Old Testament Ethics – An Important Methodological Issue

Binding of IsaacWhy Old Testament Ethics is So Important

One of the main areas of Old Testament studies that I’m interested in is Old Testament Ethics.  This is an extremely important field of study, not only for me but for every Christian.  Let me give you two reasons why.

First, as Christians, it should be our aim in life to live lives that are pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9).  That applies, of course, to every area of our lives but it applies in a special way to our moral lives.  Morality doesn’t save us but how we live our lives is one of the chief evidences that we are saved.  The Old Testament contains some of the most important material in the Bible for telling us what kind of moral life is pleasing to God.  Of course there is a lot of material in the Old Testament that doesn’t apply to us as Christians – but much of it does, as the New Testament makes clear.  So if we want to know how to live lives that are pleasing to God in the moral sphere, we will want to study Old Testament ethics.

Second, some of the strongest and most persuasive attacks that people make against Christianity are based on a particular understanding of what the Old Testament teaches about ethics.  Here are some of the issues that people often point to: the religious and racial intolerance of the Old Testament; the Canaanite genocide; and the Old Testament’s views about slavery, rape, women, war, etc.  As Christians we need to know how to deal with these issues – both for our own sake and for the sake of others – and Old Testament Ethics helps us to do that.

But before you can do any serious engagement in any field of biblical studies you have to deal with the sometimes boring issues of methodology and definitions.  In this post I’m going to deal with one of the most important methodological issues in the field of Old Testament Ethics.  In my next post I’ll define what we mean by Old Testament (not as obvious as one might think) and what we mean by ethics.

This part may be boring for some people but it’s absolutely essential if you want to seriously engage in the field of Old Testament Ethics – and every Christian needs to have some level of engagement.  It’s also essential if you want to understand any of my posts on Old Testament Ethics.  So this and other posts that I will be writing on methodology are extremely important: you have to know the rules before you can play the game and you have to know the grammar before you can read.

The Three Tasks of Old Testament Ethics

The most important methodological issue in Old Testament Ethics involves distinguishing between the three main tasks of Old Testament Ethics: (a) The descriptive task; (b) the evaluative task; and (c) the normative task.  We can deal with each of these in turn.

(a) The Descriptive Task

The descriptive task deals with the ethical standards found in or taught by the Old Testament and the moral (as opposed to amoral – see my next post) behavior found in the Old Testament without making any moral judgments and without trying to apply the text to our present situation.

E.g. What does the book of Numbers say about murder?  How does it define murder?

The issues that are discussed at this point are usually generated from the text itself rather than brought from the outside.  This isn’t an absolute rule but it generally keeps the interpreter asking questions that the text was never meant to answer or that the texts don’t deal with explicitly.  A good example is the issue of abortion.  We can use the Old Testament to form an opinion or make an argument about abortion (e.g. texts about causing a woman to miscarry, an argument based an unborn baby being made in the image of God, etc.) but it’s very important methodologically to realize that the Old Testament doesn’t address the issue explicitly.

(b) The Evaluative Task

The evaluative task involves judging the ethical standards of the Old Testament and the moral behavior of people in the Old Testament in terms of praiseworthiness or blameworthiness.  It involves stating and (sometimes) justifying the ethical standards that we use to make these evaluations.

E.g. The fact that the book of Numbers says that murder is wrong is a good thing because…. This is how I justify the ethical standard I am using….

It’s important to realize that more than one ethical standard can be used to make this kind of an evaluation and that the person making that evaluation doesn’t necessarily have to hold to that standard.  A secular reader could say that Samson’s sexual exploits were blameworthy from an Old Testament perspective without necessarily holding that standard themselves.  Similarly, I could say that Deuteronomy 7’s teachings about marriage are praiseworthy from both an Old and New Testament perspective while admitting that it would be blameworthy for many readers today, who see love as being more important than religion in determining who a person should marry.  If a person claims that their ethical standard should be normative for everyone (as most people do intuitively), this would require some degree of justification.

(c) The Normative Task

The normative task involves two things. (I) applying the ethical teaching of the Old Testament to our present situation (and justifying why it applies) and (ii) using the Old Testament to address ethical issues not specifically addressed in the Old Testament itself.

E.g. Christians should follow Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) because it is affirmed by Jesus (or some other justification).

E.g. What can the Old Testament teach us about protecting the environment?

Why Are These Distinctions Important?

It is important to distinguish these three tasks because when we don’t we end up misinterpreting, misjudging, and misapplying the text.  But it’s not simply enough to distinguish these tasks – we need to do these tasks in order.  You shouldn’t judge the text if you don’t know what the text is saying.  You shouldn’t apply the text unless you know that the is saying and that it, in fact, applies to you.  You shouldn’t interpret the text based on how people are trying to apply it today (e.g. how Christians have applied what the Old Testament says about applying interest on loans shouldn’t affect how we actually interpret the passages that deal with this issue).  And you shouldn’t interpret the text based on whether or not you like what the plain-sense meaning of the text actually is.

Now, of course, each of these tasks are quite complicated in and of themselves and we shouldn’t think that we’ve exhausted all of the methodological issues that we need to deal with.  But distinguishing these three tasks is an important step in the right direction, a step that too few people actually take and too few people realize they need to take.

Mark Francois