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Ethical values in the old testament 6

Ethical Values In The Old Testament




How we live our lives is governed by ethics. Ethics is "human moral

conduct according to principles of what is good or right to do." Our ethical

values today descend primarily from a Christian ethic in which "a truly ethical

decision, we are told, must be spontaneous, undirected, free - the individual's

unfettered and uncoerced response to each new decision-demanding situation."

The ethical values of today, especially Christian ethics, borrow and carry

forward the Hebrew ethics of the past. Yet it is hardly fair to explain Old

Testament ethics with only what was borrowed from it.

What sets Judaism apart from other religions of the time was its

monotheistic basis. The ethics of Judaism is historical and traditional as

opposed to philosophical and theoretical. "In Israel, for the first time, an

ethical conception of God is attained, and this not philosophically but

historically; while its view of the moral life is certain of justification not

only by reason but by history." Thus God is looked at as an ethical

personality and is looked to as an example of good and right. In the Old

Testament, God's voluntary (voluntary for God) covenant with man must be looked

at as the prime example of ethical value. The covenant's requirements is the

source of all ethics, morals, laws, and justice in the Old Testament.

The Mosaic Covenant is the best example of ethical values and norms in

the Old Testament. The Mosaic Covenant has three parts; the Decaloque, the

Covenant Code; and the Holiness Code. The Decaloque is made up of apodictic (or

absolute) law, it is unconditional and has no "ifs or buts" about it. This is

commonly refereed to as the "Ten Commandments." Although legally vague these

commandments are the basics for all ethical norms in the Old Testament. The

Covenant Code is made up of casuistic (or conditional) law, it has a

characteristic formula: "if this happens, then that will be the legal

consequence." Much of the Covenant Code deals with property and parallels

other ancient Near East law codes. The Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17-26

states what is holy, for example, "the phrase: "I, Yahweh, your God, am holy"

(19:2; 20:26) is the self-predication almost "tautological," for holiness here

has a theistic, rather than an exclusively moral, connotation."

How the covenant is presented in the Old Testament is as a whole and as "

the words of Yahweh." Many of the laws within the covenant, especially in the

Covenant Code are anachronistic, meaning many are laws of a later time that were

added to the original covenant. This "shows how successive generations

continued to respond to Yahweh's covenant demand in the changing circumstances

of their history." Instead of using a philosophical or theoretical challenge

to ethics, the Old Testament incorporates the needs of societal ethics into the

actual history and traditions. This however does not undermine the tradition of

tracing the law back to Moses. Many of these laws can be found throughout the

ancient Near East. The best representation of this is the Code of Hammurabi.

The similarities between law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi and

other treaties of the ancient Near East, and the covenant are not just similar

in the actual law but in the actual contract itself. These treaties were

contracts between a king and his subjects. "By establishing the covenant

Yahweh limited his own freedom, and he did so in complete liberty without any

preceding obligation or rational motive." This covenant is for the Jewish and

Christian faith a historical fact which is tied to Moses and the exodus from

Egypt, "and its stipulations contained from the beginning religious and ethical

norms." This can explain why Old Testament ethics takes on a strong "

historical" quality. For example, the Lord says to Moses, "On the eighth day

the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised." (Leviticus 12:3) This ancient

ritual possibly was used to ward off evil. It is more probable that some

hygienic experience in the past long forgotten was responsible. The Lord did

not have to have a reason for the conditions of his covenant. "For this the

cultic and the ethical commandments were, for the law, on the same level of


After reading the Decaloque, the Covenant Code, and the Holiness Code,

one can see why Old Testament ethics is historical and traditional. Ethical

values and norms come straight from God. There is no need to be philosophical

and theoretical, for to do so would be to question Yahweh. In the Old

Testament, to be truly ethical and moral one must accept as the basic ethical

value and the essential rule of conduct, the imitation of God. "The rule does

not require asceticism, but it does ask that man live every waking moment in the

awareness that he is not alone, for God is present."


Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper's Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperCollins,


Anderson, Bernhard W., Understanding the Old Testament. New Jersey: Prentice-

Hall, 1957.

Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. New York:

Abingdon Press, 1962,

Hertzberg, Arthur, Judaism. New York: George Braziller, 1962.

White, R. E. O., Biblical Ethics. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.

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