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: