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Jubilee's Roots:
Deuteronomy and Covenant vs. Empire

by Ross and Gloria Kinsler

It is widely recognized that covenant receives its definitive voicing in Deuteronomy, the covenant tradition par excellence.... Deuteronomy offers covenant as a radical and systematic alternative to the politics of autonomy, the economics of exploitation, and the theology of self-indulgence. The model of social reality offered in Deuteronomy is that this community-in all its socioeconomic, political, and military aspects-is relational, with members taking responsibility for their neighbors. This notion of social reality touches every phase of social interaction and every exercise of social power. The pervasive discipline to which Deuteronomy summons Israel is precisely to give up autonomy for the sake of committed, neighborly relatedness.

In his essay, “Always in the Shadow of the Empire” (Texts that Linger, Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices, Fortress, 2000, pp. 73-87), Walter Brueggemann explains how the prophets and the deuteronomist called Israel to a covenantal way of life in sharp contrast to Assyrian domination. This “quintessential, normative theological­-ethical accent of Israel’s faith” was economical, liturgical, and political.

Economically, the practice of neighborliness is in “the year of release” (Deut. 15:1­18). This command ... seeks to prevent the emergence of a permanent underclass by providing that regularly and frequently the poor shall have their debts canceled and be equipped for reentry into the economy in a viable way. It is impossible to overstate the radicalness and subversive threat of this provision that undermines any conventional economic practice, and that intends to make Israel a peculiar community in the world.

Liturgically, the teaching of Deuteronomy accents the Passover as an affirmation that Israel’s life shall be intentionally situated in the memory of the exodus.

Politically, Deuteronomy acknowledges royal power and severely curbs its drive for autonomous control. The law envisions Torah-based power, for the king is enjoined to study “this torah” day and night.... Negatively, moreover, the king is to shun the easy temptations of commoditization by refusing accumulation of silver, gold, wives, horses, or chariots.

Isaiah and Micah present a similar challenge at the same period of history. “All are agreed ... that in every sphere of its life, Judah must be a community of intentional resistance, refusing to let dominant, imperial definitions confiscate the life of Judah. The community is enjoined to great vigilance, lest it lose its raison d’etre, which is as a Yahwistic, alternative mode of life in a world of acquisitive, exploitative power (compare Deut. 8:1-20).”

-from Jubilee Workbook #3 (unpublished), "Biblical Faith" section


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