ARGUABLY the largest corpus of Jewish ethical teaching is in rabbinic literature and medieval codes, and yet the authority on which they rest is ethical teachings in the Tanakh and specifically, but not exclusively, the Torah. Those not bound to traditional interpretations argue that there is biblical Israelite religion, rabbinic and then pre-modern Judaism, and modern Judaism, each iteration adding to the ethical inheritance from its predecessor.
The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible and Ethics is divided into five parts: Legal Ethics; Narrative Ethics; Prophetic Ethics; Wisdom/Poetic Ethics; and Faithful Ethics. There are five essays each in the first three parts and three and two in the last parts. In her introduction, the editor makes the point that, from an ethical perspective, “biblical texts are taken as window into the moral world of ancient Israel, through which we may view the ethical thought processes of ancient Israelites.”
Crouch makes the further important point that, while understanding the intentions of the biblical texts with regard to the “moral formation of their audiences”, it is essential to appreciate the ancient context of this material if one seeks to extrapolate from it an enduring meaning in the modern world.
Each essay has something to recommend it, though it is likely that specific fields of interest may dictate which essays a reader goes to first; there are some stand-out paragraphs as well, though not always for the right reasons.
In her essay “The Construction of Gender Roles in the Book of the Covenant and the Book of Deuteronomy”, Professor Carolyn Pressler states: “I believe Israel’s sacred traditions reflect genuine encounters with God, filtered through the social, political and familial structures of ancient Judah, its historic upheavals, and the finitude of the laws’ drafters. Put bluntly, Judah did not always hear rightly. When it comes to gender equality, the urban elite males who drafted and edited the Pentateuchal laws got much of it wrong.”
In “Settler Mandates and the Book of Joshua”, Professor Mark Brett considers the ways in which the invasion and settlement narratives in the book of Joshua have influenced Christianity and been used and abused to justify historic colonial and imperial expansion.
In Else K. Holt’s excellent chapter “Covenant in the Book of Jeremiah”, she makes two especially valid points: first, that the “disturbing features of the text” must be acknowledged rather than “exonerate them out of reverence for the authority of the text, or . . . dismiss them as antiquated and outlandish”; and second, that “reading the book of Jeremiah ethically first and foremost means to understand what loss of worldview and moral orientation or dissonance of belief does to the traumatized.”
The book “offers words to those numbed by trauma and shows to the safe that perplexity and lament have their place in religious life”.
Dr Matthew J. M. Coomber starts his essay “Poverty and Social Justice in Micah” by describing the prophetic book as complicated and “literarily cluttered”, but notes that “Micah is rich in ethical landscapes through which to explore poverty and other social justice issues, both ancient and modern.”
Coomber notes that Micah could add extra dimensions to the work of modern faith-based economic justice organisations, such as Jubilee USA, which, he believes, could do much more to constrain international capitalism; he also holds corrupt political leaders, libertarians, and others guilty by the standards set by “Micah’s oracles against those who deprive the vulnerable and aid the powerful”.
Dr Anne Stewart sees in Proverbs a “curriculum of character formation” and notes that it “is not only a book about ethical reflection; it cultivates the capacities for wise dealing that it imagines.”
She also brings Proverbs to bear on modern technology, which saturates our senses with information and sensation; the biblical book can teach “discernment between competing voices” and instruction to “evaluate the wisdom proffered to us and the values by which we measure its worth”.
Dr Tarah van de Wiele focuses on justice and retribution in the Psalms. Instead of extrapolating from the Psalms to modern times in her essay, she sets the principal themes in the context of the ancient Near East. In her conclusions, she considers the Psalms’ implications for contemporary ethics and notes that the Psalms “draw us to questions of power and its abuse”, which she describes as a “universal subject of ethical reflection”.
The final section, “Jewish Ethics and the Hebrew Bible and Christian Ethics and the Hebrew Bible”, brings the excellent Cambridge Companion to a satisfactory close. No “last words” on any subject here — how could there be? — but food for thought in abundance.
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College, in London.
The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible and Ethics
C. L. Crouch, editor
CUP £26.99; £79.99
Church Times Bookshop £24.30 (pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £72 (hbk)