Review: Ethics and the Old Testament

Ethics and the Old TestamentEthics and the Old Testament by John Barton

Having had a go myself, I am always keen on efforts to talk sensibly about Old Testament ethics. Oxford professor John Barton’s slim volume offers a collection of his own lectures on biblical morality and does a very good job moving the conversation beyond simple caricatures of the text.

For Barton, the OT’s single greatest challenge in the realm of ethics is not in some of its petty or disturbing moral provisions, it is that its world-view is so foreign and pre-modern. Take, for example, the Decalogue. Who is being addressed in the text?

The person in question has a house, a wife, and servants, and so has his neighbour. He is competent to give evidence in court and consequently needs to be warned not to give false evidence. He has a father and a mother who need to be looked after. He is, in short, a free adult male of the property-owning class.

(Not only that, he also lives in a theocracy.)

Barton calls, first and foremost, for a contextual reading of the text before any attempt is made to apply biblical ethics to the 21st century AD. Sensible. Once duly considered, a text like the Decalogue then has much to offer. For example, note how it ends: with a call for private, even secret morality — do not covet. How can one legislate against covetousness? This is obviously more than just a legal code (if it was that at all), and serves to remind the ruling class in society of its obligations towards others, one that went beyond simply not killing or stealing from them.

Barton’s thoughts on OT ecology are also useful, particularly in the way he borrows again from the contextual to consider the specific. Genesis 1’s command for humans to have “dominion” over the earth has been used to justify our exploitation of the world and to accuse the Bible of a selfish anthropomorphism. But note the view of good dominion that belongs to the same ethical milieu (Jer. 22:13-17):

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour.

He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.

Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well.

Is that not what it means to know me? declares the LORD.

Good kings are not wanton consumers. If to have dominion over the earth is to be its king, the same must apply.

These observations by a leading OT scholar are what make this small (100 pages), inexpensive ($5 used) volume worth owning.


  1. I was recently struck by how the examples in the text of Solomon’s wisdom resonate much more for a middle ages king than they do for us. We think of the “splitting the baby” moment and others. We forget the people he had executed to start his reign and how he created a basis to execute each that was plausible, but not required (or even correct).

    E.g. “don’t leave town in the direction of your ancestral seat of power.” “Oops, you left town in the opposite direction, execution for you.”

  2. Nice review, Ronan. The paragraph you quoted on the decalogue was particular interesting. I’m interested in how he then goes about applying that contextualised reading and so will have to purchase the book.

  3. Thanks for the heads up Ronan!

  4. I like the idea of a contextual reading. Even with such a reading, there is still much to be found in terms of moral theory in ancient texts.

  5. Thanks Ronan. Sounds like it should go on the book list.

  6. Agreed, WVS. Thanks Ronan.

  7. Interesting, Amazon has the second edition, but not the first.