims to have a right to dominate other peoples because it is Egypt. Genesis 47 offers a stunning account of such an imperial stratagem. The first year of the famine, the Egyptians approach the government in need. Joseph gives them food in exchange for their money. In the next year, the exchange is made for their cattle. In the following year, when the money and the cattle are gone, the exchange is for land, and they become state slaves. (It is worth noting that the only land not seized in this way is the land of the priests, no doubt because they are the legitimators of the land system of the empire.) The Egyptian government monopoly of food gives it leverage to take from vulnerable people their means of production. When the people have lost their means of production, they will never again have land.
The Old Testament is not blind to the destructive power of such monopoly. It understands that such monopoly must be subjected to radical social criticism. A subsequent handling of the same social process within Israel is explicit in Nehemiah 5. The Old Testament criticism of monopolistic land systems is precisely the claim that the land may not be monopolized because it belongs to Yahweh. It must be administered in equitable, just, egalitarian ways. The ideological justification for land monopoly is exposed by prophetic oracles (Isaiah 5:8-10; Amos 6:1-7; Micah 2:1-4). It is repeatedly asserted that the land belongs to Yahweh and that Yahweh is at best amused by these attempts to seize the land (Psalms 2:4-5). Yahweh will finally overthrow all such unacceptable pretensions (Isaiah 10:5-19, 47:1-15).
The political arrangements of Genesis 47 that lead to land monopoly are not countered by poetry (as in the prophets) but by an alternative political narrative of defiance and withdrawal concerning the Exodus story. What a difference it makes if one reads the Exodus event and narrative as an act of defiance against false land policy. That generative narrative, then, is an assertion that the Egyptian monopoly is wrong and that it cannot be sustained, either by technology or by ideology.
THE COMMUNITY OF ISRAEL is understood as a social experiment in the ancient world. This alternative social experiment is an attempt to organize life outside the imperial arrangement and the monopoly of the city-state system. Such a premise means that land-tenure policy is central to Israel's understanding of faith in Yahweh. We are invited by such a premise to think about ancient Israel not as a kinship group, a language group, or a religious group, but as a group that has an alternative notion of land tenure.
Israel is not a spiritual movement but a group of marginal people who have disengaged from the imperial monopoly. Israel is a concrete people headed toward land that can be increasingly carved away from the land that is controlled by the regime. The torah system of Sinai enacts a change in land-tenure arrangements that gives access to the landless. Israel is Yahweh's showcase for reordering the historical process on behalf of the marginal.
Evidence for this social experiment is found in the liberation narratives of Exodus and Joshua, but the same accent is also found in the legal traditions of the Old Testament. It is commonly recognized that the year of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 concerns the return of the land in a 50-year cycle, because all the land belongs to Yahweh. This peculiar institution stands as a stern line of protection against all who would confiscate or usurp from the powerless - those who do not have the means to retain or defend their own land.
Among those who try to make sense of the Bible but chafe at its revolutionary social vision, it is frequently asked, "Is there any evidence that this law was ever implemented?" It is telling that only on this kind of economic issue is such a question asked. That is not because the evidence is difficult, for it is also difficult on many other provisions, but because we wish in our question to be assured that they were not serious about this provision. But they were indeed serious about it. Even if it is the case that it was not implemented in ancient Israel, which is unclear, the provision nonetheless lingered in the tradition for future appeal in various circumstances.
ISRAEL LEARNED THAT a social revolution of the kind it was attempting is exceedingly difficult to sustain. It did not take Israel long to learn that such radical land reform is difficult. Therefore, there is predictable regression back into the old ideologies and mythologies of land.
The regression from such a bold beginning is evident in 1 Samuel 7-15, in which there is a lively debate about whether the radical movement of egalitarian land can be sustained or whether the movement needs to be cut back to a more realistic procedure in order to hold the gains already achieved. The decision for monarchy constitutes a decision to tone down the radical land vision of early Israel. The petition of 1 Samuel 8:5,20 is that Israel should "be like the nations," and the decision is made to return to those rapacious land policies.
With the coming of Solomon to the throne, the initial Yahwistic vision of Moses is forfeited. Israel embraces the imperial land policies common in the Near East that encourage monopoly. Evidence for this land policy under Solomon is given in 1 Kings 4:1-28. There is now a long list of bureaucrats who, together with a secretary of forced labor (1 Kings 4:6), administer the land and are primarily tax officers. It is indeed strange to find this social development in the midst of Israel's vision of a liberated community.
It is clear that in 1 Kings 4 the regime now confiscates the vines and fig trees of peasants by way of taxation. If Solomon is served, each will have his own vine and fig tree. The regime had confiscated not only the modest means of production (vine and fig tree) but had also confiscated the dream of egalitarian production and consumption as well. It is now claimed by the regime, and taught to the peasants, that all dreams must have their fulfillment through the achievements and arrangements of the regime.
