A Biblical Perspective on the Problem of Hunger
by Walter Brueggemann
Walter Brueggermann is professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 7, 1977, p. 1136. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. †Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. †This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
What are the causes of world hunger? What must be done to overcome world hunger? Obviously, the Bible does not supply any direct answers to these deep questions. We may not look here for clear proposals or concrete strategies. The Bible (in this as in many matters) offers only impressionistic hints subject to varying configurations and interpretations. The role of the Bible in these questions is not to displace hard technical analysis or sober economic reasoning. But it may shake our ways of thinking and perhaps define things afresh for us in terms of human, historical, covenantal reality.
I want to divide the issues into two rather obvious parts. There are at least two matters which may concern us: (1) There is not enough bread to go around, and (2) the bread we have is not equitably shared. That is, insufficient production and inequitable distribution. (To these a third area could be added concerning consumption, but I will not pursue that here.) Let me try to comment on these two matters in reverse order, to take the easier one first.
Bread in the Wilderness
The first reason for world hunger is inequitable distribution. In the Bible the dominant model for distribution is the feeding by manna in the wilderness, in Exodus 6. This narrative may stand as a paradigm for us in thinking about all hunger problems. The story is well known and needs little comment from us. These points may be instructive:
1. The bread given is a gift and is not produced by any human effort (cf. I Cor. 4:7).
2. It is given only in the wilderness, to people utterly without resources and, we may note, on the edge of being without faith.
3. It is given in the face of an eager yearning to return to the fleshpots of Egypt -- i.e., it is recognized as alternative bread which carries with it the radical notion of disengagement from the empire and its characteristic food.
4. It is given not by any of the gods of the empire, but only by the God whose glory is precisely in the wilderness among marginal people. Not only is the sociology of this bread radical, but equally radical is its theology.
And all of that leads to the formula for distribution: “They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it . . . he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack” (Exod. 16: 17-18). The hunger problem had been overcome! It was an act of transcendent mercy in which the limits of conventional possibility were overcome by the resourceless God dealing with his desperate people. And the miracle (for that is what equitable distribution is) worked only so long as they took it a day at a time -- that is, so long as they prayed daily for bread. But when they tried to hoard it, to take control of the supply, they lost the bread.
One other observation about this text: this way of distributing the bread allowed for the Sabbath. The people of Israel were not permitted to store ahead for the next day, except on the sixth day, when they could work ahead for the seventh. Preparation for honest Sabbath is not hoarding. Sabbath is the public recognition that life is a gift. Bread is received, perceived and consumed differently when life is a gift. But in another kind of society -- one oriented to success, competence, security and coercion -- Sabbath disappears (cf. Amos 8:4-6). And when Sabbath disappears, there is no longer equitable distribution, because now there is covetous self-securing. And that covetous self-securing is not personal selfishness but public policy.
Equitable distribution is a miracle that depends on gift bread. And gift bread is precarious and beyond our control. So, of course, such gift bread is not normative. I suggest that at the first opportunity, Israel eliminated gift bread and opted for royal bread -- bread baked in the ovens owned and managed by the king. The king announced that the hunger issue was under new management. It is the business of the king to provide secure bread. And then, of course, people need no more pray daily for bread. Now it is our bread. It is clear enough that when it is our bread and we need no longer pray daily for gift bread, it will be inequitably distributed and there will be hunger.
In Israel it was the movement and regime of Solomon that decisively shifted the foundations of Israel’s life. The Solomonic arrangement, the quintessence of royal bread, is based on three interdependent factors: an economics of affluence (I Kings 4:20), a politics of oppression (I Kings 5:13 ff., 9:15 ff.), and a religion of immanence (I Kings 8:12-13).
These economic, political and religious practices go together and reinforce one another. Such remarkable affluence was possible only because of such remarkable politics. Lewis Mumford has shown that the great concentration of power in the hands of the kings depended on persons living for that “sacred” order which made affluence possible. This affluence is based on a changed formula of distribution, no longer “some gathered, some more, some less, and all had enough.” Now people gathered what they could and ate all they had with no thought of the neighbor. This is not an idyllic tale about a capricious king. Rather, it announces the shift of the life-world of Israel -- a shift away from the radicalness of Moses and toward the pattern of the surrounding great empires. In the empires bread is distributed by a very different pattern of value.
