Walter Brueggemann: The Social Power of Writing

I recall a line from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

In speaking of Pa, Joad says, “He don’t like no fancy stuff like that. He don’t even like word writin’. Kinda scares ‘im, I guess. Ever’ time Pa sees writin’, somebody took somepin away from ‘im.” (pp. 69-70)

Steinbeck would have us recognize the immense power of writing when the ownership class intrudes upon the scarce resources of the poor and vulnerable. Such writing is a way to seize and transfer property. Pa is surely right to be fearful of such writing!

I remembered Steinbeck’s line as I read with some care Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) by Rob Nixon. Nixon writes with great specificity about how the poor in many parts of the world are helpless victims of the slow violence of environmentalism, so slow that it is not noticed until very late. In his chapter on the slow violence of the fossil fuel industry that drops its lethal waste amid the poor, Nixon writes of “petro-despotism.” Western fossil fuel companies indiscriminately drop their waste on Bedouin oases. Among the first things the fossil fuel companies do when pursuing a new oil field is that they write mappings of the wadis (gorges that carry water in the rainy seasons) that write over the “vernacular landscape” in order to create “official landscapes.”

The power that a geological survey embodies may, of course, be used for positive or destructive ends. But here the implication is that in being written up, the place (and all the life forms that depend on it) is being written off. The prospectors’ writing may be petro-capitalism’s first act of protoviolence, but it does not constitute a first mapping of the wadi; rather we can read their industrious writing as superimposing an “official landscape” onto a “vernacular landscape” (94-95).

Nixon takes the “technology of writing” to be the first technology that signified the arrival of the Americans in search of new oil fields: 

The first technology that signifies their arrival is the technology of writing, which becomes integral to their incremental appropriation of the wadi and becomes one of their distinguishing rituals. Each day the Americans wander the area, staring at, probing, and measuring the earth; at dusk, they retreat to their tents and stare with equal intent at paper, writing furiously. They bring in boxes of sand and write inscrutable things on them. From the outset, the wadi’s denizens perceive this crepuscular ritual as sinister, most likely a kind of witchcraft. What are they writing? For whom? What does it signify? Why does it happen when the light fades? (p. 94).

This mysterious occupation is a form of violence against the land and its inhabitants:

We can read these scenes as intimating the twilight of the oasis itself: the writing at day’s end is covertly violent, masking its nature and intent, an act that sets in motion an escalating series of overtly violent acts (94).

It is indeed witchcraft that seizes resources and transfers property. The utilization of writing as violence is of course a long running enterprise of the wealthy who rely on the learned (in this case, scientists) to write as an act of seizure, confiscation, and predation. 

But long before these modern acts in the quest for oil, the Bible has borne witness to the way the powerful utilize writing as a form of violence. I could think of three strong examples of writing as a tool of violence in the Old Testament. It will be noticed that in each case the writing is done by the powerful against the vulnerable:

  • In II Samuel 11:14-15 David has just “taken” Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. She has become pregnant. David’s response to the news of her pregnancy is to act swiftly and decisively. In vv. 6-13 he lavishly hosts Uriah, and then dispatches him to the battlefield. Then in verses 14-15 David writes an order to his trustworthy general, Joab:

In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die” (vv. 14-15).

It is a secret order. It is issued without fuss and receives no acknowledgement from Joab who understands everything about violence and intrigue. The rest of the narrative follows. Uriah is exposed in the battle and is slain. The battle itself takes only two verses (vv. 16-17). The report of the battle takes much longer, because it must be carefully crafted in order to protect Joab, assure the king, and remain covert. The refrain sounds in the report:

Uriah the Hittite is killed was well (v. 17).

Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too (v. 21).

Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also (v. 24).

David assures Joab, “Not to worry” (v. 25). The royal act of violent writing has done its work. The king has his violent way!

  • In I Kings 21:1-16 Naboth, a small peasant farmer, has a piece of land that King Ahab wants:

And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” (v.2)

Naboth must refuse to sell his land to the king because it is not a tradable commodity:

But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” (v.3)

The king is mightily frustrated by Naboth’s refusal; his queen, Jezebel, however understands better than he the powerful capacity of the throne to have what it wants. Jezebel proceeds to act in a way that utilizes writing as violence:

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” (vv. 8-10)

The rest of the narrative follows. The “men of the city, the elders, and the nobles” did as Jezebel had sent word:

The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letter that she sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death (vv.11-13).

The report to the king, concerning the assassination of Naboth sounds like an echo of the report concerning the death of Uriah:

Then they sent to Jezebel saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead. “ (v. 14)

The writing has set in motion a murder that now permits confiscation of the property in order to satisfy the king’s whim:

As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it (v. 16).

