Book Review: John Goldingay, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 278 pp. Pb; $28.00.   Link to IVP Academic

Goldingay describes this book as a spin-off from his popular commentary series The Old Testament for Everyone (SPCK and WJKP). Like N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone these short commentaries targeted the average Bible reader looking for some guidance in personal Bible study. Old Testament Ethics has a similar goal. The book contains forty-three short reflections divided into five parts. Each chapter is a brief self-contained reflection on some aspect of Old Testament Ethics. Each contains key texts using Goldingay’s own First Testament translation (IVP Academic, 2018) and concludes with a few questions for reflection and discussion. The book is written a familiar style and lacks the sort of scholarly trappings which would make the book difficult for the non-specialist. This format makes the book ideal for personal devotional reading or in a small group Bible study setting.

The first section collects eight character traits a person needs to lead an ethical life. These include Godlikeness, compassion honor, anger trust, truthfulness, forthrightness and contentment. In the second section of the book, he examines nine aspects of life (mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work). The third part of the book deals with relationships with friends, neighbors, women, husband and wives, etc. In the fourth section of the book Goldingay comments on a series of texts: Genesis 1 and 2, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15 and 20, Ruth, Psalm 72 and the Song of Songs. Like part four, the fifth section of the book reflects on a series people in the Old Testament. Some are well known (Abraham, David, Nehemiah) others are obscure (the women in Moses’s life, Shiphrah and Puah, Yokebed and Miryam).

Since each chapter contains a large amount of Scripture, it might be fair to describe this book as a sort of topical Bible. For example, the chapter on truthfulness is about five pages with about three pages of texts drawn from Proverbs. The chapter “Good Husbands, Good Wives” is similar, reprinting all of Proverbs 5:15-20, 6:28-35 and 31:10-31. This immersion on the Scripture is an important part of Goldingay’s goals for the book, even if some readers would prefer more expert commentary from him as the author.

A book on Old Testament ethics needs to deal with a few difficult problems. For example, the Old Testament is sometimes vilified for its view on women. Dealing with the unusual procedure for determining an accused adulterous woman’s guilt in Numbers 5, Goldingay observes “it’s not very egalitarian,” but there are aspects of the Torah which handle men and women in similar ways (126). He deals the troubling issue of the Canaanite genocide in a postscript. He admits “To exaggerate somewhat, the Canaanites got annihilated; and to exaggerate somewhat, the Israelites got annihilated too” (271).

There are a few topics which will be controversial. In chapter 22, “Who You Can’t Have Sex With,” Goldingay deals with rules for marriage and observes many of these commands have little to do with genetics, but with what causes disorder, scandal and disruption of the family (137). In addition, he says some of the prohibitions are based on the “built-in order about which we should adhere.”  Men, for example, are designed to have sex with women. “In Western culture we may but like that one, but it’s worth our seeing its rationale” (138). The next chapter deals with same-sex marriage under the title “People Who Can’t Undertake a Regular Marriage.” Goldingay thinks same-sex marriage falls short of the biblical vision for marriage (in fact it is “miles away from the vision that emerges from Scripture.” But Goldingay points out “but so do lots of other forms of marriage” (143).

There are a few unexpected topics for a book on Old Testament ethics. Several seem to cross over into biblical theology, but it is a fine line between a “biblical theology of friendship” and social ethics. Goldingay includes an interesting discussion of cities (ch. 27) He offers six observations about urban culture drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, concluding “if Christians want to play a part in the shaping of urban policy, we need to nurture economists, lawyers, planners, and civil servants in our churches” (168). The fourth and fifth sections of the book are engaging meditations on biblical characters are an attempt to illustrate ethical principles from the text of the Bible.

Conclusion. This book does not treat Old Testament ethics using traditional categories, nor does it approach modern ethical issues through the lens of the Old Testament in a systematic way. Goldingay does deal with modern ethical issues like violence and war, animal rights, status of women and immigrants, and homosexuality, but only as they arise in the texts he has selected. Although the title of the book suggests some similarities with more systematic works like Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (IVP Academic 2013) or John Barton’s Understanding Old Testament Ethics (WJKP 2003), Goldingay’s book is more of a meditation on the text of the Old Testament.

