Approaches to Biblical Ethics

A review of the book by Eryl Davies, The Immoral Bible: Approaches to Biblical Ethics. London: T&T Clark, 2010. A shorter version of this review was published by the Society for Old Testament Studies in 2011.

What can a preacher or commentator do when confronted with Old Testament texts which modern readers regard as immoral? Eryl Davies provides a valuable survey of some approaches. His first chapter presents the problem through examples of offending texts: polygamy and slavery are condoned; legal penalties include mutilation (Dt 25:11), with capital punishment for homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, and juvenile delinquency; some prophetic writings depict God as capricious, deceptive, or cruel; and the narratives ‘most likely to offend’ claim divine approval for military violence.

The subsequent chapters treat in turn six types of modern response: evolutionary, cultural relativist, canon-within-a-canon, canonical, paradigmatic, and reader-response. For each approach Davies offers a fascinating history of its development by biblical scholars, examples of how it has been used to handle various ‘immoral’ texts, and then an evaluation of its strengths and weaknesses. Each chapter also includes a case study based on Joshua 6-11, the ‘most abhorrent’ text and therefore the hardest test (13). Davies is evenhanded in his presentation of each approach, and his preference for reader-response is declared (2).

Many criteria are used in evaluating the approaches, and I will pick out a few for comment. First, it must save the relevance of OT scriptures for moral formation of faith communities. The evolutionary approach scores badly here as it devalues the OT to a mere preparation for New Testament study. The cultural relativist has no method to find ‘abiding relevance’ in OT law, and even the Ten Commandments lose universality (I wonder how modern it is, given that Luther suggests a similar idea in his sermon ‘How Christians Should Regard Moses’). The canon-within-a-canon method does not attempt a solution, rather it simply ignores problematic texts.

Another criterion is whether an approach is practical for use by ‘ordinary readers’ as well as scholars. The canonical method is ‘beyond the reach of most readers’ (87) and the paradigmatic method requires a knowledge of Israelite social systems (110). This highlights a tension concerning the type of Bible-readers in view. It is unfair to judge an approach by its practicability for readers without academic training; for if methods in science were judged by such a standard very few would be viable. On the other hand, as most Bible readers are not academically trained it is understandable that this is an issue.

Davies is acutely conscious of baleful reception, but often slips into language that imagines a modern consensus. For example, ‘nobody today would seriously entertain’ a death penalty for homosexual behaviour (54), but that is falsified by some Protestant fundamentalists. With regard to Joshua 6-11 and Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Davies imagines a ‘feeling of revulsion that modern readers … are bound to experience when reading’ such texts (14). However even for this extreme case dissenters exist; for example Gary North in Political Polytheism approves Joshua’s conquest and sees in ‘the advent of the European in North America a righteous historical judgment of God … the Indians were the moral and covenantal equivalent of the Canaanites’ (1989: 257). Davies nuances his generalisation elsewhere, as a ‘moral consensus shared by all thoughtful and sensitive people’ (113), but (in the absence of survey data) first-person language would be better.

Traditional approaches do not receive much attention. In his first chapter Davies observes that concern about the morality of OT scripture is not a modern novelty, and he mentions the ‘spiritual exposition’ developed by the Church Fathers. While conceding that ‘allegory’ may be appropriate for the Song of Songs, for most ‘immoral’ texts he judges that ‘few today would regard such strategies as an effective solution’ (17). That rejection is too brief given the recent revival of interest in Patristic commentary, drawing on traditions of christological, ecclesiological, and other spiritual exegeses of OT scripture, as resources for interpretation.

Davies finds a hopeful way forward in reader-response approaches. These enable metacommentary on past works of biblical scholarship that evaded ethical responsibility. Constructive approaches to biblical criticism are not merely self-reflection because they build tools from the canon’s internal self-critique, and they enter a conversation in which the Bible also challenges the modern reader. Davies’ book is a careful overview of approaches to the general problem of scriptures whose morality is troubling, and would benefit any student of the Bible, especially those training for Christian ministry and preaching.

John P. McKeown, 2010.

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