Ethics and Biblical Narrative: A Literary and Discourse-Analytical Approach to the Story of Josiah

Written by S. Min Chun Reviewed By Peter H. W. Lau

S. Min Chun teaches at the Vancouver Institute for Evangelical Worldview in Langley, Canada. This monograph is a revision of his Oxford DPhil thesis, in which Chun attempts to redress the lack of interest in OT narrative as a source of ethics. The book contains an introduction followed by three main parts and a conclusion. An appendix (outlining verbal constructions in 2 Kgs 22:1–23:30), a bibliography, and indexes for Scripture, subject, and author references complete the book.

Part One focuses on OT narrative and ethics. The first chapter outlines the object and task of OT ethics. For Chun, prescribing general rules for application is both impossible and undesirable (p. 26). Instead, he views ethics as about character formation (pp. 25–26) and practical wisdom (pp. 54–55). The next two chapters summarise previous work on OT narrative and ethics, with a particular focus on the work of Cyril Rodd, Bruce Birch, Waldemar Janzen, Gordon Wenham, Robin Parry, and John Barton (who draws upon Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian ethics).

Part Two contains a definition of the discourse-analytical method along with Chun’s evaluation. As Chun sees it, the main benefit of this approach is that it is more objective, being verifiable and hence more scientific. The discourse analysis employed in this book follows Cynthia Miller’s definition (“the use of language in contexts larger than a sentence or single utterance”) because it integrates both formalist and functionalist definitions of discourse (C. Miller, “Linguistics,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson [Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic], 657–69; quoted on p. 101). Chun’s discussion of discourse analysis especially highlights its benefits in relation to plot, characterisation and evaluation (pp. 114–135).

Part Three contains applications of Chun’s method. In one chapter, two short narrative examples are given to demonstrate his approach: Jeroboam (1 Kgs 12:21–25) and Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:13–16). The next chapter contains the longer example of Josiah (2 Kgs 22:1–23:30; pp. 172–225), the bulk of which contains a detailed scene-by-scene discussion of the literary and discourse-linguistic observations of this biblical text. Noteworthy are two interpretations I found unconvincing: (1) Huldah addresses two different people in her prophecy—“the man” and “the king” (2 Kgs 22:15–20; pp. 203–208); and (2) Josiah’s slaughter of the priests is to be evaluated negatively (2 Kgs 23:16–20; pp. 216–217). In regards to the latter event, Chun downplays its importance as fulfilment of prophecy (1 Kgs 13:2), and along with it the possibility of deriving any ethic concerning the reliability of God’s word.

For Chun, “contingencies” are the main theme of the Josiah narrative. He relates contingency closely with chance and with unexpected events (p. 56). These contingencies include the discovery of the book of the law, Huldah’s “unexpected prophecy,” and the death of Josiah. These contingencies are in turn related to “crises”: the discovery of the book led to Josiah realising that his kingdom was in crisis, Huldah’s prophecy intensified the crisis, but Josiah’s reforms could not save Judah, as becomes apparent in Josiah’s own death. Chun then concludes with the ethical observations to be drawn from the narrative: (1) contingency is part of life; (2) obedience doesn’t always guarantee blessing; and (3) “obedience still belongs” to those “who live with contingency of life” (pp. 223–25).

For readers interested in ethics of the OT, there are at least two benefits of reading this book. First, the thorough discussion of discourse analysis and the review of previous scholarship on OT narrative and ethics is helpful. Second, monographs that stimulate reading and re-reading OT narrative for ethical instruction are welcome.

Nonetheless, readers will also want to keep this proviso in mind—Chun is firmly against deriving dominant themes and ethical principles for application from narrative. This aversion leads to a weak theological reading of the Josiah narrative, despite a strong theological overtone in the narrative itself. This is because he wants to emphasise the “practical wisdom” that a reader can gain by exercising their moral imagination through experiencing the world of the narrative (pp. 1, 54–55, et passim), and because he considers rules as unable to “cover all the unexpected” (p. 56). Chun does mention in passing that “freedom belongs to YHWH, who governs history” (p. 225), but he does not discuss the implications of this statement for ethics.

This omission leads me to wonder: Why can’t one have general rules and principles interacting with particular narratives to develop “practical wisdom” in a reader? After all, the OT wisdom literature tells us that wisdom begins with “the fear of the Lord” (e.g., Prov 9:10). And to respond to God with reverent awe, to relate rightly to God, requires an understanding of God. That is to say, theology is integral to wisdom and ethics. In the Josiah narrative, it is clear that despite the king’s singular acts of religious reform, God’s will was that Judah would still be destroyed because of the sins of Manasseh (2 Kgs 23:26–27). Thus, Chun underplays the unique circumstances of Josiah’s historical situation. There was nothing that even zealous Josiah could do to reverse God’s sovereign will. Moreover, the fulfilment of prophecy in Josiah’s actions means that God’s word can be trusted. Chun is correct to note the contingency in the Josiah narrative and also in our lives—if viewed from our perspective. But from God’s perspective, things don’t happen by chance, and all events are under his control. It is this theology that we derive from the narrative which helps us to rest securely and to press on by faith in God and obedience to his word.

Peter H. W. Lau

Peter H. W. Lau
OMF International
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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