Walter Brueggemann: Who Knows?

The Hebrew Bible has a recurring grammatical usage in response to the realities of life that are hidden, uncertain, filled with wonder, or beyond human comprehension. The repeated response to such uncertainty is, “Who knows?” (mi-yodea’):

“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live’” (II Samuel 12:22).

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord, our God (Joel 2:14)?

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish (Jonah 3:9)?

Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you
(Psalm 90:11).

My child, fear the Lord and the king,
and do not disobey either of them;
for disaster comes from them suddenly,
and who knows the ruin that both can bring? (Proverbs 24:21-22)?

Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this (Esther 4:14).

The intent is to assert either that only God knows and is not telling, or no one knows. Either way, human persons are left without knowing.

But of course the human quest for certitude is unquenchable and wants, however possible, to overcome such “unknowing.” That quest for certitude may take the form of science (even though good science always opens up new doors of the unknown), or the form of religious certitude (even though such claims are never fully disinterested). In the end, however, all such quests are defeated by the hidden dimensions of reality that do not readily open up for us.

The human community, nonetheless, arrives at certitude as best it can, overcoming the “not known.” It is habitual, and surely evident in Western culture, that “knowing” is a top-down practice, wherein those with more learning, or more power, or more wealth claim to know, and often have their claims accepted as reliable and trustworthy. We may term this common assumption and ready practice an “epistemology of privilege.” Those privileged know the best. As a result, when we get the open-ended question, “Who knows?” We readily respond:

The doctor knows best.

The teacher knows best.

The banker knows best.

Father or mother knows best.

And of course one cannot gainsay that there are areas of competence and expertise that are essential and to be valued, competence and expertise as in the roles of a brain surgeon, a pastor, an airline pilot, or a therapist. Beyond such competence or expertise, however, there is a common readiness to assign “gifts of knowing” to those on the top side of social power.

While these claims are evidently sometimes true, the important point is that this advantage in knowing is widely and readily assumed in every case, without reference to the particulars. It is assumed, moreover, by both those who claim such advantage and by those who submit to such advantage.

As I was writing this, I was reading Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, 1989). Fischer studies four different waves of British migration to America, from four different regions of Britain to four different regions in America. One of the American regions is the gentile society of Virginia about which Fischer writes:

Just as the gentlemen of Virginia deferred to their King, so the yeomanry were expected to defer to gentlemen, servants were required to submit themselves to their yeoman masters, and African slaves were compelled to submit themselves to Europeans of every social rank. These rules were generally obeyed in Virginia … Deference also had a reciprocal posture called condescension…For its [Virginia’s ruling elite] social purposes, it required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination. The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat. In short, slavery in Virginia had a cultural imperative … Hierarchical violence of this sort was commonplace in Virginia (385, 388, 403).

I cite this material as a clear, unambiguous, extreme example of the “epistemology of privilege.”

The claim I wish to exposit here is the notion that the testimony of the Bible is essentially a revolution in epistemology that challenges the top down assumption of an epistemology of privilege. My academic friend, Brian Walsh, speaks of “the epistemological priority of suffering.” That is, those who have suffered know some dimensions of reality better than those who have not suffered and who therefore have no access to those dimensions of reality. This “revolution in knowing” suggests the upending of much conventional authority and the recognition of authority in places and by persons we have little suspected of having authority.

The epistemological revolution performed in the Bible is rooted in nothing less than the character of YHWH, an active agent surely “on top,” but willing, able, and ready to live life “from below” along with those who receive from YHWH special attention and advocacy. That revolution from “an epistemology of privilege” to “an epistemology of suffering” is dramatically articulated at the outset of the Exodus narrative. In response to the cries and groans of enslaved Israel, YHWH responds:

God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them … Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians… (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8).

In that moment of attentive response, YHWH “sees, hears, knows, and comes down.” From that moment YHWH is allied and present with those who occupy the slave camps. The stretch of that epistemological conversion is voiced in the doxology of Deuteronomy 10:17-18:

For the Lord our God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribes, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.

YHWH indeed on top of the heap of the gods! But without a pause, this wondrous sovereign power is resituated in verse 18. Now YHWH is engaged in justice work alongside widows, orphans, and immigrants, the core occupants of “below.” Instead of doxological wonder that the gods might indeed enjoy, this God is engaged with food and clothing, the quotidian stuff upon which the hazardous lives of widows, orphans, and immigrants depend. From that moment of “descent,” the narrative of YHWH concerns the truth of suffering and the newness that arises in and through and amid suffering.

Given this resituating of divine presence within the slave community, the drama that follows is sure to surprise. In the unequal context between the learned “magicians” of Pharaoh, with all of their technological advantage and the efforts of Moses and Aaron on behalf of the slave community, we might expect that the advanced capacity of Pharaoh would prevail.

