Walter Brueggemann: On Mapping

I love maps and mapping. My early most durable memory of maps comes from my wee rural grade school in Blackburn, Missouri. In geography class in seventh grade (or so), we had weekly “map study.” Each pupil had a map of the world; our teacher would call out a state or a nation or a larger city. We would see who could identify it first. My brother Ed, a year older than I, was in the same geography class. He and I gamed the system a bit by each of us taking one hemisphere. In that way, we could often be the first to identify the named place.

I have thought about that mapping exercise when I read Jo Guldi’s magisterial book, The Long Land War: The Global Struggle for Occupancy Rights (2021). The book concerns the landless around the world. At the end of her book, Guldi identifies two strategies whereby landless people may acquire land. One such strategy is the exercise of squatters’ rights whereby landless folk simply take over space that others claim to own. The other strategy she explores is “mapping.” I will return to her study a bit later. Guldi shows that the word “mapping” is a gerund that functions as a verb before it can be a noun. “Mapping” is a unilateral activity that is shaped by and reflective of the exercise of power, control and, often, wealth.

For now I will begin with a consideration of “mapping” in the Old Testament, the drawing of boundaries, and the claiming of territories. Already with the Abraham narrative, Israel has a map of the land promised to it:

To your descendents I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites (Genesis 15:18-21).

Well, this is not yet a map, but an expansive imaginative sketch of the land of promise of God at its most expansive. The maps to come later in Israel are all contained within this expansive vision.

When we get more specific I can identify three maps in the Israelite tradition concerning the land of promise.

1.   The narrative account of Joshua 13:1-17:18, with the addenda of 18:1-22:34, constitutes a first map of Israel as the land of promise. In this authorizing address to Joshua the tradition traces out the “inheritance of the tribes of Israel.” This mapping imagines that the tribal structure of Israel was clear, intact, traceable, and with boundaries that could be clearly and firmly delineated. We may doubt that the facts on the ground concerning both tribal structure and boundaries were nearly as clean and tidy as suggested here. In this mapping each tribe is allotted a territory. The exception is the tribe of Levi; it is noted repeatedly that the tribe of Levi receives no such inheritance (Joshua 13:14, 14:3, 18:7). In chapter 21, other provision is made for the Levites.

This mapping comes in the wake of the forcible conquest of the land in earlier chapters in Joshua. While the narrative features a “conquest,” I find it most compelling to interpret the text according to the “peasant revolt” hypothesis of Norman Gottwald. According to that rendition, the “conquest” was an overthrow of top-down exploitative (“Canaanite”) authority by the assertion of the rights of the rural landless peasants who lived in a subsistence economy. This narrative is honest enough to acknowledge that the “revolt” was not everywhere successful and complete, so that “Canaanites” continued to be present amid the population.

Joshua is authorized in a direct address from YHWH to apportion the land:

Now therefore divide this land for an inheritance to the nine tribes and the half-tribe of Manasseh (Joshua 13:7).

This verse that pertains to the West Jordan is followed in verse 8 with provision for the tribes to the east of the Jordan. The allotment thus is done with the authority of Joshua, but with the positive sanction of YHWH who is the Lord of the land and the guarantor of the land rights of the peasants.

  • Special provision is made for Caleb who, along with Joshua, was the most zealous about taking the land (Joshua 4:6-13). While the tribes are treated with equity, Caleb has a peculiar claim that is honored in the land apportionment.
  • It is worth noting that daughters can have as much claim on the land as sons (Joshua17:3-6; see Numbers 36).
  • The narrative is eager to assert that the apportionment of the land was complete, final, and settled:

Thus the whole congregation of the Israelites assembled at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there. The land lay subdued before them (18:1).

But clearly the tradition recognizes that the settlement of the land was an ongoing process of negotiation and conflict. The claim that the occupation of the land by the peasants was settled and closed is an ideological claim that cannot possibly square with the facts on the ground.

The notion of finality is further enforced by the act of writing. Once written, the land arrangement seems to be permanent and uncontested. Or as my German forebears could say, “Es steht geschreiben.” Such writing is an ideological act that can only “stick” in reality if there is a general acceptance of the claim. Here much of it seems to have remained contested. Writing is an act that makes ownership appear to be legitimate and beyond contestation.

