Ethics in Ancient Israel



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 John Barton 2014 

I have worked on ethics in relation to the Old Testament since my doctoral
dissertation, ‘God and Ethics in the Eighth-Century Prophets’, presented in
1974. My supervisor for that was John Austin Baker, who first aroused my
interest in the subject when he set me an essay on ‘Old Testament Ethics’ as
my Old Testament tutor in 1967. I remain very grateful to him for all he taught
me about this and many other areas of theology.
Writing this book was made possible by a Leverhulme Major Research
Fellowship from 2010–13, which bought out all my teaching and administration
for that period, and it is a pleasure to express my gratitude to the
Leverhulme Trust for their generosity. I am also hugely grateful to Dr John
Jarick, who deputized for me so ably during that period.
Warmest thanks to Tom Perridge, Lizzie Robottom, and Karen Raith at
Oxford University Press for all their work on the book, and to the Press’s
anonymous readers for helpful and constructive suggestions for improving it.
Holly Morse compiled the bibliography and index, and I am most grateful
to her for undertaking this task, at the same time boring and demanding.
The work of a number of my former doctoral students who have worked
with me on ethical themes over the years has made a big impression on many
of the arguments here: among them I would mention especially Professor Paul
Joyce, Dr Andrew Mein, Dr Sungmin Min Chun, and Dr Carly Crouch.
Quotations from the Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version
(NRSV), Anglicized Edition, unless otherwise specified. After some thought,
I have freely used the name ‘Yahweh’ for the God/god worshipped in ancient
Israel. There is a case, out of reverence for Jewish sensitivity to using the name
of God, for eschewing it altogether, or printing it in the at least slightly
reverential, ‘unvocalized’ form YHWH. But in a book about ancient Israel,
for which the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is historical evidence rather than a
sacred text, I think it better to write the name straightforwardly in the form it
is generally thought to have taken in the time before its pronunciation became
taboo, just as one writes Zeus, Enlil, Chemosh, or Thoth. At the same time,
there are clearly many places in the Hebrew Bible where the name is not
treated exactly as a personal name, but more as a synonym for the single God
in whom at least some in ancient Israel believed, and hence I have also used
‘God’, with a capital G, where that seems appropriate, just as the biblical texts
often use ’elohim.
There are many quotations from German sources, and a few from French
ones, and in accord with Oxford University Press policy these appear only in
English translation. Except where the quotations are attributed to a published
English translation, they are my own.
I dedicate the book to the memory of Ernest Nicholson, my colleague and
close friend for over thirty years, who died as it was being completed. He
supported me in more ways than I can say, and he and Hazel have been the
best of friends. The influence of his own superb work will be very clear to
many readers, but it is his personal kindness that I and so many others will
remember even more.
John Barton
Oriel College, Oxford
December 2013

