Walter Brueggemann: Thoughts on Labor Day

Covenantal faith in the Bible refuses all dualisms and holds together matters of spirituality and economics. It is always a both/and, never an either/or. In the practice of the church, however, an accent on things spiritual has largely muted the accent on economics that is so prominent in the Bible. In more affluent churches, it is predictable that at times economics will be muted and spirituality made larger. In less affluent churches there is a temptation at times to disregard the heavy burden of economics in the Bible and present instead an extravagant vision of another world to the neglect of this one.

Given that recurring tilt that distorts the Bible, it is my estimate that church leadership now must redress this distortion by paying acute attention to economics in the Bible and in our society.

For many church leaders this will entail not only close, attentive study, but the learning of new interpretive categories and skills as well. Such a redress of energy and attention is not only evoked by our present social circumstance but required by the biblical testimony itself.

When one begins to think about economics in the Bible, one immediately confronts the matter of slavery.

After the prologue of the Genesis narratives, the biblical story gets under way in Pharaoh’s Egypt. There it is reported that in the midst of acute famine the vulnerable subjects of Pharaoh, in exchange for food, were forced into poverty, loss of land, debt, and finally slavery (Genesis 47:13-26). The predatory economy of Pharaoh was based on slavery and required the labor of those who were enslaved for the great building projects of the state. Those building included “store house cities” where Pharaoh could store his surplus grain that gave him control over a food-requiring population (see Exodus 1:11). (See James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States on the political power of stored grain).

Exodus 5 describes the exploitative conduct of slavery in Egypt wherein ever increasing “brick quotas” were continually imposed on those who were enslaved (5:10-19). It is entirely possible that slavery was instituted because of Pharaoh’s desire for cheap labor. Indeed we may set it down as a truism that where there is great wealth, like that of Pharaoh, we will find this type of exploitation of labor makes surplus wealth possible. This is the great starting point for the biblical narrative wherein the emancipatory God intends that those who are enslaved by Pharaoh will be emancipated from their hard labor. The divine mandate that propels the narrative is, “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1).

As a consequence, the memory, the pain, and the scar of slavery linger long and deep in the biblical narrative.

Israel could, generation after generation, readily remember the abuse and excessively hard demands of the Pharonic system that aimed at the production of surplus wealth. Israel remembered how their lives in bondage did not matter; only their work mattered. And when their work was done, their lives were deemed dispensable.

It is remarkable that royal Israel, in its ordering under the Jerusalem elite, could replicate the exploitative practices of Pharaoh. After all, Solomon, the icon of the system, was Pharaoh’s son-in-law and seems to have learned from him (I Kings 9:24)! The economic shake-down featured in ancient Israel was an arrangement whereby the surplus wealth of the Jerusalem elite was based on the subsistence economy of the agricultural peasants from the surrounding territory whose produce translated into urban wealth. The essential marker of the exploitative system was the practice of cheap labor that made wealth possible. We can identify three notes in Israel’s text that continued to echo the Pharonic economy.

The Torah of Deuteronomy offers a social safety-net for the economically vulnerable. (See Frank Cruesemann, The Torah: Theology and Social History of Old Testament Law 224-234). Cruesemann comments:

"This whole inner-coordinated system of laws for social security springs from a fundamental Deuteronomic idea: the freedom that has been experienced, which exodus and land represent and which is manifest in the freedom of the agricultural population, includes freedom from payment of tribute or compulsory labor" (p. 234).

Among those provisions Moses commands:

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry out to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

The subject of the provision is the “poor and needy” laborers who do the hard work of agriculture. As we know in our own time, there are a host of ways in which vulnerable workers can be cheated out of their wages, not least by withholding payment for a time, a practice that is indeed nothing less than wage theft. These vulnerable workers are surely the same whose very lives depend upon daily wages. The Torah provision recognizes that the “livelihood” (nephesh=life!) depends on prompt payment. It takes no imagination at all to see that behind this Torah provision is the memory of Exodus emancipation. Indeed in 15:15 Moses adds the compelling motivation:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.

The provision recognizes that to cheat a laborer out of wages is a reiteration of the exploitation of Pharaoh.

The Torah provision is matched in prophetic exposition is the “woe-oracle” that Jeremiah asserts concerning King Jehoiakim (Shallum):

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion (Jeremiah 22:13-14).

