How we live our lives is governed by ethics. Ethics is “human moral conduct according to principles of what is good or right to do.” Our ethical values today descend primarily from a Christian ethic in which “a truly ethical decision, we are told, must be spontaneous, undirected, free – the individual’s unfettered and unforced response to each new decision-demanding situation.” The ethical values of today, especially Christian ethics, borrow and carry forward the Hebrew ethics of the past. This essay is an attempt to survey briefly the literature of the Old Testament and to point out any common themes which may be apparent in the diverse literature which we encounter.
One factor which sets Ancient Israel apart from other religions of the time was its monotheistic basis. The ethics of Ancient Israel is historical and traditional as opposed to philosophical and theoretical. In Ancient Israel an ethical conception of God is attained, that is not philosophical but historical; while its view of the moral life is certain of justification not only by reason but by history. Thus God is looked upon as an ethical personality and is looked to as an example of good and right. In the Old Testament, God’s voluntary (voluntary for God) covenant with man must be looked at as the prime, but not only, example of ethical value. The covenant’s requirements is one source of all ethics, morals, laws, and justice in the Old Testament.
Within Ancient Israelite society, we are presented with considerable diversity. Society was divided into partisan groups. In the pre-exilic period alone we can discern the nomadic people who became the early settlers through to the priestly groups and the prophets. The social and cultural conditions of each of these groups contributed to their own ethical understanding and in turn to what could be considered an ‘Old Testament ethic’. The individual contributions made by these differing elements in society demonstrate a tension between these groups, as a result of their different traditions and their different needs. The initial impression that we are given is that any ‘Old Testament ethic’ may not be a consistent ethic. This potential inconsistency, viewed against a background of a contrast between the primacy of Law or grace, has seen the Old Testament in the modern world placed firmly back into its ancient realm and with it its richness.
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Whilst such diversity seems to be apparent in the ethical outlook of the Old Testament, it may be possible to isolate central features. As a result of this it may become possible to outline an understanding which approaches an ‘Old Testament ethic’. One reason as to why such a more centralized approach is lacking in many studies of the Old Testament ethics can be identified in a statement made by James Gustafson: biblical ethics, he observed, is in itself, ‘a complex task for which few are well prepared; those who are specialists in ethics generally lack the intensive and proper training in biblical studies, and those who are specialists in biblical studies often lack sophistication in ethical thought.’ A person venturesome enough to engage in interdisciplinary work runs the risk of being tagged a dilettante by colleagues in each discipline!
It is the breadth of response though which remains characteristic of the nature of Old Testament ethics. For the utopian, Isaiah 2:4 becomes a standard; for the hardened of heart Genesis 9:6 is the norm. It is in fact this diversity which has been at the heart of the many issues regarding the use of the Old Testament in the development of moral theology. The ability to select certain passages to support a wider cultural or theological movement, or to isolate particular passages to illustrate a certain moral argument has often led to the conclusion that the Old Testament’s contribution to contemporary moral thought is limited. A valuable approach has been to use Old Testament passages to illustrate specific findings of moral theology. Might it not be of greater value to consider whether or not a more significant and less localized ethic exists on the broader canvas of the Old Testament? Selective attitudes to the texts raise strong questions about the authority of the Old Testament. If we are to be selective in our use of text, to what extent then do we need to reassess our understandings of authority and inspiration?
How is it that ancient Israel, and to a similar extent, early Christianity tried to secure conformity to certain moral practices and avoidance of others? The roles played by institutions (the cult, the school, the court of law, the state), family and kinship groups and key leaders need careful examination when attempting to understand why certain moral practices took priority. It is also important to consider the influence of tradition. The final form of the moral practices of ancient Israel may well have been influenced by how the past functioned for each new generation. Values, attitudes and lifestyles can often be instilled in succeeding generations by the subtle means of inculcation and regimentation and by the more obvious means of persuasion, coercion and legal control.
In recent years particular studies on moral understanding, whilst valuable in themselves, may not necessarily be useful in contributing to a broader picture. Whilst it is vital we understand Old Testament attitudes to issues such as; the role of women, concepts of justice, attitudes to other religions and races, to name some topical issues it can be dangerous to look at these models as isolated examples for the contemporary reader to follow. If the women of the Old Testament accepted happily their status, can the contemporary reader say that they were in fact oppressed? However, there are some issues, if addressed in the light of new readings allow the Old Testament to reinvigorate contemporary moral issues.
What then do we find in a preliminary reading of the Old Testament? We find that the perceived corpus of Old Testament ethical teaching can be found in the Pentateuch. Here are to be found sets of ordinances, precepts and guidelines as to how the people could mould their lives in the areas of the cult, ritual, social and moral practice in order to be in conformity with the will of God. Not only were such precepts to be practized, but they were also to be taught in word and deed. (Dt. 6:1-4).
The Mosaic Covenant is a good example of ethical values and norms in the Old Testament. The Mosaic Covenant has three parts; the Decalogue, the Covenant Code; and the Holiness Code. The Decalogue is made up of apodictic (or absolute) law, it is unconditional and has no “ifs or buts” about it. Although legally vague, these commandments provide a basis for ethical norms in the Old Testament. The Covenant Code is made up of casuistic (or conditional) law, it has a characteristic formula: “if this happens, then that will be the legal consequence.” Much of the Covenant Code deals with property and parallels other ancient Near East law codes. The Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17-26 states what is holy, for example, “the phrase: “I, Yahweh, your God, am holy” (19:2; 20:26) is the self-predication almost “tautological,” for holiness here has a theistic, rather than an exclusively moral, connotation.”
