Norman Gottwald: On God (YHWH) as the Justice Between Us
David R. Weiss – June 17, 2022
This past spring Hebrew Bible scholar Norman Gottwald died at the age of 95. In the June 1 issue of Christian Century Walter Brueggemann (himself 89 and an acclaimed Hebrew Bible scholar) wrote that Gottwald was “the most important and influential Old Testament scholar of the 20th century in the United States.” That may be true in the academy and indirectly in the seminary, but I’m betting Gottwald—and his work—is mostly unknown in the pews.
It’s true that Gottwald’s scholarship is intimidating. At nearly 1000 pages, his 1979 classic The Tribes of Yahweh is least of all light reading. But his core insight, lifted up in Brueggemann’s remembrance, belongs in church pews today more than ever. I’ll get to that.
First, a note on the man and his method. Long before it became standard to “position oneself” by acknowledging the identities and agendas that (inevitably!) impact our worldviews and our work, Gottwald argued that we ought to “own up to our ideological investments” (The Politics of Ancient Israel, 2001) in order to promote vibrant and insightful critical dialogue rather than falsely pretend that any of us write and speak from nowhere in particular. And he was deeply invested: in anti-nuclear campaigns in the late 50’s, and in free speech, feminism, anti-Vietnam War, and racial justice, as well as more local concerns in Berkeley (where he taught for nearly two decades). Even after he retired from teaching he worked on causes like immigration, globalization, health care, and labor through the Democratic Socialists of America. Gottwald was thoroughly immersed in following the prophet Micah’s injunction to “do justice, chase mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).
Gottwald’s personal-political investment in this work in his own life gave him a particular edge in excavating the dynamics of power often hidden between the lines of the biblical text. Drawing on sociology, economics, and archeology—and aided by his embrace of Marxist analysis—he read the story of ancient Israel with fresh—and revolutionary—insight. Some of his conclusions remain points of debate today, but many of them—including his method, while controversial at first, have become consensus positions among scholars. (Hence Brueggemann’s accolade.)
Still, much of Gottwald’s work remains buried in the church. Both because we woefully underestimate the capacity and interest(!) of adult lay people to entertain and embrace adult ideas about their own faith tradition. There is some truth to this. (See if you don’t feel a bit alarmed and defensive by the “adult ideas” I offer below.) But perhaps even more so because these adult ideas are almost incendiary in application. I’m coming back to that.
Here, in its most concise form, is Gottwald’s perspective on the origin of ancient Israel.
In the period from 1250-1050 BCE the land of Canaan was ruled by scattered city-states that were vassal states in Egypt’s empire. These Canaanite states paid their necessary tribute to Egypt and enriched their own elite by ruthlessly exploiting the peasants within their realms. During this critical two-century period, various groups of peasants revolted and fled (making a mini-Exodus of sorts) from the lowlands controlled by the city-states to the more remote highlands, where they founded something of a network of counter-Canaanite communities.
These communities actively sought to reject the oppressive politics/economics of Canaan by embracing egalitarian agrarian practices and, when necessary, mutual aid to one another. They also actively rejected Canaanite religion and embraced (which is really to say, gave birth to) monotheistic Yahwism. These “communitarian” tribes (Gottwald’s term) eventually merged into Israel. They were comprised of people with overlapping but not identical lineages. They came to regard themselves as a single people because of the shared conditions from which they escaped and the shared religious story they developed to explain their past and chart their future.
Thus, Gottwald said (and many scholars now agree) much of Israel’s early narrative from Abraham through the Exodus and settling in the Promised Land is “foundational myth” more than even oral history. It represents less stories passed down through generations, and more tales creatively generated to unite disparate peoples into a common narrative which could become theirs to co-create on the far side of oppression. There may have been some enslaved people who came all the way from Egypt and joined in this venture, but, given Canaan’s status as a region under Egypt’s thumb, it is just as possible that these origin myths projected a more localized rebellion/escape onto a larger canvas for its obvious dramatic and thereby unitive power.
Hardly the tale we’ve grown up telling ourselves. Or, more accurately we’ve told the foundational myth as if it were history. But there is plenty of sociological, archeological, even textual evidence to suggest otherwise. Welcome to biblical history … for adults.
Now to the edge of incendiary. As Brueggemann observes, Gottwald came to understand that in Canaan the religion of Baal and the politics of oppression were fully entangled and mutually reinforcing. Baal served to justify, endorse, practically demand (“practically” in both senses: “nearly” and “in practice”) the social hierarchy and exploitive conditions under which the pre-Israelites suffered. Thus, to escape these conditions was to escape that god.
