Book review: Toward Old Testament Ethics, by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

June 26, 2017

Title: Toward Old Testament Ethics

Author: Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.

Publisher: Zondervan, 1991

Length: 368 pages

Reviewer: Lance Quinn

Available on Amazon


Kaiser first begins by saying he believes that “it is possible to trace out a consistent and unified approach to Old Testament ethics, even though the types of biblical literature in which it is embedded are as varied as narratives, law codes, wisdom injunctions, or prophetic oracles” (p. 3).  He then proposes to define and provide a methodology for OT ethics (chapters 1-4).  In chapter one, he says this, regarding OT ethics: “The Old Testament cannot discuss religion apart from morality or faith that does not issue in right character and life” (p. 4).  In essence, what is theistic is ethical and vice-versa.  Kaiser then presents OT ethics as: (1) Personal; (2) Theistic; (3) Internal; (4) Future Oriented; and (5) Universal.  That is, they are commanded by God to man; they are because God is holy and He demands holiness on the part of His people; they are ethics which involves both the actions and the heart of man; they are looking toward their ultimate fulfillment in Christ; and they are ethics which reach across any individual to encompass every people/nation.

Kaiser presents various methods which have been employed in an attempt to understand the ethics of the OT, agreeing that there is no such thing as “morality of the Old Testament” (p. 13).  These various methods of understanding OT ethics are: (1) the Sociological Approach; (2) the Moral Theology Approach; (3) the Synchronic Approach; (4) the Diachronic Approach; (5) Central Theme Approach; (6) Kaiser’s own approach, which he calls, “the comprehensive approach” (p. 21-22).  The comprehensive approach, for Kaiser, means a “distinctive set of characteristics listed, and a methodological approach defended that sets forth a distinctive program of study comprehensive enough to meet the wide scope of issues and needs engendered by the older covenant” (p. 22).

In describing the nature and task of OT ethics, Kaiser concurs with M. T. O’Donovan, who says that there are three assumptions that an ethicist makes when using an ethical text from the past: (1) Universalizability; (2) Consistency; and (3) Prescriptivity.  He then goes on to discuss the various bases of OT ethics as well as the motivations and limitations of it.   I was encouraged by his candor that OT ethics are elusive, and that no one can claim that he has the “corner” on how OT ethics are to be understood.  He devotes chapter three to the idea that in his opinion, many have attempted to understand OT ethics without interacting with the OT itself!  He then devotes the bulk of the chapter to six contemporary hermeneutical stances.  Kaiser ends by saying that if one is to do OT ethics, one must grapple with the text of Scripture itself, “seriously and exegetically in detail or finally give up altogether . . .” (p. 56).

He then designs part two of the book (chapters 5-8) to develop the Pentateuch as a basis for the proper understanding of OT ethics.  He meticulously takes the Decalogue and uses it as a template for understanding the Pentateuchal character of OT ethics.  It was fascinating for me to read how systematic this could be done.  I realize how others have attempted to approach the subject of ethics (as above), but I think Kaiser has done well to fashion his approach from an actual exegetical and contextual understanding of the various texts of Moses’ first five books.

Kaiser then uses the bulk of his book (chapters 9-15) to fix his theme or motif of OT ethics (holiness to the Lord), as it is expressed in the OT itself.  He speaks of holiness as a way of life, family and society, regard for life itself (he takes the capital punishment view—especially for the wanton murder and taking of a human life), marriage and sex, wealth and possessions, obtaining and using truth, and holiness in our motives and heart.  These are very comprehensive chapters, and Kaiser does well to inform us wherever the OT speaks to any of these ethical issues.

Kaiser concludes with part 4, which is an attempt to cite the morally difficult aspects of OT ethics, including the acts of God, men and women, as well as sanctions in the law of God.  He then concludes with a chapter on the relationship of law and grace, the relationship of the OT law and believers in the New Covenant.

Kaiser was most helpful to me in rooting and grounding each of his ethical beliefs in an understanding of the biblical text itself.  As an evangelical, this doesn’t mean you can’t speak of “doing” ethics within the arena of philosophizing about it, but ultimately, if you’re going to do OT ethics, it must come from a real grappling with what the OT itself says, and how then, you are able to synthesize these texts into a comprehensive whole.

Given Kaiser’s other two books, Toward Old Testament Theology, and Toward an Exegetical Theology, he has helped many with coming to grips on what the Bible itself says about ethics, theology, and preaching.  It is most helpful to read and study from one who has such a high view of God and His Word.

Available on Amazon

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