Thus 1 Kings 4 signals a dramatic departure in the life of Israel from the foundational dream. Clearly the social revolution undertaken by elders of the northern kingdom at the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) was not because of a religious disagreement but because of exploitative labor practices related to land management. Out of its memory and the reality of pain, Israel concludes that such royal policies were too costly.
THE PROPHETS OF ISRAEL maintained the vision of land reform and social revolution derived from Moses against every royal regression. In 1 Kings 21, Elijah and Naboth care intensely about a confiscated piece of land. This narrative advocates a land system in which one cannot alienate people from their inheritance. Micah 4:1-5 concerns plowshares and pruning hooks and offers the awareness that there will be no safe land in the community until the massive commitment to arms (spears and swords) is overcome. Micah 2:14 concerns the systemic coveting of land. The remarkable statement of verse 4 asserts that the land will be redivided, excluding the coveters. When the land is reapportioned, the monopolizers will not even get to attend the meeting in which it is parceled out.
Hosea 2 is a long poem around the metaphor of divorce and remarriage. But behind the metaphor, the poem concerns land loss and having the land completely reorganized. The turning point in that marvelous poem says that the "valley of Achor," the valley of coveting and trouble, will become "the door of hope."
That assertion on land is pivotal for the Old Testament and is at the center of prophetic hope. Land can be reorganized, but it requires going into the wilderness and learning to live without land. The people who live without land have a chance to receive the land back with a new, healthy covenantal organization.
Prophecy and Land
Is that not what the arms race is all about? The debate in our time is over how many weapons one has to have to keep from losing the land. Into the discussion intrudes the awareness that such self-defense may in fact be a way to lose the land, not to guard it. The royal ideology always believes there is a way to keep the land without the Torah. But the Torah is uncompromising in its conviction that those who covet the land (in violation of the Torah) are going to lose it.
On the other hand, the countertheme of the biblical dialectic is that those without land will receive it from God. That is the central conviction of this tradition. The songs of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:6-7) and Mary (Luke 1:52-53) sing this conviction: The empty will be made full; the poor will be made rich; the last will be made first. Just as the loss of land is to happen through historical processes in which Yahweh's purpose is executed, so the giving of land is also through social processes - processes of transformation and upheaval.
The quintessential hope of the Old Testament, that for which Israel finally yearns, is the land. The land in some sense, taken literally or metaphorically, is at the heart of Jewish identity. Israel's disclosure to the world is that one cannot be human if one does not have land and the social power that goes with it. The God of Israel is a God who summons the people to land and promises that they shall have land. Obviously the historical actualization of that promise is difficult, but that does not detract from the singular claim of the promise.
THE GREAT PROPHETIC promises that have been so important to Christians - the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), the resurrection (Ezekiel 37:1-14), and new creation (Isaiah 65:17-25) - are not far removed from the issue of land. In the New Testament, the dominant metaphor of "kingdom of God" can hardly be understood without serious reference to the reality of land and the materiality that inescapably belongs to the metaphor.
Among the texts that may need to be reread are Jesus' initial proclamation (Mark 1:14-15), which suggests a new land-management program including cancellation of debts (forgiveness). The programmatic text of Luke 4:18-19 may have to do with the Jubilee year and its land proposals. Mark 10:17-31 promises restoration a hundredfold of houses and fields. In all of these texts, the New Testament does not stray very far from a concern for land. When Paul speaks of the believing community as heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29, 4:7; Romans 8:17), this language is not idle talk, but evokes the whole history of Israel's life as inheritors of the lands. Paul's evangelical language does not abandon the concrete land references of the tradition.
We clearly have not finished with this powerful and difficult theme of how to live in the land. Indeed, we are only at the beginning of our reflection. Our particular moment in history has forced the issue of faith and land upon us in fresh ways. We are coming to see that the issues of freedom, justice, and peace are all linked to the problem of land. The great troubles in the world are in those places where land is denied some to the disproportionate benefit of others.
This is not to turn the Bible into a tract for revolution. It is, rather, to recognize that the very character of God in biblical faith requires us to think differently about these matters. It is odd and telling that in Ezekiel 37:1-14 the metaphor of resurrection is used for re-entry into the land. The linkage of these themes is not unlike the linkage made in 1 John 3:14: "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers and sisters." Both the texts of Ezekiel 37 and 1 John 3 juxtapose resurrection and concrete life in the community, in one case land, in the other brothers and sisters.
The dominant metaphor of resurrection runs toward concrete life in community. New life is promised in these texts, but new life is given only with the reordering of our common life. That reordering is surely the good news of the gospel.
Walter Brueggemann, the author of The Land and many other books, was a professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.
The Earth is the Lord's. by Walter Bruegemann. Sojourners Magazine, October 1986
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