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Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture:
An Agrarian Reading of the Bible

By Ellen F. Davis,
Professor of Bible and Practical Theology
Cambridge University Press, 2009
Paper, 238 pages, $23.99

Reviewed by Carol M. Bechtel

This is one of the most important books I have read in a long time. And while I don’t use the word “prophetic” lightly, it seems appropriate, especially if one acknowledges the prophets as “seers.” This book helps us to see the world in the light of God, and having seen the world in that light, nothing will ever look quite the same.

Now there is a sense in which everyone living on the earth should take this book personally, but I do so because I grew up on a farm. So when Davis documents the dispossession of millions of small farmers by multinational agribusiness — I see not statistics, but faces. These are people and places I know — and I wept for them while I read.

Speaking as both a farm girl and an Old Testament scholar, I was struck by the courage it took to write this book. I’m not talking about the risk Davis runs of getting on the bad side of some very powerful corporations — though that might be worth bearing in mind. I’m talking about the courage it takes to venture outside of one’s own field. The book sets out to “explore the agrarian mind-set of the biblical writers by bringing Israel’s Scriptures into sustained conversation with the works of contemporary agrarian writers.” Davis knows that she will — at least 50 percent of the time — be “consciously working as an amateur, going outside [her] area of professional expertise.” She does it, as she says, “out of love” for both the land and the text, and that makes the risk worthwhile.

“Love” would not have been enough to make this book the resounding success that it is, however. There is an astonishing amount of research behind every paragraph. Further, it is one thing to assemble facts, but to interpret them with wit and wisdom is quite another. She has clearly not only gathered information, but digested it as well. And the fact that Wendell Berry has written the foreword bears witness to the way her work elicits the respect of her agrarian colleagues.

Speaking, now, as a biblical scholar — I was astonished by the way the agrarian perspective shed new light on familiar texts. This was particularly true in the chapter on Leviticus, which suddenly made sense to me in a way that it hadn’t before. Litanies of seemingly obscure laws were so much more coherent when seen as part of the “web of relationships uniting ... earth, animals, and humans.” And the chapter entitled “Running on Poetry: The Agrarian Prophets” has quite frankly “cracked the code” of Amos and Hosea for me.

Davis succeeds, then, in exploring the “agrarian mindset of the biblical writers.” But she then goes on to successfully “bring Israel’s Scriptures into sustained conversation with the works of contemporary agrarian writers.” Since this cross-cultural, multi-millennial conversation is her stated goal, one can hardly complain if she occasionally opts out of certain opportunities to engage the theologians in an in-house conversation. One that I particularly wanted to have involves popular Christianity’s penchant for putting asunder what God has joined together — namely — body and soul.

For all our talk about the “resurrection of the body,” most Christians are deeply suspicious of bodies and, in fact, all of physical creation. Never mind that God declared it good six times! We prefer our more dualistic take on reality, and our assumptions have had disastrous consequences for our treatment of the land. Dualism, I would suggest, is behind the pernicious interpretations of Genesis 1-2 that Davis so deftly attempts to undo in the early chapters of this book. Unless we out these assumptions directly, I fear that even the deftest interpretations may not gain enough traction to turn our attitudes. Sometimes we need to unlearn old ideas before we can learn new ones.

But after reading this book, and overhearing the conversation it engenders, I find myself willing to work and hope as never before for the healing of God’s good creation. I am intensely grateful to Ellen Davis for facilitating this crucial conversation between the agrarian writers in Scripture and the “faithful foreigners” we know as the contemporary agrarian writers. It is a conversation that could make a lot of

Carol Bechtel is professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America. This review was adapted from her Nov. 23, 2008, response to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Boston, Mass.