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.

Sabbath as Resistance - A Review

We live in world that never stops moving. There are more options than ever for activities to spend our time. We have access to seemingly unlimited activities, many of which are harmless or even in some way good. Our jobs seem to claim more and more of our lives each week. The special effort for a big project begins to be the every week demand because we, and our employer, has realized if we can make the sacrifice sometimes we can make it all the time. The endless stream of entertainments and opportunities has led many cultural critics to describe Westerners as exhausted, bored, and overworked.

With that motif in the background, Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, has an interesting appeal. As an Old Testament scholar, an interpretation of the 4th Commandment would seem to be exactly in his realm of expertise. 

The book is a brief 90 pages or so, which makes reading it a sort of Sabbath in itself. This volume actually began its existence as a Bible study series that is available as a download from www.thoughtfulchristian.com for a higher price than this book. However, the original format of the volume explains the construction of the book and some of its characteristics.

Sabbath as Resistance has a brief preface followed by six studies on different aspects of the Sabbath. Brueggemann considers the Sabbath in relation to the first Commandment, and the Sabbath as resistance to a series of modern vices, namely anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. The book concludes with a discussion of Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment. Each of these topics is important and potentially helpful to Christians in a frantic world.

Brueggemann, interacting positively with Michael Fishbane’s work, argues the Sabbath “concerns the maintenance of a distinct faith identity in the midst of a culture that is inhospitable to all distinct identities in its impatient reduction of all human life to the requirements of the market.” He goes on to say that the celebration of Sabbath is “resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

For Brueggemann, Sabbath is much less doxological and much more economic. He certainly has a point here. When the original practice of Sabbath is considered, it largely differentiated Israel from the surrounding nations on an economic basis. It is easy to find support in Scripture for the argument that resting from economic activity on the Sabbath reflects a trust in God which has a doxological element.

Unfortunately, this book never really makes such an argument. Sabbath as Resistance is much more a diatribe against market economics than it is a theological argument for worshipful rest. The rhetorical rejection of a market economy is an undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of the entire volume, occasionally bubbling to the top. Through all this, Brueggemann does not appear to consider the possibility that consumerism is an abuse of market economics. 

I tend to agree with Brueggemann that Christians need to practice a form of Sabbath. The 10 Commandments are a part of the moral law, and as such, still in play since they reflect God’s very nature. The fact that God himself practiced Sabbath after creating the world demonstrates that resting and enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is a part of the proper cycle of the created order. The reality that a failure to constrain our desires often leads us to overwork and under-worship is another argument for restoring a healthy practice of the Sabbath that resonates with Brueggemann’s book.

However, Brueggemann’s simplistic view of a market economy––that it “mandates that one must sink or swim by one’s own effort, and it is never enough simply to tread water”––reflects a confusion of an unhealthy attitude that has cropped up in our current consumerist economy rather than a cry for a rejection of the system out of hand. The problem may not be the system as much as it is the sinful people living and working within the system. Therefore, I agree with much of Brueggeman’s application, but not with his motivation.

A weakness in this volume is that it never deals with some important questions: 1) How is Sabbath to be practiced? 2) How did the Sabbath transfer to the Lord’s Day in the NT fellowships? 3) What do we do with Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath? Brueggemann appears to be so interested in presenting opposition to a free market economy that he misses obvious biblical data and practical questions that would make this a more helpful volume.

In the end, I appreciate some of what Brueggemann is doing here, but he has an axe to grind and does not support some of his conclusions well enough in this context. This is worth reading as one perspective on the contemporary practice of Sabbath in Christianity, but it has too many flaws to be helpful as a Bible study resource.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The opinions above are entirely my own.