Walter Brueggemann: On the Way to a Peaceable Torah

There is, in Israel’s prophetic tradition, a strong appreciation for Jerusalem as the epicenter of the world. The ancient city of Jerusalem features the seat of Davidic governance and the temple where God is known to dwell. Concerning the Jerusalem temple as the place of divine habitation, the Psalms make exuberant affirmation.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city;
it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
Psalm 46:4-5

We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
Your name, O God, like your praise,
reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory
Psalm 48:9-10

Indeed Psalm 48:14 is nicely ambiguous in its exclamation: “This is our God.” The reference is to the God who inhabits the temple. But the grammar permits “this” to be the temple itself, as though the temple itself were the bodily articulation of God’s presence. That same high view of the city is reiterated by Isaiah in the midst of the Assyrian threat. Only for Isaiah, the central point is that Jerusalem will be saved because it is the seat of the Davidic establishment:

For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.
Isaiah 37:35

Both monarchy and temple, royal presence and divine presence, make Jerusalem the peculiar accent point of Israel’s affirmation and affection.

In the most familiar prophetic texts, however, the accent on Jerusalem is very different. In a poem shared by Isaiah (2:2-4) and Micah (Micah 4:1-4), the city matters because it is the habitat of Israel’s Torah. In the tradition, the Torah has been transferred from its origin at Sinai to its locus in Jerusalem. The move of the Torah from Sinai to Zion causes Torah instruction, assigned at Sinai to Israel, to become global and universal in its reach from Jerusalem. Thus the poets can imagine a scenario in which all of the nations will willingly and eagerly join in a procession to Jerusalem.

Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out or Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2

The purpose of the procession is that all nations may receive instruction from “the word of the Lord.” The Torah teaching pertains to all nations. Specifically, Torah teaching will lead to a sober, just adjudication of disputes among the nations; the teaching, moreover, will result in disarmament. Because the Torah teaches and urges both “love of God” and “love of neighbor,” it is a reliable guide for peaceable coexistence among the nations, a peaceableness that makes war unproductive and useless. (Or as Jesus later summarizes “the weightier matters” of the Torah: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23).) Consequently, the prophets can readily imagine that the nations of the world will gladly disarm, and turn their inventory of arms into the production of useful agricultural equipment. The task to be done will be the transformation of swords, spears, bombs, and missiles and the new production will be plowshares and pruning hooks. All of this from the epicenter of moral instruction from Israel’s Jerusalem Torah.

While the two prophets share this anticipatory poetry, Micah, an agricultural peasant, adds a verse of rural realism that is not included in the Isaiah articulation of the poem:

But they shall all sit under their own vines
and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
Micah 4:4

The outcome of disarmament will be to a modest rural economy in which peaceable people will enjoy a vine and a fig tree that is not under threat. This modest promise of food may be more fully appreciated when it is contrasted with the extravagant royal menu of King Solomon that could only be sustained by aggressive militarism:

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

A diet of rich extravagant meat requires aggressive arms in order to monopolize food in such a way. The prophet Micah knew that economic and military choices were to be made. For the prophet the either/or is not complicated.

Either a rich diet of much meat with swords and spears; or a modest diet of figs and grapes with pruning hooks and plowshares.

It is a clear, unambiguous choice, and the prophets are left with no doubt about which choice Israel must make. This Torah teaching makes Jerusalem the moral epicenter of international life, and makes Torah the great teacher of all the nations in the way of peace. The prophetic tradition proceeds on the assumption that this demanding teaching is without parallel anywhere other than in the Torah.

We should notice that the prophet Ezekiel voices a very high view of Jerusalem as the epicenter of the world, though his imagery is in a very different mode from that of Isaiah and Micah. Ezekiel has God assert of Jerusalem:

I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her.
Ezekiel 5:5

That assertion of Jerusalem’s centrality to the international community, however, is made only so that Ezekiel can declare the moral failure of the city in what follows. It is likely that the imagery of the tree in 7:22-24 and 31:8-9 also bespeaks Jerusalem as the epicenter of creation. Most important, in 38:12, Ezekiel can write of the “center of the earth” where the nations may gather to plunder. Ezekiel’s interest in architectural geography leads in a distinctively different direction from that of Isaiah and Micah. Our discussion remains focused on these two prophets and their shared vision of a Jerusalem Torah that can teach the nations. This teaching, taken in Israel to be without parallel, makes Jerusalem the moral center of international life and the great teacher of all of the nations of the world.

