Ellen F. Davis on Reading the Bible Through Agrarian Eyes

In the second chapter of her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen F. Davis proposes that “reading the work of the contemporary agrarians can make us better readers of Scripture” (22). This is not as radical as it may seem (though Davis admits it is “risky”) if one recognizes that much of the Bible is written from an agrarian perspective, with an agrarian worldview and agrarian presuppositions constantly informing the biblical writers. Of course, when one recognizes the validity of a symphonic theology, the scandal of such an approach is removed. What matters is that the perspective sheds light on the object of study. Here I want to highlight two observations Davis made in regard to the biblical text by paying attention to contemporary agrarian literature that I found particularly insightful and meaningful.

Her first observation concerns the primacy of the land, that the land has expectations of its inhabitants. In exploring the divine command in Genesis 2:15, she reflects on the significance of the two imperatives, saying:

The verbs `-b-d and š-m-r imply a humble recognition of the land’s primacy and its needs. The latter suggest also an element of Vulnerability; anything that humans are charged to preserve, they are also capable of neglecting or violating. So the two elements of the human vocation stand in some tension as well as in complementary relation; each verb leads us back to the other. In order to live, we are obliged to “work” the land (le`obedah) – manage it and take from it. in order to “live a long time” on it, we are equally obliged to “preserve it (lešomerah). (32)

Her second observation concerns the agrarian worldview of an “informed ignorance,” the willingness to embrace our own limited understanding and avoid the sin that results from the opposing worldview, “a culpable pride, a destructive lack of humility.” This, Davis finds, is rooted in the fear of YHWH:

The fear of YHWH leads to a critical appreciation of both the world and ourselves; it is the necessary condition for reading the world accurately, speaking truthfully about it, and acting out of humility. . . . If we can see God’s 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. 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. (35-36)

Additionally, in addressing the oddity of calling the agrarians of the Bible “materialists”, albeit “modest materialists,” she qualifies how we understand this terminology by addressing what makes the materialism of our society so dangerous:

Among the most powerful and probably the most dangerous of illusions is the idea that “science can solve all problems” [what she recognizes as “materialistic scientism”]- even though it is common experience that the efficient solution of an individual problem generates a host of new ones. That sort of trust in the omnipotence of science is of course a kind of faith stance, albeit a wobbly one. If it were to be found in a premodern society, we would unhesitatingly label as “magical” a kind of thinking that presumes to guarantee certain physical results and yet bears such a tenuous relation to empirical reality. (37)

The question about Davis’ book that looms in my mind (and kudos to my friend Bob Turner for first raising this question) is whether or not agrarianism is the biblical worldview because it is a divine imperative, or whether it is the biblical worldview because it was the context of the ancient writers of Scripture. This doesn’t have to be an either-or battle, but is it truly a both-and?

To be continued . . .

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