It is perhaps odd that at the beginning of what will be a troubling and tumultuous year and with a multiple of topics to write about that pertain to our current troubles, I chose to engage a scholarly discussion pertenant to nearly no one outside the narrow field of biblical study. Yet here am I.
I stumbled upon Baruch Halpern’s essay entitled “YHWH the Revolutionary.” I, fashioning myself to some degree as one with liberationist tendencies, was interested to hear more. I had become familiar with Halpern’s work while working on my graduate studies and found him challenging and insightful. His articulation of the dynamic between biblical text and history is especially valuable.
To my surprise, Halpern’s essay provides a rather scathing rebuke to liberation leaning Old Testament scholars, the primary ones mentioned are George Mendanhall, Norman Gottwald, and Walter Brueggemann. The latter two were especially influential in my own formulations of theological frameworks. Halpern asserts that his evaluation of the prophets “contradicts the constructs of the liberation theologians” and is sure to cause some consternation. After reading his essay, I can attest to that. Halpern’s critique puts a hard question mark to much of my theological trajectory over the past few years, so I thought it important to listen carefully to his argument and see where that leads me.
I live in a country that has a deep history of dismantling and attacking communitarian or egalitarian socio/political constructs. (Read socialist or communist if you desire.) The accusation of utopic ideology rises consistently. Yet I was reminded in a recent article rehearsing the history of neoliberal economics that grand ideas can be implemented, for better or for worse. It is no secret that a concerted and sustained effort to reverse the Roosevelt reforms of the depression years has been chugging along even now. With our current administration, that effort has finally come to fruition. In fact, neo-liberal economics has in a sense accomplished world conquest.
I consider this essay an engagement with Halpern rather than a critique or review. I use his focus and discussion to clarify and articulate my own formulations. Halpern is an Old Testament scholar of the latter 20th century whom I would consider among the heavy weights at a time when the field was particularly productive and contentious.
Liberation Theology’s Wishful Thinking
First, let me try and fairly summarize and represent his position. In doing so, I can also pinpoint the contentious aspects of his conclusions.
Liberation theology emerged most prominently in South America among Catholic theologians who witnessed the gross disparity between the U.S. sponsored right-wing dictators and strongmen and the working poor. The violent suppression of democratically elected, socialist leaning leaders pushed some within the Catholic church to call for violent resistance. This created a high degree of tension within the Catholic Church. The role of the Old Testament became a focus of the debate with the exodus, the prophets, and Job most relied on as articulating a resistance to intransigent powers and a call for a more just society.
Halpern focuses on three Protestant, North American theologians who sought to articulate from the Old Testament a redistributive socialism from Israel’s origins as well as from the confrontation of the prophets with Judah’s palace/temple monopoly.
Halpern credits the three liberation-leaning scholars mentioned above for their attention to the language of the text. He grants that these scholars recognized the language of most of the law and the prophets as implicitly egalitarian and offered strategies for synthesizing various strands of Old Testament tradition and making them relevant to contemporary concerns.
For Halpern, that effort is ultimately misguided because they failed to recognize the degree to which the rhetorical nature of the Old Testament texts did not match the reality on the ground. Indeed, the rhetoric cloaked the opposite reality and functioned strategically to establish the authority of “the state” status quo rather than to challenge it.
Halpern faults the left leaning theologians similarly to Western Marxists who uncritically swallowed the rhetoric of the Russian Revolution all the while keeping a blind eye to “the Great Terror” of Stalinist Russia. They were so focused on attacking the evils of imperial capitalism in the West, that they would not acknowledge the problems inherent with communism. In the end, he views left-leaning theologians of reading into “congenial ancient theologies for reinforcement of an ideological commitment to action.”
Having experienced a similar situation living in an intentional Christian community for several years, I understand Halpern’s criticism here. The languageof our community was “all for one and one for all” in both formal commitment statements and in our day-to-day operations. Once our community started falling apart, however, it became more and more apparent that those in positions of authority within the community were operating in a contrary way. The radical communitarian language of the group was genuinely believed by most in the community, but for others and for various reasons it was used to establish hierarchical order and advance agendas contrary to the overt goals of the group for personal advantage. The transition from an origin of communitarian ethic to an authoritarian hierarchy congealed an organic development with intentional manipulation.