In the New Testament in at least one instance, Jesus deconstructs the claim of Jerusalem in his declaration to the “Samaritan women”:

The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Samaria] nor Jerusalem…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipper will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.
John 4:21-23

The defining mark of “in spirit and truth” is a refusal of any geographical claim and instead an embrace of a claim of covenantal substance.

I was pondering this prophetic image of an international procession to Jerusalem for the sake of instruction and disarmament when I read The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel by Katie Marton (Simon and Schuster, 2021). The book is an appreciative but critical biography of Angela Merkel who led the German government from 2005 to 2021. The book traced Merkel’s rapid rise to power, her unblinking response to President Putin, her disdain for President Trump, and her courage in dealing with President Xi. The book stresses the importance of Merkel’s deliberate pace of leadership, her refusal to engage in emotive rhetoric, her resistance to tribal defensiveness, and her wise courage for policies that were not always popular. Most specifically in the European crisis of 2015, refugees from Syria flooded into Europe and eventually into Germany. Merkel invited many thousands of refugees into Germany. Marton makes it clear, moreover, that while Merkel’s policy was dangerous and daring in admitting many thousands of refugees into Germany, she also took care to nurture public opinion toward willing hospitality.  Her policy in general met with approval from her voters. Thus she proceeded with wise prudence. Merkel herself never wavered in her conviction that such a welcome to refugees was the right thing to do as she boldly asserted, “Wir schaffen das,” that is, “We can do this.” She did it! She risked a great deal and was wondrously vindicated in her bold leadership.

It turns out that the refugee crisis was definitive for Merkel in her courage and moral sensibility. But her decision-making in that crisis was not atypical for her. As a result of her durable policies, her unflappability, her sober judgment, and her human realism, she eventually emerged as the leader of Europe. Marton yields this judgment of her:

Nothing short of astonishing is that the country responsible for the Holocaust is now regarded as the world’s moral center (300).

Imagine at the beginning of our most vexed 21st century that faces the rising authoritarianism of Putin in Russia and Xi in China, and the white supremacy on clear display the USA…imagine to be able to generate a “moral center.” I do not want to overstate the point, but Merkel’s leadership in Germany has made her a moral instructor not unlike the Jerusalem anticipated by the prophets, a point of reference to which other nations may go for guidance and resources.

Given Germany’s post-war aversion to militarism, an aversion gladly embraced by Merkel, perhaps Germany provides a vision to which other nations may go to learn peacemaking as a preference to war-making.

If the nations learn that much, we will have Merkel’s good judgment and sober courage to thank. The centrality of Germany via Merkel is caught in a quip from Henry Kissinger. He was asked for the phone number of Europe. He answered, “Call Merkel.” Indeed! Without underplaying Merkel’s practical political sense, given her Lutheran rootage, we may appreciate the extent to which she has governed “in spirit and truth.” We may learn from Merkel’s leadership that the “moral leadership of the world” can and will relocate to wherever “spirit and truth” are practiced.

The vision of Isaiah and Micah persists. It continues to provide for the nations of the world—and the US!—a path to the alternative work of peacemaking. To that end, Micah adds a verse 5, one of the most remarkable verses in all of scripture:

For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
forever and ever.
Micah 4:5

In this curious verse, we still have the vision of nations in procession. We still have the role of Israel to walk “in the name of YHWH our God.” But remarkably, room is made in the procession for the presence of the other nations to walk, “each in the name of its god.” The poet makes room for the presence, leadership, and legitimacy of other gods. He imagines that the other gods are also committed to a peace process.

Thus Israel’s walk in the procession did not require other nations to sign on to the God of Israel. Thus Micah compromises nothing of the specificity of Israel’s faith. But that faith is not aggressive or exclusionary or preemptive, but generous in its welcome.

In such an enterprise, there is room for moral leadership, even for a moral center. That moral center, however, is not marked by swords and spears through which nations often prefer to posture. It is, rather, marked by plowshares and pruning hooks, by attending to the realities of life such as the provision for shared food. Much of that from the old prophet has been forgotten, as it was forgotten in ancient Israel. Happily, Merkel remembered her rootage in Luther even amid her dread days of East Germany. She put that memory to good use in her wise, courageous governance in a way that served the nations so well.


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

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