And both the new economics and the new politics depend upon the new religion (new for Israel) and upon a God who lives in his splendid isolation and satiation in the temple, patron of the king and guarantor of the regime: This God has become fat and uncaring, insulated from the groans of marginal people, so contained by the king that he is denied his freedom. And where God is not free from the regime, there is no independent agent to whom appeal can be made. There is no criticism possible, and questions of freedom and justice can never surface. That is, no question about equitable distribution can be raised, because distribution is now sanctioned according to the needs and wishes of the all-encompassing king.
Now the issues of justice and freedom must always yield to the pressing concerns of order and maintenance. God now is, in fact, the unresponsive guarantor of a system of inequitable distribution through which some eat while others work hard and pay much. Likely the Solomonic phenomenon is responsible biblical way to get inside our own context, a context in which the miracle of gift bread is not thinkable because we are so fascinated with royal bread. And royal bread with all the bakeries “pertaining thereto” is perfect for those who manage the place where the royal God now sits to sanction the process.
What to do? Well, obviously, dismantle this royal configuration, break the neat linkage between the politics, economics and religion, break this pattern which guarantees and makes possible inequitable distribution in the name of sacral order. Hosea understood that there will be no serious covenantal eating until there is a situation of wilderness:
I will allure
[seduce] her [Israel],
The distribution problem depends on our being vulnerable enough to pray daily, because praying daily binds neighbors together, even as coveting daily drives people apart. And it is a serious question among us, I believe, if the only serious covenanting is done in the wilderness. Or conversely, can fat people do any covenanting? That question remains unanswered among us in our affluence.
Called to Repentance
The repentance to which hunger calls us is a repentance in all three dimensions: (a) repentance of our economics of affluence, which holds that total satiation is possible; (b) repentance of our politics of oppression in which the neighbor is scarcely visible; and (c) repentance of our religion of immanence in which God is so domesticated that no appeal can be addressed to him.
That analysis is not, of course, a new one. But let us stress the third element. My impression is that most of us who think of ourselves as liberal are inclined to give primary attention to economics and politics, and perhaps that is correct. But I want to urge that the religious question of God is a crucial one without which the other two criticisms are not possible. It is the frozenness of our discernment of God which lies underneath it all. And as long as we believe in a God who is immovable, omnipotent and omniscient, then the human analogy comes dangerously close to being satiation. We are most like God (in his image) when we are satiated.
But that, perchance, is not the biblical God. Rather, we have to do with a God who is free -- free to rage against, free to abandon, even our favorite Zion, free to care and to grieve and to groan. Then, in his image, a paradigm of humanness may emerge. It could well be that humanness does not consist in competence and security and, especially, satiation, but rather in fidelity. What a marvel if fidelity and not satiation is the meaning of life, especially if fidelity is best practiced in our leanness. That is a hard issue, but it makes quite clear that the question of the freedom of God is an urgent one for serious theological thought about hunger.
In dealing with a hard faculty issue, one colleague said recently that our problem is that “we believe we are all supposed to be happy all the time.” And that may be the ultimate deduction, to substitute happiness for faithfulness. It is, in the context of the gospel, an urging to have a gospel without a cross.
The Bible has one other discernment that may be useful to us at this point. It knows that royal bread can only satiate us. It can satiate, but it can never energize: “. . . you shall eat, and not be satisfied” (Lev. 26:26). “They shall eat, but not be satisfied” (Hos. 4:10).
The distribution question is a very hard one because distribution follows the power arrangements and value scheme of the regnant culture. It is likely our case, as that of Solomon, that the power arrangements and the value scheme among us are committed to and dependent upon inequitable distribution.
Fertility and Justice
The second problem is more difficult. There is insufficient production. If it is true that there is not enough bread, then even careful redistribution is not finally helpful. My comment on this subject are not those of an economist or an agronomist. I appeal not to technical data but to the strangeness of biblical faith. When we come to the production question, we are driven by the Bible in the direction of a faithful obscurantism -- driven to say things which sound like nonsense and which require a considerable break with the dominant reason of the academy.
The Bible declares, in its main thrust, that productive creation is not an independent, self-perpetuating, closed system. The “nature” questions of fertility and productivity are closely linked to the “history” questions of justice. And that, I believe, is the deepest and most difficult issue for us. This linkage urged by the Bible between fertility and justice is not simply a ploy to urge the practice of justice but a serious statement that means what it says; namely, that the doing of justice causes the earth to bring forth more generously. There is a deep assumption about a real interconnectedness. It is a gift of the Enlightenment and of scientific positivism to separate these, as though natural processes were value-free and therefore at the whim of human knowledge and human manipulation. This may strike you as inordinately obscurantist (as it surely does me), but the Bible suggests that productivity is dependent not upon human knowledge, ingenuity and manipulation, but upon human covenanting and fidelity. That scandal, I submit, is not a problem in that those who embrace the gospel must try to persuade the others. The problem for us is to affirm that core claim for ourselves.