This is a common critique consistently streaming from anti-communitarian/socialist voices usually extolling the unbridled virtues of capitalism. A common-good strategy doesn’t create what its language intends, and the language becomes the very vehicle to accomplish nearly whatever a small group of controlling elites wants. Plus, it is inevitable that the common good ethos ends up an oligarchy.
Reading our own ideological bents into biblical texts is hardly a novel observation, and it is inescapable for everyone, including Halpern. This does not mean it is excusable, but it does mean that it can’t be the sole or primary criticism of one’s methodology or results based upon it. I sense from Halpern, the ubiquitous criticism of communism/socialism that it inevitably produces the opposite of what it sets out to do all the while retaining the original rhetoric.
In essence, Halpern criticizes liberation theologians for not recognizing biblical texts as stock, ancient oligarchical propaganda.
Redistributive Justice Cannot be Derived from Status Quo Texts
As it pertains to Old Testament study, Halpern directs his challenge from several angles. Essentially, he faults liberation theologians for relying on an image of the biblical prophets as bold resisters of state institutions that have strayed from an egalitarian ethic believed to be fundamental in Israel’s inception as a people in the land.
To start, text creation is owned and operated by the elite for the elite. It is inherently “status quo” driven and should arouse our critical suspicion (a late modern disposition for sure). Holy writ, like sacred temples, are labor intensive and serve to establish and contribute to an essential hierarchical order to society. Once anything becomes an institution, radical elements are subordinated and transformed to legitimate the current social order. For ancient elites, order and calm are supreme, just like markets today. Talk of justice, righteousness, mercy, or equitable wealth distribution are subjugated vessels to serve supreme order.
Thomas Frank points to a similar phenomenon in his article “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent.” He suggests that the forces of economic and political power coopt the language of rebellion, reducing the calls for radical change to the choice of a taco rather than a hamburger. That the radical always moves toward domestication is prominent in the methodology of the Jesus Seminar. The radical elements are early and the more domesticated or even reversed the pericope is, the later it is and the more it has been subsumed by status quo institutionalism.
But Halpern goes beyond this thinking. He asserts that the prophets were not revolutionaries protesting state monopoly. They really were state agents bolstering state agendas. The made-for-TV image of the radical, wild-eyed, fire-spewing prophet served the state purpose quite well. Bottom line for Halpern and the challenge for me is that my perceived revolutionary and radical “core” of biblical faith is euphemistic, appearing one way, but functioning to the contrary.
Ancient Near Eastern Election of Ruler
Halpern is accurate in his description of the conventional strategy of ancient Near Eastern elites for gaining enough authority capital to effectively rule. He calls it the “language of reversal.” “The justification is always cast in the language of sympathy for the oppressed and the righteous (newly so or not) and stern but deserved chastisement for the evil, portrayed as oppressors” (184). Standard political strategy was to brand the outgoing regime as oppressive evil-doers and the new one as liberators. He is also correct that one always has the backing of prophets, who could be compared to our modern financial advisors and political strategists.
Halpern relies on an understanding of coronation ceremonies for royalty that incorporated liturgically enacted myths of how chaos was reigned in by a ruler who had undergone an ordeal of some kind. Disenfranchisement, wilderness wanderings, narrow escapes from the grips of powerful enemies all demonstrated the new ruler’s association with the marginal and enslaved sections of a society. The new ruler was by virtue of ascendance restoring a symmetry, a balance back to the social order. By virtue of the ordeal, the divine assembly sanctions the rule of the potentate.
There were “elections” of leaders in the ancient world. They were just elected by divinities. The clearest indication of a nominee’s election was that he came from ignoble stock. He came from the “least likely to be considered a ruler” brand. Similar to the American politician, he must prominently display his humble and “struggle to survive” origins and/or having endured a season of great ordeal (often referring to military service). The ruling elite must demonstrate the affinity with the common person’s struggle. This stock ancient Near Eastern rhetoric essentially functioned to get labor—the critical source of energy for production—to cooperate with monarchic agendas.
