Ethics in the Wisdom Literature and the Prophets

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!

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