The Gap between Law and Ethics

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 [1997]: 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.

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