All ancient rulers even the ruthlessly violent Assryians and Babylonians justified the use of force and savagery and the power to redistribute wealth (usually upward) by claiming to be “righteous,” by righting wrongs, establishing justice, watching over the weak and disenfranchised. Halpern asserts: “the contexts of intervention—humbling of the mighty, the empowerment of the despised—are those reinforcing and even sanctifying the status quo” (184).
Even more clear: “reversal of status was meant to inculcate the ruling elite with authority granted from the national god.” Only the national god can raise up a “righteous” leader. Reversal of status and its ritualized forms is the ancient way of “electing” a ruler. A ruler’s only authority is “divine favor” (187).
I am reminded of King Nebuchadnezzar’s claim to be the liberator of Jerusalem even as he destroys it.
[Jerusalemites] devoured one another like dogs, the strong robbed the weak, judges accepted bribes and did not defend the poor, those in authority treated cripples and widows badly, money lenders lent money at high rates of interest, and many broke into other people’s houses and seized fields that belong to others.
When I brought up this quote to a class of adults most of whom were Jewish, one man vehemently objected to Nebuchadnezzar’s claim (and my presenting the statement as if I agreed with it.) He couldn’t wrap his head around such a bold contradiction. Nonetheless, all rulers had to claim the righteous mantel as defender of the poor if he was to gain any authority at all. Central to that claim was the authority to implement lethal force. This fundamental political/economic worldview was central to Job’s accusers.
All ancient Near East rulers must claim that they are the defenders of the poor and oppressed and the righter of wrongs. It must cast the old government as “doing evil in the sight of” God or the gods and herald in a new day of “liberation.” The new regime, not matter how ruthless, was the great liberator.
In this sense, Halpern is correct about two things: first, the language of revolution (reversal of fortunes) in the ancient Near East world was conventional stock for ruling elites to legitimize their authority to redistribute wealth (i.e. conscript labor for infrastructure projects and to conduct military campaigns); second, any codification of such language in script indicates a state sponsored, “status quo” enterprise meant to legitimate the state.
The legitimacy of the state primarily functions to redistribute wealth. “It is the agency policing predation by the wealthy on the insolvent. The state poses as the party restraining the enfranchised citizenry, not just from exploiting but from illegally, immorally, underservedly subjugated and enslaving marginal social elements” (188). As Halpern sees it, the language of reversal (revolution) serves to merely transfer the power of debt enforcement from local to centralized, ruling elites.
Halpern views the Hezekiah policy of exclusive YHWH worship as a vehicle to coral the disparate clusters of clans, villages and traders fleeing or adjusting to the Assyrian conquest of Samaria. That Jerusalem-centered policy, Halpern asserts, pulled out the conventional, propaganda artillery to subjugate local communal traditions (high places and “the baals”) in an attempt to solidify a resistance to further Assyrian incursion.
He understands the prophets—Elijah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosiah, Micah and Jeremiah as mouthpieces for this agenda and employed by the state. By their strong contrarian image, they reinforce the perception that the current ruling elites represent the fulfillment of liberation. Prophetic critique serves as a social control mechanism countering rural resistance to relinquishing local control over wealth distribution. The dominant sentiment that the poor, widows and orphans must be protected from debt manipulation by landowners, to restrain legalized bullying by the propertied is simply claimed by a centralized oligarchy rather than and over against local land managers (192). Halpern addresses the tension between localized elite control and the “state.” The state becomes the defender of the poor and disenfranchised to the extent that it becomes the poor and humble in its own eyes.
Halpern sees “the prophets” as propogandists for state control over “countryside corporations, the clan sections”. Stories such as Uriah, Naboth, Samuel’s objection to kingship merely serve as flipsides to enhance the call for a “righteous” rule to put things straight. “So then, the true value of the prophetic texts is to justify the state’s hinterland agenda: squashing the resistance of the clans; taxing those with means, or anything one might label means; imposing a universal standard of topdown justice and conflict resolution” (193).
