Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations

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Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations by John Barton Westminster John Knox, Louisville, 2003. 212 pp. $24.95. ISBN 0-664-22596-9.

FOR THE LAST TWO DECADES JOHN BARTON has been an important voice in the field of Old Testament ethics. Heretofore his work has appeared primarily in journals and in volumes of collected essays, so this publication is a welcome compilation of his work. An interesting feature is the inclusion of an entire monograph on the oracles against the nations in the book of Amos. The introduction and conclusion are the only parts of the book that have not been published previously. The rest of the nine chapters remain essentially unchanged since their original publication. Barton has updated them slightly with inclusive language and has added a short bibliography to some of the older pieces.

Barton does not provide a sourcebook of insights on moral topics that might be gleaned from the Old Testament. Rather, the constant thread throughout his work has been to consider how best to approach the ethics of ancient Israel as it is presented in the Old Testament. He has pursued this concern through the analysis of biblical texts and by differentiating his view from the proposals of other scholars. Hence, the book's title is appropriate.

Barton is interested in what he calls "implicit ethics." This perspective is handled from two angles. From a historical-theological point of view, this phrase refers to a moral pattern that all Jews would have assumed to have been operative, a kind of natural law inherent in the cosmic order established and ruled over by the sovereign God of Israel. In other words, ethical guidance and the consequences of human behavior are grounded in the very way things are. According to the Old Testament writers, this moral framework was obvious to all, whether Jew or non-Jew. The failure or refusal to observe it reveals humanity's hubris and folly and necessarily leads to idolatry and destructive behavior. In several chapters Barton works out this ethical perspective especially in the books of Isaiah and Amos. He points out how scholars too often have ignored this important dimension of the Old Testament. This is one of his major critiques of Eckhart Otto's major new work.

In addition to probing the notion of an implicit ethic of a commonly accepted moral content, Barton proposes reading Old Testament narratives in such a way so as to learn about the moral life by analyzing how their characters wrestle with everyday joys, tragedies, and pressures. Here he appeals to the work of Martha Nussbaum on Greek tragedy. The canonical stories rehearse universal human tendencies through the thoughts and experiences of particular individuals in specific circumstances, and therein lies their value for us in our own particular situations. In this case, what is "implicit" is that ethical insights are hidden within the literature and must be discovered by engaging the text. Whereas the first angle of this implicit ethics tries to understand how Jews centuries ago thought about morality, Barton suggests how we might find the Old Testament useful in our efforts to make sense out of the world and find proper direction. …