Is the Old Testament Ethical?

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  • Is the Old Testament Ethical?

    by Christopher Wright

    The prevailing prejudice against Scripture is that the Old Testament portrays a violent God of a violent people and is filled with narratives recounting horrendous events with disreputable people playing major roles. Is the Old Testament ethical? Here are some reasons why it is.

    It was ethical enough for Jesus. Jesus accepted the truth and ethical validity of the OT ("the Scriptures") in His own life, mission, and teaching. His noted "you have heard that it was said... but I tell you" (see Mat 6-7) sayings don't contradict or criticize the OT but either deepen its demands or correct distorted popular inferences. "Love your neighbor" meant, "Hate your enemy" to many in Jesus' day, even though the OT never says any such thing. Jesus reminded His hearers that the same chapter (Lv 19) also says, "Love the alien as yourself," extending this to include "Love your enemy." Jesus thus affirmed and strengthened the OT ethic.

    Narratives describe what happened, not what was necessarily approved. We assume wrongly that if a story is in Scripture it must be "what God wanted." But biblical narrators dealt with the real world and described it as it was, with all its corrupt and fallen ambiguity. We shouldn't mistake realism for ethical approval. Old Testament stories often challenge us to wonder at God's amazing grace and patience in continually working out His purpose through such morally compromised people and to be discerning in evaluating their conduct according to standards the OT itself provides.

    The conquest of Canaan must be understood for what it was. This event, rightly, is troubling to sensitive readers. We can't ignore its horror, but some perspectives can help us evaluate it ethically.
    1. It was a limited event. The conquest narratives describe one particular period of Israel's long history. Many of the other wars that occur in the OT narrative had no divine sanction, and some were clearly condemned as the actions of proud, greedy kings or military rivals.
    2. We must allow for the exaggerated language of warfare. Israel, like other ancient Near East nations whose documents we possess, had a rhetoric of war that often exceeded reality.
    3. It was an act of God's justice and punishment on a morally degraded society . The conquest shouldn't be portrayed as random genocide or ethnic cleansing. The wickedness of Canaanite society was anticipated (Gn 15:16) and described in moral and social terms (Lv 18:24, 20:23, Dt 9:5, 12:29-31). This interpretation is accepted in the NT (eg., Heb 11:31 speaks of the Canaanites as "those who disobeyed, " implying awareness of choosing to persist in sin-- as the bible affirms of all human beings). There's a huge moral difference between violence that's arbitrary and violence inflicted within the moral framework of punishment (this is true in human society as much as in divine perspective). It doesn't make it "nice," but it changes the ethical evaluation significantly.
    4. God threatened to do the same to Israel--and He did. In the conquest God used Israel as the agent of punishment on the Canaanites. God warned Israel that if they behaved like the Canaanites, He would treat them as His enemy in the same way and inflict the same punishment, on them using other nations (Lv 26:17; Dt 28:25-68 ). In the course of Israel's long history in OT times, God repeatedly did so, demonstrating His moral consistency in international justice. It wasn't a matter of favoritism. If anything, Israel's status as God's chosen people, the OT argues, exposed them more to God's judgment and historical punishment than the Canaanites who experienced the conquest. Those choosing to live as God's enemies eventually face God's judgment.
    5. The conquest anticipated the final judgment. Like the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the flood, the story of Canaan's conquest stands in Scripture as a prototypical narrative, or one that foreshadows what is to come. Scripture affirms that ultimately, in the final judgment, the wicked will face the awful reality of God's wrath through exclusion, punishment, and destruction. Then God's ethical justice will finally be vindicated. But at certain points in history, such as during the conquest period, God demonstrates the power of His judgment. Rahab's story, set in the midst of the conquest narrative, also demonstrates the power of repentance, faith, and God's willingness to spare His enemies when they choose to identify with God's people. Rahab thus enters the NT hall of fame--and faith (Heb 11:31; Jms 2:25)
    6. An eye for an eye is remarkably humane. Unfortunately this phrase sums up for many what OT law and ethics are all about. Even then they misunderstand that this expression--almost certainly metaphorical, not literal--wasn't a license for unlimited vengeance but precisely the opposite: it established the fundamental legal principle of proportionality; that is, punishment mustn't exceed the gravity of the offense. The rest of OT law, when compared with law codes from contemporary ancient societies (e.g. Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite), shows a remarkable humanitarian concern, especially for the socially weak, poor, and marginalized (the classic trio of "the widow, the orphan, and the alien". Israel's laws operated with ethical priorities of human life above material property and of human needs over legal rights. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus (who clearly endorsed the same priorities) could affirm that He had no intention of abolishing the Law and the Prophets but rather of fulfilling them.

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