Importantly, Halpern views this propaganda campaign as a way for the monarchy to claim redistribution rights, which for Halpern is the state’s right to seize and centralize local wealth. Ultimately, it is redistribution downward. It is a downward redistribution; making everyone except an oligarchy equally impoverished.
The mistake of liberal leaning theologians as Halpern sees it is that they focus on the rhetoric of reversal without deconstructing it. In other words, the rhetoric of liberation does not mean what it says. It in fact is there to enforce the opposite. It is not to be understood at face value (191).
A critical distinction must be reiterated concerning Halpern’s critique. For Halpern the historical functionof the text more accurately guides the understanding of its content. He challenges any notion that one can retrieve an original impulse toward redistributive justice from the text itself. It is too buried under the machinations of elite manipulation and control.
“Far from being revolutionary, the texts are bulwarks of the existing power structure.” He advocates a hermeneutic that understands the nature of Israelite society and its sociological makeup not by a face value reading of the texts, but rather by investigating the role of texts and how they came to be. They are propaganda—"promoting a false consciousness” (194).
The surface of the text appears revolutionary “overturning order.” Like the communist propaganda, the perpetual language of revolution merely serves to enforce state power. They are “bulwarks of the existing power structure” From here, Halpern scoffs at the idea that “the state’s” claim to defend the poor and the oppressed and to justly redistribute wealth. It is “laughable by modern standards.”
Response to Halpern
The tension between how ancient texts present themselves to us who are thousands of years removed and how they functioned in historical contexts closer to its generation and use is the challenge of any Old Testament theologian. How can we understand ancient texts to be revolutionary in a modern era when they are produced by managerial elites for managerial elites?
Halpern pushes his insights too far. I find it difficult to agree with Halpern when I consider certain historical, socio/economic and hermeneutical aspects.
On historical consideration
It is probable that Israel’s origins are grounded in a visceral reaction to the tributary system. Most ancient peoples in the Levant were well-acquainted with societal or communal collapse. Numerous archeological sites of villages and walled cities bear witness to destruction or neglect sometimes within one generation. Archeological evidence identifies a people named “Israel” in the southern Levant in the 12th century at the tail end of the massive 400-year Bronze Age collapse. In my mind, the memory of displacement was certainly seared into the collective consciousness of these communal orientated people. Stories of wilderness wanderings like that of the patriarchs and harrowing escapes like that of the exodus surely abounded and were subject to countless mutations.
The earliest Israelites were certainly communitarian and assuredly sensitive and reactionary to the remnants of the “cup and saucer” city/state arrangements of the Bronze Age that set large scale migrations, abandonment, and destructions in motion. Settled into the protective and self-sustaining hill country north of Jerusalem, they developed an anti-static communitarianism that resisted the old Canaanite tributary systems around city/states. It is not only plausible but likely that this resistance ethos was ensconced in this people, especially since their historical and geological isolation allowed for traditions to entrench. Halpern concedes that long-term social memory was highly probable even over a millenia.
As the biblical witness attests, the cozy isolationism that enables communal building was being forced into engagement with the broader social context with the incursion of new peoples around the 9th and 10th centuries. There was competing encroachment of neighboring peoples, but even more significantly of imperial agendas. The need for standing armies, centralized power and resources, and hence kings, inevitably encroached on the communitarian ethos.
The well-founded aversion of returning to tributary systems where most would inevitably end up as debt bond-servants was assuredly seared in the collective memory of this group. This was aptly expressed by Samuel’s prophecy (1 Sam 8).
I think it more wishful thinking to suggest that Israel’s origins in the land as a hodge-podge collective of the disenfranchised would have had no bearing on future generations.
More importantly, Halpern depicts the Judean monarchy post destruction of Samaria as a strong independent “state” employing all the machinations of empire building to entrench its own hegemony. He underestimates the dominance of Assryia. Nobody in Judean society could be envisioning a powerful independent monarchy simply duplicating Assyrian policy.
