Hebrew Bible Ethics and the Book of Ruth

The major scholarly works belonging to the “Old Testament Ethics” genre tend to create ethical constructs or systematic proposals for reading the Hebrew Bible with the goal being contemporary application. These constructs/proposals necessarily impose their modern aims and assumptions on the text, for better or for worse. These works are properly classified as prescriptive in nature.

There has been some interest among a few scholars, too little in my opinion, in adopting a descriptive approach, investigating the ethical foundations of the Hebrew Bible. What does ethics look like when we take the text on its own terms? Understanding the ethical dimensions of the Hebrew Bible descriptively I believe to be properly basic to any attempt to use the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Tanak prescriptively.

What has emerged among scholars with descriptive aims is particular interest in two ethical foundations/principles: natural law/morality/theology and the imitation of God (often unnecessarily expressed by it’s Latin equivalent, imitatio dei). This area of study has been particularly interesting to me as of late, and my recent posts on the book of Ruth (here and here) have led me to reflect on its significance for the ethics of the Hebrew Bible. The quote from Tamara Cohn Eskenazi’s introductory essay “The Theology of the Book of Ruth” that I highlighted yesterday is worth revisiting:

The book seems to teach that the capacities and actions initially projected upon God by the book’s protagonists, in turn, empower people to emulate God. It helps them sustain one another through their blessings and wisdom, enabling them to act in God’s stead.

The imitation of God principle is an important part of the ethical program of the book of Ruth. Those who have written about the principle have not, to my knowledge, drawn attention to its presence there, much less to how the book of Ruth shapes our understanding of the principle. This narrative expression of the principle and its execution within the story demonstrates a sophisticated ethic and pedagogy. Even though the Hebrew Bible does not contain any philosophical treatises on ethics as an independent intellectual discipline, it is not unconcerned with or unrefined in its ethical ways of thinking and living. The book of Ruth helps to bear this out.

For those interested in the scholarly literature on the imitation of God in the Hebrew Bible, I have included a bibliography on the subject:

Barton, J. “Understanding Old Testament Ethics.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 9 (1978): 44-64; “The Basis of Ethics in the Hebrew Bible.” In Ethics and Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Ed. D. A. Knight, Semeia 66 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 11-22. These studies have been republished in Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 15–31, 45–54; Otto, E. Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments. Theologische Wissenschaft 2-3. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1994. Davies, E. W. “Walking in God’s Ways: The Concept of Imitatio Dei in the Old Testament.” In True Wisdom: Essays in Old Testament Interpretation in Honour of Ronald E. Clements. Ed. E. Ball, JSOTSup 300 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1999), 99-115; Rodd, C. S. Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 65–76; Wright, C. J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 459–60; Barton, J. “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; Houston, W. J. “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. Chapman, S. B., and L. C. Warner. “Jonah and the Imitation of God: Rethinking Evangelism and the Old Testament.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 2, no. 1 (2008): 43-69.

6 thoughts on “Hebrew Bible Ethics and the Book of Ruth

  1. If you keep up blogging on so many interesting topics, I can give up blogging and stick to commenting on yours. FYI I posted on this very topic a while back. You might not like the amount of Latin I cite; if you prefer, stick to the French (Levinas) and the modern Hebrew (Perry). I very much recommend Perry to students of the Hebrew Bible.

    Here is the link, which I am updating with a link to this post.:


  2. The JPS Ruth commentary articulated some things that I have been interested in as of late, so I really owe you a debt of gratitude for these generative thoughts.

    I’m not averse to the use and interaction of Latin sources, just to the unnecessary use of Latin phrases where the English equivalent is truly that, equivalent. It really doesn’t enhance the discussion to speak of the imago dei when “the image of God” is sufficient/equivalent. The same goes for imitatio dei/christi and “the imitation of God/Christ.” This is advice that John Goldingay shares with all his PhD students that I was fortunate to stumble across.

  3. This is a great post Joseph…and I’m with you on the Latin. In my experience it has baggage–when you use the Latin phrase people seem to assume that you are working with a medieval conception of imitatio christi/dei, rather than that you are interested in the Bible’s approach to the same.

    I just finished a manuscript on imitation in the Bible. Interesting that many still try to downplay imitation–Rodd for instance almost completely writes it out of the text.

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