 

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The Rich and the Poor in James

Rich and PoorA central aspect of the ethical teaching in the book of James is proper treatment of the poor. James 1:27 commands the care of widows and orphans, in 5:15 he commands the elders to care for the sick in their churches. James warns his readers that the wealthy ought not treat the poor with contempt or insist on special privileges (2:1-9). In fact, James 5:1-6 is a stunning condemnation of the wealthy who store up treasure on earth and abuse those who work for them.

James’ concern for the poor accords well with the situation in Judea just prior to the Jewish revolt, John Painter points put that in the years leading up to the revolt there were increasing tensions between the wealthy Aristocratic Priests and the poor priests and Levites who served in the Temple (Just James, 250). Since the aristocratic priests were likely Sadducean, few (if any) from this level of society joined the Jesus movement. The poor Pharisees, however, may have been attracted to Jesus as a messiah, teacher of the law, and had no problem with the idea of resurrection.

This concern also resonates with the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Paul’s concern for the “poor saints in Jerusalem” is well known, from the earliest mention of Paul in Acts he is delivering a gift to Jerusalem because of a famine. In the letters of Paul there are several references to the collection from the Gentile churches to help support the Jerusalem church. There were some wealthy members of the Jerusalem church, such as Barnabas, who sold property to help the community survive. But the wealthy did not make up a large percentage of the Jerusalem church and potentially exhausted their wealth supporting the community.

Jan and PaulThis may mean that the church in Jerusalem was living in a kind of self-imposed poverty, perhaps because they were modeling their lives after Jesus. Just as Jesus had no home or possessions to speak of, the members of the Jerusalem church shared their possessions and lived in anticipation of the return of their Lord. If this is the case, they may have been despised by the aristocracy, who understood wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. This somewhat perverse misunderstanding of the Blessings of the Law would have led to the assumption that the ones living in poverty were under God’s curse.

The letter of James therefore gives us a bit of insight into the social conditions of the Jerusalem church in the middle of the first century. Just as care for the widow and poor is typical of the prophetic message of Hosea or Amos, James takes up the cause of these undefended members of the community.  Karen Jobes points out that James 5:1-6 is a “prophetic denouncement” of the rich, people who accumulate wealth by abusing the poor (Letters to the Church, 170).   She sees James’ attack on the rich as an attack on an “evil arrogance which is incompatible with spiritual maturity.”

To what extent is the danger about which James is concerned a problem in modern churches?  Is there favoritism in the church? Is there an “evil arrogance” which is evidence of our spiritual immaturity?  I think that perhaps there is….

Bibliography: John Painter, Just James. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999; Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2011.

Ethics in Titus

The problem Paul addresses in the letter of Titus is the potential for teachers to arise from within the church who teach bad doctrine and are not living an exemplary life.  In order stave off the sorts of which Timothy has in Ephesus, Titus is told to appoint men to the office of elder who are qualified for the position doctrinally, but also men who are of good reputation and will not bring shame to the churches on Crete.

Is this the right way to think about ethical and moral living?  We should behave properly because the world watches us and is either drawn towards Christ because of our consistency, or they are driven away because of hypocrisy.  One of the biggest factors in the anti-church “Spiritual” movement among younger Christians is dissatisfaction with the structure of church since it seems to harbor hypocrisy.  It is not hard to find examples of hypocrisy in every church and denomination, nor is it hard to find people who have rejected Christianity as a whole because of the actions of public Christians.

