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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Basis of Old Testament Ethics

i. Law

Scholars who have examined the basis of the ethical teaching contained in the OT have generally focused their attention primarily on the traditions of the law and the covenant. YHWH's commands were proclaimed as binding for the people of Israel, and those commands were expressed in concentrated form in the Decalogue (Exod. 20: 1–17). One of the chief motivations for obedience was that God had acted to liberate his people from their bondage, and Israel's readiness to observe his commandments was regarded as a fitting response to YHWH's initiative. Significantly, the commands of the Decalogue begin with a reminder that ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ (Exod. 20: 2), and the theology of Deuteronomy is predicated on the assumption that God's sovereign action in history demanded a reciprocal response from the people of Israel, which is to take the form of obedience to the divine will.

Recent studies, however, have suggested that the law does not necessarily provide an adequate picture of the generally accepted norms of behaviour embraced by the people of ancient Israel, for Hebrew legislation probably contained only the minimum standards of conduct required of every morally decent person (E. W. Davies 1995: 45–6; Wenham 2000: 79–87). Precepts safeguarding life, marriage, and property, such as those found in the Decalogue of Exodus 20, were never intended to provide a complete system of rules governing all aspects of human behaviour. On the contrary, such stipulations contained only the basic minimum of God's requirements of his people, and since such demands usually involved only some measure of forbearance on their part, they must have been regarded as precepts that could easily have been obeyed. To refrain from killing another person, for example, was a duty which was presumably regarded as easy to discharge, requiring no extraordinary moral heroism. Such laws as those contained in the Decalogue defined merely what ancient Israelite society regarded as the minimum conditions for a tolerable social life. Even though the stipulations of the law were binding, and any infringement of them would be duly punished, it was the voluntary participation of the people in acts which they themselves believed to be good, right, and proper that ultimately made it possible for the social order to function equitably.

Certainly, many of the practices against which the eighth- century prophets inveighed came within that area of moral action that was not regulated by law. For example, as far as is known, Israel had no sumptuary laws, and if this was so, Amos's condemnation of the people's extravagance and luxury (Amos 6: 4–6) cannot have been rooted in Israel's legal tradition. Similarly, the law did not concern itself with sobriety, and consequently Isaiah's polemic against drunkenness (Isa. 5: 11, 22) could have had no basis in any legal stipulation. Further, it is unlikely that the prophetic condemnation of pride, self-gratification, and vanity (Isa. 3: 16; 5: 21) was rooted in the law, for it is difficult to see how such attitudes of mind could have been effectively controlled through legislation. In such cases, conduct must be governed by mutual trust and respect, rather than by strict compliance with defined obligations.

Thus, although the law has largely dominated ethical discussions of the OT, it is important to recognize that Hebrew legislation cannot be regarded as a full or comprehensive statement of the ethical imperatives incumbent upon the people of Israel. The fact is that Israelite laws ‘set a floor for behaviour within society’, but they do not necessarily ‘prescribe an ethical ceiling’ (Wenham 2000: 80). In view of the inadequacy of the law to regulate all aspects of human behaviour, the possibility needs to be considered that the ethics of the OT may be based on factors apart from obedience to the express will of God. In this regard, scholarly attention has recently focused in particular on the concepts of ‘natural law’ and ‘imitation of God’.

ii. Natural Law

The idea that a ‘natural law’ type of ethic may be found in the OT was mooted over fifty years ago by Friedrich Horst (1950–1), although, at the time, his arguments met with little response in the scholarly world. More recently, however, scholars such as James Barr (1993) and John Barton (1979) have been prepared to consider afresh the possibility that a ‘natural law’ ethic may be found in some of the writings of the OT canon. It has, of course, long been recognized that some such ethic undergirds much of the wisdom literature of the OT, but Barr finds traces of the concept also in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (1993: 81–101). By his own admission, Barr started out as one who was instinctively ‘distrustful of the entire box of tricks that makes up traditional natural theology’ (1993: 103); but upon closer examination of the evidence he was forced to concede that the phenomenon was more prominent in the OT than he had hitherto supposed, and he concluded that it formed a continuous tradition which could be traced from OT times down to the period of the post-NT church.

But what are the criteria to indicate that a ‘natural law’ type of ethic is operative within a particular passage? Barton (1979: 9–14) suggests that one possible clue is that the passage in question may well indicate that the punishment for a particular offence will correspond to the crime. Those who offend against the norms of society will receive their just deserts, for a kind of ‘poetic justice’ is regarded as operative in the world. A good example of this retributive justice is found in Isa. 5: 8–10, where the prophet condemns those who dispossess the poor of their property. The punishment that awaits those who ‘join house to house’ is that ‘many houses shall be desolate’; the punishment in store for those who add ‘field to field’ in an attempt to increase their crops is that the expected produce will be drastically reduced: ‘ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah’. If such an ethic can be shown to exist in the prophetic literature, then its appeal to the prophets is easy to comprehend, for it was a system of law that presupposed the notion of an immutable justice. Its precepts could not be altered, repealed, or abolished, and there would be little point in resorting to casuistry in order to escape its obligation, for its principles were binding at all times and in all places.

