I argue that Qohelet’s words are used to draw in an audience who finds his query and methodology compelling, only to show them that the quest is pointless. By creating a sympathetic link between the audience and the character Qohelet, the author has cleverly avoided immediately alienating the audience by simply telling them that they are wrong. The leaking of the “Climategate” emails in 2009 illustrate the power of such an approach, doing far more damage to the credibility of climate science than did the direct confrontation of numerous “climate change deniers” over many years. Similarly, the honest words of the most highly regarded sage do more to undermine the legitimacy of speculative wisdom than any direct confrontation.
In other words, just as the words of climate scientists were more damning than skeptics arguments, so also Qohelet’s own words are more damning than any rebuttal the narrator might make. (Don’t feel bad if you couldn’t make sense of the analogy the first time through; I had to read it three of four times before it made sense.)
I find this curious, if not problematic. Did “Climategate” do damage to the credibility of climate science? No. It only hurt the public’s perception of the credibility of climate science because the public understood neither the emails targeted by skeptics and pundits nor the nature of the science in question. (In case you are not already aware, eight different committees investigating “Climategate” have found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct.)
I guess it is possible that the frame-narrator let Qohelet speak without a point by point rebuttal as a clever way of letting Qohelet “damage” his own credibility. But I think that, like the “Climategate scandal,” this reading betrays either the ignorance or the predisposition (or both) of those who think Qohelet’s words are self-evidently flawed.
In Christian circles, children learn from an early age the song, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Setting the issue of Jesus aside for the moment, it strikes me that early Jews and contemporary Christians have very different epistemologies. What do I mean? I don’t think that “for the Bible tells me so” was the kind of explanation that would have satisfied the curiosity of early Jewish children or adults.
If you have read my recent article in the The Journal of Theological Studies (see here), you will have noticed my interest in the rationales that are embedded in over half of the legal prescriptions in the Hebrew Bible. However, I was not aware that this was a significant area of study for early post-biblical traditions. I am thankful to have discovered Lawrence Schiffman’s blog where he recently posted a series on the rationales for the commandments (ta`amei ha-mitzvot) in Jubilees, Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his conclusion to this series, Schiffman summarily observes that “seeking explanatory rationales for the commandments as a consistent approach and fostering the conception that such rationales can, in fact, be offered for almost all the commandments, is a product of Hellenistic Judaism in the Second Temple period.” This coincides with my own conviction that a strict divine command theory is not the proper way to interpret the function of obedience to God in the Hebrew Bible. My argument is based on how the text of Scripture presents itself, but Shiffman’s discussion suggests that early Jewish audiences were similarly (and increasingly?) in tune with the Torah’s own rationalizing tendencies.
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my article, “Orders of Discourse and the Function of Obedience in the Hebrew Bible” available in The Journal of Theological Studies 2013 64: 1-24. The brief video below reveals the genesis of and backdrop for my project.
For free full text access to the article, click one of the links below.
Yoram Hazony has joined the ranks of those who aim to bridge the divide between Athens and Jerusalem. His new book The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scripture, suggests that “the biblical authors used narrative and prophetic oratory to advance universal arguments about ethics, political philosophy, and metaphysics” (i). Initial reviews are mixed, though I think the biblical studies guild will find the critical review of Jon D. Levenson particularly on point. (Hazony’s website links to numerous reviews and promotional spots.)