There is a great deal which is applicable to the church today since modern churches have the same sort of reputation problems as the churches in Crete.  The members of the church are urged to live exemplary lives in terms of both the Greco- Roman world and the Jewish / Christian world.  The elder qualification list in 1:5-9 begins with “above reproach” – someone who is blameless.  Various social groups are addressed in chapter 2 with the same interest in what outsiders think of the members of the church.  What runs through all five of these sets of commands is the idea of being “sensible.”  There is a derivative of the Greek –sophron– for each of the first four categories of believers. This word has the idea of common sense, which is a cornerstone of Greek virtue.  “The Hellenic model is avoidance of extremes and careful consideration for responsible action” (BDAG, citing Aristotle, EN 3.15).  Common sense was “a characteristic of persons distinguished for public service,” and is used in 1 Tim 3:2 as one of the qualifications of an elder. For a woman, the word could take on the idea of chastity or modesty, also characteristics which were important to the Greek world. In fact, these words occasionally on women’s graves, praising them for their high moral character (BDAG).

In every case, this section highlights the sorts of things which would appeal to the Greco-Roman world.  The moral life of the Christian in Titus 2 ought to be attractive to the outsider, drawing them to Christ not repelling them with hypocrisy.  I think this might cause raise some questions, since most people think that the Greco-Roman world was rather sinful and immoral, but that is just the point.  Greek and Roman writers often decried the decline of moral values, Christianity called people to reject the “passions of the world” and embrace a new kind of life.

In Titus 3:3-11, we find the reason for our living for the sake of the Gospel.  Paul develops a contrast between what the believer was (before Christ) and what the believer is now (in Christ).  The person who is “in Christ” has become new, they have been made alive though the washing of the Holy Spirit, and they are in fact now a child of God.   Paul’s call to devote ourselves to doing good (verse eight) is simply the natural response to this change from foolish suppression of the truth to our adoption as heirs of God.

Book Review: Ben Witherington III, New Testament Theology and Ethics, Volumes 1 and 2

Witherington III, Ben. New Testament Theology and Ethics, Volumes 1 & 2. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 856 pgs.; Pb.; $40.00  Link to InterVarsity

When InterVarsity Press sent me a copy of this massive book my initial thought was that Witherington had simply written another massive book on New Testament Theology. But this is not the case, these two new paperback volumes were previously published as The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament. Volume one was subtitled “The Individual Witnesses” and volume two was subtitled “The Collective Witness.”

New Testament Theology and EthicsAs Witherington wrote in the preface to the original publication of this work, there is a need to write yet another New Testament theology for several reasons. First, Witherington observes that the connection between theology and ethics is seldom explored. There are few New Testament theologies with attempt to write on the ethics of the New Testament writers and typical books on New Testament ethics fail to take into account the theology of the various New Testament witnesses. Second, this is a problem since, as Witherington says, many New Testament theological terms are also ethical terms. He refers to John’s idea of love, for example. Third, Witherington thinks the reason for this disconnect is the Reformation emphasis on doctrine/theology. This had the effect of overlooking the ethics in the New Testament since it sound a little too much like “works righteousness.” Witherington thinks this overemphasis on forensic justification and imputed righteousness has done an injustice to New Testament theology and ethics.

His goal in these two volumes is to address this disconnection of theology and ethics. In order to achieve the goal, the first volume surveys the New Testament witnesses in chronological order. He begins with historical Jesus, although he does not worry too much about this terminology. The second witness is Paul since most of his letters are the earliest Christian writings available. Witherington calls Paul a “paradigm setter,” but he wants to avoid drawing a sharp contrast between Jesus and Paul. Pau believed the teaching of Jesus had an application beyond the original setting and Paul also believed he had a prophetic office with interpreted the teaching of Jesus by applying it to new situations (272). With respect to ethics, both Jesus and Paul would agree with James’s statement that “faith without works is dead.”