Psalm 72 (interestingly enough, a royal Psalm), reflecting on the character of kingship, articulates that troublesome connection. It presents a curious but not accidental juxtaposing of these issues, moving back and forth between justice concerns and fertility agendas:
Give the king
thy justice, O God,
In the person of the king (surely not Solomon but the anticipated real king), the practice of justice and the possibility of fertility belong together.
And so in the covenant recital, drought, famine and crop failure are understood not independently or scientifically but covenantally, not by the capriciousness of the season, but according to the faithfulness/fickleness of covenant. It may well be that such a linkage can no longer be dismissed as prescientific primitivism but as an alternative perception which has not yet been “disproven.” Thus, the danger for covenant-breaking is that
if. . . you will not hearken to me . . . I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass; and your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit [Lev. 26:18-20]:
Fidelity and Creation
The same connection is made on a grand scale in Hosea 4. Verse 2 contains an indictment echoing the entire decalogue:
there is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
And then the predictable consequences with the causative “therefore”:
Therefore the land mourns [in drought],
and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field,
and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.
Creation disappears! The fertility cycle fails. The productive processes do not function. Surely that can be explained in other ways. But after all the other ways are listed, the Bible believers are driven back to the most elemental connection: when the Torah is violated, creation is dysfunctional. We shall have to decide if we believe that or if such an obscurantism is even speakable among us. In its most authentic form, this word will not be explained away by saying that if we keep Torah we will feel better about Torah. Maybe that is so. But the affirmation is that when Torah is practiced, when issues of human freedom and justice are addressed, creation functions more fully and brings forth.
Hosea 2 presents the argument with power: in verse 9, worship of the Baalim leads to loss of produce. The Baalim are the embodiments of technical-can-do which substituted for covenantal commitment as a way of self-securing. And they lead to loss. “And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My baal’” (Hos. 2:16). The first thing is to get God’s name right and quit treating him as a referent for can-do self-securing.
“And I will make for you a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground” (Hos. 2:18). The entire creation is rendered covenantal, no more an object to be used, no more sources to be exploited. Now it is redefined in terms of mutual commitment.
“I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hos. 2: 18b). Who knows what disarmament has to do with the earth bringing forth? Disarmament is about the end of coveting, fearful self-securing.
“And I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy . . . in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord” (Hos. 2: 19-20). The radical turn envisioned in this text is that these categories -- righteousness, justice, mercy, loyalty, steadfast love -- shall be the controlling, decisive, defining ones for our reality. To “know” means to acknowledge that we can and will live in this life-world of covenantal loyalty and, conversely, to eschew the alternatives of control and manipulation. (On “know” as the decisive word for a biblical life-world, see the important book by Josť Miranda, Marx and the Bible.)
Now it is curious that critical scholarship almost unanimously ends the poem here. But given our theme, consider what happens if the poem is continued, or if, at least, the poems are placed in intentional juxtaposition. It continues:
†“And in that
day, says the Lord,
In that day -- that is, the day of serious covenanting, the day of radically dismantling anticovenant forms of life. The poem concludes with the resolution of covenant: I will be your God and you will be my people (v. 23). The conclusion is covenantal, but set in its very center is the announcement of well-being in fertile creation which is also covenantal. It is fidelity which makes creation bring forth. Hans Wolff notes that the poem presents a sound ecological sense of how the facets of creation are linked to and dependent on each other. We may observe both (a) that the poem holds the Torah-keeping covenant together with fertility and (b) that critical scholarship, by the way it has discerned the literature, has programmatically separated them. Our critical scholarship has been in the service of our value-free notion of “nature.”
Hosea has earlier observed that covenantal fickleness causes loss of grain, wine and oil (2:9), and now covenantal fidelity lets them be given again in abundance. Many Protestant scholars characteristically have discussed the God-people covenant “in history” as though it happened in a vacuum. More recent ecological interest has talked about creation as an ecosystem in covenant with God. But Hosea will have neither of these. He affirms a three-way covenant of God-people-earth. The three are bound together. The concreteness of that binding is that a Torah-keeping, covenant-abiding people permit the earth to bring forth.