While I agree with Levenson on all the major points, I want to highlight a particularly positive moment in Hazony’s book. “The Hebrew Bible is the modern university’s blind side” (20). In arguing that the reason/revelation dichotomy has proved to be an unfortunate impediment to appreciating the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical text, Hazony touches on an important interpretive posture which all readers of ancient (and contemporary?) literature must adopt:
If we refused to study a great thinker every time he disagreed profoundly with our own intuitions there would be no great philosopher left to study. Think of Plato with his divine voices, his realm of ideas, his acceptance of infanticide, and his communism. Or Newton, with his alchemy, his belief in the growth of matter, his absolute time and space, his God deducible from the laws of physics. Or Kant, with his mystical transcendental deduction, his denial that it is right to lie to save the life of one’s friend. Or of William James’s belief in the occult, or Nietzsche’s assertion that our every action is repeated in an eternally returning cycle. The first thing we learn in reading the great works of the past is that tolerating the counterintuitive is basic to the enterprise. (277 n.26; emphasis added)
That being said, I’m inclined to agree with Levenson what he identifies as a potent factor for why the wider academy ignores or disparages the Hebrew Bible: “the deep secularity of most academics, their profound unease with the notion of a personal God who acts in history, has chosen a particular people for a special covenantal relationship, and has revealed his will (much of it mysterious and seemingly unnecessary) to them.” This is not a judgment he makes in concert with Hazony. As Levenson points out, “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture shares that unease.”
For another Jon Levenson plug, see Charles Halton’s list of books that make great holiday gifts.
My RBL review of Gordon Wenham’s Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically is now available. It was a pleasure to review for RBL, in particular to have the space to explore the contents of the book more intensely than is typical for most venues. You can click through and read the review in full. Below is snippet in which I critique a perplexing chapter from the book about a subject I discussed recently.
Wenham explores the affinities between the Psalter’s emphasis upon law and the pentateuchal legal tradition in chapter 6, “Laws in the Psalter.” One senses a regression from the insights of the argument in the previous chapter. Wenham argues that “the psalmists know the Ten Commandments and place them at the heart of their ethical thinking” (109, emphasis added). He argues this despite the following observations: “although the Sinaitic commandments are familiar to the psalmists, the lawgiving at Sinai is rarely mentioned” (98, emphasis added); “I think that it is reasonable to say that the psalms certainly know the lawgiving at Sinai, even though they do not make much of it” (100, emphasis added); some commandments are “not directly quoted” (102); such direct quotations are “rare” (101); “the fourth and fifth commandments are relatively underplayed” (105); indeed, the fourth commandment is “completely ignored” (103). This claim concerning the importance of the Decalogue for ethical thinking in the Psalter is odd; it does not emerge from a descriptive analysis of the contents of the Psalter. Though odd, the chapter is beneficial. Wenham is honest about the varying degrees of correspondence (or lack thereof) between the ethical concerns of the Pentateuch and the Psalter, exploring also the topics of violence, retribution, and the poor and exploited. Discerning readers—and I count Wenham among them—will observe that the relationship between the Pentateuch and the Psalter is complex. Whether this complexity is respected by Wenham’s argument is questionable in my judgment.
I want to thank John Anderson for reading a draft of this review and providing me with helpful feedback.
In my ongoing assessment of the new IVP Bible Dictionary on the Prophets, I want to turn to the article on “Ethics” by M. Daniel Carroll R (185-93). I suspect that anyone familiar with the intersection of prophetic studies and Hebrew Bible ethics would agree that the editors made a wise choice in selecting Carroll for this essay. If you aren’t familiar with Carroll, you can learn more about his deep interest in ethics, in particular his interest in the ethics of immigration, at his blog Immigration and Other Matters.
In the essay I featured yesterday by Charles Halton on “Law”, Charles develops a thesis about torah in the prophets by walking through the prophetic corpus, inductively exposing readers to a wealth of secondary literature. Carroll’s essay, in contrast, programmatically explores the secondary literature on ethics in the prophets, thus inductively exposing readers to the ethical contents of the prophets. In my estimation, the unique demands of each topic are well suited to the approach each author adopted. Carroll’s essay is divided into three parts, “Concerns of Past Research,” “Recent Studies of Prophetic Ethics,” and “New Directions in Scholarship.” The scope of this article is both wide and deep. Carroll capably presents a wide variety of scholars and approaches while probing the subject both deeply and critically.
Carroll is not afraid to challenge comfortable notions and established traditions. Responding to scholarly explanations about the diverse and supposedly disparate ethical traditions behind suspected textual layers of or redactions to prophetic books, Carroll writes:
The density of the message of a book may have another explanation. Complexity is not contrary to ethical coherence, but rather can testify to the moral nuancing, the difficulties of real-life situations, and the simultaneous multiple personal and social ethical debates common to all communities (188).
