Toward Old Testament Ethics

Written by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr Reviewed By Gordon Woolard

Walter Kaiser’s contribution to the field of biblical ethics will be helpful for those who want a broad overview of the field. Like an hors d’oeuvre the book will give the reader a taste of many and varied subjects, but the reader will probably not get enough of any one item to satisfy a hungry appetite for depth.

Dr Kaiser is well read on biblical ethics and theology, and perhaps one of the best features of his book is the extensive footnotes on each page. He is not afraid to credit other writers for their insights and thus introduce many avenues for further study. Yet at times the book seems to be more a compendium rather than a fresh approach to Old Testament ethics. He is especially indebted to W. S. Bruce’s book The Ethics of the Old Testament, first published in 1895.

The unifying theme of the book is the life of holiness based on God’s own holiness. Curiously, at the beginning of the chapter entitled ‘The Law of Holiness: Leviticus 18–20’, found in Section II, the author makes this understatement: ‘Old Testament ethics cannot be properly grasped apart from some understanding of the holiness of God’ (p. 112). Yet at the beginning of Section III he writes, ‘In the Old Testament, holiness lays claim to the entirety of a person’s life. It is impossible to exclude anything from the potential sphere of God’s own holiness’ (p. 139). This is one example of a few infelicities of organization and style which we find regrettable in a work of such scholarship. Dr Kaiser uses the theme of personal and corporate holiness to discuss such topics as worship, work, family life, capital punishment and abortion. Do not look for detail or lengthy arguments, but be prepared to use his ideas for further study. Perhaps the most controversial section is his discussion of ‘just and holy wars’. Some of his boldest statements are made concerning the relationship and responsibility of strong nations to their weaker friends and neighbours.

The author’s concern is always to be faithful to Scripture as the infallible Word of God. His exegesis is reliable, which makes this a good book for the Christian who does not have a vast library of Old Testament commentaries. The reader will also find the section on moral difficulties in the Bible to be faithful to Scripture, even if it gives but cursory answers in some cases.

The concluding section on the relationship of Old Testament ethics and New Testament applications is quite short. This is surprising since this topic cries out for a full discussion in a book on Christian ethics.

Toward Old Testament Ethics makes a good companion volume to Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics. The former volume gives the biblical foundation and many of the building materials to construct an ethical system, while the latter volume gives the needed finishing touches for subjects that Dr Kaiser’s book does not fully address.

Gordon Woolard