This poem condemns the king’s building program for coercing the unpaid labor of his subjects. Beyond the practice of conscription for such labor (see I Kings 5:13-18, 9:20-22), these coerced subjects were reduced to slavery because they worked “for nothing.” The poem reflects the royal reality of surplus wealth gotten by cheap labor. The prophet labels such royal policy as violence:

But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence (Jeremiah 22:17).

It is, moreover, violence that can come to no good end because it is a violence that contradicts the will and purpose of the God of covenant (v. 18). For good reason, this royal policy that is sure to fail is contrasted with the father of Jehoiakim, Josiah, whose economic practice was one of justice (v. 15-16). Indeed, the poet goes so far as to suggest that good wage policy is equivalent to “knowing YHWH”:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me? (Jeremiah 22:16).

Given this Torah provision (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) and this prophetic oracle (Jeremiah 22:13-19), it is not surprising, third, that we get a narrative concerning the economic practice of a king. In Jeremiah 34, it is reported that King Zedekiah (the last king in Jerusalem!), in a moment of extreme jeopardy, freed those enslaved by royal policy. Zedekiah made a proclamation,

that all should set free their Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery (v. 9).

In doing this, Zedekiah apparently enacted the “year of release” authorized in Deuteronomy 15:1-18. That royal act would be fully congruent with the Exodus provision of Torah and prophet. Then, however, Zedekiah promptly reversed policy and “brought them again into subjection as slaves” (v. 11). Clearly Zedekiah’s emancipation was an opportunistic act during an acute emergency; but the king soon returned to standard royal policy of surplus wealth based on cheap labor. It is for good reason that the prophet announces a harsh divine verdict on the perfidious king (vv. 17-22).

When we pay attention to economic matters in the Bible with an eye on interpretive contemporaneity, it is an easy move from these ancient descriptions of the exploitation of labor to our own time and place. It is now beyond doubt that the great modern wealth of the Western world is a result of the labor of those who were enslaved, particularly in the United States. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1994), along with many others after him, has traced the way in which the high demand for cheap labor, in part, is what produced slavery, an egregious practice that Senator Tim Cotton recently and stunningly termed a “necessary evil” (New York Times July 26, 2020).

Western wealth, for which the plantation economy is a nefarious icon with the provision that white people do not do real work, is solely based on racism and racist practices. The lives of that “cheap labor,” moreover, did not count beyond their capacity to produce. The “slave drivers” were to keep those enslaved subjugated and productive (see already Exodus 5: 10, 15, 19). This is the large truth of the economic reality of the Western world. Needless to say, the memory, the pain, and the scar of that dreadful reality continue among us with compelling force.

Today we appeal, with many strands of scripture, to insist Black Lives Matter.

They have mattered since the emancipatory God took the enslaved of Pharaoh as the chosen “first-born son” (Exodus 4:22). Of course, such an affirmation requires a move from Israelites as enslaved to Black people as enslaved, or other oppressed peoples as enslaved who are made in the image of God and who have first-class membership within the rule of the creator God.

It is the hard work of biblical interpretation to do the teaching that subverts what had become “normal” in ancient Israel and what has become “normal” in the modern world. It is “normal” to think that cheap labor is expendable, subject to whatever abuse, oppression, or disregard that might be required by the ownership class in its commitment to surplus wealth through cheap labor.

The biblical interpreter has on hand the new “normal” that disrupts the old calculus of surplus wealth and cheap labor. The old norms have been sustained by habit and by law that have assumed that Black members of society are destined for substandard schools, substandard housing, and substandard menial jobs. This “normal” is so well established among us that we do not even notice it even when we observe it every day. And now we face the undoing of that insidious “normal.” That undoing cannot be accomplished without economic revision of a most serious kind. It cannot be undone without the deep expose of habit and law and the way we have read scripture. The good news of the Bible, the economic good news of the Bible, concerns the undoing of our “normal” that has for too long specialized in privilege and advantage of acute kind.

The start of the undoing is to filter our economic passion and interest through the lens of biblical testimony.

It cannot be accidental that Jesus told a parable about generous pay (Matthew 20:1-18). Of course, the parable is about more than economics. But it is about economics! It is about generous pay for workers who are treated with high regard. The parable, at its finish, is about “the last becoming first.” In much of the Bible, in Western history, and now among us the “last” have been last for a very long time. Now, just now, we have to think again that the last will not be and cannot remain last among us. A start on this emancipatory prospect is to end cheap pay and relinquish some surplus wealth. This new normal is a lesson about the inversion of last and first. It is a lesson always learned again, from Pharaoh forward.


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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