Walter Brueggemann: Start Me with Two!

A long time ago I read The Secret of Santa Vittori by Robert Crichton (1966). I recently reread it. It is a wonderful novel about a backcountry peasant community in Italy during World War II. This village of peasants is an out of the way place that is quite disconnected from larger social reality and only wants to be left alone. It is very poor; its one claim to pride and well-being is its production of wonderful wine in great quantities. The story revolves around a small regiment of German-Nazi soldiers who come to confiscate the great wine supplies of the village, while the villagers are fully determined to hide the wine and refuse to yield it to the Germans. The small cadre of German soldiers tries for a long time to befriend the villagers and so to discover the hidden wine. But the villagers are sly and wily, and refuse to give in.

The story turns when the Germans lose their patience with the clever peasants and send in SS agents who resort to violence and torture in an effort to discover the wine. They try to break the silence of the peasants who refuse to reveal the location of the wine. The peasants suffer greatly but continue to refuse to tell the Germans. In the end, the Germans are frustrated and depart, leaving the village greatly wounded, but with its dignity and its wine intact. One at a time, the lead characters in the novel, under great duress, refuse.

In a summary retrospective, Crichton’s narrator observes:

The truth is this: If only one man among all of the rest will not break, as Fabio and then Cavalcanti did not break, then all of them, all those who so despise men that they believe all men can broken and all men can be bought, all of them have failed and all of them are defeated, because one alone destroys them and one alone can give heart to all other men (356).

This final sentence here caught my attention:

One alone can give heart to all other men.

Bravery and faithfulness are contagious! The narrator continues:

So, no matter whatever else happens here, we have this reason at least to be proud. Man is an animal, but he doesn’t have to end as one. Perhaps this is the lesson the Germans never succeeded in learning (256-257).

The courage and faithfulness of the few saved the wine and the dignity of the village, and the wellbeing of the people.

These remarkable lines in the novel evoked two particular responses from me. First, it recalled to me a favorite song of the “boys’ choir” of our wee high school that the choir loved to sing and we loved to hear. The lines are from The New Moon, a romantic operetta of Sigmund Romberg in 1930 with the lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein:

Give me ten men who are stout-hearted men

who will fight for the right they adore.

Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men 

and I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.

Shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder

they grow as they go to the fore.

Then there’s nothing in the world

can halt or mar a plan

when stout-hearted men

Come together man-to-man.

We had no idea about the plot of the operetta, trite as it is. What mattered to us was the image of strong, brave men and boys attracting other strong, brave men and boys to the song and to the walk.

A second, more important thought, after the narrative of Santa Vittoria, is the Israelite narrative of two brave leaders, Joshua and Caleb. Dennis Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch (1985) has traced, with singular clarity, the narrative function of Joshua and Caleb in the memory of Israel. Olson shows how, after Moses, the faithful leadership of Israel is reduced to the faithfulness of these two, and only these two. The textual evidence abounds. When the good land of promise is spied out by Israel, they learn that it is a good, prosperous, productive land. The mass of Israelites were afraid of the inhabitants of the land. It is first Caleb who is eager to enter the land of promise (Numbers 13:30).  In the face of fearful resistance, it is Joshua and Caleb who refuse the fearfulness of their company:

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them” (Numbers 14:6-9).

Moses recognizes that the two of them are exceptional in Israel:

Not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun (14:30).

Eventually all of the doubters died.

But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh alone remained alive, of those men who went to spy out the land (v. 38).

The point is confirmed later in the book of Numbers:

Not one of them was left, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun (26:65). 

They are the two who have “unreservedly followed the Lord” (32:12).

While the venture of Numbers 14 was foiled, the thread of faithfulness by the two endures into the land entry.

Not one of these—not one of this evil generation—shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors, except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his descendants I will give the land on which he set foot, because of his complete fidelity to the Lord. Even with me the Lord was angry on your account, saying, “You shall not enter there. Joshua son of Nun, your assistant, shall enter there; encourage him, for he is the one who will secure Israel’s possession of it” (Deuteronomy 1:35-38).

