Ethics in Ancient Israel

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John Barton
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , January
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ethics in Ancient Israel aims to get behind the text of the Old Testament (“OT”) to delineate the ethical thought of its authors. (I use “OT” in this review following Barton’s preference in this volume. Barton states that he uses the terms “Old Testament” and “Hebrew Bible” interchangeably.) Ethics does not purport to explain OT ethical teaching; instead, it tries to describe the ethics of those who wrote it. Barton’s major interest is the exploration of where and how OT ethics goes beyond simply obeying “divine commands” (12). While the OT undeniably portrays the commands of God as the central factor in evaluating the ethics of human behavior, we would do well to consider also its many other styles of ethical thinking.

This emphasis lends itself to interaction with the range of OT genres, so that a chapter describing methodologies needed to glean ethical thought from different types of OT literature is a most helpful resource. While study of OT ethics usually focuses on wisdom literature and the law codes, other genres, including narratives featuring morally ambiguous characters, render substantial ethical insight as well. Barton thus tries to utilize the breadth of OT literature. 

Barton holds that throughout OT history the ancient Israelites believed that ethical teaching was for everyone, not just Israelites. At certain periods (notably the exile and its immediate aftermath) there was an increase in “particularistic” ethics associated with “inner-Jewish” questions. But the expectation that all people must obey God never disappeared. In terms of “popular” ethics, Barton prefers to think of a “morality of custom and convention” (92). He analyzes prophetic texts to sift points with which the prophets expect that their hearers will agree. He also searches for repeated phrases in narrative texts that sound like common utterances (for example, “such a thing is not done in Israel” [Gen 34:7; 2 Sam 13:12]). Statements like these stamp referenced practices as violating commonly accepted morality. 

Barton accepts that ancient Israelites commonly understood something akin to ma’at, the Egyptian idea that retribution is “built into” the world, so that on its own the world punishes those who violate ethical principles. Barton follows Eckart Otto’s thesis that justice within the OT “moral order” focuses not on the offending/offended parties themselves, but on the entire community of all “right-minded” people—not just Israelites! This means that even the “talion,” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is not simply about establishing justice between two parties, but is meant to settle matters in a way that fosters the good order of society. Under this thinking, attentiveness to the interests of individuals may appear to fall by the wayside. Ameliorating this are texts, from the prophets especially, which push the notion that God opposes any kind of “good order” that permits exploitation of the poor. Yet protection of the poor and disadvantaged still does not protect all, and particularly leaves out women, who almost always are expected to submit to familial obligations. This means that the woman who does not want to marry the man who has raped her is out of luck (108). 

God of course does stand directly behind many OT ethical standards. We tend to stress God’s role as “divine commander” (most famously directing Israelites to obliterate an enemy). But more often the OT places God in the role of teacher, offering statutes with motive clauses, promoting the benefits of covenant, and transmitting laws through discourse (as with the covenant code of Exod 21:1–22:16) or short stories with application. Barton classifies all these as “wisdom”; there is a logic to obeying God that goes beyond the fear of divine wrath. And by stressing “teaching” ahead of “commanding,” the OT fosters “moral formation” (157), thus spurring individuals to develop their own sense of personal ethics. This idea of moral training goes beyond post-exilic wisdom literature (particularly Proverbs in its canonical form, and Sirach); OT readers might read the accounts of the ethical progress of the protagonists of the great pre-exilic narratives as invitations to reflect on their own progress toward a life of virtue. 

While Barton does an admirable job reading behind the canon of the Old Testament, a modern study of the ethics of ancient Israel requires consideration of more data. I appreciate Barton’s not infrequent use of the New Testament, but he hardly touches the Dead Sea Scrolls and northwest Semitic inscriptions and archaeology, which also offer information that bears on the ethics of Israelite society. 

Barton also runs into problems dealing with the scope of Israelite history, some one thousand years in length. The use of the OT to describe pre-exilic and exilic ethics requires more careful attention to the dating of texts than Barton gives in this volume. It is particularly difficult to delineate exactly where scribes made additions as they copied older texts. And even if we could be sure that some specific texts are exilic or older, the fact that post-exilic scribes preserved these texts suggests that the post-exilic Israelite society (aka “Second Temple Judaism”) continued to value their teaching. Barton appropriately ends up writing more about ethics after the exile than ethics of any other period; it may have been better to focus on Second Temple Judaism entirely.  

These criticisms aside, Ethics is a wonderfully useful study of the mindset which produced and described the ethics of the Old Testament.

About the Reviewer(s): 

John Herbst is Scholar-in-Residence at the Virginia Pennisula Baptist Association.

Date of Review: 
June 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Barton is Oriel & Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, University of Oxford. His publications include The Theology of the Book of Amos (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile (2007).


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