Reviews of

Ethics in Ancient Israel

In Ancient Israel, Ethics, HB/OT, John BARTON, Kengo Akiyama, Oxford University Press on December 6, 2015 at 11:00 pm


2015.12.22 | John Barton. Ethics in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp.xii + 317. ISBN: 978-0-19-966043-8

Review by Kengo Akiyama.

Many thanks to OUP for providing a review copy.

In this book, John Barton argues that sustained reflection on ethics already existed in ancient Israel well before Socrates who is usually credited as the first to reflect on morality from a philosophical perspective. Instead of the more common approach of analysing the ethics of the Old Testament, that is, morality prescribed or implied by the Old Testament (a theological construct), Barton looks for historical evidence of ‘ethical thinking’ in ancient Israel (a historical description). He advances two theses in this book: [i] ‘the documents we have from ancient Israel do not portray ethical obligation exclusively in terms of obedience to the declared will of God,’ and [ii] ‘the very idea that there was critical reflection on moral issues in ancient Israel’ (p.12). The book consists of introduction, ten chapters, conclusion, bibliography and indices.

Chapter 1 (The Sources) divides the primary sources according to their genres (wisdom, law, narrative, prophecy, psalms, apocalypse) and offers preliminary comments on each of them. By ‘source’, Barton refers to ‘texts from which evidence for ethical thinking can be drawn’ (p.40). He notes some differences between the sources but stresses that law, wisdom, and narrative ‘for all their generic difference, are alike, in the form in which we now encounter them in the Hebrew Bible, in being concerned with ethical insight, a certain style of living, and an ethic based on models and habits rather than simply on divine diktat’ (p.39).

Chapter 2 (Moral Agents and Moral Patients) deals with the concepts of particularism and universalism. Moral agents are ‘those who have moral obligations’, and moral patients are ‘those to whom obligations are owed’ (p.41). The chapter tries to discern whether or not Old Testament texts conceive moral obligations in whole or in part to be ‘incumbent on all humanity, not only on a special group’ and ‘owed to all humanity’ (p.47; italics Barton’s). Barton shows that the universalistic outlook is maintained in several texts: wisdom literature is concerned with how good life should be ‘lived by anyone, of any nationality’ (p.51), the love of neighbour in Lev 19:18, 33-34 is extended beyond fellow Israelites, and even the prophetic genres, ‘oracles against the nations’, assume full culpability of the people that they denounce, which would make little sense unless those denounced were viewed as moral agents themselves. As such, while the Old Testament as it stands has a particularistic flavour (probably owing to priestly redaction) and focusses on the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, many early Israelite writers and thinkers maintained the importance of universalism. In fact, against the majority opinion, he suggests that universalistic ethics may be earlier than the particularistic ones. Particularism may have been introduced by the Exile, and universalism may have returned to Jewish thinking in the postexilic (Persian) period. In any case, universalistic and particularistic attitudes existed side by side in many periods, and the former is not rare in the Old Testament (p.53). Barton also observes that ethics in Israel was concerned with both the corporate and the individual as well as with various socio-economic classes. Furthermore, he maintains that in general ‘women were very much moral agents and patients just like men, although they are always described in sexual terms (pp.58-62). He concludes that on the whole the Old Testament is optimistic about the human capacity to act as moral agents, and determinism or ‘original sin’ seems to have not been assumed (pp.68-71). Some texts stress the feebleness of humanity and the need for divine initiatives, but even in these cases, they were not conceived as the substitute for human moral endeavour (pp.73-74).

Chapter 3 (Popular Morality, Custom, and Convention) challenges the oft-used distinction between ‘popular’ versus ‘covenantal’ or ‘official’ ethics (e.g., Eichrodt, Dover, Morgan) in the Old Testament. Barton dismantles this distinction between ‘popular’ versus ‘official’ morality and practice, both in the preexilic and second temple period. Instead, he argues that the Old Testament largely records the ‘morality of custom and convention’ that was actually shared by people of Israel in general.

