A Guided Tour of Ethics in the Old Testament

This blog post is condensed and reworked from a presentation I made at Society for Biblical Literature, 2022, in Denver, CO (#SBLAAR22) for the Biblical Ethics Section: Panel Review of John Goldingay’s “Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour.”

John Goldingay is one of the most prolific and influential Old Testament scholars. He has written an accessible commentary series on the Old Testament and the many academic commentaries he has published. In addition, he has published a translation of the entire Old Testament. His new book, Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour, walks readers through thematic interpretations of scripture that apply to everyday life. The book operates as an accessible resource and reference. While not going very deep into any single topic, the content surveys many ethics-related matters, including attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors. Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour is an excellent follow-up to the series John Goldingay wrote entitled The Old Testament for Everyone. Since in Ethics, Goldingay cites specific scripture references, it is easy to flip back into the Everyone Series to get more insight and commentary.

Many Christians disregard the Old Testament as a valuable source of modern ethics, preferring the New Testament as a more relevant biblical source for morality. John Goldingay raises this issue in Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour, drawing attention to the preferred emphasis on so-called New Testament Christian principles of “love, justice, and liberation.” What makes the Old Testament difficult, he answers, is that there is nothing clear-cut or clean about morality or moral ethics in the stories offered in the text. But complexity is no reason to disregard the Old Testament. Much of this book focuses on how complexities in the biblical text engage the reader to think more deeply about ethical matters. Goldingay encourages Christians to read scripture widely, even the disturbing parts, and embrace critical thinking about how biblical scripture shapes their moral center, from which ethical decisions extend. Ethics is a follow-up-up to the Old Testament for Everyone series that provides readers with a next-level look at scripture in a way that encourages a practical and applied understanding of the Bible for living a morally good life.

The first chapter begins by defining ethics in a way that encourages self-reflection to examine what sort of person we are by asking how we think, what sorts of things we do, and what kinds of things we don’t do—defining ethics in terms of self-reflection guides the reader from presuppositions about legislation or political debates. Instead, it looks deeper at personal values and self-growth, an ethical approach that places character formation as foundational to all moral decision-making. Ethics shifts the perspective in such a way that allows readers, even those extremely familiar with a philosophical approach to ethics, to see things in a new light.

Ethics confront ethical issues normally contextualized by legislative norms. Whereas a traditional ethics text might prioritize categorical ethics of legislation, family, ecology, politics, etc., Goldingay’s Ethics prioritizes the moral shape of the individual. Each chapter deals with a distinct subject of personal value, but they all extend by implication to various cultural, legislative, social, and political territories. He argues that by focusing on the shape of moral ethics of the self, a person is better equipped to tackle the “tricky issues.” This approach is helpful to the modern Christian reader in effectively communicating biblical ethics in a way that supports personal growth and awareness. Three messages that shine through in the content are: 1) Things aren’t as straightforward as they seem, 2) Don’t overcomplicate simple things, and 3) Be okay with the messy personal bits.

Things aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

Ethics includes scripture reference after scripture reference, not holding back when a story or biblical narrative contradicts another. Instead, he leans into the biblical text and brings the reader on a thoughtful journey to discover truths. Conclusions about ethical scenarios often hinge on prayer and discernment, stimulating deep personal reflection on complex matters. This brings the reader to respond to the questions that define ethics from page one: what sort of people we are, how we think, and how we behave.

The key to understanding some of these complexities in the Old Testament stems from how we approach the biblical text. In one approach, readers set the agenda and seek specific texts that support their position. In another method, readers “let the Old Testament off the hook” when it raises problematic issues that don’t fit with understanding. For example, ethics focuses on what ethical questions the text opens up for the reader as a model for thinking about and shaping one’s moral ethos. This involves accepting simultaneous contradictions presented in various narratives in a way that encourages exegesis.

The first three sections of Ethics present the complex ways the Old Testament deals with many topics. Chapter 3, “Honor,” shows how pride can be both positive and negative. Seeking honor, even appropriately, can sometimes lead to inappropriate fulfillment. (21) Attending to a personal commitment to ethical virtues can keep a person in check. There is a delicate balance here that may be subjective and complex. Chapter 4, “Anger,” also presents the complicated notion that “anger is a fruit of the spirit.” (27). While anger can bring about great destruction, it is also a cry to rally support. Discernment is required to temper anger responsibly. Chapter 8, “Contentment,” points out that while coveting is warned against in the commandments, it is not always wrong to desire something. (54) Often, the implications of an action make it unethical, like having a lot but never enough. Personal ethical reflection on Old Testament passages that deal with these topics urges a person to ask these questions.

