2004 issue 1, 5 -10 Jan 2004

A Good Book

Sometimes one encounters books which seem good not because one accepts everything in them, but because they give a clear presentation of a case with which one partly disagrees, and in so doing force one to think more deeply about one’s own position. Such a book is John Barton’s Understanding OT Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). This book contains material from different periods, but is unified by concerns which have occupied the author for decades and have clearly been the source of much fruitful reflection.

The Introduction (‘The Moral Vision of the Old Testament’) focuses on OT narrative, which has been comparatively neglected in most studies of OT ethics. OT narrative texts, Barton argues, have a distinctive contribution to make in this area. They handle moral issues which are not dealt with by legal or wisdom texts: often these are issues which cannot be handled by legal means, or which cannot be encapsulated in a brief wisdom saying. The way in OT narratives deal with moral issues focuses attention on the practical outworking of ethical commitments, and causes the reader to reflect on the difficulties of living with integrity in a complex world. We are shown characters face to face with hard choices and complex situations. How do they react? What does that tell us about them? Is their behaviour a model to be imitated, or are their motives in acting as they do a mixture, partly good, partly bad? OT narratives, that is, handle moral issues, but they are not exactly didactic. This point is illustrated in relation to the accounts of Joseph and David. ‘Such stories exemplify that respect for the dignity of human action which… is an important part of the Old Testament’s moral vision, as they make their decisions in freedom with the divine hand, if present at all, hidden behind the natural processes of human history’ (p. 8). Or again: ‘the object is… to engage the reader in the narrative in such a way that moral or philosophical issues which might otherwise remain abstract or unfocused present themselves more sharply and call forth a response’ (p. 9). I think this is an important point. OT narratives, because they usually refuse to give explicit moral comment, are often hard to evaluate, with no simple ‘lesson’ which can easily be read off from the text. Yet wrestling with these texts, trying to understand how we are to evaluate the incidents and behaviour described, may stimulate us to more productive ethical reflection than would a more straightforward narrative with an obvious moral.

Much the same points are pursued in different ways in two of the other essays in the book: ‘Reading for Life: the Use of the Bible in Ethics’; and ‘Virtue in the Bible’. The second of these two essays asked the question: Is there anything like a ‘Virtue Ethics’ in the Old Testament? (Virtue ethics, broadly, is marked by an interest in character formation: the focus is not so much on rules regarding how we are to respond under particular circumstances, but on the general tenor of our moral lives.) I did not agree with everything in the second of these two essays: in particular I felt that Barton underestimated the extent to which the book of Proverbs is interested in character formation, and indeed I found his comments on Proverbs as a whole rather pedestrian. But the general issue is a worthwhile one. I could wish that Christians these days were less interested in ‘guidance’ relating  to specific circumstances in their lives and more interested in the general moral character of their lives.

An earlier essay, (‘Understanding OT ethics’), written at a time when OT ethics was a rather neglected area, analyses some of the difficulties in speaking about the topic. Whose ethics are we talking about when we use the phrase ‘OT ethics’? Those of particular Israelites at particular periods, or of all Israelites at all periods? There is a danger in moving from particular OT texts to general statements about ‘what was believed in Israel’. Again, I don’t think that BTW readers will agree with everything in this essay, or even find all the questions Barton raises particularly interesting (scholars can often end up talking about issues which are of most interest to other scholars); but I welcome Barton’s careful discussion, which made me think further about what is involved when we use the OT in ethical decisions. Caution is always appropriate when analyzing OT texts from an ethical point of view, and Christians would do well to acknowledge this point.

And so on. There are essays on ethics in Isaiah and Daniel. There is a reprint of the author’s earlier monograph on Amos’ oracles against the nations (Amos 1–2), with an interesting discussion on the question of international law in the ancient Near East. (Was there anything that could be described as such? It’s relevant to the question: on what basis are the non-Israelite nations held to be accountable to God in the OT?). In a conclusion the author considers recent contributions in the field (including Wenham’s volume, Story as Torah, reviewed in BTW last August), and suggests areas which need to further explored in future studies. If you are interested in having look at this book, then I suggest you have a look at the Introduction and Conclusion, and after that dip into whatever sections you fancy. You won’t agree with everything, but that, as I said at the beginning, is part of the value of the book.

(Reviewed by Dr Philip Satterthwaite)


Chapel service on 31 Dec 2003 was led by Dr Quek. He gave an introduction on Reading Through The Bible. It is a systematic way of completing the Bible in 18 months. The devotional notes are written by Dr Quek himself and is available at http://www.zionbpc.org.sg.

Dr John Lim will be the chapel speaker next week (Jan 14).


  1. Last Call for Registration of Dr Milne’s Courses.

    • Theological Foundations II, starting Jan 14

    • Apologetics, starting Jan 16

  2. Anonymous Gift. We wish to express our thanks to the anonymous donor of a gift of $200 received over last weekend.

  3. You are warmly invited to BGST’s 13th Convocation & Thanksgiving Service. There is a dinner reception at 6pm followed by the service at 7pm. Please RSVP by 12 Jan 2004. 

  4. Library will be closed earlier at 5pm next Saturday, 17 Jan, as all staff will be involved in the preparation for the Convocation & Thanksgiving Service.

  5. Dr Quek is away from Jan 5-14 with a team on a mission trip in India.  Pray for journey mercies and that their visit will bring much encouragement to God’s people there.

  6. Mr Yam Keng Mun (Counselling Adjunct) will be speaking on "Spirituality in the Marketplace" to the Adult Class at Singapore Baptist Church on Jan 11 and Feb 8.


Mr Lim Kim Wah  5/1

Dn Raymond Tcheau  7/1

Mrs Kalene Tay  9/1

Mr Low Keng Shin  10/1

Mr Tai Kok Wai  11/1

Mr Tong Ming Hung  11/1

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