Ethics in Ancient Israel—A Historical Enquiry
‘Ethics’ may mean one of two closely related things. It may refer to the moral
code of a society, and thus be more or less synonymous with ‘morality’. In that
sense all societies have ethics or ‘an ethic’. But it may also be used to refer to
reflection on morality from a philosophical perspective, and thus be equivalent
to ‘moral philosophy’; and in this sense it is clear that not all societies have
‘ethics’.1 In western writing on moral philosophy it is normal to think of
classical Greece as the first culture in the world to reflect systematically on
ethical issues, and to move beyond specifics to a general analysis of how people
ought to live and why certain moral norms have a binding character.
This book does concern itself to some extent with ethics in the first sense:
much will be said about the moral norms of ancient Israelite society in various
periods.2 But its primary focus is on ethics in the second sense. I want to argue
that ethics in ancient Israel forms an as yet unwritten chapter in the history of
ethics.3 Normally writers on ethics, who are trained in western philosophical
traditions and are neither Old Testament nor ancient Near Eastern specialists,
pass over Israelite and indeed ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian culture
without much comment. Terence Irwin in his magisterial The Development of
Ethics writes, ‘Even if we ignore the Hebrew Scriptures, or the ethical reflexions
of Chinese writers, and confine ourselves to the Greeks, Socrates is not the
first to ask questions about morality.’4 Nevertheless he goes on to argue that
for his purposes Socrates remains the best, and not only the customary,
starting-point, as the first person to ask critical questions about morality in a
way we can recognize as continuous with later moral philosophy. Without
disputing this, my own belief is that the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean
and Mesopotamia did think about ethics in more sophisticated ways than is
commonly supposed, and that the Hebrew Scriptures in particular contain
evidence for thinking which, even if it does not constitute moral philosophy in
the accepted sense, moves well beyond the mere assertion that certain moral
norms are to be observed. That is, it might be a good idea not to ‘ignore the
Hebrew Scriptures’.5 In 1946 Henri Frankfort and others published a book
called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, in which they argued that
the peoples of the ancient Near East had not yet developed philosophical
thinking but did have a coherent worldview that could be set out in terms
comprehensible (though, in their view, alien) to ‘modern man’; and the British
edition of this book was called, very appropriately, Before Philosophy.6 The
present book could perhaps have been entitled Before Moral Philosophy, since
it argues in a rather similar way that the ancient Israelites (Egypt and Mesopotamia
will be discussed at times, but I am not an ancient Near Eastern
expert) had ways of thinking that to some degree correspond to the place of
theoretical ethics in the western philosophical tradition, even though they did
not have the sharp critical edge that has characterized analytical moral philosophy.
Their ‘pre-philosophical’ ethics has to be teased out by looking at the
presuppositions and implied framework of what they said about practical
morality, and the result is bound to be unsystematic by comparison with
anything in Greek thought about these matters from the time of Socrates
onwards. But the attempt is worth making.
Readers from within the theological world—the world in which the Hebrew
Bible is most intensively studied—will be surprised that the book is not called
The Ethics of the Old Testament, as is customary with works on this subject.7
The difference is deliberate, and important.8 As Henry McKeating puts it,
I am concerned with the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament10 not as the
Scriptures of Judaism or Christianity, but as evidence for the thinking of
ancient Israelites and Jews,11 just as the wealth of material we have from
Egypt and Mesopotamia is evidence for the thinking of the ancient peoples
who inhabited those lands. Of course many theological issues will have to be
discussed, since the texts of the Old Testament are relentlessly religious in
character. Ancient Israel’s ‘moral philosophy’ will turn out to be highly
theological, though far less simply so than in the popular imagination. But
the book has no confessional or religious apologetic motivation. My aim is to
present Israelite thought as one would present the thinking of the ancient
Greek writers who are acknowledged to lie at the root of western moral
philosophy, and not to treat it as privileged by the fact that this can be
discovered only by examining what are now the canonical texts for two
major religions.12
If there is an apologetic drive behind my work, it is to try to convince
readers who assume that the thought-world of ancient Israel was primitive and
unsophisticated, and who associate the expression ‘Old Testament ethics’ only
with the slaughter of the Canaanites and with unrelenting vengeance, that
these texts are much more variegated and above all much more interesting
than the stereotype suggests. But the task I am undertaking here is purely
descriptive, and is not meant to convince anyone that they should become
a Christian, a Jew, or indeed a ‘Yahwist’. There is a sizeable group among
my fellow Old Testament specialists who will dislike this deliberately nonconfessional
stance from the beginning, since ‘canonical’ approaches, in which
the scholar expounds these texts only from within a Christian framework of
thought (‘theological interpretation’) are now widespread.13 But it may also
seem strange to some moral philosophers, for whom the history of ethics is the
study of texts with which one expects still to be in dialogue, rather than an
exercise in the ‘history of ideas’ of a more neutral kind.14 Unlike, for example,
Cyril Rodd, who is a convinced relativist, I do not think that the thoughtworld
of ancient Israel is so alien that we cannot relate to it at all,15 and to that
extent I believe that we can still ask whether this or that moral idea reflected in
the Old Testament is ‘right’ or not. I do think he is correct to stress that
sometimes at least we simply have to acknowledge that we are facing a mindset
that does not intersect with our own: where the questions are so different
that we cannot say whether or not the answers are right. Nevertheless, I have
tried to show that ancient Israelite ideas can be comprehensible to us more
often than some suppose. This is true, for example, of the realm of pollution
and taboo, which are not quite so remote from modern experience as is
sometimes thought. And even something as apparently alien as the idea of
God ‘hardening the heart’ of exceptionally wicked human beings so that they
become actually unable to act morally, which appears a number of times in the
Old Testament, is clearly an attempt to explain from a theological point of
view (however unattractive the explanation may seem to us) a phenomenon

Table of Contents
Introduction: Ethics in Ancient Israel—A Historical Enquiry 1
1. The Sources 14
2. Moral Agents and Moral Patients 41
3. Popular Morality, Custom, and Convention 77
4. The Moral Order 94
5. Obedience to God 127
6. Virtue, Character, Moral Formation, and the Ends of Life 157
7. Sin, Impurity, and Forgiveness 185
8. The Consequences of Action 211
9. Ethical Digests 227
10. The Moral Character of God 245
Conclusion: God and Moral Order in Ancient Israel 273
Bibliography 277
Index of Authors 299
Index of Subjects 303
Index of Scriptural Citations 308
Index of Ancient Literature 317


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