Master of Christian Ethics
Written by Georgia Harkness
Questions by Rev. Johnny Erato
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Dr. of Christian Ethics
Universal Life Church Seminary
Lesson 2 -- The Covenant, the Law, and the Prophets Part 1
The Covenant, the Law, and the Prophets Part 1
For a triple reason, we turn now to certain basic ideas in the Old Testament. The first is the light that the Old Testament can throw upon Jesus as we note what he retained, consciously or unconsciously from his heritage and what he set aside in response to higher insights. The second is the need to understand the Old Testament as a whole and to see it in perspective, since it too is the Christian’s Bible and grave errors of ethical interpretation have often resulted from lack of such perspective. The third arises from the fact that the social teachings of the prophets supply a degree of concreteness and of social application to specific circumstances which appears only marginally in the teachings of Jesus. This is not to say we can substitute them for Jesus, but where they are not at variance with his view, they can throw valuable light on our present need for concrete directives within comparable historical circumstances.
It is obvious that within a single chapter it is impossible to canvass the total ethical structure of the Old Testament.1 I shall attempt to deal only with three key concepts: the covenant, the law, and the message of the prophets.
1. The covenant
The idea of the covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people is the most basic and distinctive idea in the Old Testament, affecting as it does the total religious and moral outlook of Israel. In it are involved the nature of their God, his relation to them and to the stream of history, the framework within which they conceived their moral obligation, the grounds of divine judgment, and the hope of salvation which was to grow into the expectancy of the promised Messiah and the kingdom of God. This is not to say, that in the initial establishment or acceptance of the covenant the people foresaw all this, but it laid the groundwork on which all the rest could be erected.
We need not here go into the moot question as to whether Yahweh was a Kenite deity taken over by Moses for his people or whether the Yahweh concept has earlier roots. What is vital to our study is that from the time of Moses onward the people felt themselves to be in a particular relationship to their God.2 This relationship centers in a covenant voluntarily initiated by God, offering Yahweh’s protection and support in return for obedience to his will and law.
The nature of this covenant can best be seen in terms of certain contrasts. There were blood covenants among many primitive peoples, ratified often by ritualistic sacrifices, but with the assumption that the deities must be appeased, or their vanity flattered, or at best that the honor of the gods depended on the faithfulness of the people. As Israel’s God is different, so is the covenant different. There are elements of primitivism in Israel’s faith, yet its primary note is the union in Yahweh of sovereign power with righteousness. Yahweh was not obligated for any extraneous reason to enter into covenant relations with Israel; he did it freely. Yahweh’s chief pleasure was not in the blood of the rams or bullocks, though the ceremonial law might require them; it was in obedience to his holy will, which came in the insights of the prophets to mean "mercy and not sacrifice."
It is now commonly believed that Israel’s faith was not fully monotheistic before the sixth century B.C. and that a watershed is marked by the great declaration of the Second Isaiah in Isa. 44:6 where Yahweh is represented as saying:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
However, the existence of monolatry before that time ought not obscure the fact that apparently from the beginning of Israel’s thou, about God, he was more than the common run of tribal deities. Though other deities were believed to exist, Yahweh alone had any power function. The making of a golden calf or the worship of the Baalim was apostate religion. He alone was the maker of heaven and earth, and the determiner not only of the total structure of nature but of the eve of history. In his control of events he revealed both his righteous judgments and his saving power, and in spite of the attribution to him bellicose and other anthropomorphic traits the God of Israel is singularly free from common primitive tendencies.
Its [Israel’s] God stands quite alone. It is he who, even in the old creation story (Gen. 2:4 ff.), created all things without assistance or intermediary; his very name Yahweh claims for him this function. No pantheon surrounds him. He has no consort (the Hebrew does not even have a word for "goddess") and no progeny. Consequently the Hebrews, in sharpest contrast to their neighbors, developed no mythology.3
This is not to say that no myths are to be found in the Old Testament. They are there, but they do not constitute the nature of deity or form an integral part of ritualistic worship, as in so many pagan faiths. Rather, they serve to illustrate the nonmythological character of the Eternal.4 Yahweh is a moral Being who controls all nature and all history. Hence, when he chooses to establish a covenant with Israel he is not to be bargained with, but his sway and his will are to be gratefully accepted and flouted only at the people’s peril.
But did the people in their acceptance of the covenant make a bargain with their Deity? The answer is both Yes and No. It was not in a case a bargain based on equality of status, such as might be made between the "party of the first part" and the "party of the second part." Still less was it a social contract — a voluntary surrender of power order to delegate authority to a sovereign — as envisaged by Hobbes Rousseau.5 The covenant was more of a command than a bargain, stemming from the inherent, undelegated authority of Yahweh over the total structure of existence. Yet it was not without its elements of give and take. What is involved on both sides is epitomized in the Hebrew word hesed, for which there is no single synonym. On God’s part it signifies divine grace, a continuing requirement of obedience, but mercy and "lovingkindness" even in the midst of judgment. On man’s part hesed denotes the response to divine grace, complete loyalty to Yahweh and obedience to his will. It was not their own obedience, all too often patently surrendered, which made the Hebrews sure that God would not go back on his part of the covenant; it was their faith in his faithfulness that gave them confidence in his righteous judgments even when adversity seemed to indicate denial of his protection.
