Daniel Berrigan’s poetic-narrative analysis of the Book of Deuteronomy reveals “a useless God.” Let me clarify this statement. In his text, No Gods but One, he draws comparisons between Deuteronomy and the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, more or less dismissing the moral stature of most Scriptural personalities up until the arrival of these characters on the historical page. Berrigan contends that the prophets shaped a vision of God who is useless to those who seek to employ a god-image to erect and sustain structures of power and injustice. Berrigan takes us on a journey into his own creative reading of Deuteronomy, and from this the reader comes away realizing the revelatory impact of the creativity in his writing. The powerful message of revelation can be shared a thousand times, but unless the message makes an impression, it is easily delivered into irrelevance. Berrigan facilitates the impact.
It is Berrigan’s imagination which makes this analysis of the Deuteronomy text so powerful. He avoids the most direct question: Just how much of the Deuteronomy story is a reflection of the ancient beliefs of the children of Abraham, and how much of it was fashioned for the slightly less ancient discovery of the book in the Temple precinct? Instead he brackets this concern in order to release the moral lesson that he develops from the book. The lesson centers on his contention that the God of the oppressed has been set aside in favor of the God of the oppressor. In that vein he notes that the age of kings has become a second Egypt where injustice and a distorted view of God are generated. While Deuteronomy is more associated with the law than prophecy, Berrigan is able to draw a prophetic tone from its pages. He binds the actions observed in Deuteronomy with their consequences so clearly articulated in the prophets. Added to this he is making us observers of a process of religious evolution in which both the stature of God and the chosen people transform before our very eyes, but not for the better until the prophets. The text is thus shown to be an anti-thesis to the courageous vision of the prophets, a vision of a bold new world. It is with sadness that Berrigan notes the apparent victory of the anti-thetical vision of a world of greed and unbalanced power structures and security driven violence and religious movements which co-opt unjust political structures.
It is not too much of a stretch to claim that Berrigan has allowed revelation to further blossom, but how has he done so in such an artful manner? His use of poetic language with its implicit capacity to carry “surplus meaning” works in conjunction with his effort to seek the further implications of historical events. In this way he forces open room for potential, room to glean more from the text, but he does not force the text itself to fit perfectly into his hermeneutic box. The reader must be diligent to keep track of the number of threads running through his analysis. Some of these draw away from his primary critique of imperialist structures, and he allows for this without letting us get lost on a tangent. He also makes the most of contradictions in Scripture to highlight the same in our society’s response to the challenges of a just life. Some of the images and concepts he works with burst out of the historical text to show themselves with frightful modern reality. These working concepts include the idea of a scapegoat, the meaning of the lost tribes, and the blessing of being the under-dog. Then he also takes up the confrontation with our own inhumanity, the religious tension between our better and worse inclinations, and vengeance and the cycle of violence, and better yet, the notion of the conflict oriented society which takes the brunt of his contempt. In the midst of working through some of these topics he interjects critical outside source material in a nearly seamless manner, hardly disturbing the meter of the poetry. Along with this material he includes verbal snapshots of our struggle with justice to indicate the contemporaneous import of the message of Deuteronomy.
Where to use this text is an interesting question. First read it for your own benefit, to be impacted by its harsh but needed message. Don’t plan to read it rapidly. You will want to savor the words. In a sense, Berrigan has captured the monastic practice of lectio divina within the covers of his book. But don’t keep this work to yourself. It should be used in a variety of upper level and graduate religion courses. As a prophetic work, it would lend much to any course on revelation or prophecy, and certainly for courses on social justice. Using it in a class on Hebrew Scriptures is also conceivable, but not as the primary text. Berrigan’s work calls for reading by itself and also in conjunction with the Scriptures, but I debate over which sequence to follow. In a Scripture class it would certainly challenge the student to think more deeply about the message of the material he or she is analyzing. In any venue it challenges the reader to think more—more justly.