Chapter 4 (The Moral Order) challenges the common belief that ‘biblical morality is the parade example of a divine command theory of ethics’ (p.94). The ‘divine command theory’ maintains that a law is good simply because the divine commander commanded it and positing any kind of ‘inherent goodness in right conduct’, which does not emanate directly from God, is unbiblical (p.94). This is one of the key contentions of this book, and Barton observes that Old Testament ethics are well reasoned within certain conceptions of the world order.1 For instance, a number of texts appeal to customs and conventions rather than to divine decree or ‘positive’ law (e.g., 2 Sam 13:12, ‘such things are not done in Israel’; Amos 2:6, 8) to establish an ethical norm. This seems to imply that ‘certain moral rules are self evident… They are not necessarily binding because God or the gods have enacted them; indeed, they would be binding even if God had not (in some cases) done so. Murder, adultery, rape, incest, denying the poor their rights, and tampering with weights and measures, are all, for Israelite thinkers, “obviously” wrong: they are not dependent on positive laws, even if there are also positive laws that legislate about such offences and how they are to be punished’ (pp.101-2; italics Barton’s). Likewise, rules of war are assumed to be self-evident, requiring no divine expression, since Israel’s accusation of other nations would be groundless without the existence of some kind of natural law. Talion has much to do with ‘the maintenance and restoration of the order of society, and by extension, of the universe’ (p.108). The natural world (e.g., Isa 1:2-3), wisdom (which is derived from general observation of the regularities of the world), faith and conservatism (trusting in Yahweh is giving him ‘his due place in the world, as supreme, the only dependable source of power, and the sovereign over events in the human realm’; p.120), and ecology (‘a kind of mystical link between humanity and nature’; p.122) all depend on ‘a correct understanding of the order of the world’ rather than on expressed divine decrees that are simply beyond reason or human comprehension. The assumption is that ‘the maintenance of balance in the world is effected by God, even if moral order is not the result of divine command’ (p.108-9). Even sabbath, which is an astonishing way of caring for ‘the integrity and well-being of all human, animal and even vegetable life’ (p.123; italics Barton’s), is seen as having ‘an ethical importance [which] is highly significant within the religious culture of the Hebrew Bible and of later Jewish practice’ (p.123). All things considered then, the Old Testament acknowledges that some laws are ‘built-in to the nature of things’, that is, they are derived from ‘a moral order in the world’ or ‘natural morality’; the moral order was created by God, but it can be discerned independent of his divine expression (pp.125-26).

Chapter 5 (Obedience to God) now in turn explores a number of Old Testament laws that are in fact grounded in the divine command theory. Despite his compelling argument against the divine command theory in Chapter 4, Barton concedes that some parts of the Old Testament are indeed not focussed on order at all. He names Deuteronomy as the quintessential example of this type. Deuteronomy delegitimates human monarchy and portrays Yahweh himself as taking on the characteristics of the king who orders a new norm. Nevertheless, Barton insists that ‘really irrational obedience consciously so conceived (as in the rabbinic anecdote) is far less common in the Old Testament than is widely supposed’ (p.134). For instance, covenantal obedience is stipulated as a response that flows from ‘gratitude for benefits conferred’ rather than being predicated on ‘blind, “irrational,” obedience’ (p. 137). In the same vein, many commands contain motive clauses (which are more often promises than curses)—a fact which ‘presupposes that the hearers are reasonable and can be argued with on the basis of common sense, self-interest, a humanitarian concern, gratitude, a desire to imitate God’s own character, and an appreciation of what is inherently good…. Motive clauses severely undermine the idea that God in ancient Israel was always seen as “the Commander”: often he is a teacher, persuading his students to do the right thing by reminding them of how much they owe him, and of what good things will come to them if they do it. … There is a far stronger element of dialogue between God and Israel than is commonly imagined’ (pp. 142, 144). Moreover, many biblical laws are, as advocated by Bernard Jackson, ‘wisdom-laws’ or laws that are aimed at virtue ethics. Barton also incorporates the insights from the ‘law and literature’ school (recently advanced by Assnat Bartor) and argues, ‘In short, legal material is good evidence for ethical ideas in ancient Israel precisely because it is not very “legal,” but addresses the conscience of the hearer and sets forth ideals of conduct’ (p.148). Indeed, this is a far cry from a simple divine command theory. Finally, Ezek 20:25 (‘Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live’; NRSV) points to ‘moral realism’ that opposed the simplistic logic of ‘a law is good because God commanded it’ (pp. 155-56).

Chapter 6 (Virtue, Character, Moral Formation, and the Ends of Life) shifts gears and considers just how much virtue ethics existed in ancient Israel. While there certainly are many ‘black and white’ portrayals of people and their character, particularly in wisdom books and the Psalms, one finds a much more nuanced and complex picture of moral formation in narrative. Biblical narrative shows that people can indeed grow. Barton thinks that there was on the whole ‘a widespread belief that a well-ordered and pious life would bring one understanding of the world and God’s way in it. Such a life involved a kind of moral training, which encompassed both one’s patterns of action and one’s thoughts’ (p. 169). The writers/redactors were aware that not all moral issues were covered by laws and employed stories to illustrate some moral principles. For example, the story of David ‘handles human anger, lust, ambition, and disloyalty without commenting much explicitly on these things, but by telling its tale in such a way that the reader is obliged to look them in the face, and to recognise his or her affinity with the characters in whom they are exemplified’ (p. 172). Additionally, many rules and values (i.e., the distinction between what is tolerable and desirable) and the vision of the ends (goals) of life in the Old Testament similarly exhibit such sensibilities and moral realism.

