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

By Knight, Douglas A. | Interpretation, January 1994 | Go to article overview

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


Knight, Douglas A., Interpretation


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.