It will be noted that this mapping never pauses to consider the land claims of the previous occupants. Read according to the “peasant revolt” hypothesis, the aggressive subsistence peasants never paused to consider the “rights” of the “Canaanite” landowners before them. It is the way of land-hungry peasants to disregard any former land arrangements that had been predatory or exclusionary. Thus the “land promise” made to Father Abraham is brought to fruition through a combination of coercive violence and ideological preemption. In making its claim to the land, however, Israel readily glosses over both coercive violence, and rests its claim in the simple elemental assurance that the Lord of the land intended the landless peasants to have the land, fully settled in security:

Thus the Lord gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors that he would give them; and having taken possession of it, they settled there. And the Lord gave them rest on every side just as he had sworn to their ancestors; not one of all their enemies had withstood them for the Lord had given all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass (Joshua 21:43-45).

The final phrase in Hebrew is terse: “All came.” “All arrived.” The geographical reality is a perfect, effective fit with the promissory decree of YHWH. Such a claim is free to disregard the dispute that always belongs to land ownership. The summary is a compelling cover over such socioeconomic realities. God is faithful!

2.   A second very different mapping of the land is offered in I Kings 4:7-19. This is a mapping of Solomon’s tax districts. Verse 7 makes clear that the purpose of these tax districts is the systematic collection of revenue (agricultural produce) to support the grandiose, indulgent life of Solomon and his royal entourage. (On such indulgence see I Kings 4:22-23.)  It strikes one immediately that here there is no mention of divine allotment or approval. Thus we can readily imagine that this map was drawn up in an administrative office of the king. This mapping pays no attention to local tradition or to conventional tribal claims. We may notice that in verse 13 we are given a glimpse into the systemic disregard for social differentiation, as lumped together are village (hawwah), region (hebel) and “great cities” (‘urim _gedoloth) with walls and bronze bars.  Nothing of local or social differences matter at all. All that matters was that the revenues were available and could be confiscated. (It is to be noticed that in I Kings 12:1-19, in the wake of Solomon’s death, it is the aggressive predatory tax system of Solomon’s regime that caused the revolt of the North, and the loss of territory for the Jerusalem regime. The predatory flavor of this taxing system is perhaps reinforced with the report in verses 11 and 15 that Abenabinadab and Ahimaaz, tax collectors in two districts, were sons-in-law of the king. It is likely they had joined “the family business” of extractive tax collection, a phrasing that suggests something like a mob operation. In any case, the capacity to preside over a tax district was lucrative indeed! This mapping surely reflects a political economy that had no interest in linking economic reality to old tribal realities or to the covenantal claims of YHWH. This is a map that reflects the raw, shameless exercise of power whereby “neighbors” are recast simply as sources of revenue. We may indeed be surprised that it was not until after Solomon’s death that a revolt emerged. But then, under a strong regime, the peasants may wait a long time (or never!) before mobilizing effective opposition. The mapping in the book of Joshua can still imagine a community of neighborly tribes. By the time of Solomon such a community of neighbors has become a forgotten legacy.

We may notice that these two mappings, of Joshua’s tribes and Solomon’s tax districts, bespeak two ways of organizing social power. We may take a glimpse, yet again, at the narrative of Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21. The two protagonists in the narrative, Naboth and Ahab, are dramatic representatives of these two mappings. Whereas Naboth depended upon and appealed to the old tribal “inheritance,” Ahab appealed to a notion of land as a commodity. Joshua’s map is concerned with inheritance. Solomon’s map is preoccupied with commodity. In the short run, Ahab and the commodity map prevails. Except that Elijah, rooted in the old covenantal tradition, has a final say in the narrative (I Kings 21:17-19). 

3.   The third map from the Old Testament that I cite is in Ezekiel 47:13-48:29. This is an anticipatory sketch of tribal Israel when it is restored after the exile. The prophet imagines a reallotment of territory by the tribes, not unlike the earlier work of Joshua. The expanse of this restoration of Israel will be according to the vision of Greater Israel promised to Abraham that stretches from the Great Sea far to the North and as far south as Egypt. The most important feature of this map is that it imagines Israel in perfect symmetry clustered around the holiness of Jerusalem and its restored temple. Notable is the provision that the restored community will now include “aliens” (gr) as well as citizens” (zrh):

You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord (Ezekiel 47:22-23).

The key marker of restored Israel is its holiness that will correspond to the holy God who dwells at the center of Israel in the sanctuary whose gates shall “remain shut” so that the Holy One will never again depart (44:1-2). Thus the final word of Ezekiel assures God’s presence in the holy place: “the Lord is there” (48:35). This mapping of Israel is quite indifferent to any historical complication or any sociopolitical, economic inconvenience. All that counts is the holiness that marks the entire life of Israel that eventuates in an ordered, symmetrical, undisturbed existence that befits the serene solemnity of the priests and the holy space over which they preside.

