Ethical Values In The Old Testament

Ethical Values In The Old Testament
How we live our lives is governed by ethics. Ethics is “human moral
conduct according to principles of what is good or right to do.” Our ethical
values today descend primarily from a Christian ethic in which “a truly ethical
decision, we are told, must be spontaneous, undirected, free – the individual’s
unfettered and uncoerced response to each new decision-demanding situation.”
The ethical values of today, especially Christian ethics, borrow and carry
forward the Hebrew ethics of the past. Yet it is hardly fair to explain Old
Testament ethics with only what was borrowed from it.

What sets Judaism apart from other religions of the time was its
monotheistic basis. The ethics of Judaism is historical and traditional as
opposed to philosophical and theoretical. “In Israel, for the first time, an
ethical conception of God is attained, and this not philosophically but
historically; while its view of the moral life is certain of justification not
only by reason but by history.” Thus God is looked at as an ethical
personality and is looked to as an example of good and right. In the Old
Testament, God’s voluntary (voluntary for God) covenant with man must be looked
at as the prime example of ethical value. The covenant’s requirements is the
source of all ethics, morals, laws, and justice in the Old Testament.

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The Mosaic Covenant is the best example of ethical values and norms in
the Old Testament. The Mosaic Covenant has three parts; the Decaloque, the
Covenant Code; and the Holiness Code. The Decaloque is made up of apodictic (or
absolute) law, it is unconditional and has no “ifs or buts” about it. This is
commonly refereed to as the “Ten Commandments.” Although legally vague these
commandments are the basics for all ethical norms in the Old Testament. The
Covenant Code is made up of casuistic (or conditional) law, it has a
characteristic formula: “if this happens, then that will be the legal
consequence.” Much of the Covenant Code deals with property and parallels
other ancient Near East law codes. The Holiness Code found in Leviticus 17-26
states what is holy, for example, “the phrase: “I, Yahweh, your God, am holy”
(19:2; 20:26) is the self-predication almost “tautological,” for holiness here
has a theistic, rather than an exclusively moral, connotation.”
How the covenant is presented in the Old Testament is as a whole and as “
the words of Yahweh.” Many of the laws within the covenant, especially in the
Covenant Code are anachronistic, meaning many are laws of a later time that were
added to the original covenant. This “shows how successive generations
continued to respond to Yahweh’s covenant demand in the changing circumstances
of their history.” Instead of using a philosophical or theoretical challenge
to ethics, the Old Testament incorporates the needs of societal ethics into the
actual history and traditions. This however does not undermine the tradition of
tracing the law back to Moses. Many of these laws can be found throughout the
ancient Near East. The best representation of this is the Code of Hammurabi.

The similarities between law codes, such as the Code of Hammurabi and
other treaties of the ancient Near East, and the covenant are not just similar
in the actual law but in the actual contract itself. These treaties were
contracts between a king and his subjects. “By establishing the covenant
Yahweh limited his own freedom, and he did so in complete liberty without any
preceding obligation or rational motive.” This covenant is for the Jewish and
Christian faith a historical fact which is tied to Moses and the exodus from
Egypt, “and its stipulations contained from the beginning religious and ethical
norms.” This can explain why Old Testament ethics takes on a strong “
historical” quality. For example, the Lord says to Moses, “On the eighth day
the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:3) This ancient
ritual possibly was used to ward off evil. It is more probable that some
hygienic experience in the past long forgotten was responsible. The Lord did
not have to have a reason for the conditions of his covenant. “For this the
cultic and the ethical commandments were, for the law, on the same level of
After reading the Decaloque, the Covenant Code, and the Holiness Code,
one can see why Old Testament ethics is historical and traditional. Ethical
values and norms come straight from God. There is no need to be philosophical
and theoretical, for to do so would be to question Yahweh. In the Old
Testament, to be truly ethical and moral one must accept as the basic ethical
value and the essential rule of conduct, the imitation of God. “The rule does
not require asceticism, but it does ask that man live every waking moment in the
awareness that he is not alone, for God is present.”
Works Cited
Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco: HarperCollins,

Anderson, Bernhard W., Understanding the Old Testament. New Jersey: Prentice-
Hall, 1957.

Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. New York:
Abingdon Press, 1962,
Hertzberg, Arthur, Judaism. New York: George Braziller, 1962.

White, R. E. O., Biblical Ethics. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979.


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