Despite the impression created in the Deuteronomic history, Assyria’s control of the southern Levant including Judea was complete. Imperial, economic exploitation did not require complete destruction and replacement of regional elites. It required loyalty and docile cooperation. Assyria especially gleaned the economic benefits of the region and controlled trade. Old Testament texts generated at this time must be understood with the dark shadow of imperial control in view. In this regard, Halpern exaggerates the view of “state” and “status quo.” Monarchy “power” was extremely limited. The power of persuasion its only recourse. Yes, of course, it used the conventional imagery of persuasion, but in order to “radically reconceptualize”its older traditions in new and challenging circumstances.
Halpern falsely compares 7thcentury Judea to state run communism on a Stalin era scale. The probability that a subjugated vassal state in the imperial machinations of Assyria would be hoping to accomplish a counter-imperial domination by employing the same methods as the empire for the same hoped for results is unlikely.
Monarchy/temple a counter balance to unbridled debt-enslavement
Halpern presumes a notion prominent among Old Testament scholars that debt forgiveness and protecting the vulnerable was simply wishful thinking and a ruse for ruling elites to coral labor. The ruling elites assuredly did manipulate the “righteous” mantel, endlessly. This did not mean, however, that the ubiquitous expectation that rulers act justly was simply fanciful thinking.
I disagree with Halpern’s view that the state seizes control of debt enforcement. I do not know what his view of the jubilee is, but his view of the state as debt enforcer rather than debt liberator is in my mind ill informed.
The work of Michael Hudson and the International Scholars Conference on Ancient Near Eastern Economies lays out a strong case that the practice of debt forgiveness was practiced periodically among Bronze Age monarchies. The act of “proclaiming liberty throughout the land” (i.e periodic economic resets, Lev 25) was not wishful utopic thinking but hopeful longing to revive ancient practices. In my mind, the memory of debt cancellation only intensified the more absentit continued to be.
This fills what is lacking in Halpern’s view of coronation festivals. It was not only to demonstrate the king’s election by divinities but also to “raise the torch” and pronounce economic resets by canceling debts owed by farmers in arrears. Halpern minimalizes what I would highlight—“the state” was the only mechanism for curbing the rentier mentality of the land barons. He fails to see that “the state” was not the only force of coercion. Landed managerial elites controlled by means of debt.
If “liberation” from debt-enslavement was actually implemented sporadically in history, it would readily be ensconced in disenfranchised groups and last for generations. I have no problem believing that many marginalized groups actually believed and hoped for such liberation and that they could see right through the double-speak of dubious and ruthless invaders such as Nebuchadnezzar. Those benefitting from such conquests would of course hail it as a liberation.
The “righteous” expectation of rulers was dominant throughout the ancient Near East because that was truly the hope and expectation of laborers.
It is equally reasonable to assume the opposite of Halpern’s scenario. Smaller villages, clan elders and farmers could be advocating a return to instituting safeguards against predatory land grabs through debt-enslavement brought on by those tempted by Assyria’s imperial tributary system. It is highly likely that Israelite style advisers of fortune, prophets, turned into social critics watching elites abandon a formative Israelite ethos for the lure of wealth under the tributary system.
Halpern underplays the degree to which this powerful undercurrent of resistance to debt-enslavement by means of predator loans kept playing out.
Halpern’s main criticism focuses on how the texts functioned, and here also I have difficulties.
Halpern holds to a view that Deuteronomy and its history found significant codification in the pre-exilic history, and it assumes some sort of significant circulation and influence. It is likely that some incipient form of the book was generated, but I question to what extent and to what ends it was significant.
The Deuteronomistic agenda did not really take hold. Judah did grow in population and wealth after northern Israel’s collapse, but this created an internal crisis. Many enjoyed the prosperity due to Assyrian economic domination and saw little need to submit to cumbersome and risky appeals against predatory wealth accumulation. The Deuteronomistic agenda advocated as did the earlier prophetic activity of Amos, Elijah, and Hosea for elites to turn away from the allure of imperial wealth accumulation and back to its foundations as a collective of the disenfranchised. I find it equally likely that many within Judah still embraced a traditional impulse toward a common good ethic and organized a resistance against it. Just as it is today in America, a communitarian ethic struggles greatly against the powers of wealth and suffers repeated setbacks.