It turns out that Naboth’s property was no longer “an ancestral inheritance.” The royal plot has redefined the property; now it is repossessed land that belongs to the crown. As Steinbeck’s Okies painfully learned, peasant property cannot resist the force of powerful, insistent writing!

  • In the two cases of Uriah and Naboth, the royal writing is covert. Our third case, to the contrary, features quite public writing by the Persian Empire that is reported in quite bombastic elaborate public form. But the action is the same as in the two previously cited narratives, only on a very large scale. The writing is at the behest of Haman. His lethal plot is evoked by his notice that Mordecai, a Jew, did not bow down before King Ahasuerus (3: 2). Haman recognizes that this refusal to bow before royal authority is a most vexing Jewish question. And in response Haman determines to “destroy all the Jews, the people of Mordecai, throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus” (v. 6). His large scale plot against the Jews leads to a royal edict wherein the king gives Haman a free hand to do as he wishes:

Then the king’s secretaries were summoned on the thirteenth day of the first month, and an edict, according to all that Haman commanded, was written to the king’s satraps and to the governors over all the provinces and to the officials of all the peoples, to every province in its own script and every people in its own language; it was written in the name of King Ahasuerus and sealed with the king’s ring. Letters were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. A copy of the document was to be issued as a decree in every province by proclamation, calling on all the peoples to be ready for that day. The couriers went quickly by the order of the king, and the decree was issued in the citadel of Susa (Esther 3:12-15).

The royal act of writing is clear, quick, decisive, and without any ambiguity. It is a death sentence in the service of imperial honor. The narrative of the Book of Esther is an account of the crisis initiated by royal writing. It accents Jewish bravery by Esther the queen and Mordecai who were able to resist Haman’s lethal decree. Nonetheless, the narrative is yet again a powerful exhibit of the violence that is readily enacted through powerful, resolved writing. Nixon shrewdly notices that “being written up” is indeed being “written off.”  Thus in these narratives Uriah, Naboth, and Mordecai’s Jews are all written up and so written off.

On his next page, however, Nixon also notices that writing can be a “technology of resistance” (p. 95). In his case he refers to the work of Abdelrahman Munif and his book, Cities of Salt. Nixon sees that Munif, alongside a rich company that Nixon names, has written in a way that refuses the corporate writing and bears witness to a radical counter-reality. Yet again, it is possible to identify in the Old Testament counter-writing that refuses the dominant writing that prefers violence against the vulnerable, and that exhibits a lively social alternative. Among the examples of such counter-writing in the Bible are these:

  • The entire Deuteronomic tradition, from the seventh century BCE forward, is a vigorous writing enterprise that champions covenantalism in the face of the money-driven forces that go under the flag of “Canaanite.” Specifically, we may identify two instances of writing that constitute mighty acts of resistance. In Joshua 8:32 it is reported:

And there, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written (Joshua 8:32).

What Joshua wrote was to be a marker for this alternative community of neighborliness in the land of “Canaan.” Then later in the book, Joshua’s act of writing the Torah is reiterated:

Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord (Joshua 24:26).

Joshua, moreover, asserts that this written Torah stands as a “witness” against Israel, holding Israel to its covenantal commandments, even in the face of powerful economic and cultural forces to the contrary (v. 27).

  • In the dramatic narrative of Nehemiah, reading in continuity with Deuteronomy through the work of Ezra the scribe, writing figures large in the initiation and sustenance of a covenanted community. In Nehemiah 8:1-8 Ezra and the scribes already possess a written Torah from which they read. But then in Nehemiah 9 there is a new venture, “a firm agreement” in writing signed by “our officials, our Levites, and our priests”:

Because of all this we make a firm agreement in writing, and on that sealed document are inscribed the names of our officials, our Levites, and our priests (Nehemiah 9:38).

In chapter 10 the signatories to the “sealed document” are listed, whereby Israel agrees to covenantal reality that concerns the practice of Sabbath, the neighborly management of debt, and appropriate offerings that signify the good gifts of the creator God. In this covenant agreement as a “sealed document,” Israel potently resists the seduction of the imperial culture in which they lived.