I do not get the impression from Carroll’s essay that one can take the unity of the prophetic texts for granted, nor that historical critical insights are insignificant for interpreting the prophetic books and their ethics. This is not an apologetic argument, at least not for traditional notions of authorship and/or dating. In fact, I detect the absence of any apologetic when Carroll discusses feminist and ideological studies. This is particularly noteworthy given the the frequent “subversive readings” produced by these situated readers and Carroll’s passive presentation of their work in the field. This is not an essay that will leave the Christian reader unchallenged!
One can sense the strength of this essay when it is compared against its companion in the IVP Dictionary on the Wisdom, Poetry and Writings by C. Hassell Bullock. In the conclusion to his essay, he writes:
Although the motif of obedience to God’s commands is not an explicit theme throughout the Wisdom literature, wisdom’s teachings are premised upon it. I have suggested that obedient response to wisdom’s instruction is none other than an adaptation of the legal system of the Torah, with its ethical claims in the forefront. This response, laid out in the opening chapters of the Torah, underwrites the entirety of wisdom ethics or any other ethical representations of the OT. It is premised upon the nature of the God whose demands, first revealed in Scripture as putting his imprimatur of goodness on the world that he created. So God’s subjects should obey his commandments because he is good (200).
This is a peculiar argument, undoubtedly conservative and fundamentalist. It fails to reckon with the diversity of Hebrew Bible ethics and the complicated text critical issues that challenge its logic. Is there an established written torah, fully formed upon which the Israelite sages could draw to premise their moral expectations? Even if such a torah existed, there still remains the question of why the sages, who explicitly and frequently appeal to the moral order of creation, would feel obliged to establish their ethic upon Sinai! (The apostle Paul on more than one occasion prefers arguments rooted in creation to that of Sinai, promise over law!) Contrast this with Carroll’s article where one might more naturally expect an appeal to a written torah and Sinai:
The criticism of the approach that links prophetic teaching to specific laws is that the prophets primarily refer to moral principles instead of explicit legislation, hence the generalities in the language of their moral censure. . . . It is more realistic to say that the ethical message of the prophets cannot be limited to any one theological tradition . . . . The prophets would have moved and spoken within a moral universe into which multiple theological emphases fed. They argued on the basis of the range of theological material available to them to communicate the divine word (187).
This initial observation, that the prophets are not specifically linked to Sinai, further reinforces the prophetic conception of torah outlined in Charles’s “Law” essay.
These represent (and I am excluding here Bullock’s article) the highest quality material one is likely to find in this or any comparable Bible dictionary. I truly hope there is more where this came from!
To what does a text in the Hebrew Bible signify when it speaks of torah? Two scholars have recently raised this question and provided helpful answers. Charles Halton explores the notion of “Law” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012; 491-503), and Gordon Wenham explores the term torah in his book Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), specifically in the chapter “The Concept of the Law in the Psalms” (77-95) where he focuses on Psalms 1, 19, and 119.
Charles observes that when the biblical prophets make reference to torah or moral norms, these things are not dependent upon the Pentateuch. More specifically, the Mosaic and Priestly traditions within the Pentateuch do not inform the prophetic conception of and rhetoric about torah. Rather, the prophetic conception of torah “skip[s] over Sinai and tap[s] into an Ur-tradition of law,” a tradition more indicative of natural law (500). In concert with this observation, he recognizes that “elements that seem central to Sinaitic revelation, within the narrative world of the Hebrew Scriptures, actually have roots going back to primeval stories in Genesis” (499). Charles’ article is in certain respects a good summary of the conclusions reached at the SBL annual meeting back in November in the joint session between the Pentateuch and Book of the Twelve Prophets program units.
