New Approaches To Old Testament Ethics -- By: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 35:3 (Sep 1992)
Article: New Approaches To Old Testament Ethics
Author: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.


New Approaches To Old Testament Ethics

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.*

More than fifteen years ago R. E. Clements asserted that “the subject of Old Testament ethics has proved to be a most difficult one to deal with…The literature devoted to it has been surprisingly sparse…It has been difficult to avoid the merely superficial.”1 Until quite recently my own work has been the single complete English contribution in the twentieth century.2 The only other major treatments of the subject were the German volume by Johannes Hempel and the English survey by Hinckley G. Mitchell.3

Even if one were to add key chapters in the Biblical theologies of the OT, collections of essays in Festschriften, and all the articles in the major journals over the past thirty years, the total output in the area of OT ethics would not be much over 175 items. Surely this is not an impressive showing given the critical importance of the topic for our contemporary culture.

What are some of the reasons for this vacuum? Certainly OT studies have not suffered from a lack of industry and adequate personnel in this century. There must be certain fundamental issues that have had a bridling effect on the discipline. These issues need to be examined briefly before we turn to some of the new approaches now appearing.

I. Key Issues

Is Scripture the foundation for ethics and morality in modern life? If so, why do we not find the great ethical questions of modern man being answered by referring to it? Where do we turn for answers to the ethical implications of war, abortion, polygamy, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, multinational corporations, worldwide political alliances? Behind such questions lurks a fundamental decision on the following key issues.

*Walter Kaiser is senior vice president of distance learning at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL 60015.

1. Modern uneasiness with an underlying rationale for ethical principles. The problems raised by OT ethics are much the same as those raised in OT theology. The very titles of both disciplines imply that there exists a core or unifying principle for each around which one may organize a unity of approach.

Prior to the last third of the twentieth century it was taken as a given that there was an OT ethic. Walther Eichrodt wrote of “the tendency toward unification of the ethical norms.”4 Johannes Hempel argued that ...

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