This is the fourth in a six-part series of essays from a cross section of leading scholars revisiting the place of the “First Testament” in contemporary Christian faith. —The editors

Christians have a problem. We know we are supposed to base our ethics on the Bible, but sometimes the Bible is vague on ethical matters that we think should be straightforward.

The New Testament doesn’t raise any questions about slavery, for example. Paul instructs slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Eph. 6:5). Texts like this have been used throughout Christian history to justify horrible acts of dehumanization by Christians who believed the Bible was “on their side.”

But the Old Testament is hardly silent on slavery. It says that bondservants should be released after six years. Why doesn’t the New Testament refer to this rule? For one thing, it’s being realistic, making allowance for the human hardness of hearts that was greater in the context of the Roman Empire than it was in Israel. By contrast, the Old Testament places limits on bond service that are so restrictive that they ruled out actual slavery for fellow Israelites (it’s misleading that recent translations use the word “slave” in the Old Testament). The Old Testament assumes that work in general belongs in the context of community relationships, and it places clear limits on servitude. Israelites are never “owned” by one another, all their service is temporary and compensated in some way, and there are strict regulations to ensure that foreign servants (who were owned) are treated with respect and compassion.

While I suspect most of us believe the Old Testament is the inspired word of God, we often don’t act like it. That might be, in part, because some of what we find in the Old Testament seems distasteful or even appalling to us. But more often, we just don’t consider looking to it for guidance. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, the Scriptures are profitable for teaching, reproving, correcting, and training in right living, and they thus play a role in equipping us to do good things. “The Scriptures” this passage refers to are what we today call the Old Testament—people were still writing the New Testament when Paul wrote to Timothy. Since we believe that the Old Testament Scriptures are inspired and we think this fact is important, why don’t we turn to them much for ethics—the purpose for which we are promised they are profitable? What would happen if we did?

Article continues below

The Old Testament speaks for itself

Paul told the church in Rome that the proper requirement of the Torah (the Hebrew term translated as “law” in our modern Bibles) is fulfilled in us as we live according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). Let’s put that together with the line from 2 Timothy earlier: If we want to walk according to the Spirit, we need to know what the Old Testament Scriptures say. We need an understanding of and familiarity with the Old Testament, including the regulations that many of us avoid in our Old Testament reading. Without them, we miss God’s ideals and expectations for human behavior, the vital foundation for understanding the full, biblical answers to some of our biggest ethical questions.

When we do think about the Old Testament and ethics, we tend to approach them in one of two ways. One way is to look for how the Old Testament may inform us and support us on issues that are important to us—such as justice or the conservation of creation or same-sex marriage or caring for migrants. The other is to fret over problems the Old Testament seems to raise for us—such as polygamy or the annihilation of the Canaanites. In the first case, we’ve set the agenda and we’re seeking to let the Old Testament say something about what is important to us. (“See? The Old Testament is relevant!”) With the second, we think we know what’s right and we’re seeking to let the Old Testament off the hook when it doesn’t fit with our understanding. (“It’s really not as bad as it seems.”)

But what if we paid attention to the Old Testament’s own way of looking at ethics to see how it raises concerns that we have to respond to? Rather than making the Old Testament fit our needs, what if we allowed it to shape our understanding? Doing this will be challenging, but it is valuable and necessary to living out faithful Christian ethics.

Fulfilling the Torah

One reason it’s tricky to discern the implications of the Old Testament Scriptures as a whole is that they weren’t written in one go. They issued from the work of many different people over the better part of a thousand years. They come from cultures different than our Western lives; thus, they can seem remote. And they can seem to accept things that we don’t expect God to accept. The Scriptures were addressing situations very different from ours, and God needed them to speak differently into different contexts.

Article continues below

In giving us guidance about what’s right, the Old Testament isn’t systematic, and it isn’t organized by topic. Part of the challenge and the richness of the Old Testament is its colorful variety. Yet in due course, these writings became one book. So how can they become a resource to us? Jesus gives us some pointers for answering this question.

Image: Matt Chinworth

One of the first things Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is that he didn’t come to annul the Torah and the Prophets but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). “Fulfill” sounds like a technical term, but Matthew is using the ordinary word that means “fill.” Jesus came to fill them up, to fill them out. How did he do so? When he goes on to say, “You’ve heard it said . . . but I say to you,” he gives a number of examples of this filling out. For instance, it’s possible to latch on to the commandment that prohibits murder and ignore the Old Testament’s warnings about anger. Jesus isn’t saying something new, as if the Old Testament didn’t realize that anger was to be avoided. Proverbs makes that point clear. Rather, Jesus fulfills the Torah and the Prophets by pointing out things the Old Testament says, and things it implies, that people might be inclined to avoid. He brings out the full implications of the Scriptures.

In another example, the Torah says, “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). The context makes it clear that Leviticus has in mind the neighbor you don’t get on with, the neighbor who’s your enemy. Maybe Jesus knew of people who thought that as long as you love your nice neighbor, you can hate your neighbor who is your enemy. But the Old Testament never says you can hate anyone, and neither do any other Jewish writings. Leviticus itself implies that you must love your enemy, but you could miss that inference. So in one instance of this “filling out,” Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, fulfilling the Torah by bringing out its implications: Your neighbor may not be someone you like, but you still have to love them.

Justice and righteousness?

