Walter Brueggemann: There’s No Excuse for Food Insecurity

I am “food secure!” I eat out frequently in the lovely venues in my town: Red Ginger, Poppycock, Harrington’s by the Bay, or West End Tavern. I would not have known to use that phrase for myself except that I hear much talk in our town of disproportionate wealth about the “food insecure.”

Indeed my own church daily feeds a meal to over a hundred “food insecure” “neighbors,” some of whom are homeless, though not all. It is such an odd juxtaposition in our town between the “food insecure” and those of us who are luxuriously “food secure” without even noticing that we are, or reflecting on it. Indeed, it is “normal” in our time to take our food security for granted while we only occasionally (if at all!) notice the “food insecure” who also experience substandard housing and low wages.

This juxtaposition of the “food secure” and the “food insecure” is not new. It is the story of organized humanity.

James C. Scott (Against the Grain) has traced from the beginning of political economy the way in which the powerful were able to organize a monopoly of “grain” and so could administer food resources according to the whims and interests of the powerful.

This capacity to administer grain supplies is of course evident in the Bible in the “storehouse cities” of Pharaoh (Exodus 1:11, see Genesis 47:13-19), and then the “storehouse cities” of King Solomon (I Kings 9:19, II Chronicles 8:4-6). In ancient Israel the economy was organized according to subsistence for the agricultural peasants and luxury for the urban elites who managed the state economy for the sake of their surplus (on which see Roland Boer, The Sacred Economy of Ancient Israel).

We get glimpses of the luxury of the “food secure” in Israel. King Solomon presided over an extravagant meat-eating household:

Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl (I Kings 4:22-23).

Imagine the royal apparatus that made such extravagance possible! And imagine how much grain was required to produce all that meat! Later on Amos could castigate those “at ease in Zion” and those “feel secure [sic!] in Mt. Samaria (Amos 6:1). Zion (Jerusalem) and Samaria were the two capitol cities, the citadels of money and power where the controlling vehicles of the state resided:

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall (Amos 6:4).

Their meat supply is limitless. The deep affront of the “food secure” is this:

But [they] are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (v. 6).

They did not notice! They did not see that the common life of the community was a “ruin” because of disastrous food policy and practice.

They were so sated that their diet had numbed them to social reality. Thus Solomon (in the tenth century BCE) and Amos (in the eighth century BCE) sketch out the “food secure.”

Sandwiched between them, Elisha (in the ninth century BCE) performs a very different food narrative! In II Kings 4:42-44 we are offered a glimpse into this remarkable capacity on behalf of the “food insecure.” He took modest measures of grain and barley; he fed a hundred hungry people and had some left over. The narrative is terse. No explanation is offered, only an affirmation that Elisha, outside the royal protocols of scarcity, has food-generating capacity.

In the midst of a severe food shortage Elisha performs a very different strategy (6:24-7:20). It is important to note that a “famine” does not mean there is no food. Rather it means that scarce food makes the price of food very expensive, beyond the reach of the disadvantaged. This we are told:

A donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver (II Kings 6:25).

It is no wonder that the left behind must scramble for food, in this case two women who are desperately hungry. In the face of such an emergency, Elisha is unflinching in his anticipation:

Tomorrow about this time a measure of choice meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria (7:1).

The royal captain, inured to scarcity for the masses, resists such an anticipation of food at cheap prices (7:2). But Elisha is uncompromising in his assurance. The narrative tells of the recovery of food from the enemy (Syrian) military camp as the enemy had fled in a panic. Discovery of this unexpected food supply is regarded by the lepers (those excluded from the resources of the royal regime) as good news (gospel news!) (7:9). In the end the prophet is vindicated in his expectation of ample cheap food. It was remembered that he had promised:

Two measures of barley shall be sold for a shekel, and a measure of choice meal for a shekel, about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria (7:18).

The royal captain is excluded from the new food supply, because he is committed to a scarcity model in the service of the governing regime. He is trampled by the food-hungry peasants (7:20)! Now the “people” and the two women can eat, not at all dependent on the royal regime with its protocols of scarcity.

