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Ethical values in the old testament

Works Cited

Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper's Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985.

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.






18 NOVEMBER 1996


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

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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

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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 importance."

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."


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