A Conflict with Scientific Reason
Let me mention two other prophetic texts related to our theme. Positively Amos 9:13-15 looks to renewal of creation and increased production. He has just announced the restoration of the Davidic reality. -- i.e., a political entity -- and then he speaks of fertile creation:
†“Behold, the days are coming” [the days of
The best soil erosion thinkable! Perhaps the renewal of production in creation is linked to the restoration of a viable political order. The promises cannot be separated.
Negatively, Isaiah 24:4-7 makes the same connection:
mourns and withers,
The poem is a nearly perfectly constructed prophetic statement: (a) a description of disaster, (b) the reason for it, (c) announcement of the curse action. In the ongoing poem (v. 14-15) there is hope, but the hope is by way of covenant.
The obvious need not be labored: (a) real shortage happens because of Torah violations and disregard of justice; (b) there will be more food when the people repent, returning to covenant and to Torah. Clearly, if this line of reasoning is valid, it brings the church into fundamental conflict with the scientific reason of the day. It says that more fertilizer and all our mechanizations will not produce more food. Only the facing of the human, historical questions of justice and freedom will do that.
So on the two points we have considered, our conclusions are clear:
1. On distribution, the problem is a combination in royal management of an economics of affluence, a politics of oppression and a religion of immanence. The remedy is repentance as the disengagement from and the dismantling of this apparatus of coveting inequity.
2. On production, the problem is viewing fertile creation as a value-free independent system to be managed without reference to the human questions of justice and freedom. The remedy is repentance, which requires a radical break with scientific positivism and its epistemology and the embrace of the scandalous notion that production is subordinate to and governed by our faithful handling of human issues.
Hunger, as concerns both distribution and production, requires facing human questions. And unless these are seriously faced, we will have to imagine that we can do something on our own about hunger. But that approach yields only more royal bread, the bread of coveting which never satisfies, the bread of affliction which never humanizes.
Hardness of Heart
Now let me conclude with a comment on the feeding work of Jesus. In Mark 8:1-10, the narrative is presented. Jesus is moved with compassion. The disciples respond in grudging doubt. But it happens! And what happens is not simply better distribution that can be explained on rational or clever grounds. There is a strange happening of production. Clearly the story means to say that where Jesus is visible, where there is embrace of the new kingdom, the hunger issues are faced differently and there is bread.
Jesus is the perfect teacher who never misses a teachable moment. So in verses 14-21, he offers a little catechetical session. It begins in irony; the disciples forget the bread. Jesus responds with a warning: beware of eating the bread of Herod and the Pharisees. If you eat establishment bread long enough, you will be taken in. It matters what the church eats and who gets to feed it. It matters who defines reality and sets priorities and authorizes perceptions.
And then having announced the principle, Jesus asks hard questions of his learners: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” There is no answer. They not only don’t know the answer -- they don’t understand the question.
So like a good teacher, Jesus adjusts the lesson plan, because he is dealing with obviously concrete-operational types: “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” Answer: 12. “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” Answer: seven.
They do very well on such concreteness. And then he ends the session abruptly: “Do you not yet understand?” And there he leaves his church, wondering what it means to have a source of bread among us which is a threat to all other suppliers of bread and which will not be explained on our conventional terms.
Two other texts may be mentioned: In Mark 6:52, there is an odd verse quite unrelated to its context. It just hangs there alone: “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” “Hardness of heart” is a recurring theme in Mark. It speaks of those resistant to newness, which calls present things into question. What an irony that perhaps our hardness of heart may be the real problem in dealing with hunger! And until that fundamental human resistance is faced, we will not address the bread problem. The gospel is that there is bread. But we cannot discern or receive it.
Finally, we should not miss the song of the
He has shown
strength with his arm,
The struggle in the believing community over the Virgin birth is not about biology or dogma. It is about a perception of reality which we cannot contain. The testimony of the text strains to say there is something going on here, but it will not be discerned until repentance is radical -- repentance that strikes both at our perception and epistemology and at our economic/political practice. Surely the hunger problem requires immediate acts for brothers and sisters. But it also requires of us a long-term nurture away from the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees.
The church has no special competence in areas of economics. It has a peculiar competence in urging that the hunger question must be discerned in the field of public covenanting, and that public covenanting means the shaping of perceptions and institutions in the presence of the hungry ones. Royal coveting denies such public covenanting with the hungry ones, and so there can be no serious distribution. Because human questions are linked to production, serious production is blocked until Torah is kept. Creation will not conic forth for an unjust community. Jesus feeds freely and enough, but that bread will not be understood in our present categories.