But what people could escape their bondage if ordained by a deity—unless another stronger deity championed their liberation? This is tricky here. Because it raises the question of whether Yahweh “existed” as a deity before these peasants revolted and escaped, or did Yahweh “come to be” in these peoples’ flight to freedom? The question is profoundly theological, inasmuch as the name itself (YHWH) connotes the capacity to “cause to be,” perhaps in the very sense that Yahweh might cause these people, heretofore enslaved, to be a people in their own right.
Indeed, José Miranda, a Mexican liberation theologian writing in the 1970’s, notes that YHWH, (the Hebrew “name” God offers to Moses at the burning bush), can be rendered as either present tense—“I am who I am”—or future tense—“I will be who I will be.” It’s the same word; the tense is determined by context. Miranda argues, based on the string of future commitments God makes to Moses as part of this self-declaration (“I will bring you out … I will deliver you … I will redeem you … I will take you … I will be … I will bring you into … I will give it to you … ” Exodus 6:6-8) that it only makes sense to render YHWH also as future tense. And he suggests very provocatively that in this scene God makes their own ‘godness’ contingent upon God’s ability to deliver liberation. If, as Gottwald suggests, the Moses’ tale is created as part of how the Israelites account for their very existence as a people, it is possible that this God lived only in their most audacious, hopeless, desperate inklings until they acted toward freedom.
I say “incendiary” to hearken back to the burning bush … and to wonder what it might mean if bushes were to burn in our sanctuaries today. Brueggemann quotes Gottwald to call out his core theological insight in fairly dense verbiage: “The loosely federated egalitarian tribalism of Israel was symbolized and institutionalized at the most comprehensive level by a common cultic-ideological allegiance to mono-Yahwism. Far from being an eccentric, cultic component of Israel’s life or an arbitrary ornament on the main body of society, mono-Yahwism was a form-giving, energy-releasing reality.” In other words, as Brueggemann “translates”: “YHWH is inescapably and integrally linked to economic fairness.”
Far from reducing God to a necessary character in Israel’s tale of liberation, Gottwald viewed the process of liberation and the establishment of communities of economic justice as both the conditions under which Yahweh could come to be—AND the “energy-releasing reality” that made those very conditions possible. One does not proceed the other. They co-originate and mutually reinforce each other. God IS the presence of material justice in Israel’s life … and when that justice fractures, so does God.
Brueggemann connects Gottwald’s insight to our present moment, calling on churches to engage in truth-telling regarding “our predatory economic system, which produces and sustains poverty through cheap labor,” and to articulate “an alternative way that will yield neighborly abundance.”
These words are so true, but they stop a bit short of being incendiary. So let me light them on fire. The truth is the vast majority of us (white Americans, at least) are active (even if sometimes reluctant) participants in that predatory system. Our lives are allegiant to Baal, even if we weekly put Yahweh’s name on our lips. If we wish to do the truth-telling that is necessary to authentic biblical faith, we will need to speak from within the swirling vortex of economic justice coming-to-be.
Which is to say that short of real reparations in some form for the stolen land and stolen labor on which our lives sit, we are still living in Canaan and there is no speaking of God. Whatever we do on Sunday morning, it does not place us in living relationship with the “form-giving, energy-releasing reality” of God—except as we undo the generations of oppression and “make justice roll down like mighty waters” (Amos 5:24).
The biblical God and material justice are a package deal. We embrace them both. Or we know neither. For Norman Gottwald the choice was both—borne out in his scholarship and in his life. Because his work is still so unknown in the pews, my fear is that most Christians have never even faced the choice. Well, now the burning bush is right here in front of us. Both in Gottwald’s work and in the cries for justice round about. May we choose justice and see how brightly the flames of God take hold of our shared life.
Roland Boer, “Norman Gottwald: A Pioneering Marxist Biblical Scholar,” Monthly Review Online, published April 10, 2011, accessed June 16, 2022, https://mronline.org/2011/04/29/norman-gottwald-a-pioneering-marxist-biblical-scholar/.
Walter Brueggemann, “Faith Seeking Economic Justice,” Christian Century, 139, no. 11 (June 1, 2022): 14-15.
Kevin Carson, “The Children of Israel,” Center for a Stateless Society, published on February 16, 2014, accessed June 16, 2022, https://c4ss.org/content/24630.
José Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1974), 293-297.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.