John Barton, Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations.
(Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), xi + 212 pp. US $ 24.95. ISBN 0-664-22596-9.
Reviewed by Waldemar Janzen
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Canada

This volume contains eight shorter studies and one monograph (Amos’s Oracles against the Nations) by Oxford professor John Barton, all of them previously published over the last twenty-five years. Revisions are limited to the introduction of inclusive language and the addition of some more recent literature in the older articles. Framed by an “Introduction: The Moral Vision of the Old Testament,” and a “Conclusion: The Future of Old Testament Ethics,” and grouped under two sub-headings (“Part One: Morality and Justice in the Hebrew Bible,” and “Part Two: Explorations in the Prophets”), they are: Part One: “1. Understanding Old Testament Ethics” [1978], “2. Natural Law and Poetic Justice in the Old Testament” [1979], “3. The Basis of Ethics in the Hebrew Bible” [1995], “4. Reading for Life: The Use of the Bible in Ethics” [1996], and “5. Virtue in the Bible” [1999]. Part Two: “6. Amos’s Oracles against the Nations” [1980], “7. Ethics in Isaiah of Jerusalem” [1981], “8. Ethics in the Isaianic Tradition” [1997], and “9. Theological Ethics in Daniel” [2001]. A Bibliography, an Index of Biblical Passages, and an Index of Modern Authors conclude the volume.

A collection like this invites looking not only for the author’s focal pursuits, but also for their development within his thinking. B.’s early monograph on Amos’s Oracles against the Nations (ch. 6) offers a good starting point. Two such pursuits emerge prominently: 1. While employing a rigorous historical-critical methodology, B. here already pays considerable attention to the texts’ particular rhetorical-literary form. 2. As to content, B. seeks to uncover not only Amos’ explicit ethical pronouncements, but also their deeper generating source. In this case (and often subsequently) it proves to be “natural law,” which B. designates cautiously as “a kind of conventional or customary law,” shared at least by Amos and his hearers.

The other studies develop these two focal interests. Methodologically, B. continues to affirm a rigorous historical approach, supplemented by refined sociological nuancing, since these two co-ordinates can prevent a premature systematizing as he sees it in the work of J. Hempel and W. Eichrodt (ch. 1). B.’s admiration for, and ongoing dialogue with Eckart Otto’s Theologische Ethik des Alten Testaments (1994) makes him the more conscious, however, of Otto’s virtual ignoring of Old Testament narrative and prophecy. Martha Nussbaum’s studies of Greek tragedy and drama hold out a promise to B. for the literary study of narrative and prophetic texts for the elucidation of ethical issues. (Introduction; chs. 1, 4, 5). B. himself offers impressive samples of interpretations of narrative and prophetic materials, demonstrating their capacity to guide the perceptive reader along the detailed paths of moral development of individuals toward ethical insights without premature abstraction of general principles (Introduction.; ch. 4).

Narrative and prophetic materials further offer B. rich scope for searching out foundations (or rationales) for Old Testament ethics other than Divine command and obedience, often presupposed to be its only rationale underlying explicit ethical norms (chs. 1, 3). Repeatedly B. highlights the pervasiveness of “natural law” (loosely defined; chs. 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, [and 9?]), but also highlights the “imitation of God,” which “may indeed lie near the heart of what the Hebrew Bible has to say about human morality” (p. 53; chs. 1, 3). In narrative texts, B. even sees?very tentatively?an implicit basis for the currently popular “virtue ethics” (e.g., in the stories of David; Introduction; ch. 5).

Barton’s Conclusion, projecting the future of Old Testament ethics, begins with an extensive review of E. Otto’s work (cf. also Introduction). B. is basically committed to a descriptive, historical approach like that of Otto, whom he admires greatly but also criticizes for various shortcomings, especially his almost exclusive concentration on law and wisdom, to the neglect of prophecy and narrative. That neglect is particularly puzzling to B. in light of Otto’s claim that “Ethics begins to operate when one reaches the bounds of the legally enforceable” (p. 171). Ethical resources in this sense, however, are preeminent precisely in narrative and prophecy! And since B. has found literary analysis of the latter particularly fruitful for uncovering their ethical thrusts, he welcomes Gordon Wenham’s focus on narrative texts in his Torah and Canon (2000) as a helpful corrective, even though Wenham employs literary theory to study the final form of the text synchronically (pp. 170–73).

Nevertheless, B.’s final paragraphs re-iterate his commitment to a descriptive historical approach, warn of systematizing in a synchronic way, and express concern that even Otto’s work is “a little too teleological for my taste” and too focused on continuities with the New Testament and Christianity. A continuation of Otto’s work, a “volume two,” as it were, with focus on implicit ethical rationale and including coverage of prophecy and narrative, seems to be B.’s ideal for future studies in Old Testament ethics. This rather rigid delimitation of the task ahead seems to me to stand in some tension with B.’s openness to combine a descriptive historical approach with other methods in search of guidance for ethical living, then and now (Nussbaum; cf. p. 63f.). Thorough research, meticulous nuancing of issues, and clarity of presentation characterize this stimulating collection.