In this monograph, John Barton undertakes a study of ethical thought in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, supplementing with the Apocrypha, Dead Seas Scrolls, and various other texts. “Ethics” here is not to be equated with “practical morality,” the moral code of a given society, but rather “reflection on morality from a philosophical perspective,” that is, moral philosophy (p. 1, emphasis added). While all societies have the former, not necessarily so the latter. At its broadest, Barton’s argument is that ancient Israelites did indeed engage in ethical thought akin to Western moral philosophy (i.e., that of the Greeks), and that such ethical thought was more varied and sophisticated than modern scholars have tended to allow. His approach is meant to be descriptive and theoretical, “a contribution to the history of ideas” with stated indifference to contemporary ethical application or apology (p. 5, n. 14). Moreover, Barton endeavors to show that, although aspects of Israelite ethical obligation certainly flow from obedience to the divine command, there are also elements of what he calls “natural law” and “virtue ethics,” among other influences.
After a chapter discussing his ancient primary sources, to which I will return, Barton addresses in each subsequent chapter the issues raised by themes both from moral philosophy and OT studies. To paraphrase, chapter topics include moral agency, popular morality, the moral order, obedience to God, virtue and moral formation, sin and forgiveness, consequences, ethical digests, and finally, the moral character of God. Considering the vast scope of literature on ethics in the OT, Barton’s nuanced discussion of an astonishing array of issues subsumed within these chapter topics defies concise summary. At times one even senses Barton struggling to get to his own contribution to a given issue after a dense but necessary section laying out the current state of the question.
Several main conclusions emerge from this book. Barton is concerned to demonstrate that Israel’s ethical thinking was motivated by more factors than mere obedience to the deity. In addition to the “divine command” ethic, he finds that Israelite ethical thought also contains appeal to human reason by means of motive clauses (p. 12). This feature is common in biblical narrative and the Prophets, which often imply moral responsibility for all humankind, not only Israel (e.g., Mic 6:8). In conversation with Klaus Koch and others, Barton finds that there is also a moral order in the world that brings about “automatic” retribution not immediately wrought by God (p. 85), an ethical mechanism particularly prominent in the OT wisdom literature (e.g., Prov 26:27). In addition, Israelites could generalize ethical obligation in lists and summaries, says Barton, as in the Decalogue and certain psalms. Good and bad actions in such texts are framed in “meta-ethical” terms like “sin,” “evil,” or “righteousness” (e.g., Ps 15; Amos 5:14–15).
Aspects of this book will certainly prove useful to research students and scholars. To be sure, John Barton is a world-class scholar whose work has been both widely published and read, and rightly so. His mastery of the relevant primary literature in this volume is remarkable, and in his own discussion Barton deftly weaves together point and counterpoint with a host of secondary sources as well, sometimes at considerable length (e.g., pp. 194–206). As the book proceeds, at times it feels closer to a survey of Old Testament ethics in recent scholarship, and in this respect will prove to be a valuable introduction to this field.
However, as Barton has very little to say to evangelical scholars (much less laypeople), this book may prove largely unhelpful for the readership of Themelios. To begin with, Barton states plainly that he treats the OT strictly as ancient historical evidence, in no sense holy or authoritative (pp. vii, 4). Furthermore, Barton’s notion of the “traditional” approach to a given issue in Old Testament study typically derives from mid-19th century German critical scholarship (e.g., pp. 148–49, 191). Owing to this approach, Barton raises topics so far afield from those germane to anyone who holds that the Bible is God’s Word (in any sense, not just evangelical) that many of his questions will prove irrelevant or outlandish. For example, Barton asks rhetorically, “What did the ancient Israelites mean by ‘sin’?” He then continues, “If I can convince readers that it is reasonable to pose questions of this kind . . . I shall be satisfied” (p. 13, emphasis added). As much as Barton is to be commended for addressing such issues in the secular academy, evangelicals and others who adhere to the enduring authority of the OT will have little need of such convincing.
To return to the issue of Barton’s ancient primary sources, particularly the canonical Old Testament, debate over the purported author(s), dating, provenance, or motivation for any given book (or section) has only grown more disarrayed and contested among scholars. For instance, no longer is Deuteronomy necessarily considered to be older than the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua–Kings), parts of which, along with Ecclesiastes, are now thought to originate as late as the Hellenistic period, as in Thomas L. Thompson’s work (pp. 8–9). This of course entails a complete reversal of Julius Wellhausen’s source-critical theory in that covenant theology is now viewed as later than law, although the Deuteronomist(s) purportedly strove to present the case otherwise. In the end, critical scholarship is in such confusion over the development of the OT that Barton is unable to posit any kind of timeline for the various strands of ethical thought that he discerns (see pp. 7–9).
At present, scholarly opinion is so divided over what the OT is, who wrote it, and why, that is has become increasingly difficult for scholars to make any meaningful claims about it. For example, in discussing the notion of the image of God, which Barton regards as unique to the late Priestly (P) source, he writes the following:
How many people in Israel ever knew of P’s teaching about the image is unfortunately unknowable, but perhaps we can say that a number of texts suggest that some at least of what it encapsulated was believed by others at various times. (p. 67, emphasis added)
The sheer degree of qualification in this statement is remarkable and demonstrates the lengths to which OT scholars must now go to be considered reasonable in the broader academy. Nevertheless, Barton strives under such conditions to present a rigorous argument for the Hebrew Bible to find its rightful place among legitimate sources for moral philosophy. For that he is to be commended.