In a very different vein, Wehnam observes that torah in the Psalter is a concept much broader than (but inclusive of) the Pentateuch, in particular the legal portions. Surveying the terminology for law in Psalm 119, he concludes that “the breadth of Psalm 119’s understanding of the law . . . is not just ethical injunctions and rules, but rather the whole of God’s revelation” (88). Unlike Charles, in the next chapter, “Laws in the Psalter” (97-118) he aims to demonstrate the dependence of the Psalter on the Pentateuch, principally the Decalogue but inclusive of other Israelite legal “codes.” While I see with Wenham certain correspondences between the ethical values of the Psalter and the ethical norms of the Pentateuch, he does not persuade me to see dependence. It is important, when doing influence studies, to remember the dictum: correlation does not imply causation.
As time permits, I hope to feature more articles from the recent IVP dictionary on the prophets. My full review of Wenham’s Psalms as Torah will appear in RBL in the next few months.
According to Gordon Wenham, there is a distinction between law and ethics in the Hebrew Bible (see here). “The law represents the floor below which human behaviour must not sink. The ethical ceiling is as high as heaven itself, for a key principle of biblical ethics is the imitation of God” (“The Gap between Law and Ethics,” 25-26). The distinction being made here is between a basic ethical standard and an absolute ethical foundation. Law functions within ancient Israelite society as a component of their ethical framework, but the imperative to imitate the character of God is the foundational principle for Hebrew Bible ethics.
This absolute distinction between law as minimum standard and imitation of God as paradigmatic principle is where I find Wenham unpersuasive. Undoubtedly, imitation of God is an important foundational principle in Hebrew Bible ethics (see here), but it is not accurate to speak of imitation as the ceiling and law as the floor in every text. In Genesis 3, for example, the human couple is expelled from the garden because of their (successful) efforts to become “like God/deities” (Gen 3:22; cf. 3:5-6) and the disobedience necessary to accomplish this. In Genesis 3, imitation is undesirable, and obedience is the ethical standard.
For other places where the imitation of God does not represent the ethical ceiling of the Hebrew Bible, there is a most interesting discussion that has taken place between Cyril Rodd, John Barton, and Walter Houston. In essence, Rodd is very skeptical about the concept (do we imitate God or do we create God in our image?), and believes there is much about God in the Hebrew Bible that does not warrant imitation. Barton agrees that the Hebrew Bible entertains the “non-imitation of God,” but still maintains the legitimacy of the imitation principle. Houston, much in the same vein, suggests where the principle of imitation is more and less appropriate, and where it is less appropriate, he argues that “God (at least, the character YHWH in Exodus) may be ‘ethical’, but the ethics that apply to him, because he is God, are not the same as apply to most human beings” (23). This discussion is ripe for further study!
C. S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics. Edinburgh (T&T Clark, 2001), 65-76; J. Barton, “Imitation of God in the Old Testament,” in The God of Israel, (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 64; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 35–46; W. J. Houston, “The Character of YHWH and the Ethics of the Old Testament: Is Imitatio Dei Appropriate?” Journal of Theological Studies 58, no. 1 (2007): 1–25.
While it may be tempting to identify the ethics of the Hebrew Bible with its legal material—and this is done frequently—there are significant shortcomings in such an activity. The temptation arises, naturally enough, from legitimate observations about the “moral or religious dimension of law” and/or of “the legal aspects of morality and religion” (Knight, D. A., Law Power and Justice in Ancient Israel, Library of Ancient Israel [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011], 53). Douglas Knight writes,
Biblical laws must certainly have coincided with moral practices or ideals in ancient Israel—or at least in large part, one would think. Moreover, the laws are so closely connected with religious matters—whether in ordaining proper cultic and pious behavior or in finding in religion the rationale for moral ideals or the justification for types of punishment—that one is scarcely conceivable without the other. (53)
For Knight, the gap between law and ethics has less to do with any categorical distinction to be made and more to do with knotty historical issues surrounding law and ethics in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. which morality?—whose law?, imperfect human involvement in lawmaking, etc.). Knight’s discussion is informed and interesting in its own right, but it does not capture the distinction I find most compelling between biblical law and morality.