One is immediately struck by how very different the interests and production of these three maps are. They represent in turn the interests of tribal peasants, the monarchy, and the priesthood. These are three durable and insistent forces at work in the shaping of Israel’s tradition; for each of them much is at stake in the shaping of the tradition, and in the mapping of territory. Given these stunning differences, one may ask, “How is it possible that the same territory could be so differently and variously mapped?” The answer is that maps are not simply presentations of real estate. They are, rather, constructions of social reality that are informed by and grounded in different, often competing interests. The fact that maps are interested constructions of social reality gives mapmakers in every circumstance great freedom for articulating territory in many different ways. It follows, moreover, that no map is the “final” map, but every map may expect, soon or late, to be replaced by news maps that reflect new interests and new arrangements of social power. Because every map is a construction, every map is subject to deconstruction. 

It may be noticed, in passing, that we do not have a mapping of pre-Israel Canaan. It may be that the list of conquered kings in Judges 12:7-24 is the offer of such a map. These several kings represent various city-states, some of which were larger and more powerful than others. The territory controlled by every city-state and every city-king would have been fluid, determined by how far its economic, cultural, and military force could reach. We do not have such a map, because Israel’s constructionists would have had no interest in such territorial claims by the Canaanites because they uniformly regarded such claims as superseded by the promise of YHWH and by the occupation of Israel. It is plausible to think, as well, that as the borders of Canaanite city-states were fluid, so the boundaries of tribal Israel were also fluid. Mapmakers characteristically focus on a particular moment in time through which that instant of fluidity is rendered as a state of fixity. We should not, however, be fooled by such mapping, whether by the peasants, the kings or the priests. We are able to conclude that these various maps in their temporality are not unlike “our little systems that have their day and cease to be.” For ancient Israel the larger empires North and South were dangerously at hand, awaiting an opportunity to redraw the map according to their imperial requirements.

Not surprisingly, what we see as mapmaking (and map unmaking) in ancient Israel is a process that has been replicated in the modern world. We may notice three moments in such mapmaking that readily confirms the ongoing process of mapmaking and map unmaking.

1.   The “discovery” of America by Europeans in the service of Spain and the other great powers in the 15th and 16th centuries led to vigorous mapmaking for the New World. (As with the pre-Israelite Canaanites, we have no map of “pre-discovery” America, though we have many tracings of the spheres of influence of various native tribal communities.)  As with the Canaanite city-states, so tribal territories were surely fluid, depending upon the reach of economic, cultural, and military effectiveness.

It is not surprising that the “Age of Discovery” led promptly to the “Doctrine of Discovery.” (That this period of exploration and colonialization is called “the Age of Discovery” makes it sound like no one (no one of importance!) lived in the land of the New World until the Europeans arrived.)  The “Doctrine of Discovery” is a papal edict in 1493 (one year after Columbus in 1492!) that divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, and gave the European powers full control of and rights to the resources and populations of the New World. The occupation of the New World is a close parallel to the land promise and occupation of Israel that, as much as possible, disposed of the extant Canaanite population. The work of “discovery” and the papal edict both required and permitted new mappings of the New World, mappings that would variously assign territory to the several European powers. The mappings bespeak a new historical reality that could readily disregard many of the “facts on the ground” in the interest of the greedy European states. The new mappings were shameless assertions of European primacy as the great powers divided the land and its resources and populations among themselves. We are particularly familiar with the maps of the New World as we study, variously, the “Louisiana Purchase,” the dislocation of Spain from Florida, and the “French and Indian Wars.” All of these efforts to remap the New World were according to new arrangements of wealth and power. The maps helped to give an aura of legitimacy to the new claims.

2.   After the final defeat of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 featured a new territorial settlement in Europe imposed by the Great Powers upon devastated Europe. The purpose of the assembly in Vienna was to restore a peaceable international order, to assure the security and wellbeing of the ancient regimes, and to curb any further mischief by the force of France. Because the Great Powers were all present to the mapmaking, these powers were free to draw new territorial lines and so to make a new map of Europe. They of course paid great attention to traditional claims. But they also had freedom to recast power claims in a way that was supportive of Great Power interests.

