Walter Brueggemann: On the Truth of Economic Control

My eye fell, accidentally and fortuitously, on this innocent-looking text that I had not ever studied:

Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, “The Hebrews must not make sword or spear for themselves”; so all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshare, mattocks [pickaxes], axes, or sickles. The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshare and for the mattocks, and one-third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. So on the day of the battle neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan; but Saul and his son Jonathan them (I Samuel 13:19-22).

At first glance the paragraph seems like a straight-forward historical report. At the most, it suggests that the boisterous claim of the Book of Joshua that Israel, in its “conquest,” had eliminated all the resident population is overblown. That claim is that Joshua had driven out all the “Canaanites,” a term that is culturally generic. Here, however, we are told that it is not the Canaanites, but the Philistines who are still in the land.

Unlike the “Canaanites,” the Philistines are an historically identifiable historical people, “the Sea Peoples,” who arrived in the land at roughly the same time as did the Joshua movement of Israel. The text suggests that the Philistines had stronger economic and military leverage that made the Israelites vulnerable and in many ways dependent upon and subservient to the Philistines. This social distance between these two populations is indicated, moreover, by the reference to Israel, attributed to the Philistines as “Hebrews.” The latter term is derogatory and suggests that the Israelites were the undifferentiated “other” of the Philistine “we.”

This unequal distinction, moreover, is the primary point of this odd paragraph. The Philistines owned and operated all the blacksmith shops in the land. Israel was not permitted, by the Philistines, to have any forge or anvil or any means by which they might make agricultural or military equipment. The Philistines owned it all.

As a result, Israelite farmers had to get their farm equipment such as a sickle or an axe serviced, as required, by the Philistines. The reference to costs in verse 20 suggests that such service was both expensive and arbitrary. And if agricultural equipment was carefully controlled, so was military equipment.

This was an arrangement that left Israel vulnerable and defenseless.

What interests me in this brief text is that it bears witness to the force of ownership. The Philistines owned and therefore controlled everything that pertained to the practical agricultural life of Israel. And because Israel controlled none of the means to advance its own agricultural or military capacity, Israel was indeed “second class,” sure to be dismissed as “Hebrews.”

The thesis that I want to pursue here concerns the force of ownership and the vulnerable dependence of not being an “owner.”

Consider: In Hunger: The Oldest Problem, Martin Caparros has fully and carefully characterized the “Other World” that lies outside the benefits of the dominant system of the world economy:

In the Other World, there are no solid houses, no sewers, no hospitals or schools that cure or teach, no dignified work, no protective state, no guarantees, no future. In the Other World there is not enough food for everybody. This, above all. (93)

Caparros hones in on the strange yet undeniable fact that Monsanto, the aggressive chemical company, has sold its genetically modified seed to farmers in the “Other World” but has retained ownership of the seed. It is all about ownership!

Men and women were discussing whether Monsanto, the American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company, had the right to the intellectual property of seeds, and one man said no, because Monsanto is a corporation and a corporation is not a person with a mind that can produce intellectual property, and so on. (145)

The most important impact of this new arrangement with Monsanto is a drastic change in social reality among the vulnerable poor:

Everything changed here with the arrival of the multinationals like Monsanto, with their seeds and their hunger for more and more land. Before, the government gave land to the peasants; after 1991 they started taking it away from them. And in the meantime, Monsanto was carrying out campaigns in every village in India; they’d arrive in a truck and promise millions to the poor if they started using their seeds. So the farmers bought them, and the whole package along with them; pesticides, fertilizers, the obligation to buy from them again for the next planting. And above all, the peasants focused on growing for the market; everything was cotton, wheat, corn ... now even soy. Here, the most critical element was the change in mentality: from working to eat to working to swell (145-146).