James, Jude and Peter are the topic of the third section of the book. The dating for the letters of Jude and James is important since they may pre-date Paul’s earliest letters. Witherington uses this chapter to outline a Jewish Christianity which in some ways stands in contrast to Pauline theology. The fourth chapter deals with Hebrews, a book often associated with Jewish Christianity, but Witherington draws parallels to Pauline theology. The Johannine literature in defined as the Gospel of John and the three epistles, Revelation is separated out to the final chapter of the book. The Gospel of John was also intended for a Jewish Christian audience but describes Jesus as a sage (a point Witherington has argued in Jesus the Sage (Fortress, revised edition 2000). Placing the sixth chapter on the synoptic Gospels may indicate they were written after the Gospel of John, but Witherington merely wants to trace the development of Christology in the Gospels in a single chapter. Perhaps the inclusion of Acts in this chapter is a methodological mistake, but the problem of the genre of Acts and its relationship to Luke is always a difficult problem. Despite having written a major commentary on Acts, Witherington only has a few pages on Acts in this chapter and then only focusing on Acts 2. The final chapter on Revelation and 2 Peter deals with the ethics of the persecuted as well as a brief introduction to the beginnings of the New Testament canon.

The second volume begins with a methodological discussion, is a New Testament “theology or ethics” even possible? Witherington’s main dialogue partner in this introduction is Joel Green’s Seized by Truth (Abingdon, 2007). This book argued for an ecclesiastical approach to Scripture, really what is now called theological interpretation. In this approach meaning is found behind, in and in front of the text. This approach takes into account how people have read Scripture in the past (how they have “received” the text within a faith community) as well as the text itself. Witherington is more cautious, pointing out that background and reception of a text cannot be the meaning of the actual text (2:25). His approach will focus on the meaning of the text in the final form and taking into consideration the cultural embeddedness of the text while attempting to apply the text to transformed lives in faith communities.

To achieve this, he offers two chapters on the symbolic and narrative world of the New Testament writers. These wide ranging chapters attempt to locate the New Testament writers in the overarching story of the Bible. The following chapters survey consensus views on Christology, Discipleship, the Holy Spirit, Eschatology and ethics (two chapters).

Witherington devotes three chapters to ethical teaching for Jewish Christians (everyone except Paul, Mark, Luke and 2 Peter), Pauline ethical teaching and ethical teaching for Gentiles (Mark, Luke and 2 Peter). The first volume explains why Witherington has divided the material as he has, especially his (correct) decision to place Matthew among the Jewish Christian writers as well as placing Mark among the Gentiles.

The result of this lengthy survey is what Witherington calls a “matrix of meanings” (chapter 13). By sticking to the overall narrative of the canon of Scripture, he observes that the thought world of both the Old and New Testaments blend with other (non-canonical) ethical sources to provide an ethical foundation for “going beyond the Bible.” Witherington interacts with I. Howard Marshall’s small book by this title in order to suggest all academic sub-disciplines ought to work together develop ethical teaching from the biblical foundation in order to meet the needs of the world today.

There are a few minor differences with respect to formatting. For example, the table of contents in the new volume is far more detailed. Several chapter titles were change to avoid some confusion. Chapter 3 was originally entitled “The Kinsmen and their Redeemer and Peter and his Principles,” the new volume has the more sensible “Jude, James and Peter: Bridging the Ministry of Jesus and the Apostolic Church.” Chapter four was originally “the Famous Anonymous Preacher” but now is “Hebrews: Looking unto Jesus in the Pauline Tradition.” The title of the sixth chapter was changed from the ambiguous “One-Eyed Gospels” to “Matthew Mark and Luke-Acts: Retrospective Portraits of Jesus and His Gospel” and chapter seven was change from “The End of All Things and the Beginning of the Canon” to “Revelation and 2 Peter: Transitioning to a Postapostolic Church.” If there are other adjustments in the body of the text, they are minor and do not effect page numbering between the two volumes.

This new publication makes these massive volumes available in less expensive paperback binding. The reduced cost is of course welcome, but since both volumes are well over 800 pages, I am concerned about the long-term durability of the binding.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of Volume One of New Testament Theology and Ethics; I previously purchased both volumes of The Indelible Image. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

A Report of Immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-5)

Paul has a kind of zero-tolerance policy for divisions in the church, the issue covered in the first four chapters 1 Corinthians. In chapters 5-6 he deals with a series of related issues which cannot be tolerated. Sexual immorality may have been part of civic banquets at temples, gluttony and drunkenness lead to lawsuits harsh words, etc.

