Old Testament Ethics - A Review

One of the exciting aspects of Christian ethics as a discipline is the opportunity to bring careful biblical exegesis, historical theology, systematic theology, and contemporary sources of data like sociology, economics, and science together. There are always new challenges on the horizon, so the discipline never becomes stagnant.

Often for those interested in ethics finding a topical guide to passages in Scripture that deal with a particular issue or sub-discipline can be a challenge. John Goldingay’s Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour offers a helpful index of passages by topic, which makes this a useful resource for pastors and academics alike.

The chapters are very short. Each one has a brief introduction, with multiple passages printed and other passages referenced with light commentary. Goldingay has a particular social bent, which comes through more in some chapters than others, but does not shy from pointing readers toward a variety of passages.


Part One deals with virtues, which Goldingay categorizes as qualities. In eight chapters, he provides concise information about godlikeness, compassion, honor, anger, trust, truthfulness, forthrightness, and contentment. In Part Two, the topics of concern are the mind and heart, wealth, violence, shalom, justice, reparation, Sabbath, animals, and work. Similarly, in the third part, Goldingay covers relationships including friends, neighbors, women, marital relationships, sexual prohibitions, “people who can’t undertake regular marriage”, and a handful of other categories.

In Part Four we see exegesis of several different passages, which helps to show Goldingay’s ethical methodology. Finally, Part Five offers some commentary on the actions of particular people who are discussed in Scripture.

Discussion and Analysis

The book is most useful as a source book and not for careful commentary. Goldingay is an excellent scholar who has written some very popular commentaries. Old Testament Ethics may be an overambitious as a title. Goldingay does very little to discuss ethical methodology, other than to explain that drawing implications for ethics from the Old Testament is tricky.


At one point, the weakness in this ethical methodology becomes obvious as Goldingay notes that he put the question of whether his church would host same-sex weddings to a vote instead of studying the text of Scripture. Then he goes on to explain that same-sex marriage, in his view, falls short of the vision presented in Scripture, but so do other relationships. This is inarguably true. What could have been a profound opportunity to critique the failings of even theologically conservative Christians to properly digest God’s vision for human flourishing resolves into a shoulder shrug, as if it does not really matter.

Overall, the general tone of the volume does not take holiness and sin particularly seriously. There appears to be no clear vision for the holiness of God in this book. Part of that can be witnessed by the odd vision of God Goldingay advertises in a discussion of God’s judgment:

“Oddly, therefore, being Godlike means speaking in fiery terms about judgment in order to seek to draw people back to God, in the manner of Jonah, and not worrying about God failing to implement the judgment he threatens. Because it’s foreign to him, even though from time to time he will screw himself up to it.” (pg. 14)

The vision of God Goldingay presents is too small to hold both a righteous concern for justice and his own holiness together with a gracious and merciful God who forestalls many of the consequences of our sins during this life. The first part is not “foreign” to the second part and an ethics that lacks both elements will be more likely to put righteousness up to a congregational vote than to carefully teach the message of Scripture.

What does it mean to “Be holy as I [God] am holy” (Lev 19:2) when conformity to God’s ideal (e.g., his law) is met with apathy most of the time? A single page later he lists as a character of Godlikeness, “Not treating people as free of guilt,” as “you refuse to let mercy triumph over justice in a way that treats right and wrong as things that don’t matter.” (pg. 10) And yet, that is exactly what Goldingay seems to pave the way for.

There is certainly a more winsome way to write about sin than many people do. That statement is true of both progressive and orthodox Christians, though the sins they are often most concerned about are different. However, throughout the volume, Goldingay seems to muddy places where the thrust of Scripture is particularly clear and clarify places with suggested contemporary application that do not seem so self-evident.


This is a helpful book in many respects. Goldingay’s catalog of Old Testament references make this a useful book for students, pastors, and academics. The methodological weaknesses of the volume dim its prospects for being very helpful for those seeking to understand Christian ethics better. In the end, this is a valuable resource, but not an essential book to own.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.