The possibility that a ‘natural law’ type of ethic undergirds some of the biblical material may well open up significant new perspectives in our understanding of OT ethics, and it may force us to question some of the presuppositions which have hitherto been regarded as axiomatic. For example, the tendency to regard the ethics of the OT as exclusively revelational may need to be reconsidered, for it may well be that Scripture bears witness to principles of right conduct that are discoverable rationally. Moreover, the view, often adumbrated, that the type of ethic evinced in the wisdom literature is to be regarded as something of an aberration within the OT may need to be revised, for the ethic of the sages may well have been more orthodox and normative than has hitherto been allowed.

iii. Imitation of God

The significance of the notion of imitating God for the ethics of the OT was suggested by Martin Buber in an article published as long ago as 1926; however, until comparatively recently, the concept has been regarded as of only marginal significance in discussions of OT ethics. But there is some evidence to suggest that scholars are now prepared to recognize that the notion is more prevalent in the OT than was previously thought, and that the moral norms encountered in the Hebrew Scriptures arise out of imitation of God's character as well as out of obedience to God's will (cf. E. W. Davies 1999).

The clearest expression of the principle of imitatio Dei in the OT is to be found in Lev. 19: 2, which forms part of the so-called Holiness Code: ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’ (cf. Lev. 11: 44; 20: 7, 26; 21: 8). God is here presented not so much as the source of ethical commands but as the pattern of ethical behaviour. Although at first sight it might appear that the command to be holy represents a utopian and abstract ideal, the principle underlying the law—that people must emulate the character and actions of God—is found in various legal enactments in the Pentateuch. Thus, male and female slaves, and the resident alien in Israel, were to be given rest on the sabbath because God himself had ceased from his work of creation on the seventh day (Exod. 20: 8–11; cf. 31: 12–17). Further, the divine partiality shown towards the poor and needy was to provide an example for a similar concern to be exhibited by the Israelites (cf. Deut. 10: 17–19; 15: 13–15). The frequent exhortations in Deuteronomy to ‘walk in the ways of the LORD’ (Deut. 8: 6; 10: 12; 11: 22; 26: 17; 28: 9) similarly suggest that Israel was destined to travel on a journey in which God was to lead the way as a guide and example for the people to follow.

The notion of imitatio Dei also underlies many of the prophetic utterances, for some of the characteristics postulated of God in the OT are precisely those that were considered by the prophets as the most noble expressions of human behaviour. The prophets conceived of God as possessing certain moral qualities, and they believed that these same qualities should be reflected in the behaviour of the Israelites towards one another. Thus, for example, Isaiah, at the time of his call, encountered the holy God in the sanctuary (Isaiah 6), and this encounter set the tone of much of his subsequent preaching and determined the way in which he was to interpret God's demands. God's holiness was the central standard by which Israel's life would be judged, and the iniquities that were present in Judah were largely due to the fact that the people had neglected the presence of the holy God in their midst (Isa. 1: 4; 30: 9–11; 31: 1).

While the notion of imitating God is not particularly prominent in the Psalms, the concept is implied in the way in which God's character and deeds are presented as the basis on which the pious should model their lives. The frequent descriptions of God's justice, mercy, and compassion in the Psalms (cf. 25: 6; 33: 5; 37: 28; 119: 156) were clearly designed to inculcate the same ethical values in the worshipper, for God's character was regarded as the foundation upon which the believer's life should be based. The extent to which the Psalmist viewed human virtues as a reflection of the divine is particularly well illustrated in the twin acrostic Psalms 111 and 112, for the attributes of God set forth in the former are regarded in the latter as being reflected in the life of the true believer. In fact, Psalm 112 may be understood as an elaborate way of saying that the characteristics of the pious mirror those of God himself, and that an element of conformity exists between the acts of the faithful and those of the God whom they worship.

The biblical narratives are also important in this regard, for it was through them that the basic character and nature of God were established. After all, if the Israelites were to emulate YHWH, it was clearly vital that they should have some knowledge of the divine nature and attributes, and it was through stories relating God's encounters with his people that such knowledge was mediated to them. The manner in which God was portrayed in the narratives was thus of profound significance, for the depiction of the divine character was to become the basis for subsequent ethical reflection. If God could be shown to have acted with justice and compassion, it was surely incumbent upon his people to act likewise; if he had identified himself with the weak and oppressed, it was surely imperative that his people should do the same. The character and actions of God were not presented as morally neutral observations; rather, they were designed to inculcate a sense of duty and moral responsibility in the people and to provide them with a model of the type of behaviour that should be mirrored in their own lives (cf. Birch 1991: 125).

The above discussion of the basis of OT ethics suggests that a reappraisal is needed of the way in which its ethical teaching is often viewed. It has been customary for those discussing the ethics of the OT to focus on the revealed will of God, and the common perception of OT morality is that it is framed in the language of command and obedience. However, the presence in the biblical documents of concepts such as ‘natural law’ and ‘imitating God’ should serve as a salutary reminder that there is far more to OT ethics than the mere observance of prescribed rules.

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