Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture – Review

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Anyone who has read the Bible even a little can’t miss the many references to farming, livestock, and landscape. After all, Adam and Eve lived in a garden, their downfall involved eating fruit, and Adam’s body itself was mere soil into which God breathed. And that’s from just the first few chapters. Until recently I tacitly assumed God based so much scripture on these types of situations since the primary audience, ancient Jews, were themselves an agrarian people. If God’s chosen people had been the Phoenicians with their seafaring lifestyle, I assumed God would have used completely different scenarios to teach the same spiritual principles.

But lately I’m starting to wonder if the agrarian setting for scripture is itself necessary for what God is trying to communicate. Perhaps an agrarian based lifestyle and economy are God’s designed context for human flourishing and the deepest understanding of eternal, spiritual, ‘un-earthly’ principles. The scriptures I’ve studied for decades. Our own recent efforts at farming coupled with books and articles I’ve enjoyed from contemporary agrarian writers have led me to read many dear biblical passages with a new depth. Rather than attempting to extract a spiritual principle from a ‘earthly’ passage, I’m now beginning to wonder if such passages are truly a ‘whole’ that cannot be dissected without losing a vital element of their truth.

It was in this attitude of uncertain, investigative excitement that I discovered Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture – An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis. Dr. Davis is first an Old Testament scholar by vocation who then discovered contemporary agrarian writers. She understood much of what the agrarians described was directly related to biblical texts written thousands of years before. The book is her effort to bring these two sources of wisdom together. She challenges a disembodied and decontextualized Christian spirituality that prevails in modern America – a hollow understanding similar to what prevailed in my heart as a young believer. The book is scholarly, focusing often on specific Hebrew terms and historical contexts, yet accessible to laymen who will appreciate the insights her thorough research has mined.

The book fulfills her goal of calling Christians back to a more ‘whole’ understanding of the Old Testament. But I find she often over-corrects and leaves the emphasis on earthly, human matters rather than primarily on what God is revealing about Himself in scripture. In this way, the whole truth is obscured. The earthly, created, and temporal too often are seen as the main message, overshadowing the eternal, spiritual, and heavenly which the scriptures reveal. I suppose this is intentional, as she states her intended audience as Christian and Jews. She also expressly avoids referencing much of the New Testament. Thus Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd and True Vine, is avoided altogether.

As an evangelical Christian, I was disappointed that the book’s efforts to correct the acknowledged spiritual/earthly imbalance were spoiled by deficiencies regarding spiritual principles. For example, in chapter two she writes: “If we can see God’s wise foundational work shaping our world, then we are ready to dispense with the false distinction between ‘practical’ work on the one hand and ‘spiritual work’ or ‘religious service’ on the other, and likewise with the separation between scientific knowledge and practical wisdom.” This is a very good summary of the started aim of the book. However, the very next sentence reads “All our mental and physical activity should be directed toward shaping human life and (inescapably) the earth we must manage in order to survive, in accordance with the divine wisdom manifested in natural systems.” So she violates the aim by urging that every mental action be made only on behalf of the human, earthly, and natural. Certainly there is need for a great deal of thinking, learning, and reading regarding the divine, heavenly, and supernatural if we are to avoid the false distinction she decries in the first sentence. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated thought but the emphasis pervades the work.

That said, there are many helpful insights in the book and, happily, the author does often emphasize spiritual insights. I particularly enjoyed chapter four’s study of the manna from the book of Exodus. Chapter six covered the account of King Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard. The author’s detailed research adds much to the story. I recommend any preacher or teacher addressing this passage to consult the book for very helpful background and insight. The section on Psalm 37 is also very rich.

Chapter seven’s focus on Hosea begins, again, with an emphasis on the earthly – “[Hosea] depicts the loss of social and religious integrity when the intergenerational connection between the Israelite family and its land is severed.” This makes it sound as though Israel’s religious and spiritual atmosphere is disturbed because the land is abused. But Hosea’s prophecy and the message of the Bible as a whole, are that corruption of religion leads to disordered social and physical communities. The relationship with God is primary and all flows from that. At the end of this section, the author does rightly conclude “[Hosea’s] intent is polemical and theological: to show that it is YWHW and not the Canaanite storm god Baal whose responsiveness makes Jezreel the richest agricultural district in the land.”

Overall the book was delightful to read. It did not meet all my expectations as I feel it left untapped a vast treasure of spiritual insight. But I am better equipped and encouraged to seek and find greater truth in agrarian based passages that I formerly may have dismissed as not pertinent to modern life.

More about Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture – An Agrarian Reading of the Bible at Amazon.

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