I prefer the article by Gordan Wenham, “The Gap between Law and Ethics” (Journal of Jewish Studies 48 : 17-29). The article reappears as chapter 5 “Ethical Ideals and Legal Requirements” in Wenham’s Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000, 73-107). In it, Wenham categorically distinguishes law from ethics in a way that is informed by Ze’ev Falk’s distinction between justice and ethics.
For Wenham, “the law sets a minimum standard of behaviour, which if transgressed attracts sanction. It regulates institutions like marriage or slavery, but it does not prescribe ideals of behaviour within marriage” Wenham argues that “ethics is much more than keeping the law” because ethics involves the ideals that law can never legislate: “law tends to be a pragmatic compromise between the legislators’ ideals and what can be enforced in practice” (“The Gap,” 18).
Wenham identifies three important consequences of this distinction between law and ethics. First, there is more tolerance for ethical shortcomings than for legal infractions. Second, biblical narratives must not be evaluated solely against the base standards in the legal texts but also against the ideals of the Hebrew Bible. Third, one cannot legitimately compare the New Testament’s ideals against the legal texts in the Hebrew Bible, as though the latter lacked the high, idealistic standards that are so often identified in the former (27).
Wenham’s study is important, and I recommend it for anyone doing work in Hebrew Bible ethics. It is not, however, without its shortcomings, but more on that later.
One of the more popular textbooks today for studying ethics in the Hebrew Bible is Christopher J. H. Wrights, Old Testament Ethics For the People of God. There are good reasons for this. Wright’s book is broad in scope, both relevant and accessible in its writing, and attune to the breadth of scholarship on the subject. Wright’s bibliographic essay (415-440) is a most helpful introduction to the secondary literature. While Wright has been careful to highlight a broad spectrum of perspectives, one does encounter on occasion an unfortunate omission.
Ze’ev Falk (1923-1998) wrote numerous books and articles throughout his career, often exploring the intersection of the text of the Hebrew Bible with ancient and contemporary Jewish faith. There is no mention of Falk in Wright’s book—Wright seems focused on self-professed Christian interpreters—and it is an unfortunate omission. I would like to highlight a book and an article written by Falk that I believe are significant contributions to the study of Hebrew Bible ethics.
In an essay entitled, “Law and Ethics in the Hebrew Bible,” Falk discusses the concepts of “justice” and “ethics.” Justice, according to Falk, is the “goal and criterion of the legal process and of the legal system” (83). Within the Hebrew Bible, justice is not self sufficient—salvation, for example, is the suspension of justice—it requires the use of reason, and is ultimately rooted in identity and ontology of God. Ethics, according to Falk, is more comprehensive than justice, and its norms may even conflict with justice.
More important to Falk is the potential divide between theonomy and ethics: “The essence of theonomy is the trust in God and his guidance; the essence of ethics is the questioning of all authority and individual responsibility for the setting of norms” (87). Indeed, much of what Falk has written attempts to bridge this divide, to challenge the statement of Isaiah Leibowitz that “ethics as an intrinsic value is indubitably an atheistic category” (A.A. Cohen and P. Mendes Flohr, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1987], 71).
What characterizes Falk’s essay and his book, Religious Law and Ethics: Studies in Biblical and Rabbinical Theonomy, is an emphasis on human reason as a component of justice and ethics within a theonomic framework. “If humankind is expected to be godlike, it is expected to reason about the problems of justice and ethics” (“Law and Ethics,” 89). “Biblical theonomy appeals to human conscience and builds upon existing morality. It is a system of cooperation between two poles, the divine and the truly human. Biblical theonomy is therefore not a form of heteronomy, but a responsible autonomy” (Religious Law, 17).
The article and book are unique among works that explore Hebrew Bible ethics in that they explore and attempt to account for the human component of moral discourse that takes place within the text and when texts are read by contemporary readers. For this reason, I regret their omission in Wright’s bibliographic essay. There needs to be a greater exploration of this dimension of Hebrew Bible ethics.