A friend of mine suggested to me that Christian ethics has become primarily about principles, sweeping sentiments like I stand with Jesus on the side of love, justice, and liberation. We assume it’s obvious what love, justice, and liberation are. But the risk is that the outworking of those principles comes mainly in accepting and encouraging the commitments of other progressive or conservative people. And the danger is that our thinking and lives are therefore substantially shaped by our culture, by our social context. It’s tempting to assume that our way of thinking must be broadly right—after all, we’re Christians and we’re committed to the Scriptures, aren’t we? But we may need to have our understanding confronted, or at least tweaked.

Article continues below

Take, for example, the way we think about justice. It’s easy to assume that everyone agrees in a general sense what justice is. However, definitions of “justice” vary across cultures. There’s an Old Testament phrase that gets translated “justice and righteousness.” It’s been rightly described as the Old Testament expression for “social justice.” But it doesn’t mean social justice in the same sense that we conventionally attach to that phrase. Individually, the two Hebrew words don’t translate as “justice” or “righteousness” with the meaning that we attach to those words in English either. The word translated as justice (mishpat) denotes something like the proper exercise of authority and power. And the word translated as righteousness (sedaqah) means something like faithfulness, doing the right thing in one’s relationships with people in one’s community—whereas the English word righteousness means living an honorable individual life.

For us, being concerned about justice may mainly mean advocating for what’s right. In the Old Testament, “justice and righteousness” were at least as much about what you did as about what you advocated for. It was practical and down to earth, personal and costly. It was about doing what you had the power to do on behalf of the people who lived nearby. For heads of households, it meant seeing that the resources of the family were shared with needy people outside the family and that the family didn’t exploit the people to whom it provided work. For us, it’s not just about saying what the city should do about homelessness. It’s about me seeing what I can do about getting the homeless person on my street the shelter and assistance needed. It’s not just about lobbying a government or business to do something about conservation. It’s about me taking fewer long, polluting flights across the Atlantic.

Article continues below

The most important thing

Although reading the Old Testament broadly is necessary for Christian ethics, if we had to boil it down to one thing, what would be the most important command in the Torah? Jesus’ answer to this key question provides vital guidance for understanding biblical ethics (Matt. 22:36–40). Jewish theologians liked to debate which commandment was the most important, though there was really little doubt about the answer: Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deut. 6:5). As some other Jewish teachers did, Jesus augments that command with another from the Torah, the command about loving one’s neighbor, and he teaches that it deserves to be set right alongside loving God.

The thought-provoking observation that Jesus then adds is that the entirety of the Torah and Prophets depends on these two commands. That’s an astounding claim, and it is central for understanding Old Testament ethics. When you wonder about the point of an individual rule in the Torah or when you’re thinking that a particular command seems an odd thing for God to require, it’s always worth asking, “How is this command a working out of either love for God or love for neighbor (or both)?”

Consider an example: The Old Testament teaches that people became impure when they had to bury a family member who had passed away, and that a man became impure after ejaculation. How do these scriptural rules about purity express love for God? It’s easy to think this is about sin, but that’s only part of what’s going on. Rules about purity didn’t concern sin—until you ignored them. There was nothing morally wrong with burial, or with sex with the right person. What’s wrong is forgetting that the Creator and his creatures are very different.

One focus of the rules about purity was this important distinction between human beings and God, which is partly what the Bible means when it talks about holiness. The rules recognized that God in his own being had nothing to do with death or with sex. Many of us live in cultures that avoid thinking about death and that are obsessed with sex. The rules in Leviticus remind us that death is a regular part of the human experience and also that it is unnatural, resulting from the Fall. Likewise, they remind us that sex is just something human, and while good, it is not something divine. This all further serves to illustrate that ethics isn’t a distinct category in the Old Testament. Who we are and who God is are inextricably connected to what we should do.

Article continues below

Blessing our hard hearts

The Old Testament recognizes the difference between the ideal and the reality and speaks accordingly. We see this clearly in a discussion Jesus has with some Pharisees about divorce (Mark 10:1–12). When asked what he thinks about it, Jesus turns the question around on them: “What does the Torah say?” They note that the Torah allows divorce. But Jesus points out that it allows divorce because the Israelites were hardhearted. If you look back to the way things were at Creation, when God made the first man and woman, you can’t imagine that divorce was intended as part of the picture. But in introducing the rules in Deuteronomy, God recognizes that some men throw out their wives, so he provides a rule that regulates the way this grim event happens, and he offers the wife some protection. As with the issue of slavery, here too the Torah both lays out God’s creation ideal and vision and makes allowance for the fact that we don’t live up to it. This pattern in no way diminishes God’s righteousness; rather, it accentuates his mercy toward us.

So how do we apply today the Old Testament Scriptures and the ethics they describe? How can a Christian obey the Scriptures that the apostles and that the earliest Christians treasured as “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”? We can ask three questions as we diligently study the Old Testament and seek to live according to God’s revelation: How do the implications of the Old Testament’s teaching need “filling out”? How does Old Testament teaching express love for God and love for neighbor? And, finally, how far is the Old Testament laying down creation ideals and how far is it making allowance for our hardheartedness?

To be sure, there is significant challenge in pursuing the creation ideal and not merely settling for the compromise. But the ethics of the Old Testament are basic to Jesus’ teachings, and he gave us the tools we need to implement them. If the Old Testament was so central for Jesus, the real question is not “How can we as Christians apply Old Testament ethics to our lives?” but rather “How can we not?” Jesus has already made it possible for us to do so, and through dying and rising, he has already covered us when we don’t.

John Goldingay is professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from his book Old Testament Ethics: A Guided Tour (IVP Academic).

[ This article is also available in español Português 简体中文 한국어, ,  繁體中文 català, and Galego. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.