The main problem, however is the same as the divisions within the church. The Corinthians are still thinking like pagan Romans, not like Christians. Garland points out the connection between arrogance at the end of chapter 4 and the “puffed up” in 5:2. Paul wonders how the church can consider itself as spiritual if they tolerate this kind of sin in their congregation.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul affirms a similar zero-tolerance policy on immorality in the church. For Paul, there is no reason for a person who is openly committing immorality to continue to fellowship with the believers in Corinth. More than this, the church continues to boast about their own spirituality even though the immoral man is a part of their church.

This case of immorality in the church is a very serious: Paul invokes the authority of Jesus Christ (both the name and power) as well as his own authority (twice), and he describes the sin as like leaven, growing throughout the entire loaf. The danger is so great, Paul commands the Corinthians six times in this one chapter to expel the sinful man from their church!

ShamedThe sin celebrated by the Corinthian church was shocking (5: 1-2). This behavior is a sexual sin and is a punishable offense by Roman law. But as Bruce Winter points out Roman laws were not administered with impartiality. Those who were rich and powerful were able to avoid penalty. This is an on-going affair that is known to both the church and the community of Corinth. It does not appear from the grammar that the father is dead, nor that the father or the step-mother are Christians. Paul’s concern is only with the young man, who is presumably a Christian.

The Romans would have ignored at an older woman having an extra-marital affair with a younger man. Despite it being against the law, in some circles it was expected and a husband pressed charges against his wife would be considered strange. But a relationship with one’s stepmother was illegal in both Roman law and Judaism (Lev 18:7-8, 20:11; Deut 22:30). In the Mishnah, there is a list several categories of sexual offense that merit stoning: He who has sexual relations with (1) his mother, (2) with the wife of his father, (3) with his daughter-in-law, (4) with a male, and (5) with a cow; and the woman who brings an ox on top of herself.

The Institutes of Gaius date to the mid second century, about 100 years after Paul writes. In 1.63 Gaius states “Moreover, I cannot marry my former mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, or my step-daughter or step-mother. We make use of the word ‘former,’ because if the marriage by which affinity of this kind was established is still in existence, there is another reason why I cannot marry her, for a woman cannot marry two men, nor can a man have two wives.” The particular combination of things in this situation was an adultery and incest, there would likely have been no mercy under the law, both the man and woman would have faced exiled and forfeit of all property.

Paul’s zero-tolerance policy for immorality is an important principle for modern church discipline, although in modern American context most people who are caught in a sin like this will simply move on to another church before it comes to the point of expulsion. Paul’s concern is the on-going health of the church, a sin like this will have a grave effect on the spiritual life of a congregation. There is simply no room for toleration in this case!

 

Love Your Neighbor (Galatians 5:14)

Paul alludes to Leviticus 19:18: the Law is fulfilled in one commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). This verse is the most quoted verse from the Pentateuch in the New Testament, despite the fact it is almost never referred to in first century Jewish texts. Perhaps this is because Jesus himself stressed love of neighbor as a fulfillment of the law.

There was a lively debate in the first century on how to sum up the Law. When a teacher of the Law asks Jesus what the greatest command is, he responds “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:34-40). Jesus says the Law and prophets “hang” on these two commandments.

Love Your NeighborHowever, defining just who was included as a neighbor was also a hotly debated topic. Prior to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law to define “neighbor.” The man likely understood the word “neighbor” to refer to his fellow Jews, since that is what neighbor means in Leviticus. But Jesus expands “neighbor” to include anyone who is in need.

It is possible Paul has fellow-Christians in mind here, given the context of factions within the church (5:15, 26), but he will expand the doing of good in 6:10 to everyone, but especially the “household of faith.” Paul’s point is not, “if you want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” He has said repeatedly that the age of the Law is done and over with and the one who is in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law.

