Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour

Ethics is not merely about tricky situations or hot topics. Instead, ethics asks questions about what sort of people we are, how we think, what sort of things we do and don’t do, and how we ought to live our everyday lives.

How might we learn ethics from the Old Testament? Instead of searching for support for our positions or pointing out problems with certain passages, trusted guide John Goldingay urges us to let the Old Testament itself set the agenda. In this volume, readers will encounter what the Old Testament teaches about relationships, work, Sabbath, character, and more.

Featuring Goldingay’s own translation and discussion questions for group use, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour is a resource for ethics like no other. Topically organized with short, stand-alone chapters, this book is one to keep close at hand.

Goldingay’s book is brilliant.  He treats the subject at hand from the point of view of

  1. Qualities
  2. Aspects of Life
  3. Relationships
  4. Texts
  5. People

In part one, godlikeness, compassion, honor, anger, trust, truthfulness, forthrightness, and contentment are treated.  Part two examines mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work are discussed.

Part three is perhaps the most ‘controversial’ section since it is here that the topic of marriage (and who should and should not be married) is broached.  Goldingay also turns his attention to friends, neighbors, women, good husbands and wives, people you can’t have sex with, people who can’t undertake a regular marriage, parents and children, nations, migrants, cities, and leaders.

Part four is a bit different than the preceding three sections.  Instead of dealing with topics, it deals with texts: Gen 1, Gen 2, Lev 25, Deut 15, Deut 20, Ruth, Ps 72 and The Song of Songs and those texts’ relationship to ethical issues like families and authority and sex.

The final section, part five focuses on people: Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Joseph, Shiphrah, Puah, Yokebed and Miryam, David, Nehemiah, and finally the trio of Vashti, Esther and Mordecai, and how their stories contribute to our ethical education.

A conclusion wraps up the volume proper but Goldingay then follows it with a postscript on the Canaanites and genocide.  A subject index and a scripture index are also included.

There are plenty of things that this book does well.  It’s language is homey and accessible.  It offers, at the end of each chapter, a series of discussion questions.  And it is packed full of Scriptural references.  Goldingay is a scholar whose reputation for lucidity and clarity is on full display here.  His treatment of thorny issues is unblinking and when he discusses issues that matter he is unafraid of direct speech.

When, for instance, he discusses in chapter 8 the ethic of contentment, he begins by forcefully asserting that

The genius of Ecclesiastes is to look at all the concerns on which human beings focus and to point out that none of the ultimately gets us anywhere.

Goldingay also shares personal stories from his own life.  So, for example, when he discusses friends in chapter 18 he opens up his life to his readers by describing the important role his friends played when he decided to leave England for California.

His discussion of women includes a discussion of women in ministry.  His discussion of marriage includes a discussion of same sex marriage.  His examination of marriage is egalitarian in focus.  And his discussion of nations, in chapter 26, includes this sentence:

It’s quite reasonable for a nation to establish borders, as it’s quite reasonable for a family to have a home.  But a home is then the place into which the family welcomes other people and offers them hospitality, and a nation’s territory is not by nature a basis for exclusion but a basis for inclusion.  Which leads into a consideration of the place of aliens in a country.

Goldingay then cites Gen 23:2-4 and Ex 2:21-22.

This is a spectacularly learned volume and spectacularly readable nonetheless.  But one thing more needs to be said: in the preface, Goldingay offers readers who may be a bit more conservative alternative treatments of OT ethics and he does the same with those who may be a bit more liberal in their inclinations.  In other words, Goldingay tells you who you may wish to read, besides himself, on the topic which the book addresses.  And that isn’t very common.

Goldingay wants his readers to learn what the OT says about ethical issues and he wants his readers to do so even if that means pointing them somewhere else.

That’s scholarship.  This volume is utterly praiseworthy.  Read it.  And if you don’t like it, you can read his recommendations!