• Old Testament ethics…how do they work??

Aug
16
Old Testament ethics…how do they work??

I make no effort to hide the fact that I have a Biblical-scholar man-crush on Christopher Wright. I don’t know what it is about British scholars with the last name “Wright”, but Chris is indeed the Old Testament equivalent, in terms of making brilliant scholarship accessible to the public in a captivating and profound manner, of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright (and, to quote the esteemed H.I. McDunnough, “H*ll, you know who he is.”)

I’m ashamed to say that I only discovered Chris Wright’s work last year…but since then I’ve read everything of his I can get my hands on!

His Deuteronomy commentary is one of the finest and most accessible commentaries I’ve ever read…I used it as my daily devotional reading, in fact.

His Ezekiel commentary was next, and other than omitting a few sections and being thematically, rather than chronologically structured, it was also incredible (and also served as my daily devotional reading for a few months).

His book The Mission of God was after that, and it is without a doubt the best work of Biblical Theology I have ever read (and I’ve read my fair share!).

I just finished his The God I Don’t Understand, and will be teaching a 6-week class based on it at Good Shepherd Church starting in September (it’s that good).

Today, I began working through Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God and I’m looking forward to devouring it.

OT ethics is one of, if not the, most neglected areas of study among Christians. For many Christians, the OT is the crazy uncle at a family reunion. We know we’re related to him somehow and we’re supposed to love him…but we just don’t know what to do with him and he seems kinda wacky.

I’ve taught on the OT in churches and ministry settings for the past 10 years now and I can honestly say that the vast majority of Christians (and I’d be willing to be this applies to most of my Jewish friends as well!) have almost no understanding of what the OT is…and even less an understanding of how we’re supposed to read it and derive a proper ethic from it today.

That’s why I absolutely love the way Wright opens his book on the subject:

The best way in to understanding and applying the Old Testament ethically is not by plunging in and seizing on whatever appears relevant to our own ethical agenda. Although people often do exactly that — quoting proof-texts almost at random — it usually means taking texts out of their historical, literary and cultural context. And it rarely produces any agreement, since people can easily quote counter-texts with equal disregard for the way the whole canon of the Old Testament hangs together. What we have to try to do is to put ourselves in Israel’s position and understand how Israel perceived and experienced their relationship with God and how that experience affected their ethical ideals and practical living as a community.

Theology and ethics are inseparable in the Bible. You cannot explain how and why Israelites or Christians lived as they did until you see how and why they believed what they did.

Wright, OTEFPG, p.17

That is probably the biggest hurdle for people to get over when it comes to reading and interpreting the OT. We hear all our lives that the Bible is “God’s Instruction Book” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” for those who love acronyms…and cheesy cliches. But when we actually open its pages, we find that it is anything but an instruction book!

Instruction books are supposed to be concise, clear and consisting of easy-to-understand step-by-step directions.

The Bible, particularly the OT, simply refuses to be this!

Because it was never intended to be!

The Hebrew Scriptures tell us God’s story. Particularly His story in relationship to Israel being His vehicle for redeeming the world. [For more on this, see the seminar I did called “Once Upon a Time” over on the free video page here in the Dojo!]

If we don’t immerse ourselves in that story, we get the OT wrong…and the NT makes very little sense.

Sadly, most churches do not instill this story in their congregation it seems. They either neglect the OT altogether and focus on the NT (usually sticking mostly to Paul’s letters–seriously, do we need another small group study of Ephesians??), or they cherry-pick laws from the OT to selectively keep and turn the narrative portions into fables from which we can derive a simple “life lesson” (i.e. “what are the ‘Goliaths’ you face in your life??”).

But this simply won’t do!

We MUST recapture an understanding of the OT as our story! Jesus and every one of his original followers saw it that way. They lived and breathed its story as their own. They pulled their imagery, vocabulary, theology, and ethics from its pages–filtered through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of the One the OT pointed to, of course.

If we’re to be responsible stewards of God’s words, we must gain a better understanding of them in their fullness and complexity.

And for that reason, I am so thankful for people like Christopher Wright. He’s the kind of scholar I can only hope to become one day.

 

Blessings from the Dojo,

JM

 

UPDATE: I came across this passage at the end of chapter 1 that is too good not to share and sums up precisely what I’m attempting to communicate with this post…

“…it underlines for us the importance of deriving our ethical teaching from the whole Old Testament. We have seen how the laws are not always sufficient in themselves; we need the narrative in which they are set to understand the principles on which they operate, and we need the latter narratives, the prophets, the Psalms and the Wisdom literature to see how they were taken up into the life of the nation. God has spoken in all the Scriptures ‘in many and varied ways’, and we must use them all in building up our picture of his character, acts and purpose and then work out our ethical responsibilities accordingly.”

Wright, OTEFPG, p.47

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