"Old Testament Ethics" by John Goldingay. A Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Old Testament Ethics may sound to some like an oxymoron, with all of the bloodshed, wrath of God, conquests, sexual trysts, aged legal requirements, and prohibitions. But John Goldingay, professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, past principal and professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at St. John's Theological College in Nottingham, England, and prolific author, takes a stab at laying out the ways and means of morality in the Hebrew Scriptures in his new book. "Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour" is 288 pages of reading fun and fastidiousness, ideal for seminarians, pastors, professors and interested parties. Neither fatiguing nor flocculent, this softback is accessible to most any reading audience.
The author focuses mostly "on what is the Old Testament's own agenda and how it raises questions that we have to respond to" (2). And so his approach is to side with Jesus who says the Hebrew Scriptures are primarily grounded in two central commandments - love God and your neighbor. That is how he addresses the various sections of the Tanakh by asking "how is this command a working out of either love for God or love for neighbor" (4).
Our tour guide takes us to five thematic sites giving us a healthy dose of the contents of the Old Testament. Like any tour, it will not tackle every scene or situation, but it will touch on enough material that the tourist can walk away better informed. The five sites begin with qualities like godlikeness, compassion, honor, anger and other traits. It then turns the corner to examine aspects of life, such as wealth, violence, shalom and justice, to name a few. Next, it enters into relationships, to include friends, women, who you can have sex with, parents and children, and migrants. Further, it dabbles in texts taking up various pericopes and parcels from Genesis 1 and 2, Ruth, Psalm 72, and Song of Songs, for example. Finally, our tour rounds out by talking about people, dwelling on many of the big-hitters, covering Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, and several others.
There's nothing namby-pamby in "Old Testament Ethics." Though the author is fairly gentle, yet his approach is instructive, insightful and injunctive. Whether he is writing about how love in the older Scriptures is more about loyalty than liking, or the way the tenth commandment on coveting is still pertinent for the twenty-first Century, or role of empires and place of imperial power, he almost always comes down on the side of the angels. Goldingay even takes on the thorny issue of how the Canaanites were dealt with. In chapter-after-chapter he repeatedly surprises with his conclusions and how he works them out. Though there were a few conclusions I took issue with, I found myself appreciating what he was doing, why, and how he got there.
Goldingay is playful at times, at other times he's pertinacious; but in every case he is always purposeful. The author truly wants the readers to take away a better sense of what the Hebrew Scriptures are saying about loving God and neighbor, as well as what God says about it. Though he never stomps on toes, he does come close a time or two. And yet I almost imagined him speaking, not as an academic or adjudicator, but more as a grandfather talking to grown grandchildren. "Old Testament Ethics" is the kind of book you can give as a gift to inquiring friends. It is also ideal for book-reading or study groups. But most of all get a copy for yourself. You won't regret the cost of money or time. I highly recommend the book.
Thanks to IVP Academic for sending me a copy of the book at my request that I used for this review. And my further thanks that the publisher made no stipulations on me other than to write a review. Therefore, all of my comments are uncoerced and uncompelled, but are freely written and freely given.
If you would like a copy, it can be purchased at IVP Academic.
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