By Samuel Thomas
California Lutheran University
In the words of a good friend and colleague of mine, my last Bible and Interpretation editorial constituted a good old-fashioned “Isaianic smack-down” of self-aggrandizing, dishonest hypocrites (“Knowledge and Wisdom in a Politics of Passionate Intensity,” October 2011). That short essay was something of a political rant in a text-critical mode, channeling some of the fury of the biblical prophets to characterize our current state of cultural and political discourse. At the time I had in mind publishing a series of such “prophetic critiques” in this venue, but recently have thought better of it. Instead, I will offer here some “Isaianic” reflections on what I currently view as one of the few antidotes to political alienation and the estrangement at the root of our economic systems: local, sustainable, and ethical food production, or what used to be called “farming.”
My last essay was rooted in a text-critical observation from Isaiah 28, which as a whole juxtaposes vituperations against the rich and self- important with images of harmony and blessedness. It sees, in other words, that social and environmental ills are often directly related to greed and corruption, and that this is not in keeping with God’s vision of prosperity. In this way, Isaiah 28 is very much in line with an anti-imperial ideology that runs throughout the Tanakh, one that is based on a conception of covenant that demands care, hospitality, and justice as expressions of faithfulness to the God of Israel. To remedy social and environmental imbalances, God will be a “spirit of justice” (ruah mishpat) and “strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate” (Isa 28:6). Isaiah 28 continues:
Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers
who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter”…
Listen, and hear my voice;
Pay attention, and hear my speech.
Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?
Do they continually open and harrow their ground?
When they have leveled its surface,
do they not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and plant wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and spelt as the border?
For they are well instructed;
their God teaches them. (Isa 28:14-15; 23-26)
Throughout this chapter Isaiah presents the judgment of the Jerusalem elite (“scoffers”) alongside a vision of a redeemed Israel, of a “new society, a new polity, based on moral order. The important element is that justice and righteousness are the criteria according to which this or any society is to be judged.”1 One of the insights of Isaiah and of other prophets is that moral order is not defined primarily in terms of sexual purity or patriotic fervor, but rather that it rests ultimately on conceptions of justice as fairness and equality, and righteousness as proper care. Another insight is that the dimensions of moral order are intimately tied to one another: pull a string and even unexpected parts begin to move. In our own time, food has become an important measure of justice, one that reveals the seamy underbelly of global systems of economic production and exchange.
It is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the devastation that is being wrought by what has come to be known (rather ironically, in my view) as “conventional agriculture.” Fertile land is rendered less and less viable with the over-application of pesticides and herbicides and the increasing salinization of soils and water tables that comes from intensive, non-stop irrigation; workers who have often migrated under great stress (and for reasons that are at least partially driven by U.S. international trade policies) are exposed to harsh working conditions and have few options and garner little sympathy; monocultures created to serve enormous corporate food and chemical companies (in the guise of “feeding the world”) threaten biodiversity and the very ecological systems upon which life as we know it depends; and the production and wide distribution of all this food consumes vast quantities of fossil fuels, reinforcing our system of energy addiction and dependency and contributing to climate change. What would Isaiah have to say about all this? We have become very adventurous in our use of science and technology for the purpose of growing and distributing food, but are we “well-instructed?”
In my Old Testament course this semester I decided to try something new with my own instructing: I experimented with teaching the Hebrew Bible through an agrarian lens while engaging students in the campus garden at my university, a 1/3-acre site devoted to growing food, building community, and learning. My primary animating question for the course was, “what does the Hebrew Bible have to say about the relationships between land, people, cities, God, and wisdom?” Of course, attempting to answer this question took us through a lot of talk about covenant, temple, ethics, justice, jubilee, Sabbath, and eschatology, not to mention beets and carrots and crop rotation (“do those who plow for sowing plow continually?”).
As we read primary texts from the Torah, Proverbs, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Song of Songs, and lots of “comparative” material from the ANE, we considered this animating question carefully and in a sustained way. While we carefully considered this question, we spent a couple hours every other week in the garden, working side by side, getting our hands dirty, having some fun, and learning about how complicated and difficult it is to grow food—how very difficult it is indeed to “master” creation. All the while, we read John Barton and Julia Bowden’s The Original Story as a survey, Ellen Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture as the frame for our agrarian reading, and T.J. Gorringe’s A Theology of the Built Environment as the theoretical driver of our animating question, as a way to unpack the creation-covenant-redemption arc of biblical theology.
One of my hopes for the students in this course was that they would be able to enter into an engagement with the Old Testament that was both historical-contextual and that addressed contemporary concerns—that they would come to see in a new way that, indeed, the Bible can speak to us about things that matter (like, say, food). None of this was done instead of developing “literacy” and “critical thinking skills” and other important learning outcomes. Ultimately, it was an attempt to appeal to the imaginations of my students and to provide a wedge with which to pry open the spaces where questions and problems meet with new ways of seeing the world.
Of course, I must confess my interest in also generating for my students new ways of being in the world. (Reader, set aside momentarily any questions regarding whether higher education should be about moral transformation, etc.—I know the debate and I’m clearly ending up on one side of it.) I believe that the Hebrew Bible has some very profound things to say about the relationships between humans and the natural world, between humans and other humans, and between humans and God. I would even go so far as to say that one of the principal features of the Old Testament is that it doesn’t let us off the hook, whether we are reading it in a religious mode or not. In other words, the Hebrew Bible—whatever else it may be—is about ethics, and being utterly serious about answering the question, “How shall we live?”2
I have come to the conclusion that the Hebrew Bible can call our attention to the deep ethical predicaments that result from modern, technogene life—and it can help us work toward recovering what the poet Charles Olson might have called “an actual earth of value.” That is, in a national politics of alienation and a global economics predicated on displacement and overconsumption (despite the actual limits of scarcity), an agrarian understanding of the Hebrew Bible can help reorient us to the sources of life and real prosperity: land, community, and meaningful work. To put it in slightly different terms, “Through Adam and Eve we lost a gift but earned a heart, and in many ways we are still earning our heart, just as we are still learning that most of what the earth offers—despite its claims on our labor—has the character of something freely given rather than aggressively acquired.”3
Care for the land and the ethical production of food is inherently communal and community-building; abuse of the land and the unethical production of food erode the integrity of both natural systems and human communities. I have seen the former first-hand in the work of the Abundant Table Farm Project, a faith-rooted, organic CSA (community supported agriculture) outfit down the road from where I live.4 The amazing people at the Abundant Table understand that food is as much about relationships as it is about eating, and their efforts to grow food sustainably, work for justice, and engage people in their lives are deeply counter-cultural and inspiring. And biblical.
The work of the Abundant Table is about feeding people while reclaiming a kind of wisdom that insists that we are grounded in responsibility to and not freedom from. It is the latter impulse that appears to animate the logic of the global food trade and the thin platitudes of its greatest champions. Understanding and enacting sustainable, ethical food production through the prism of covenantal theology can be one important antidote to our contemporary estrangements. It is but a seed.
1 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 19; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 394.
2 See the magisterial book by Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
3 Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 9.
4 Full disclosure: I am a member of the Abundant Table’s board of directors.