And this leads us to what role a textcould have in such circumstances. I suggest that it functioned similarly to post-exilic Judah under Persian control. It pushed a counter agenda under the very scrupulous eye of the imperial tributary system. The resistance was not and indeed could not be against Assyria; rather, it centered on the internal conflict of a people identifying with YHWH. I suggest that the Deuteronomistic vision employed the conventional propaganda of powerful regional monarchs, not because they hoped for powerful rule themselves, but because they believedthat YHWH really was a defender of the poor and those discarded by the machination of tributary wealth accumulation.
Similar to Judah under Persian rule, kingship language was precarious. Halpern explains why the law of the king, limiting his power, was important, but attributing that to YHWH instead of a human monarch was still an imperial threat and was not tolerated. For the coalition pushing the Deuteronomistic initiative, it was risky and necessary, if one believed that YHWH really did expect a communitarian ethic.
Between Text and Interpretation
Finally, Halpern does not deal adequately with the dynamic between text and social implications. He concedes that the immediate reading of the text moves in the direction of redistributive justice but to a reverse effect. The state subsumed liberation language to establish its authority as the liberator into perpetuity. Intent and application, however, are not exclusively restricted by the historical context in which it was generated. The American Constitution and Declaration of Independence are loaded with revolutionary language even though they were written by and for landed, slave-holding white men.
Subversion, however, moves in both directions. Social liberation movements such as women’s suffrage and the civil rights movements relied heavily on the language of liberation found in the original documents. It is equally true that “the state” domesticates and nullifies much of its radicalness by subsuming it into benign observances to enforce “status quo” compliance. It elevates dreamy speeches palatable to all while concealing other speeches with scathing criticism of the system.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow explains this dynamic quite well in his remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King on the holiday commemorating him:
“As I grew older and learned and read more about King, it became ever more clear to me that the King I had been fed was a caricature of the man he was. I had been taught a reduced King, polished, a one-dimensional impersonation of a person. I had been taught only the “Dream” King. That is what America wants King to remain: Frozen in perpetual optimism, urging more than demanding, appealing to America’s better angels rather than ruthlessly calling out its persistent demons.
Finally, it is certainly not laughable that government should be a primary vehicle for implementing distributive justice. Today’s paper reports numerous new laws implemented that target exactly that: helping disabled, improving education, and providing quality health care. I scoff in the opposite direction; it is laughable to presume that wealthy elites would voluntarily advocate for distributive justice without coercion from “the state,” especially when their wealth is gained by compound interests on loans.
Halpern leaves the impression that “the state” is always vying for control over against market forces. This “myth” David Graeber challenges: “The State and the Market tower above all else as diametrically opposed principles. Historical reality reveals, however, that they were born together and have always been intertwined.”
Yanis Varoufakis reminds that corporations are completely incapable by nature to work for the common good without the regulation and guidance of the state:
“Tradable shares allow private corporations to become larger and more powerful than states. [They are] the worst enemies of free markets. [Corporations] know no community, respect no moral sentiments, fix prices, gobble up competitors, corrupt governments, and make a mockery of freedom.”
Halpern, Baruch “Yahweh the Revolutionary: Reflections on the Rhetoric of Redistribution in the Social Context of Dawning Monotheism” in A.O. Bellis and J.S. Kaminsky (eds.), Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures (SBLSS 8; Atlanta: SBL, 2000) 179-212
 See Dever, William G. Beyond the Text: an Archeological Portrait of Ancient Judah. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017, 547-628 and Lipschits, Oped, “The Rural Economy of Judah during the Persian Period and the Settlement History of the District System” in The Economy of Ancient Judah in its Historical Context. Winona Lake; Eisenbrauns, 2015, 237-259.
 See Carr, David M. Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 167
Hudson, Michael, And Forgive Them Their Debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year. Dresden; ISLET-Verlag, 2018.
Blow, Charles M. “The agitated MIK I came to love” New York Times. January 19, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/19/opinion/martin-luther-king.html
Graber, David, Debt, the First 5,000 Years. London: Melville House. 2014, 19
 Varoufakis, Yanis, “Imagining a World Without Capitalism,”