Caparros further comments:

The private ownership of production is a major contemporary invention. It is a brutal form of the idea ownership, not of the field, not of the product of the field, but rather of a natural model—the seed—that only its “owner” has the right to produce. Intellectual property rights over nature…Within this system technological progress becomes an opportunity for a select few to accumulate more wealth rather than an effort to improve lives. (149)

That reality leads to this awareness:

Whoever controls the design of the seed also controls, in some ways, the use of the plant that will grow from that seed, that is, the fate of those foodstuffs. (149)

Such political reality must evoke resistance in the Other World that is without other leverage:

The goal, then, is to invent the way to take control of these new technologies, find the political structure to put these technologies to work to benefit the many—because without these technologies, many millions will have problems feeding themselves. (152)

Caparros is careful not to be a Luddite about these newer conditions of food. He sees, rather, that this is an urgent matter of ownership!

I suggest that the “crises of ownership” is already evident in the paragraph of I Samuel with which we began. The “crises of ownership” are at the heart of our ideological debates concerning the economy. The ownership class in the United States, of which I am admittedly a member, has comforted itself with the notion that its property, its ownership is the result of industry, frugality, and hard work. Such an illusion disregards the clear reality that this wealth is based on cheap labor and the cheapest of all cheap labor, slavery.

The ownership class knows the price of everything. It is accustomed to buying, selling, and acquiring. Consequently, it pays great attention to prices, and not unlike the Philistines, that class sets the price of commodities. But that same ownership class very often does not know the cost of things, because it has not actually paid the cost. The matter is clear in an episode in the Jesus narrative.

Jesus is at a dinner party; a woman comes in and pours olive oil to anoint his feet (Mark 14:3-8). “Some” opposed such a wasteful use of the oil:

“Why was this ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” (vv. 4-5)

In Matthew’s version, it is “the disciples” who make the protest (Matthew 26:8-9). In the Fourth Gospel rendering, it is the calculating Judas who objects (John 12:4-5). In all three versions, it is a question posed by those who know the price of oil and the price of bread, those who are able to do the numbers, those who can convert the value to relief of the poor. What they do not know is the force of the oil beyond commodity pricing.

In the moment, they had no clue about any other value of the oil, no understanding of its sacramental force. They had not guessed the costliness of Jesus’ death that the anointing anticipates or the relational gesture made by the woman.

They missed out on the costliness of what happened because they were fixed on the price of things.

It will be important for the church and its leaders to pay close and continuing attention to the ownership crisis, and the great cost for a growing number of people in this country of being excluded from ownership. After the end of slavery, ownership society has found many ways of continuing such exclusion, by poll tax and now voter repression, by unjust zoning, by tilted bank loans, by biased federal policies like skewed GI grants. The power of exclusion continues to be immense.

Our society will not have peace-with-justice until such shameless policies and practices are forcefully redressed. It is important that the church leads in this urgent and difficult debate precisely because so many of its members occupy the ownership class. It is for that reason that the church has learned to read the Bible and avoid these matters of ownership even though they are prominent in the scriptures.

I notice that the end of the paragraph in I Samuel there is a curious note that contradicts what has gone before:

But Saul and his son Jonathan had them [that is, sword and spear]. (13:22)

Of course they did! Of course King Saul and Prince Jonathan had tools and weapons that no other Israelite had. This is because the rich and powerful are always an exception to the rule. They are always an exception about food amid famine. They were an exception about drink during prohibition. Today, they are an exception about testing during the virus. That exception, nevertheless, changes nothing of the reality of society.

The only poem I know about blacksmiths is the one that you, dear reader, also likely know. In 1842 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made the village blacksmith an admired character in the community appreciated for work and stability and reliability:

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands …
Toiling, — rejoicing, — sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought. (“The Village Blacksmith” 1842)

No doubt Philistine blacksmiths were thanked and admired by other Philistines in the same way. No doubt the Philistines did not think much about being the ownership class and having exclusive access to tools and weapons. No doubt they did not think much about disdaining “the Hebrews” who had neither tools nor weapons.

They never noticed any of that because it seems so normal, normal to have a monopoly of tools and weapons, normal to have the upper hand about food and security. They never noticed. The gospel, however, notices all of those who lack the tools and instruments essential for wellbeing, security, and prosperity. We who are situated in the gospel are mandated to notice, even when such notice bites against our perceived vested interest.

Attention must be paid. Redress must be imagined.


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.

Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church or Day1 on any specific topic.