Chapter 7 (Sin, Impurity, and Forgiveness) examines the ‘different models for what constitutes ethics’ (p.186) and, in particular, the ways in which ancient Israelites conceptualised the relations between what ‘we’ might distinguish as ‘ethical’ and ‘cultic’ laws. Barton primarily builds on the seminal work of Jonathan Klawans’s. Barton tries to soften up Klawans’s rigid binary opposition of ‘moral impurity’ and ‘ritual impurity’ and argues that impurity is in fact a continuum and that ‘the language of impurity is constant all along the spectrum: there is no specific point at which we pass clearly from ritual to moral’ (p. 199). More importantly, purity laws reflect a system of thinking and conduct, since ‘thinking about impurity is also thinking in terms of right order …a way of ordering the moral world’ (p.204). God’s forgiveness can be thought in terms of restoration of ‘an original state’ or ‘what is broken’; even forgiveness has ‘a similar effect to the removal of impurity’ (p. 208). Yet, God ‘“forgives and forgets,” we might say, only after he has remembered and punished, so that there is no “cheap grace” in the Old Testament. … Mercy is always there, but so is judgment. Yet God’s last word is one of mercy…’ (pp. 207-8).

Chapter 8 (The Consequences of Action) turns to the topic of retribution. While it is evident that ancient Israelites believed in the consequences of actions—both good and bad—the ‘mechanism’ that ensured these outcomes is not as easy to detect. Barton asks whether these consequences resulted from divine retribution, that is, ‘a visitation by God’, or they were seen as somehow ‘automatic’ and ‘built-in’ to the created order. Klaus Koch has famously challenged the consensus view that God intervenes in human affairs to punish sin (divine retribution) and argued instead that for the Israelite, ‘life was a schicksalswirkende Tatsphäre, a “sphere of action that brings about human destiny”’ (p.213). Barton, for his part, thinks the Old Testament bears ‘both an automatic and an interventionist way of understanding the nexus between guilt and punishment’ (p. 217). In wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs, Sirach, Job, Qohelet), punishment does appear to be ‘automatic’ and this line of thinking is shared in priestly corpora. However, Koch’s thesis is at its weakest in Deuteronomistic writings (p. 221), and other narrative texts like Joseph’s brothers and Jacob testify against the ‘automatic’ thinking. In addition, certain strands (the Decalogue, Deuteronomic literature, etc.) believe that guilt can be transmitted, but the Old Testament is once again not unanimous on this, and the opposing minority position can be found in Ezekiel and Chronicles (p.222). The fact that suffering can be educative (rather than punitive) and sometimes has an ethical purpose (e.g., Proverbs, Job) also problematised a mechanical depiction of the consequences of action (p.224).

Chapter 9 (Ethical Digests) searches for evidence of ‘metaethical’ or ‘superordinate’ thinking in Israel. Barton notes that creating ethical digests, that is, to ‘reduce ethics to a minimum number of basic principles, or briefly to list ethical norms so that the whole of morality is covered in a memorable way’, goes back long before the rabbis and involves of two kinds of activities: listing and summarising. As for the former, various lists of commands are found in the Old Testament, but the Decalogue is probably the epitome of this type. As for the latter, Barton opines, ‘By summaries I mean texts that do not refer to specific commandments or precepts, but use superordinate terms such as “good,” “justice,” “sin,” “evil,” and “transgression”’ (p. 230). Barton agrees with Otto Kaiser who thinks that Israel shared ‘with other peoples of the world in a “basic ethic,” einfache Sittlichkeit, in which the range of moral principles can be brought under a few simple headings’ (p. 242). Thus, while the Old Testament evidences some sophisticated and distinctive (perhaps even unique) thinking about ethics and metaethics, it remains comprehensible to others (even to us) precisely because of the widely and commonly held conceptions of ethics.

Chapter 10 (The Moral Character of God) probes whether or not ‘theodicy’ exists in the Old Testament. According to Barton God is portrayed as merciful but ‘in the pre-exilic prophets the wrath of God predominates. Theodicy does not consist in arguing that God is more merciful than people fear, but rather than [sic] he is indeed a God of judgement, who exacts full recompense for sin and just for that reason should be regarded as righteous and deserving of worship. It is in this context that the denunciation of sin belongs, as the prophets’ rational explanation of what could possibly cause the (in principle) merciful God of Israel to seek Israel’s destruction’ (p.247; italics Barton’s). Drawing on the works of several scholars, Barton considers God’s pending judgement in the prophets, Lamentation, the Deuteronomistic History and lament Psalms, and concludes that they all ‘attempt to “make sense” of history by trying to show, often against all plausibility, that it can be described and defined as the work of a God who is just, saddiq’ (p.253). Indeed, theodicy is a central concern of wisdom literature, and even the Pentateuch, especially priestly writings, evidences preoccupation with it. The Old Testament is remarkable in its frequent emphasis on how ‘the hope of better times to come is linked with acceptance of past disaster as a just punishment by Yahweh’ (p.255). This then brings him to consider another related question: did ancient Israelites believe Yahweh to be the source of evil? He does not think the Old Testament gives a straightforward answer, but in a range of texts ‘Yahweh seems to be the source of evil’ (p.257), and the belief in monotheism contributes to this line of thinking. In discussing the work of Lindström, Barton contends that God is not capricious in the Old Testament but mostly assumed to be