The singularity of the two is confirmed in the narrative account of land settlement. In Joshua 14:6-12 Caleb offers a speech of self-justification as the ground on which he should receive a portion of the land of promise. He reiterates his uncompromised fidelity, and reminds that YHWH had promised him land. And then:

Then Joshua blessed him, and gave Hebron to Caleb son of Jephunneh for an inheritance. So Hebron became the inheritance of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite to this day, because he wholeheartedly followed the Lord, the God of Israel (Joshua 14:13-14).

The bestowal of Hebron to Caleb is confirmed in Joshua 15:13 and Judges 1:20.

This extended, complex narrative is as though Moses had said, “Give me two men.” Start me with only two. Only these two, Joshua and Celeb, were required for the narrative to reach its fulfillment. There are no others who are listed as consistently faithful to the will of YHWH or to the destiny of Israel. But the two are enough. It is enough to have two leaders who are faithful to the promises of YHWH, and who will run the risks that inescapably accompany the promises. Thus the two become the link and carrier of covenantal promises and covenantal requirements of YHWH into the land of Canaan.

Faithfulness as the practice of risk and danger is the story of a few good women and men. In Santa Vittoria it was one such man at a time, though there were many in sequence. In the operetta, it was ten stout-hearted men. And in ancient Israel it was two faithful men who kept the promise—and the community—alive into the good land.

We may draw several lessons from this story of one-at-a-time in Santa Vittoria, ten in the operetta, and two in ancient Israel:

  1. A few brave, good persons can make a decisive difference and alter history. Thus in the novel the wine and the dignity of the peasant village are saved, not least by Babbaluche, the cobbler, who was selected as a hostage to be executed, not least by Joshua and Caleb who bravely led their companions on a risky mission.
  2. The bravery of a few good persons is a magnetic force that will draw others to it, because there are many well-intentioned people who are not brave, but who can follow if led.
  3. The brave work of the few is never the work of an isolated individual, even if done alone. In the case of those who suffered mightily, one at a time in the novel, they did so in the resolved, unwavering company of the entire village. Joshua and Caleb ran their risks of faithfulness because they understood that the community had risks to run in order to receive the promises.

In our society we are at a critical historical juncture that requires a few good women and men. The wealth gap between rich and poor grows, the rendition of vulnerable persons as commodities places the human community in deep jeopardy, and the spoil of the environment jeopardizes the health of creation. The wealthy, who benefit from and enjoy the wealth gap and the managers and beneficiaries of privatized prosperity, the powerful who exploit the poor, and those who produce the poison of our planet count on the rest of us to be compliant, even if in dissent. The spell of such fearful compliance can be and will be broken only by the few good women and men who dare to march to a different drummer, work from a different script, and act in ways congruent with their conviction of a world held in the good hands of the creator.

Those who make such a move may hear it this way:

Start me with ten…as in the operetta!

Start me with two…as in ancient Israel!

Start me with one…as at Santa Vittoria!

Start locally in the neighborhood. Start in a way that references covenantal norms of reality. 

This covenantal version of reality was offered in Israel at length in the narrative concerning those who spied out the land:

We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this [grapes, pomegranates, figs] is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan (Numbers 13:27-29).

Immediately Caleb counters such an opinion:

Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it (v. 30).

But the frightened ones are insistent:

We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.…The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we see in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them (vv. 31-33).

Their despair permeates the community:

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).

Again the two brave ones speak up in response:

The Lord is with us; do not fear them (14:9).

The narrative is long, complex, and unresolved. But finally all that generation that held back in fear had died:

The men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord (Numbers 14:37).

Joshua and Caleb, the brave ones, prevailed:

But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh alone remained alive, of those men who went to spy out the land (v. 38).

This narrative plot is often reperformed, wherever a few good women and men act for a better, altered future. It could happen even among us!


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 Day1, Church Anew or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.