The covenant is presented in the Old Testament as a whole and as “
the words of Yahweh.” Many of the laws within the covenant, especially in the Covenant Code are anachronistic. This reflects how successive generations continued to respond to Yahweh’s covenant demand in the changing circumstances of their situation. Instead of using a philosophical or theoretical challenge to ethics, the Old Testament incorporates the needs of societal ethics into the actual history and traditions.
The prophets also grounded their appeals for right conduct in Gods demands for righteousness. This was done by raising their critical voices on religious and ethical issues. Israels obligation was to act with justice and mercy was a religious obligation. The prophet Amos bases this obligation on Yahwehs election of Israel and thus, implicitly in the covenant, as he recalls the exodus, the conquest and Gods others gracious favors. (2:9-11) He denounces all things in which men have put their confidence (3:15, 5:11). Even their cult centers would do them no good; because they had forsaken the God of justice, their ceremonies were only occasions for greater sin (4:4-5).
For Hosea, God with deepening tenderness will lead Israel into the desert, the place of honeymoon after the exodus, the time of her fidelity: there she shall learn again to respond to God in love (Hos 2:16-19). Like Amos, Hosea condemns injustice, but he shows greater concern about Israel’s paganism practices and religious aberrations.
The themes in Micah seem to revive an idea of the covenant that may had fallen into disuse. Though it may be that the prophet is suggesting a new way at looking at the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, one based on justice and righteousness, instead of on election and mistaken covenant loyalties Is Micah drawing his ethic from a broader canvas than the covenantal backdrop? Dell suggests that it is in fact the influence of wisdom literature and of a wisdom-type ethic which has left a mark on the final form of the prophet.
The prophets saw mankind in its concrete reality and new that it was here that redemption had to be realized; unless the disorders within the individual, the disorders of society, the disorders between nations, were set right, redemption would be incomplete, and God’s work cannot be less than complete.
The Wisdom literature is less explicit about the basis of morality, yet its influence can be detected in areas of the Old Testament literature. The Wisdom literature does not usually stress Gods demands for righteousness, in the the way the prophets are seen to do. Neither does the Wisdom literature make appeal to the Law or the idea of the covenant. Rather, the ethical outlook of the Wisdom literature is grounded in experience, the experience of the community. Yet the literature is not totally divorced from the Law and the covenant. “Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13) is a reminder of the struggle for the Wisdom literature to keep experience in touch with the Law and covenant.
Such Wisdom influence can be seen in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy contains a wider ethic than strict law based injunctions that may be the expectation of a law book. More general proverbs are reformulated as laws in Deuteronomy (Proverbs 20:10 and Deuteronomy 25:13-16). Dell argues that Israelite wisdom is part of a broader ancient Near Eastern phenomenon and as such has an influence on the ethical norms to be found in other texts. If this is the case then the Wisdom understanding and influence of ethical norms may need further investigation.
As links can be seen between the diverse genres of Old Testament literature so it may be possible to begin to suggest some common ideas in the corpus. Firstly the nineteenth and twentieth century has distinguished between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, such a distinction is not apparent in the ancient mind. Communion with God involves morality as morality is obedience to the will of God. Secondly, such a moral obligation on the part of the people is intrinsic to the covenant relationship. “I will be your God and you will be my people”, the central text of the covenant relationship, is expressed in the consideration that righteousness consists of grateful obedience to God.
Thirdly it can be seen that in the Old Testament beyond God there is no authority, as such the decisions of God are beyond questioning. The very fact that an action is divine in origin, makes it just and right. The final form of Old Testament morality is legal by nature but I would hesitate to say that it is by necessity legalistic. The reason for such hesitation come from a need to reflect at greater length on the relationship between the legal and the narrative material. It may be the case that the narrative material in correspondence with the ‘legal’ material may offer a new insight and reading for the Old Testament ethicist. As an example we can see that if we turn to the Patriarchal narratives the gap between narrative and Law is not vast. Sinaitic law is intimated in the pre-sinaitic period. The law of the Sabbath is a good example of this. This law is revealed in Genesis 2:1-3 and latter is revealed at least in partial form after the Exodus in Exodus 16. Certain Sinaitic laws were narrativized prior to Sinai.
Fourthly, the Old Testament has a distinctive concept of justice. It is distinct in the sense that it begins with the character of God rather than with a philosophical concept of human nature. Justice is not dependent on what people deserve in their humanity; rather, it is dependent on how God acts, because God is God. Justice is rooted in the divine, for if it was rooted in human nature, it would be rooted in something that is fundamentally flawed.
The final general characteristic of Old Testament ethics is that of the centrality of the community. Whilst such a community is of course made of individuals, the covenant relationship is with the community, mediated through individuals. Such a community ethic, whilst seemingly being in contrast to the Christian concept of a personal God, has distinct advantages. It is a stark reminder that the covenant relationship is with the whole community, not just a chosen few, and it also reminds the community that the problems of individuals are not isolated to individuals, but rather reflect the concerns of a whole nation. In response the judgement and justice of God is passed on the whole nation.
In conclusion, we must recognize that the Old Testament is neither an ethical treatise nor a handbook of morals. Neither is it a critical, systematic study of God and of the relationship between God and human existence. Rather, the Old Testament is a gathering of traditional materials that gradually emerged among the people of ancient Israel and eventually became authoritative statements about God, the nature of their believing community and their terms for living.
The question of how Old Testament ethics can or should be used in facing todays moral problems is a challenge which Christian and Jewish ethicists face. The Bible has too often been exploited to support slavery and the denigration of women in society; to advance all too simple solutions to issues such as abortion and capital punishment. As a result of such misuse and the potential for a new direction ethicists recently have been giving more attention to the question of how the Bible can be used in moral decision making.
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