Ethics and the Old Testament

  • John Barton
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Barton, John. Ethics and the Old Testament. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 1998. $12.00. Paperback. 100 pp.

This book is a revision of the John Albert Hall Lectures, which the author delivered at the University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) in January and February 1997. Barton is no stranger to the field of Old Testament ethics. Over the last two decades he has written several articles and a monograph on different issues of ethics in the Old Testament. Here, in his usual clear style and argumentation, he presents a helpful introduction to key elements to consider for utilizing that testament for ethics today. The first chapter, entitled "The Vitality of Old Testament Ethics," mentions at the very start three ways in which the Old Testament can be a problematic source for ethical enquiry and reflection. First, its social context is so different from our own and, therefore, the perspective from which it speaks can be difficult to understand. Second, the immense diversity of moral material makes any attempt at establishing some level of ethical coherence within the Old Testament a daunting task. Lastly, its ethical categories and perspectives can make what it has to say seem irrelevant or even at odds with modern life. Although Barton does not want to minimize these challenges (indeed, he is sympathetic to their weight), he counters that there is more coherence, as well as more sophistication in ethical sensitivity and reasoning, than a reader might initially assume. The Old Testament, he says, is still a valuable book, irrespective of one's view of its divine inspiration as a holy book:

My claim for the Old Testament is no higher than this: I am making no appeal to its status as the scriptures of Jews and Christians, but approaching it simply as an ancient text. But my contention will be that this ancient text does, contrary to one's first impressions, have something to say about humanity and its ethical norms which can continue to resonate in our own, very different culture. (p. 8)

The second chapter ("Ethics and Story") suggests that a crucial Old Testament contribution to ethics is found in its narratives. Here he follows the work of Martha Nussbaum, who highlights the learning that can take place in the appreciation of the complexity and fortunes of a story's characters which resonate across the centuries because of a shared humanity. Interacting with these characters can help one to shape a moral framework and reflect on the dilemmas of life. "Three Ethical Issues" (chapter three) considers specific topics of special concern in contemporary society: ecology, human sexuality, and private property. Barton demonstrates in creative ways how the Old Testament's treatment of these issues is not as simplistic as is often handled at a popular level. For example, he believes that the Old Testament does not posit the concept of 'stewardship' of and the right to individual property, as commonly conceived, but that rather it focuses on ancestral familial land and communal obligations. Barton's discussion on sexuality and the implications for debates on the role of women and homosexuality are stimulating and insightful... and sure to provoke responses from his readers. Each of these topics underscores the fact that a host of background, theological, and hermeneutical material needs to be handled to properly appeal to the Old Testament and appropriately apply its injunctions and narratives. The last two chapters turn to some classic questions in Old Testament ethics. Barton propounds that a natural law perspective is fundamental, perhaps more so than the notion of divine command. In other words, underlying life is a cosmic order that is inherently good and which has moral standards that are binding on all humanity. Chapter five points out three motivations for being moral: the past reminds the people of God of gracious acts that should stimulate a moral life based in part on gratitude; the future offers warnings and promises for proper behavior and attitudes; and present realities reinforce the view that there is value within the shape of life itself for doing good. All in all, this is a superb introductory text for those who might be just beginning to venture into the field of Old Testament ethics. Although one might disagree with certain interpretations taken by Barton or desire more than his rather minimalist viewpoint on the nature of the Bible, it is impossible not to appreciate the clarity and fairness of his discussions. He has surfaced most of the key issues, and this work can stand as a challenge to mine more deeply the Old Testament for its contributions to ethical discussion and moral life.

M. Daniel Carroll R.

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