Another example of having to read for a deeper understanding of the Old Testament can be found in Chapter 31, “Leviticus 25,” where John describes how Leviticus should be seen as more than a set of rules bound to a specific agrarian society. Instead, “they are the embodiment of a vision.” (189). This chapter also deals with the more complicated issue of slavery, which is not justified, but rather explained in a way that gives historical and cultural boundaries to the term.

Finally, the idea that things aren’t always as straightforward as they first appear is highlighted in the fifth section, “People,” which reads, “a traditional approach to biblical stories takes them as providing positive or negative examples for behavior. One complication with this assumption is that they don’t often comment on whether their subjects are doing the right thing or the wrong thing, and thus interpreters who draw moral lessons from them can differ in the moral lessons they draw.” (223) The final chapters of Ethics explore particular characters in the Old Testament while encouraging the reader to dig deeper with the definition of ethics mentioned above, asking of the characters in the story and also of ourselves what sort of people we are, how do we think about life, what sort of things we do and don’t do.

Don’t overcomplicate simple things.

There are not many simple things in the Old Testament, but people sometimes overcomplicate things that are not complicated and take something they should give more thought to for granted. In nearly every chapter of Ethics, John draws attention to how a passage or a word is typically read or understood, and he uses this to build a bridge to some of the more nuanced or complex concepts. This is supported by the introduction criteria “I focus more on what is the Old Testament’s agenda and how it raises questions that we have to respond to.” (2)

Too many Christians begin reading the Old Testament long after they have already built up presuppositions about how the Bible supports certain Christian moral stances. Anyone who has taught an introduction to Old Testament course has encountered this reality. Ethics constantly reminds the reader that we must examine the questions and values the Old Testament stories raise and then exegete meaning.

Be okay with the messy personal bits.

One delightful feature of John Goldingay’s Ethics (and many of his books) is discovering personal anecdotes woven into the text rather than describing famous political or social scenes, which is one thing that differentiates Ethics from other books about ethics. Grace to accept the humanity in its imperfection is a key to understanding the Old Testament. The introduction to this book states that the Torah “both lays out God’s creation ideal and vision, and it makes allowance for the fact that we don’t live up to it.” (4). Moral ethics concerns humanity, quality of life, community, and personhood.

As in the Everyone Series, most chapters of Ethics begin with a personal anecdote. This feature relates to the reader and supports the book’s mission to encourage shaping one’s moral and ethical center to impact an ethical outlook. In these stories, Ethics does not shy away from the “I don’t knows.” For example, in Chapter 23, “People Who Can’t Undertake a Regular Marriage,” the anecdote focuses on personal experience as Priest-in-Charge during a matter of legislative policy change. Instead of taking an absolute stance, the church surveyed the congregation and found that just as many didn’t know what to think as who had an opinion. Some could see his decision to let things play out as weak and unprepared. Still, he accomplishes it by leaving space for ambiguity, freedom, and discernment to make space for people to reflect continuously on personal ethical formation. This openness offers people agency to discern what sort of people they are and strengthens a unique moral ethos.

This features significantly in the fourth section, “Texts,” where Ethics constantly reminds us about the Old Testament emphasizing well-being in one’s community. There is an emphasis of interpretation on how personal ethos should inspire actions that create opportunity and goodness for those they are in a relationship with. This sort of ethical outlook is scalable. It can be local to a household, a marriage partner (as demonstrated in the Song of Songs), or applied to a global economy. For example, Chapter 31, “Leviticus 25,” shares a modern attempt to use the vision of jubilee for a global context. In response to Pope John Paul II, who wrote in 1994 about Christian responsibility to raise their collective voice on behalf of all the poor in the world, large sums of debt relief were provided to the majority of world countries. (190). In response, many countries were able to provide education and build infrastructure to help stabilize their people, creating social well-being for large and small-scale communities.


In conclusion, there is room for more work in biblical ethics that embraces the complexity and subjectivity of personal approaches to reading the Bible. Approaching ethical topics from various angles that consider different biblical views and views from Christian religious history will be helpful for those who seek to form Godly values as a central feature of personal moral ethos. Traditional approaches have looked for ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs,’ attempting to decipher a text’s ‘oughts’ and ‘ought-nots.’ Unfortunately, many Christian readers default to this method. And they believe themselves to be successful when they can isolate and cite individual verses to support categorical or systematic doctrine as ethical positions. John Goldingay directly confronts this misstep in Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour by developing clear explanations for particular interpretations, encouraging and embracing complexity, and making the shape of a person’s moral ethos central to the discussion of ethics.

Are you interested in reading more about ethics? Check out these other Scholarly Wanderlust Blogs on the ethical formation and related topics. You may also want to explore John Goldingay’s resource website, The Goldingay Bible Clinic, for commentary and reflection on biblical literature and related theology.

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