Justice, Ethics, and Theonomy in the Hebrew Bible – Ze’ev Falk

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.

Falk, Z. W. Religious Law and Ethics: Studies in Biblical and Rabbinical Theonomy. Jerusalem: Mesharim Publishers, 1991; “Law and Ethics in the Hebrew Bible.” In Justice and Righteousness: Biblical Themes and Their Influences, edited by Y. Hoffman and H. Reventlow, 82–90. JSOTSup 137. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
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