The most important American scholar of the Old Testament of the last century is Norman Gottwald


Norman Gottwald (source image courtesy of Graduate Theological Union)

Norman Gottwald died in March at the age of 95. He is, in my opinion, the most important and influential Old Testament scholar of the 20th century in the United States.

The only other close candidate for it is Brevard Childs, who died in 2007. In 1979, the two researchers published work redefining the discipline: Gottwald’s The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 BCE and that of the children Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. In very different ways, both went beyond the conventional historical social critique that had dominated study in modern times. It is characteristic of Gottwald’s generous and irenic manner that he published an article in the October 1985 issue of Theology today showing how his work and that of Childs could be usefully and critically linked.

The Tribes of Yahweh has enduring significance because it reads the Old Testament with reference to the interpretive categories of the social sciences, notably the function of the economy. Specifically, it focuses on the book of Judges and the tribal configuration in Israel before the emergence of the monarchy. Gottwald examines and rejects the idea that there was a violent conquest of the land by the encroaching and intrusive Israelites from Egypt. Similarly, he examines and rejects the German hypothesis that the land was settled by immigrants.

Instead, he defends the thesis that the conflict recounted in Judges was the result of a peasant revolt in which the subsistence farmers of Canaan violently revolted against the kings of the Canaanite cities and the aggressive landowners who acted in a predatory and exploitative manner towards vulnerable peasants. In other words, he proposes that the narrative reflects something of a class conflict.

To fund the imagination, courage, and energy of such a peasant movement, Gottwald proposes that the traditions of the Pentateuch can be understood, in sum and substance, as the ideology that was celebrated in a cultic context. This regular public reiteration of the stories gave coherence and justification to the revolt. Parallel to this hypothesis, Gottwald questions the role of YHWH, the God staged in these ideological narratives of the Pentateuch.

Gottwald proceeds carefully to distinguish his approach—which he calls structural functionalism—from the typical religious idealism that sees YHWH as an independent agent distinct from social reality. He concludes that “Israel’s loosely federated egalitarian tribalism [which] has been symbolized and institutionalized at the most global level by a common cultic-ideological allegiance to mono-Yahwism” is a function of socio-political equality. “Far from being an eccentric, worshipful compartment of Israel’s life or an arbitrary adornment on the main body of society,” he writes, Mono-Yahwism was “an axial reality, giving form and liberating ‘energy’ in various fields around the world. people’s common life.

It immediately follows for Gottwald that the reverse proposition is also true: “Sociopolitical egalitarianism was a function of mono-Yahwism.” In these reciprocal formulations, YHWH and social egalitarianism are intimately and exclusively linked. Belief in YHWH, as

the engine and sanctioner of the social system, and its cult’s minimum demands on resources and political power, served the two potentially conflicting communal needs of cultural identity and unified self-defense against rival systems, on the one hand , and of egalitarianism and autonomy, on the other hand.

Thus, in the denominational life of early Israel, YHWH is inevitably and integrally tied to economic equity.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this bold assertion at the heart of Gottwald’s study. Its two-way articulation of “function” means that Israel cannot have YHWH without the social vision and practice of the neighborhood covenant, nor could it have such social vision and practice except in connection with YHWH.

One can easily infer from Gottwald that the counterpoint is also true: Canaan could not have its predatory city-king economic system without Baal, and Baal could not be embraced without the embrace of a predatory economy – for Baal is, on the horizon of Israel, great lord and legitimator of economic predation.

This connection is evident if we consider the dramatic battle of the gods at Mount Carmel between YHWH and Baal (1 Kings 18) alongside the dispute over land in the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). Ahab and Jezebel, as supporters and defenders of Baal, feel entitled to seize peasant lands, even as Elijah, a defender of YHWH, speaks a harsh word on behalf of Naboth’s peasant interests. This link is decisive for Gottwald and can be observed frequently in the Old and New Testaments. A key distortion of biblical faith, within Gottwald’s frame of reference, is the widespread and ever-recurring attempt to have the God of the Bible without the socioeconomic practice that goes with that God. When this link is not deliberately maintained, the God of Israel (who is the God of the gospel) and the socio-economic practice of the community are assuredly distorted.

It is enlightening to consider Gottwald’s cultural background. He worked in the midst of an emerging liberation theology informed by Marxist categories of analysis. Specifically, he lived and worked in the Bay Area as a faculty member of the Graduate Theological Union following the Vietnam War. The free speech movement at the university pitted protesting students against an unresponsive administration that was bolstered in its intransigence by the ideological fervor of California Governor Ronald Reagan and his board of trustees. The conflict – between gods and between social systems – that Gottwald detected in the biblical tradition was replayed before his eyes.

Lest we judge Gottwald’s hypothesis of a peasant revolt to be too personal and subjective, it may be noted that the German hypothesis of immigration has been observed to echo well with Bismarck’s formation of the state. German, just as the American model of conquest reflects the European model of colonization of the American continent. No interpretation is ever innocent on such matters, and Gottwald surely was not.

Gottwald refined The Tribes of Yahweh over time, and this has included correcting overestimates and eliminating material that has proven to be troublesome. On the main point, however, Gottwald’s original text radically changed the discipline with its scholarly insistence that Israel’s faith in YHWH cannot and should not be divorced from the socio-economic political realities to which the ancient people of Israel were faced. Once one breathes in the major achievements of Gottwald’s scholarship, one begins to see through the scriptures the connection between the character and resolve of God and the mandate of sociopolitical equality according to Yahwism. The covenant’s vision of a neighborhood economy, so clearly and so often expressed in the Torah, requires advocacy of both pro-neighbor, anti-predation, and anti-predation policy and practice. accumulation.

Gottwald’s tenacious life’s work was imbued with great moral passion. He extended this passion to student protesters at Berkeley and many other situations of injustice. He was a formidable voice in the defense of feminism and he fought for the rights of indigenous peoples in the United States.

I am convinced that no leader of a Jewish or Christian faith community can afford to ignore Gottwald’s interpretive work. The Christian movement has been so domesticated by the force of empire that much of its testimony simply echoes and reiterates mainstream socio-economic practice. While the church has been content with such domestication, it has become a champion of the kind of charity that remains safely within the assumptions of confiscatory economics. Such anemic practice provides neither the energy nor the courage to engage in a neighborhood economy, which requires both a radical critique of our systemic economic arrangements and an emancipated imagination about an alternative practice.

As our society grows increasingly fearful and repressive, the Church faces an urgent call to speak the truth – regarding both the exposure of our predatory economic system, which produces and sustains poverty through one hand -cheap labor, and the articulation of an alternative way that will produce nearby abundance. But as long as the church is in thoughtless collusion with mainstream economic assumptions, this hard, life-changing truth is unlikely to be spoken aloud.

“How can they believe in someone they’ve never heard of? Paul asks. “And how will they hear without someone proclaiming it? And how will they proclaim it if they are not sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Romans 10:14-15). Gottwald’s breathtaking book and its long refinement testify to the life of one who understood that now is the time for beautiful feet.


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