3.   Amid World War I, the British and French diplomas, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, arrived at a secret agreement to carve up the soon-to-be-defeated Ottoman Empire. This secret agreement was with the tacit consent of Russia and Italy. The two representatives quite freely and actively divided up the Ottoman Empire with an eager eye on the rich oil deposits in the Near East. Because the two representatives had behind them the major powers in the war, they had complete, arbitrary, and unrestrained freedom to draw new territorial lines for populations that were quite unrepresented in the secret negotiations that served only the interests of the two major powers. The result was the creation of artificial states in the Near East that paid no attention to traditional relationships.

When we consider in sequence the early maps of “discovery,” the remapping of the Congress of Vienna, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we are able to see that the world, in its several parts, can be mapped and remapped according to active power interests. And while every mapmaker may imagine that the “new map” is the “final map,” we are able to see that every new power configuration requires and permits new mapping that will readily displace and replace old mappings that were once thought to be “final.” This repeated remapping in the modern world is a fair replication of the remapping we have seen in the Old Testament, reflective of peasant, royal, and priestly interests. Thus every new map is one that can and will be deconstructed and reconstructed. There is and will be no final map.

I indicated at the outset that I have been led to this reflection on mapping and remapping by the remarkable study of Jo Guldi. In her final chapter (pp. 354-381), Guldi considers mapping as a strategy whereby landless people may come into possession of land. Guldi observes that “paper” is an instrument whereby control over territory is gained and maintained. To consider this mystifying power of “paper,” it has been possible among landless people to recognize that paper (“cheap paper!) can be “an instrument of popular power” (356-357). Guldi cites efforts at remapping in Appalachia and Ireland whereby landless peasants walk the land, observe with their eyes, and reduce what they see to paper in order to counter “official claims.” Thus the maps drawn by the landless are a form of participatory research” and a practice of self-governance (357):

The community walk of gathering data was itself a retooling of the appropriate technology version of the “transect survey,” Alexander von Humboldt’s technique of walking in a straight line up a mountain to identify ecological zones. By adapting Humboldt’s method to the task of economic inquiry, researchers at Sussex retooled a technique of data collection for the purposes of community—rather than expert—knowledge…The community walk was intended to excavate oral and tacit ways of knowing from sometimes illiterate communities. Inhabitants would discuss crops, soil, wells, and ownership in practical terms that arose from viewing each landscape, following their own intuitive categories rather than those imposed by the social scientist’s agenda. Crediting nonelites and nonexperts with their own understanding removed indigenous, colonized, and working-class people from the category of “primitive” once assigned by Western colonizers and anthropologists—instead underscoring the practical, interpersonal, and moral intelligence implicit in any given culture (360-361).

This effort by the landless is done in knowing awareness that, 

The map was, after all, one of the foremost objects of empire, having been a tool of centralized administration and colonial rule since the origin of the cadastral map in sixteenth-century Europe. By the seventeenth century, European maps were helping settlers lay claim to the land of other peoples around the globe. By the nineteenth century, expert civil engineers and urban planners were using maps to evict poor families from neighborhoods known to house working-class radicals…

Of all of the groups of peasants that had lost their land through eviction, displacement, or indebtedness, the native tribes in North America had experienced the most extreme injustice… _As they began to look for a way to ask the Canadian government to enforce their property rights in order to exclude miners from their territory, they became aware of the power of maps; in government courts, the map was a tool to mandate adherence to property law (365).

Thus participatory mapping consists in the landless becoming active agents in the construction of their own future, along with a refusal to be passive recipients of the “paper” imposed on them by reigning power.

The accent of his new practice of mapping is upon active participation:

Organizers had realized that even cheap material could be used in a process that stressed new habits of mind, suited to the inclusion of persons formerly excluded from the institutions of rule (369).

Special mention should be made of the singular work of John Gaventa. His early work was as a director of research at the Highlander Institute in Tennessee (p. 371). More recently Gaventa is a lecturer at the University of Sussex that is the most important center for work on participatory mapping, and thus land reform, with the recovery of land by landless peasants. The specific economic gains are to be matched by a recovery of consciousness concerning one’s agency for one’s future and the future of one’s people.

When Ed and I did “map study” in Blackburn, we had no clue that a map was an instance of power and control. Given the threats of accumulated or absolute power and technological control, the summons to participation in remapping the world in human ways is an urgent imperative. One might begin in one’s own neighborhood by mapping out power, control, and ownership, by observing how some possess and how the excluded might join in participation. We Bible believers belong to a long line of folk who have not hesitated to remap the world according to our best hopes.

Learning: When there is sufficient energy, will, and imagination, the present map of sociopolitical, economic power can be redrawn reconstructed. The “present sketch” is not a given!


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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