good, in some sense that human beings can understand, though if he chooses to do what we would think of as evil, no one is in a position to criticise him. The widespread popular impression that the God of the Old Testament is an irrational tyrant, hurling thunderbolts of judgement at random, should however be resisted. Most of our texts, on the contrary, affirm that God is just, however hard their authors (like us) sometimes find it to justify this belief (p.261).

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the Old Testament speaks about God in a highly anthropomorphic manner. God is presented both very much like human beings and very unlike them (pp.262-63). Although there is no agreed way of solving this duality, God is conceived on the whole as ‘not only the commander but also the paradigm of all moral conduct. This implies an affinity between the divine and the human, and makes the human capax dei. The conviction of biblical writers, however, was that human beings legitimately engage in that kind of activity precisely because there really is an affinity between them and God: if we want to know what it would be like for God to be good, then we look at a good human being and extrapolate that person’s moral qualities on to the divine plane. This is, as it were, a biblical parallel to the scholastic doctrine of analogy: it says that humankind really retains traces of its divine origin, and therefore can offer some clues, however inadequate, to what God is like’ (pp.267-69). Imitation of God, Barton believes, is a unifying theme for Old Testament ethics (pp.263-66). ‘What is clear is that there was a sense among some ancient Israelites that God and humans shared certain moral perceptions, and that God was accordingly not wholly inscrutable in his judgements of human action, nor in his own doings as they affected the human race’ (p.271).

Finally, the conclusion reiterates the book’s main argument. Barton summarises, ‘Many different styles of ethical thinking can be found, including, certainly, a divine command ethic, and there is no clear unifying element. But rational (or at least purportedly rational) thought is far more prevalent than most people think. The gap between ancient Israelite thinking and early philosophy is not so great as is commonly supposed’ (p.274). He also thinks that the ‘clever synthesis of natural and positive law’ may be the distinctive feature of ancient Israelite ethics, although the emergence of such thinking is probably ‘in the Hellenistic period out of older and less well-rounded attempts to encompass moral obligation comprehensively’ (p.275).

Throughout this book, Barton displays his erudition through traversing a wide array of texts and issues in ways that only a few can emulate. He is clear about what he is and is not claiming, and the cumulative weight of the evidence undoubtedly corroborates the book’s theses—although given the book’s density and length, the theses seem rather modest. But no one can fault Barton for claiming too much. His sustained and careful demonstration of diverse ethical thinkings in ancient Israel challenges a simplistic synthesis of the ethical vision of the Old Testament. This work is sure to be counted among key works on ethics in ancient Israel.

The thematic progression from one chapter to another is not obvious nor the rationale behind the way the chapters are ordered, although some chapters do build on the previous ones. This is not to say that the book’s structure is confused or disconnected, but each chapter can be read almost like a single standing essay. The introduction and conclusion, however, do nicely thread the chapters together. Given the breadth of the book, some points are bound to be debatable. For example in chapter 4, Barton notes that ‘the Qumran community’ moved towards a more extreme direction of ‘irrational obedience’ which was based on ‘an unnatural order’ (p.123). He is probably correct on the calendar issue, but it would be interesting to test this claim on other important issues in the Qumran movement.

Now that Barton has detailed various ethical thinkings in ancient Israel, it would be intriguing to see how he might use these historical insights to construct ethics of the Old Testament. To be sure, this is not the aim of the book, as he makes abundantly clear, but it would nonetheless be instructive to see how he himself might engage a number of ethical questions of today and contribute more directly to contemporary ethical discussions. If the moral thinking of Israel is not as foreign or dull to the modern mind and that ‘there are insights in the Hebrew Bible that still “speak” today, even if in a strange voice’ (p.6), then it would be interesting to hear the voice more loudly, particularly as it speaks on various theological and social issues. This would be an ambitious undertaking and would no doubt open the floodgates to a host of hermeneutical and theological questions. But if only a handful of biblical scholars were able to contribute meaningfully to the dialogue, Barton would be one of them.

Reviewed by Kengo Akiyama

1This, to the reviewer, sounds almost like a later deist position.



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