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Getting Jesus by Getting Moses


On Friday night and Sabbath morning in Takoma Park, Maryland, the Old Testament lit up the New.

Walter Brueggemann, perhaps the best-known Christian champion of the Hebrew canon, spoke at Washington Adventist University’s annual Keough Lectures on September 20 and 21.  Author of more than 70 books, and always a compelling platform presence, Brueggemann brought his insight, passion and humor to bear upon one question: What do “Follow me” and “Love thy Neighbor” really mean?

His thesis was that these phrases take their substance from the Hebrew people’s founding story, as encapsulated in the Torah. 

Under the overall title “Re-performing Our Best Narrative,” the speaker first addressed the familiar Gospel summons to discipleship.  Noting that Jesus lived under Roman domination, Brueggemann argued that his “Follow me” conjured up the countercultural vision expressed in the Torah, where God’s arch-antagonist is the ruthless Pharaoh, paradigm of imperialism, overseer of economic predation and enslaver of Israel.  

In the founding story, Pharoah, architect of human misery, is anxious, fearful of scarcity, fixated on accumulation, and driven to monopoly and violence.  The Hebrew people make a slow turn to resistance (“After a long time” they “cried out”—Exodus 2:23), and their resistance ripens into the idea that “human agency,” as Brueggemann said, is the divine mode of redress against oppression.  “I will send you to Pharaoh,” God tells Moses.  You “will bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt,” and “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:10-12).   

After the crossing of the Red Sea, Israel sings praise to God for leading them out of Egypt (Exodus 15).  But the sense of human agency remains.  “Life and prosperity” vie with “death and adversity,” and human response—“walking” in God’s “ways”—is the key to the better alternative (Deuteronomy 30:15ff.).  “Choose life,” God says, and Jesus alludes to all of this when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he asks his followers to enter the “narrow gate,” to take the “hard road [way]” that “leads to life” (Matthew 7:13, 14).

You can “follow” the dominant ideology or you can “follow” the countercultural path set forth in the Torah and repeated—or better, “re-performed”—by Jesus.   That, Brueggemann said, is the question potential disciples have to face.

On Sabbath morning Brueggemann elaborated on this “alternative life” by exploring a summary put forth by Jesus himself: “Love thy neighbor.”  Again, the source of light was the Torah, this time Deuteronomy in particular.  This book, with Moses as God’s spokesperson, became a call to spiritual renewal both in the time of King Josiah and also, historians tells us, in the time of the Exile.  And it was, in addition, a key resource for Jesus himself: he quoted it three times, for example, in his encounter with the Tempter. 

The book, Brueggemann said, constitutes a re-visioning of Israel’s moral heritage, and takes for its focus the meaning of “neighborliness.”  A collection of sermons, commandments and blessings and curses, Deuteronomy repeats, to begin, the Ten Commandments, but with one variation (chapter 5): now the motivation for the Sabbath is not the Creation story but “work stoppage for exploited labor.”

The book’s themes, the speaker argued, include these:

  • Affluence is seductive and creates amnesia, which necessitates constant re-summoning to the “covenantal identity.”
  • True neighborliness means passion for justice, subordinating “the economy to the well-being of the community, or neighborhood”; the merchant’s scales must be honest and what is missed in the harvest must be left for the poor.
  • Laws that protect the vulnerable—the widow and the orphan—must reach out even to the immigrant; the stranger is our neighbor, and we must unlearn the rules of purity by which we exclude those we do not know or understand.
  • Hope matters because the world is transformable and can be organized differently; the “sorry end” occasioned by disobedience is not an implacable fate.
  • None of this is “incidental”; loving the neighbor is the “main issue,” the means by which we come to know God.

The Ten Commandments themselves make no mention of the “neighbor.”  Deuteronomy may therefore be seen, Brueggemann argued, as a “model for the dynamism” of Israel’s self-interpretation.  The tradition is “generative,” giving rise to fresh understanding and “ongoing negotiation” concerning it basic meaning.  The defining stories are “re-performed” as circumstances change and comprehension deepens.  The New Testament’s embrace of the Gentile, though itself an extension of the Deuteronomic vision, is further illustration of the point, Brueggemann said.

The Keough Lectures honor the memory of Arthur Keough, a former member of the Washington Adventist University faculty.  About 170 attended to hear Brueggemann.  Several General Conference leaders, including representatives from the vice presidential circle, the Biblical Research Institute and the Adventist Review, were present.

Zack Plantak, of the university’s theology faculty, is the current organizer of the event.  Responders to this year’s lecturer were Roy Branson, associate dean of the faculty of religion at Loma Linda University, and David Trim, director for archives, statistics and research at the General Conference.  Larry Geraty, president emeritus of La Sierra University, spoke on behalf of the Keough family (he is Authur Keough’s son-in-law) and participated in a panel discussion on Sabbath morning.  The audience was able to pose questions at the conclusion of each lecture.

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