From Judgment to Hope (Walter Brueggemann) -- A Review

FROM JUDGMENT TO HOPE: A Study on the Prophets. By Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019. Xi + 103 pages.

       When it comes to the prophets of Israel, who would be a better choice than Walter Brueggemann, to write a popular introduction for congregational study? After all, Brueggemann has the visage of a prophet. Besides, he has written widely on the prophets; most especially on Isaiah (all three iterations). Thus, we have FromJudgment to Hope: A Study on the Prophets.

From Judgment to Hope is a very brief study guide that introduces us to prophetic writers, whom Brueggemann calls "emancipated imaginers of alternative" (p. vii). In other words, in Brueggemann's mind the prophets aren't predictors of the future or even social advocates (at least not in the way often imagine them).  They are emancipated because they are free from "absolutizing assumptions." They are imagers because their bold words offer "an alternative reality that is out beyond conventional expectation and so is unthinkable and unutterable in conventional expectation." Finally, they offer an "alternative to the social reality that is so obviously in front of us." (pp. vii-viii).

Brueggemann picks up this study of the prophets after Patricia Tull, a Presbyterian pastor and biblical scholar, provides a brief introduction to the prophets as a whole. This helpful chapter sets up Brueggemann’s work by providing the reader or study group with an overview of the lay of the land. With this introduction in place, Brueggemann pics up the conversation with an introduction to the three major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. You may notice that there are three, not four, "major prophets" that are dealt with in the chapter. That is because Brueggemann considers Daniel to be an apocalyptic text and not an expression of prophetic literature. Having offered us a nice overview of the three prophets, he spends two chapters diving deeper into First Isaiah (chapter 2), followed by a chapter focusing on Second and Third Isaiah (Chapter 3). Of First Isaiah, he takes not of the focus on Jerusalem, suggesting that for the earliest Isaiah Jerusalem is the "epicenter of all meaning, the icon of ultimate religious possibility and all historical prospects" (p. 24). The later iterations of Isaiah, of course, come much later, after the destruction of Jerusalem. In these additions to the earlier book, the prophets offer comfort to a people who have lost their center. For Christian readers, a group that Brueggemann has in mind in this popular work, he notes: “It is clear than in our belated reading of the book as Christians, we have found it, more than any other book of the Old Testament, to be a lively testimony to the claims of Jesus as the Messiah” (p. 49). But it speaks not only of Jewish and Christological realities, it also offers a word to the present reality of the United States and the West: “I have come to think that, as the destruction of Jerusalem is the critical icon of Old Testament loss and hope, so 9/11 is the critical icon of loss and hope in our society” (pp. 49-50). In line with the vision of the prophetic works, it speaks of alternative possibilities of hope in the face of loss. 

While the first three chapters focus on the Major Prophets, with special attention given to Isaiah, the final three chapters of this study guide focus on the so-called "Minor Prophets." Brueggemann spends one chapter looking at the twelve together, suggesting that the collection exhibits an observable organizing principle—one that is chronological in nature. One aspect of Brueggemann's treatment is that he recognizes the value of a canonical approach. So, he takes note of the fact that the Book of the Twelve begins with Hosea in the eighth century and ends with the fifth-century prophet— Malachi. Theologically, he notes that the message of the collection as a whole is that Israel and Judah are living under divine judgment. In the seventh century, Jerusalem is disintegrating, and questions of divine justice begin to emerge. This leads in the books that appear in the sixth and fifth centuries to a word concerning recovery and hope. Thus, the title “From Judgment to Hope!” This schema takes care of nine of the twelve, but there are three other texts that are not as easily placed chronologically.  Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah stand outside any chronological placement, and so must be treated separately.

With this schema laid out, Brueggemann dives deeper into six of the twelve. Chapter 5 focuses on what he believes are the three most important books in this collection. These three are the eighth-century prophets: Hosea, Amos, and Micah. According to Brueggemann, their message centers on the "covenantal mandate of solidarity" between the powerful and the poor. That is, these three prophets call for the practice of neighborly solidarity, something that appears not to be occurring despite the covenant foundations of the nation. If the eighth-century prophets were concerned about the exploitation of the poor, the three prophets from the Persian Period focused on the restoration of Jerusalem, including the rebuilding of the Temple (Haggai and Zechariah).

Discussion questions are provided for each of the chapters, making this useful for small group studies. In addition, Patricia Tull provides an appendix that offers the readers a brief summary of each of the prophetic books (along with estimated dates of appearance). There is also a timeline and listing of well-known quotations from Isaiah and a glossary of terms. In other words, this is a nice, accessible introduction to the prophets written by one of the best-known Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible. Thus, From Judgment to Hope is a good starting point for delving into the prophetic literature in a way that might illuminate not only the past but the present as well.


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