Major Book Reviews -- Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life by Bruce C. Birch

Article excerpt

Curiously, books on biblical ethics appear relatively seldom. Over the past century, for example, there have been dozens of theologies and histories about the literature and periods of the Bible. In comparison, only a handful of comprehensive treatments of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible have appeared. The new Testament has fared somewhat better in terms of attention to ethical analysis of its contents, and one can also find a few surveys that attempt to study both Testaments together. In contrast, there are literally thousands of articles and monographs focusing on specific moral problems or materials relevant to biblical ethics. It is, therefore, a welcome and notable event when an extensive, detailed, and critical study of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible appears, as we have in the new book by Birch.

Understanding Birch's aim and presuppositions in the book is key to an appreciation of his contributions. He states explicitly in his introduction that he is not attempting to present a descriptive account of ancient Israelite morality, nor is he interested in systematizing Old Testament ethics into some type of coherent but probably contrived structure, nor does he intend merely to assemble biblical answers to today's moral dilemmas. Rather, his goal lies somewhere at the intersection of the Old Testament and the modern Christian church: to examine the final canonical rendering of Israel's moral traditions as a resource for Christian ethics. In one respect, such a statement of purpose sounds more like an exercise in Christian ethics than in Hebrew Bible ethics. Indeed, Birch acknowledges that his book would be different if it had the contemporary Jewish rather than the Christian congregation in mind. His effort certainly possesses legitimacy, but it is only a part of what needs to be done. The morality of the ancient Israelites is not thereby held in focus, only the Christian apprehension of the biblical literature. Birch's purpose notwithstanding, he nonetheless does often cast light on many features of the ancient phenomena that comprised Israelite morality.

At a deeper level, however, Birch's approach reveals a basic inconsistency because of the attempt to make only the final canonical text the primary object for church consumption. Thus when the discussion focuses on morally objectionable materials (e.g., violence, patriarchy, vengeance), Birch denies these texts the authority he attributes to the rest, even to the extent of stating that the church must "reclaim" or retrieve the text from such distorting or limiting values (p. 43). At these points more than at the others where the moral positions are laudable, he appeals to the Israelite social context as a means of discounting them. Thus the Hebrew Bible becomes, one might say, a "loose canon," some of which is considered authoritative while other parts are not, with the contemporary faith community as the judge. It would seem preferable initially to suspend general statements about the authority of the text and instead to use the literature, together with artifactual, comparative, and other information, as a means for understanding the moral values of the ancient Israelites themselves. Such values, then, rather than only the selected moral positions that happened to be preserved during a late historical stage of Israel's literature, may be equally amenable to appropriation in light of our own experiences in the world. Contrary to the claims of "canonical criticism," there is no reason why information about the long prehistory of the canon, including the sociohistorical contexts of the ancient Israelites, could not and should not be considered today in the process of moral decision-making.

Birch's ethical discussions cover the full range of the Hebrew Bible. He argues correctly (Chap. 2) that morality is not to be found solely in the legal, prophetic, and wisdom texts, which seek to control conduct, but is observable also in the narratives, which can disclose reality and transform the reader. …