Wild Lectionary: Imperial Logic and Creation

cows enslavedProper 5(10)B

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Genesis 3:8-15

By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson

Then Joseph said to the people, “Now that I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you; sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.”  They said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Gen 47.23-25)

“They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them—so terrible will that freedom at last appear to [people]! Then we will tell them that it is in obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them.”
—The Grand Inquisitor speaking to Jesus, in Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

 This week’s lectionary invites a choice of readings from the Hebrew Scriptures: the call of the elders of Israel for a king “like other nations” (1 Sam 8) and the “curse” laid upon the snake, the woman and the man in the Garden (Gen 3). We’d like to consider them together, as an invitation to deep reflection on our most foundational commitments as the peoples of God.

Both passages present us with the consequences of a basic choice: to be guided by the Voice of God or by the vox populi. While the Garden of Eden story is often read simply as a tale about human maturation or individual choice, it is also deeply communal and political. The result of not listening to God’s command about eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to be sentenced to agricultural patriarchy. That is, it establishes a broken and burdensome set of relationships that exchange God’s free, abundant gift for a life of hard toil leading to death. Similarly, the prophet Samuel, reporting to YHWH the elders’ demand for a king, is told by God to “listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you…listen to their voice, but you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them” (1 Sam 8.7, 9). After the litany of royal takings, we are told that “the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No, because we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations…” YHWH said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (8.19-20, 22).

In both situations, human choices lead to devastating effects for all of creation. Note the nonhuman beings that are predicted to suffer because of the king:

  • Fields
  • Vineyards
  • Olive orchards
  • Cattle
  • Donkeys
  • Flocks

And not only will they suffer, they will become slaves. Many English translations hide the imperial logic at work:

“He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his eunuchs and his slaves. He will take your male and female slaves and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks and you shall be his slaves.” (8.15-17)

Perhaps ironically, the biblical narrative that most clearly shows the effect of ignoring these warnings comes from a text chronologically earlier in the biblical Story as we have it, but certainly written later: the tale of Joseph’s authority over Egypt. Coming near the end of Genesis after Joseph’s reunion with his family, the story marks the end of the arc of disobedience to the divine that began in Genesis 3. The advent of “the curse” of agricultural patriarchy leads directly to Cain’s construction of the first city (Gen 4), which leads to the Flood and its aftermath, Nimrod’s urban empire (Gen 10.8-12). It is from here that YHWH calls an already-old Babylonian and his wife, Abram and Sarai, to leave the old slavery behind and move into the freedom of dependence on God alone. Each succeeding generation will be confronted with this choice: to turn to Egypt for food or to rely on the Creator’s own provision.

The earlier phase of Joseph’s journey sounds, at least in part, like the all-too-common story of Latin American immigrants today: a family member gets sold to coyotes who bring him from his homeland to the imperial center, where he ends up incarcerated in a federal prison. Miraculously, his special abilities not only get him out of jail, they land him a post as presidential chief-of-staff! From this lofty position, he beckons his remaining family to abandon their homeland and seek their success where he has been given power over the entire economy. Joseph claims that the whole series of events was God’s own plan: “Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have” (Gen 45.9-10). Sounds like a happy ending, at one level. But what about YHWH’s repeated word to Joseph’s great-grandfather, Abraham, that Canaan was the land of divine promise? Who truly embodies the Voice of God: Abraham or Joseph?

The family listens to Joseph, of course. And just when we might expect the story to end, there is another famine, and the extent of Joseph’s power is revealed in ways that echo the warnings of 1 Samuel 8. After Joseph collects “all the money to be found in the land of Egypt” as payment for grain, the people return to him year after year as the famine continues. When the money is gone, Joseph demands their livestock—specified as “horses, flocks, herds and donkeys” (47.17)—then their land, until finally, they offer “We with our land will become slaves to pharaoh, just give us seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate” (47.16-19). Fields, cattle, donkeys, land and lives: this is the litany of royal “takings” that bind Samuel’s warnings with Joseph’s actions. It is the simple logic of imperial economics, the very opposite of God’s own vision for earthly shalom.

Dostoevsky understood this logic well. In his classic story-within-a-story, “The Grand Inquisitor,” the wizened inquisitor confronts the silent Christ who stands before him, while the crowd awaits the auto de fey and burning of heretics. He chastises Christ for offering people true freedom in God, when what we really want is bread-and-security. Instead, he proclaims confidently, the church has taken away people’s freedom in the name of Christ, in exchange for obedience to church authorities like the Inquisitor. Imperial church, imperial state: hand in glove, undoing and replacing God’s gift of freedom-in-abundance for security-in-slavery.

We may not live today under formal monarchies or empires, but we do know the daily grind of imperial slavery. The 2017 Gallup “State of the American Workplace” study showed that two-thirds of US workers are “not engaged” in their work and more than half are searching for new jobs at any given moment (https://goo.gl/72NKgh). The mind-and-body-numbing rhythm of arising from insufficient sleep, grabbing fast and unhealthy food, and doing work demanded for the sake of the profit of others, awaiting the shards of a “weekend” so often given to the week’s uncompleted tasks and starting again on Monday…turns us into postmodern slaves, lulled into submission by the allure of craft beer or other distractions for our miniscule “free time.” It has now been more than half a century since Thomas Merton prophetically called “busyness” the disease of our culture.

But, of course, both for ancient Israelites and ourselves, indentured servitude under empire extends beyond humans to all of creation. Our “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFO) are concentration camps for cattle and poultry. The land itself groans under the incessant outpouring of chemicals aimed at increasing “yields” and, hence, profit for the Monsantos of the world. Even the rapidly diminishing wild species are enslaved to the ever-narrowing band of healthy habitat in which to be fruitful and multiply.

It famously took forty years for the Israelites to claim their God-given freedom from Egyptian slavery. It took hundreds of years for Israel and Judah to get out from under the thumbs of their indigenous kings, only to be re-enslaved by Persian, Greek and Roman monarchs. Into this crushing history came Jesus, seeking to move people to metanoia, to the “different mind” that regains our original freedom by listening exclusively for God’s Word, and then doing it. Paul understood fully the direction of Jesus’ powerful pleas: to put on “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2.16; Phil 2.5) as communities of discipleship. These communities, then and now, leave behind enslavement to empire by following Jesus through the twin, “daily” disciplines of turning to God for food and the cross-bearing that is the consequence of standing against the imperial word (Luke 9.23; 11.3).

These are not disciplines meant for isolated individuals, but for people who identify ourselves as strands in the divine fabric that includes all creation. To trust in God’s, rather than empire’s, provision of food, we must—as so many readers of these pages are already doing—recover indigenous lifeways and skills that participate harmoniously with the earth’s generous bounty, rather than seeking to control it. To pick up the cross daily as a result of official resistance to our anti-imperial stance requires the ongoing support and companionship of fellow disciples. Like the call to ancient Israel, the call to we who identify as disciples of Jesus is to embody together the movement from imperial slavery to divine freedom.

As we move into the season of summer, may we know in our minds and our bodies the Edenic freedom that celebrates a gentle breeze wafting over sand or sea; the scent of sun-warmed trees, the calm contentment of a sandwich by a stream, enjoyed with holy leisure with friends from all corners of creation, on the daily gift of the day the Lord has made.


Sue Ferguson Johnson and Wes Howard-Brook collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, from their home in the Issaquah Creek Watershed in Western Washington. Sue is a spiritual director of individuals and couples and Wes teaches theology at Seattle University. Together, they seek to integrate the inner and outer journeys with the Creator.

Wild Lectionary, a weekly reflection on creation themes in scripture is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

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