Book Write-Up: Old Testament Ethics, by John Goldingay

John Goldingay. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour. IVP Academic, 2019. See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay is professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary.

As the title indicates, this book is about Old Testament ethics. It has forty-three chapters, along with a postscript about the Canaanites, and I do not want to list each individual chapter. I will list the parts, though, as well as a few examples of topics under each part. The “parts”  include qualities (i.e., compassion, anger), aspects of life (i.e., wealth, violence, work, Sabbath, justice), relationships (i.e., neighbors, women, sex, cities), texts (Genesis 1-2, the laws on war in Deuteronomy 20), and people (i.e., Abraham, Joseph, David, Nehemiah).

Two comments on the back cover exemplify my own impressions of the book. M. Daniel Carroll says that the book is “Textually comprehensive, wonderfully conversational, immensely practical, and sensibly direct.” Athena E. Gorospe states that it “Recognizes the complexities of daily life, relationships, and challenges in our less-than-ideal world.”

Indeed, the book is winsome and conversational. It reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s non-fictional spiritual works, only it goes more deeply into the Bible. The book consists of thoughtful meanderings about various aspects of Old Testament ethics. Goldingay comes across as one taking us on a journey, yet meeting people where they are. Goldingay also tells relatable personal anecdotes, such as the story he tells in the chapter on contentment about how he did not find his big-screen TV to be all that fulfilling after buying it.

Gorospe’s comment about complexity also resonates with me. In the chapter on anger, for instance, Goldingay points to examples of righteous anger in the Bible, but also warnings about one’s own anger and the anger of others.

Goldingay situates Old Testament ethics within the historical setting of ancient Israel. For example, what does “love your neighbor as yourself” mean within the context of ancient Israelite clans, where people had neighbors? Goldingay is sensitive to the changes in settings, however, as when he states that the Book of Deuteronomy reflects an urban context.

Occasionally, Goldingay offers a solution to a biblical puzzle. When Genesis 18:20 refers to the outcry against Sodom, who is making the outcry? Is it oppressed people within Sodom? If so, did God solve the problem by destroying the entire city, including the oppressed? Goldingay proposes that the oppressed people are the outlying rural areas to Sodom, which Sodom exploits for their resources.

The book offers helpful thoughts on controversial issues, with positions that range from conservative to liberal. Goldingay cites New Testament passages that appear to speak positively about the biblical Conquest. He doubts that Genesis 1-2 is historical but thinks it was written to inform Israelites about their place in the world, whereas a literal description of how God created the universe would be incomprehensible to them. On homosexuality, Goldingay acknowledges that many moderns may have problems with the Old Testament’s prohibition of homosexual sex, but he asks readers at least to try to understand it. Some may fault Goldingay here for failing to weigh in on whether the biblical prohibition on homosexual sex is still authoritative, but I happen to like his approach. He asks what values ancient biblical laws taught, without being condemnatory.

Goldingay leaves some questions unresolved. In response to Paul’s question of whether God cares about oxen in I Corinthians 9:9, Goldingay answers “yes,” sharing biblical passages about God’s concern for animals. But Goldingay fails to address why Paul asked if God cares for oxen: is Paul implying that God does not care for them?

Goldingay says more than once that certain Old Testament laws were not actually enforced, for there is no record of their being enforced, plus they are rather impractical. Rather, their goal was to teach principles. That, perhaps, is one way to respond to advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, who contend that Old Testament narratives after the Torah contradict or seem unaware of the Torah’s laws because the Torah’s laws had not been written yet. I have a slightly difficult time getting my mind around laws that were not intended to be enforced, especially with all of the emphasis in the Old Testament on obeying the law. But there were laws in antiquity that were not intended to be literally enforced, such as the Code of Hammurapi. And John Walton has a book on this topic, The Lost World of the Torah, which I will read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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