Issues in Old Testament Ethics

Kenneth J. Morgan

Over the centuries, many objections have been raised against the ethics of the Old Testament. Certain acts and events apparently allowed, commanded, or praised by God raise difficult questions concerning the ethical standards in the Old Testament, especially when compared with those promoted in the New Testament. Here are a few examples:

1. Were the midwives right to lie to pharaoh (Exod. 1:15-20)?

2. Was Rahab right to lie when she hid the spies (Josh. 2:1-6)?

3. What about God himself? Was it morally right for him to order the complete extermination of the Canaanites (Exod. 23:32-33; 34:12-16; Deut. 7:1-5; 20:15-18)?

4. Did God instruct Samuel to lie when he went to anoint David (1 Sam. 16:1-3)?

5. Is poligamy sanctioned in the Old Testament (e.g., Jacob and David)?

6. What are we to make of the imprecatory Psalms (e.g., 35, 69, 109)? Do these represent godly attitudes according to the New Testament?

There are many questions such as these originating in the Old Testament. The papers we present on our Ethics of the Old Testament Page address these issues in varying degrees of detail.

The most comprehensive paper we have posted, "The Ethics of the Old Testament," by William Benton Greene, responds to most of these objections. It was originally published in the Princeton Theological Review, XXVIII (1929), pp. 316-66. We have taken this paper from a collection of essays compiled by Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., one of my former professors at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School: Classical Evangelical Essays in Old Testament Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972). Indeed, the essays in this book are classics, milestones of interpretation. They deal with important topics in all the major sections of the Old Testament: the Pentateuch, the historical books, the poetical books, and the prophetical books.

Dr. Kaiser has a bibliography of more modern works at the end of most of the articles. Also, although Greene's article addresses the imprecatory Psalms, Kaiser also includes another entire essay on this particular subject, "Imprecations in the Psalms" by Chalmers Martin.

The next two papers both address lying. Perhaps the most common question is whether Rahab was right to lie about the two spies she had hidden. However, these two articles address perhaps even a more interesting case. Did the Lord actually instruct Samuel to lie? Graham Gilmer has perhaps one of the best solutions to the problem. John Murray, of course, is a scholar of the highest order and also makes a very good point.

For those who want to pursue these issues further, two books by Dr. Norman Geisler are recommended.

In Kaiser's annotated bibliography at the end of Greene's paper, he cites one of Dr. Geisler's books on the subject of ethics, Ethics: Alternatives and Issues (1971), stating that it is "a supurb evangelical treatment which adopts the position of ethical hierarchicalism."

There are basically three views taken by Christian scholars on the subject of ethics. All three believe in the existence of moral absolutes, as opposed to various forms of situation ethics or relativism. In a rather philosophical approach, Dr. Geisler defines and discusses these three approaches to ethics in his later book, Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics (1981).

1. Geisler's own view, as in his earlier book, argues that there is a hierarchy within the moral laws. Moreover, moral laws can come into conflict, and some have more weight than others, which determines the right (sinless) course to take in such a situation.

2. John Murray, author of another book in Kaiser's bibliography, argues that there are moral absolutes that admit of no exceptions, and they never come into conflict with one another in any situation. Therefore, in this view too, sin can always be avoided.

3. The third view argues that moral conflicts are possible, and in such a case, one is guilty no matter which choice he makes.

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