After arguing that Gentiles do not have to keep the Law, it is ironic Paul now says when they love their neighbors they “fulfill the Law.” It is as if Paul is saying, “If you really want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” Like a prophet from the Old Testament, Paul tells his readers their observance of rituals do not mean anything if they do not do the heart of the Law, namely, love of God and love of neighbors. If one is loving one’s neighbor, then they are already doing the “spirit of the Law.” By walking by the Holy Spirit, the believer is already fulfilling the whole law.

The reason the Galatian believers are to submit to the Law of Love in Christ is that their current behavior is going to destroy the church. They are biting and devouring one another (5:15). Paul describes the factions in the Galatian churches as wild animals. They are like “mad beasts fighting each other so that they went up killing each other” (Betz 277). Wild animals are commonly used as metaphors for bad behavior in the Greco-Roman world, so this is a metaphor the Galatians would have immediately understood.

There is a danger in keeping the Law, but Paul says here there is also danger in factionalism. The body of Christ functions best when there is unity in local churches (Phil 2:1-4). The problem Paul must address is therefore “how do I serve my brother and sister in love?”

How does Paul describe the life of service to one’s neighbor in Galatians? What does this “look like” in a contemporary setting?

Freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:13-16)

The fact the believer is free from the Law should not necessarily lead to the view that the believer may indulge in sinful behavior (Galatians 5:13). Does Paul contradict himself in this verse? He has consistently argued in Galatians that the believer is free from slavery to the Law, but now he says the believer ought to re-submit to slavery, this time to his neighbor. Freedom from Law is not a freedom from everything. There is always some sort of obligation to fulfill, whether to the government or family, etc. Here in Galatians 5, Paul has in mind our obligation to serve God by serving one another.

Galatians Freedom in ChristSince the one who is in Christ is free from the obligations of the Law, they now must voluntarily re-enslave themselves to the Spirit. For Paul, there are only two possibilities, either one is enslaved to the flesh, or one is enslaved to the Spirit. Paul will unpack what he means by flesh and Spirit in the next paragraph, but for now it is important to understand these are the only two options for the one who is in Christ.

Based on what Paul says in Galatians, the Law is not an option for living out a life “in Christ.” Nor is it acceptable to blend a life “in Christ” with something else, such as a Greek philosophy or worship of another god. Paul would be just as critical of the Galatian churches if they chose to live out a new life in Christ through popular Stoic or Epicurean ethical philosophy as he is with the Gentiles trying to keep the Law.

The fact we are free from the Mosaic Law is not to be used as a reason to indulge in sinful behavior. The noun here refers to a starting point, like capital for a business venture or a military base from which an assault is launched. By the first century, the word was used for “pretext” or “occasion, opportunity.” In 1 Tim 5:14 it is used for an “excuse” for Satan to slander unmarried widows for moral lapses.

Since the believer in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law, it is possible some people took Paul’s gospel as a license to sin. Paul must deal with this problem here and in Romans 6:1-1-4 since there were people who did take their freedom too far. Some of the problems described in 1 Timothy and Titus are a result of people “sinning so that grace might abound.” The letter of Jude deals with people who “pervert the grace of our God into a license to sin” (Jude 4). If someone is free from all restraint of the Law, what keeps them from indulging in all sorts of sin?

Someone might say, “If election and preservation means I cannot lose my salvation, then I can behave any way I would like and still be saved.” Paul would never agree with this statement. This is an issue of spiritual maturity. For example, imagine the first taste of freedom a teen has when they go to college. Mom and Dad are not watching them all of the time so they have the freedom to do whatever they want. As a result, many college freshmen get into trouble (or at least the freshman fifteen….or twenty!)

While it is possible for a person to understand their freedom in Christ in this way, Paul says it is inappropriate for the one who is “walking by the Spirit” to indulge the sinful nature.

What is an example of a Christian using their freedom as an excuse for sin? Based on Galatians, how would Paul respond to that sort of misuse of one’s freedom in Christ?