But of course the narrative is told and remembered precisely because such a routine expectation of “top down” capacity does not prevail. Thus by the third episode in the contest, Moses and Aaron produced gnats. And then we are told:

The magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not (Exodus 8:18).

Surprise! They could not! Imagine! Top down authority and learning could not match the competence of the slave leaders; they could not match such power because YHWH had allied YHWH’s own life with the slave community that had become the freighted locus of divine power and divine presence. Thus Moses is celebrated as a spectacular embodiment of the “epistemology of suffering.”  Moses knows about suffering! In the process of his suffering, moreover, he has come to a capacity to enact great wonders that exposed Pharaoh’s top down authority as a fraud. It does not surprise us that in what follows Moses becomes the voice and performer of the new epistemology that gives access to the will, power, and presence of the emancipatory God. That remarkable access of course is unavailable to top-down Pharaoh who is left with only his impotent idols of power and wealth.

The “epistemology of suffering” set in motion by YHWH and made visible and effective by Moses and Aaron continues as the theme of the faith of Israel. The prophets continue that epistemology from below as they practice truth speaking to power. We may say that such a prophetic trajectory comes to its fullest expression in the remarkable assertion of Jeremiah in his assault on the royal person and policy of Jehoiakim. Speaking of Josiah, the father of Jehoiakim, Jeremiah has God say:

Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well with him.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord (Jeremiah 22:15-16).

Knowledge of God is offered in, with, and under justice for the vulnerable. It is not different in the wisdom tradition as it is asserted that,

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding(Job 28:28).

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

Attentiveness to YHWH, the emancipator of slaves, is the locus of true knowledge! Thus both the prophets and the wisdom teachers in sum agree in recognizing the epistemological breakthrough that has been dramatically performed by Moses and Aaron. All of these trajectories have little patience with an epistemology of privilege and doubt its effectiveness or validity.

It is not a surprise to notice that Jesus stands in this Israelite tradition of wisdom from below. On the one hand, when he made his appearance in the synagogue in Nazareth, he astounded those who heard him:

On the sabbath day he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3).

His wisdom was recognized, even though he was from the village and the son of a carpenter. It was not anticipated that such a man, a young man, would be so wise. But Jesus knows! On the other hand, his prayer of thanksgiving in the tradition of Matthew asserts that “these hidden things” are entrusted to babies:

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” (Matthew 11:25).

Such wisdom is withheld from those who are supposed to know … the wise, the learned, the intelligent, and the authoritative. In this singular utterance Jesus manifests the epistemological revolution that was his life’s work. These verses illuminate the special welcome Jesus offers to children to whom the Kingdom of God belongs (Mark 10:14), for the little children possess none of the “knowledge of the world” but engage in a different way of knowing marked by innocence and trust.

But of course it is the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Rome that is the extreme suffering of the life of Jesus. Thus the cross, as the vehicle of his execution, became the symbol of obedient suffering that pertains to Jesus (see Philippians 2:8) and to his followers (see Mark 8:34, 10:21). Beyond that reality of the suffering of Jesus, in Trinitarian theology the cross is also the marker of the suffering of God. Thus Juergen Moltmann can conclude:

To recognize God in the cross of Christ, conversely, means to recognize the cross, inextricable suffering, death, and hopeless rejection in God (The Crucified God 277).

Thus Jesus is the embodiment of the suffering love of God that confounds the wisdom of the world. It is from that reality of Jesus that the followers of Jesus bear and perform the knowledge of God rooted in suffering, and contradicts the world by its capacity for self-giving.

This epistemological revolution from an epistemology of privilege to an epistemology of suffering is the key work of the church. What we know is shaped by how we know. Every time the church meets it is again to acknowledge and perform this epistemological revolution, to make clear to ourselves (and to others!) that our ways of knowing and recognizing the truth are shaped in and through suffering. From this it follows that the church is an arena where the suffering of the world receives attention, not only in the big sweep of world issues, but close at hand concerning the bearers of suffering who are everywhere present in the neighborhood.

Thus we may return to the question posed by Mordecai to Esther:

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Who knows?

Who, indeed, knows about just such a time as this? Who knows what the moment requires? The tradition is clear enough. Those who know are those who have participated in the suffering of the world and who therefore bear a kind of power that contradicts the normal power of the world. When the church gathers, it meets to acknowledge this peculiar, inexplicable power and to mobilize that power yet again for a different life in the world.

In his exposition of the life of Simone Weil, Robert Zaretsky (The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas) reports a conversation that Simone Beauvoir sought out with Simone Weil. Weil had given her life away in solidarity with French workers. When Beauvoir asked her about her remarkable work, Weil tersely dismissed Beauvoir, concluding that because she had not suffered she could not understand. So it is with knowing and suffering. When we have not participated in the suffering of the world, we do not and cannot understand. The narrative of the church concerns the suffering love of God, belatedly embodied in Jesus that has now been peculiarly entrusted to the church. We live and act and think differently, because we know differently.


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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