Originally published in The Heythrop Journal, A Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology, 27:1 (1986), p. 72.
Toward Old Testament Ethics. By Walter C. Kaiser, Pp. xii, 345, Grand Rapids (Michigan), Academie Books, 1983, £13.95.
Dr Kaiser makes it quite clear that his aim is to present Old Testament ethics not only in a favourable light but also as still of the utmost value to Christians, although these now have, in their view, the higher and more complete fulfilment in the New Testament. In Part I the question of definition and methodology is discussed. Part II surnmarizes the main moral texts in Old Testament ethics: the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, the Law of Holiness and the Law of Deuteronomy. Part III surveys the content of Old Testament ethics. Part IV deals in a somewhat old-fashioned way with the problem of moral difficulties in the Old Testament. It is astonishing, for instance, that in a modern work on this subject, there is not a single reference to Kierkegaard’s ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’, especially since Genesis 22 (the basis of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling) is considered at some length (pp. 262-264). Part V treats of the Old Testament Law and New Testament Believers.
The book is written from the evangelical, not to say fundamentalist, point of view, with which, I would imagine, many contemporary Christians would take issue. A Jewish reviewer, since ‘his’ Old Testament is defended, might be held to be churlish if he is too critical. Nevertheless, it must be said that it is the Christian apologist, not the objective scholar, who writes (p. 5): ‘for Jewish history the distinctive event with world-wide significance was the fall of man and woman in the Garden of Eden’ (italics the author’s). In fact, apart from in the original Genesis narrative, the fall of Man occupies no significant place at all either in the rest of the Old Testament or in subsequent Jewish theology (except in the Kabbalah). This is not to say, of course, that the problems raised by Kaiser do not exist for Jews. There has been much agonizing among Jews as well on how revelation is to be understood in the light of modern scholarship. Many Jews, in fact, do not see the Old Testament as the ultimate source of authority. The Torah is not the bare texts of the Bible but the way these have been interpreted and applied in and through the historical experiences of the Jewish people. It is to this that the Rabbis refer when they speak of the Oral Torah. In the Torah the command to exterminate the Canaanites and the command to Abraham to sacrifice his son belong to the remote past, and in this sense are a dead letter, whereas commands such as: ‘Love they neighbour’ and ‘Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy’ are eternally binding.
Kaiser frequently quotes Hebrew terms in the original (there is an Index of the Hebrew words discussed) but surely the opposite of kadosh (‘holy’) is not hanef (p. 6) but tamey (‘impure’, ‘contaminated’) or hol (‘profane’) as in Ezekiel 44: 23: ‘And they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the common’ (beyn kodesh le-hol). Nor is it correct (p. 196) that the law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbids lesbianism as well as male homosexuality. There is, in fact, no reference anywhere in the Old Testament to female homosexuality.
St John’s Wood