Elisha has effected a game-changer!

In a third narrative of Elisha we are told of the durable hostility between Israel and Syria (II Kings 6:8-23). The prophet prevents the desire of the Israelite king to kill the enemy. Instead of such a vengeful killing he issues a very different imperative:

Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master (v. 22).

We are told that the cycle of violent brutality was broken by this surprising offer of food:

He sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel (v. 23).

This generous unmerited offer of food to an enemy broke the cycle of fear and hostility.

The prophet understood that food is a vehicle for reconciliation. Against the war-mongering of the royal apparatus, Elisha is a peace-maker and his mode is food!

In all of these narratives, Elisha is presented as “a man of food.” In 4:42-44 he feeds a hungry throng. In 6:24-7:20 he feeds the people and dispatches a resistant captain of the king. In 6:22-23 he breaks the cycle of violence by food.

All of these acts depend upon an alternative management of food. All of these acts take place in defiance of the royal regime that had settled for scarcity.

The narrative does not explain; it only witnesses to the odd way in which food can outflank the royal regime that in its scarcity could do nothing about food. Indeed the king was willing to settle for “food insecurity” for his people.

These narratives serve to make Elisha the heir of the manna story of Exodus 16. In that narrative Israel could remember there was ample bread. Beyond the supply of Pharaoh and his predatory policies, food is given! Loaves abound! And now Elisha, in the face of the scarcity regime, performs abundance!

When we fast forward we can see that Jesus reiterates the wonders of abundance wrought by Elisha. He also encountered a hungry crowd in the wilderness (Mark 6:30-44). He had compassion on them. The Greek term for “compassion” indicates a troubled stirring of Jesus’ innards. His body was vexed when he saw their desperate hunger.

Like Elisha before him, Jesus took a little and performed maximum food for 5,000 men. The process of performing such abundance consisted in his four great verbs:

He took the loaves and fish;
He blessed them;
He broke them;
He gave them.

By “taking” and “giving,” Jesus subjects these bits of food to his lordly will for abundance.

Like Elisha, Jesus lives and works outside the protocols of scarcity that regularly gives some surplus and leaves others bereft.

Amid his abundance, all ate; all were filled. The abundance was so great that there was left over from his lordly act twelve baskets of bread, enough for all the tribes of Israel.

After the Syrophoenician woman had reprimanded him for his limited horizon and his provincialism (Mark 7:24-30), Jesus reperformed his abundance (Mark 8:1-10). Again he meets a hungry crowd. Again he is stirred to compassion. Again he does his four transformative verbs, only this time “he blessed” has become “he gave thanks” (eucharistesas). Again the crowd, this time 4,000 people, ate and were filled. This time there were seven baskets of bread as surplus, enough for the conventional roster of “seven nations;” It would have pleased the Syrophoenician women that this time in the wake of her reprimand, the surplus of abundance as designed for the nations!

This is indeed Bread for the World!

In these acts Jesus, like Elisha, changed the world. The “food insecure” were treated with dignity and provided enough they were able, for now, to be “food secure.” The work of abundance is to move the neighbors who are food insecure into the circle of those who are food secure. These acts of abundance do not make everyone equal. But they do open the prospect for the abundant life.

The work of abundance continues in the world. It turns out, moreover, that virus time has become a time for abundance that underwrites new food security along with other forms of security as well. It is amazing that in this time many people have willingly stepped outside protocols of scarcity that have seemed so sacrosanct, and have signed on for the generosity that is transformative.

The call of Jesus’ new governance is to step outside the protocols of scarcity, and to refuse to be defined by them.

It turns out that “scarcity” is not a given in the world. It is, rather, a construct proposed by those who do not want to share, who would rather have the “food insecure” as enemies rather than neighbors. Being “food secure” could, of course, be an outcome of wealth and success. Or it could be an action of neighborliness wherein all eat and all are filled.

Ours is a time when we are witnessing the possibility that the protocols of scarcity had declared to be impossible. Every time the church performs its wonder of bread and wine and gives thanks (Eucharist!), it affirms its confidence in the abundance of God that subverts our assumed scarcity.


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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