  • The narrative of Esther turns on the written decree (cited above) which Haman secured from the Persian king. But the narrative reaches its dramatic pivot point in chapter 8 wherein Esther, the bold Jewish queen authorizes a counter-writing that refutes the lethal mandate of Haman, and in its place grants the Jewish community the right to defend itself:

The king’s secretaries were summoned at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and an edict was written according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews and to the Satraps and the governors and the officials of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one-hundred twenty-seven provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language and also to the Jews in their script and their language. He wrote letters in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed them with a king’s ring, and sent them by mounted couriers riding on fast steeds bred from the royal herd. By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is in the month of Adar. A copy of the writ was to be issued as a decree in every province and published to all peoples, and the Jews were to be ready on that day to take revenge on their enemies. So the couriers, mounted on their swift royal steeds, hurried out, urged by the king’s command. The decree was issued in the citadel of Susa (Esther 8:9-14).

The decree counters and displaces the previous royal edict and thus gave the Jews a prospect for security and wellbeing. It echoes with precision and in detail the earlier decree, but with an opposite intent. 

Thus we are able to see in the Old Testament, as Nixon has seen in contemporary life, that writing may function as a tool for violence and control, or it may function as a tool for resistance. The ancient world of Israel is filled with disputatious writing as is our contemporary world to which Nixon bears compelling witness. Advocates for the vulnerable do not intend to let the toxic writing of corporate usurpation go unanswered. Such advocacy insists that in every case corporate violent writing must be answered and countered by writing that upholds the lives and futures of those who are otherwise without resources. The Bible attests that the faithful must be vigorously engaged in this counter-writing of resistance for the sake of alternative, so that the lethal forces do not prevail by default. Most often the counter-writing of resistance takes place in poem and narrative that contrasts with the prose of memo and mapping.

I finish with three rather random thoughts that have occurred to me as I have pondered the contestation of writing.

  • Drew Gilpin Faust, “Cursive in History,” The Atlantic (October 2022), pp. 75-76, reports that cursive writing is a lost art among young people who are quite computer literate. On the one hand Faust recognizes that cursive is simply a technology and so we move on in technology. But on the other hand she concludes,

The inability to read handwriting denies society of direct access to its own past (p. 76).

I suppose we may be glad that neither Moses nor Joshua nor Ezra nor Nehemiah wrote in cursive. We may anticipate that writing will continue.  It will continue as a tool of slow violence. But it will also continue as a tool of resistance and alternative. Thus no matter what mode writing takes, it is urgent to continue writing, to bear witness, to resist, and to generate alternatives. A life without such counter-writing is to surrender to the forces of violence. That is why censorship is such an ominous threat to our humanity. But writing, cursory or otherwise, matters decisively for the life and wellbeing of our full humanness.

  • In the ancient world it was the scribes who possessed the capacity to write. They were quite often in the service of powerful, wealthy people who exercised control through scribal writing. On that role, see Philip R. Davies, Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (1998). In the contemporary world the role of scribes is played variously by public relations experts and journalists, some of whom are on the payroll of the powerful and the wealthy.

I have in mind in particular the remarkable statement of Jesus:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of the household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).

The capacity for writing can be in the service of the coming governance of God, a governance marked by neighborly generosity and compassion. Such a scribe who writes on behalf of the coming governance has the agile capacity to treasure what is old that continues to matter to the wellbeing of creation, and the parallel capacity to conjure and evoke radical newness under the aegis of God’s promise. The capacity for both old and new in writing is an uncommon gift written with daring agility upon which the arrival of God’s governance depends.

This statement of Jesus allows that there are indeed many scribes who are not well equipped to serve the coming kingdom. Such scribes may be completely fixed on what is old without any capacity to conjure newness. Or conversely, such scribes may be fully eager for innovation, but without an appreciation for what is of value in the old. Neither of these stances serves well the rule of God that requires writers who are alert to both old treasures and new gifts.

  • Finally, I notice Paul’s remarkable statement to the church at Corinth:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Paul is a most generative letter writer who has penned much of the New Testament. But here he turns away from what he has written to his treasured connection to actual human persons who have embraced the gospel of which he has written. He dares to say that such persons are his “epistles,” his letters, his writing. What a way to think of ourselves in faith! We are not “written up,” nor are we “written off.” Rather, we are “written to” and “written for” the future of the gospel. Imagine that our lives, every day, are being written as living testimony to the good news of the gospel. Our
lives then are a form of real power, not to be deployed in the pernicious work of slow violence, but to bear bold witness in resistance against slow violence. There is no circumstance in which the threat of slow violence is not at work. And so it follows that there is no circumstance in which resistance is not urgent. The practical upshot of this reality is that every day we must write as we are being written. Write some truth every day somewhere to someone. Write with courage and candor concerning the specificities of love, forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, justice, or compassion in our present world. When we do that we join the great company of resistance, those who have not given in to the toxic impact of covert violence.

Walter Brueggemann

October 13, 2022


Walter Brueggemann is 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.



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