The covenant was thought to have all the inviolability of the order of nature, not because of its impersonality, as we are prone to think of nature, but because both nature and history stemmed from a common personal source — the will of Yahweh. The doctrines of creation, judgment, redemption, and providence, never systematically formulated but always presupposed in Hebrew thought, had a single foundation — the sovereign rule of Yahweh over his people and his world. This is at the root of the common observation that Hebrew faith, as contrasted with Greek philosophy and religion, is historical. Both the events of Hebrew history and the interpretation the people placed upon them — notably but not exclusively the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Covenant on Sinai, then Israel’s conquest of Canaan, her struggles with her foes, and finally the exile and return — are impregnated with the idea that the supreme Ruler of heaven and earth had in a special way chosen Israel as his people and was concerned in all their fortunes. It was not a covenant of merit, for it was never assumed that Israel deserved to be thus chosen; it was a covenant of grace.
A note of greater universality in regard to God’s love was destined to emerge in the teachings of the prophets, to be reflected in Jonah and some of the Psalms, and to come to full expression in the teachings of Jesus. But this does not alter the fact that the Old Testament as a whole has a note extremely important to Christian ethics today: namely, that God alone is the final arbiter of human affairs and that in him power, righteousness, and grace are inseparably joined. Apart from the conviction that God alone has absolute sovereignty, the nation or some other political, economic, or social structure becomes regulative. Apart from the conviction that the supreme Ruler is also good, the vicissitudes of history appear as the "trampling march of unconscious power"6 or at most as stages in the spiral of evolutionary progress wherein the anticipated goal fails to redeem the loss along the way.
Israel’s covenant relation foreshadows in a number of ways what was to become more explicit in Christianity. The most obvious connection is, of course, the "new covenant" and the establishment of Church as the "new Israel" with Christ as its center and head. But this is not all. Both judgment and redemption on God’s part rest the foundation of the covenant idea; likewise the demand for obedience and hence for unremitting moral responsibility on man’s side. So does the hope of the coming of the Kingdom, not as something earned by man’s good works nor yet as a state in which God can be indifferent to human effort, but rather as a consummation in which the condition of the covenant would be fully met. The apocalyptists of later Judaism distorted the covenant idea into an expectancy of the salvation God’s elect solely by the direct intervention of God; those Jews who envisaged Israel as a holy commonwealth whose holiness was to be tested and proved by moral obedience came closer to its meaning.
Apart from the covenant idea, both the prophets’ preaching of the doom to fall on a sinful and rebellious people and their hope for the future either would have been nonexistent or would have taken a very different turn. Here again there are modern counterparts and derivatives, for apart from foundations in a God of supreme power, righteousness and grace who is implicated in the suffering of his people, who condemns their sin yet offers release, prophetic preaching today escapes from soporific optimism only to fall into moral diatribe.
2. The law
In the previous section I have stressed mainly the kind of God who was believed by Israel to have entered into the covenant relation with his chosen people. We must now look at what the people believed commensurately was required of them in this crucial bilateral agreement.
There were two basic tests of being a Jew. One was circumcision; the other was the more general requirement of the keeping of the law. The first was clearly repudiated by Christianity, as became evident in the very important decision recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. What Christianity did with the law is a much more complex question, and the answer depends on what aspect of the law is being considered and in what context it is understood.
As we shall note again in lesson 4, it is both necessary and difficult to draw a line between the moral and the ceremonial law of Israel. Christian ethics must make this distinction, else we not only shall lose the Ten Commandments from Christianity but will be obliged to ascribe to Paul a disregard of the moral law at variance with the moral concern which appears on every page of his letters. Yet it is a distinction which is not easy to make, for in all of the great law codes of Israel — the Covenant Code (Exod. 20:23-23:33), the code embedded in the book of Deuteronomy, and the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) — specifications for ritualistic and ceremonial observance stand side by side with those indicating humaneness and moral insight.
A further distinction, important to make but not self-evident, is the extent to which Israel simply took over prevailing social regulations, and on the other hand, gave unique and distinctive meaning to the duties they believed laid upon them by their covenant with Yahweh. It is easy to err in either direction. There is ample evidence that Israel’s morality did not simply emerge full-grown out of supernatural revelation. In some respects it follows the common pattern of primitive societies; in some it shows Canaanitic and through this channel Babylonian influences. In others, however, the morality of the covenant and hence its embodiment in reverence for the law of Yahweh is unique among all Israel’s neighbors and contemporaries. Its uniqueness centers in the event, the condition, and the promise, which Israel in her worst apostasies never forgot:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exod. 19:4-6.)
The moral implications of the covenant did not readily take on the character of universal obligation and were never so conceived by the rank and file of the people. Not until Jesus, and the "new covenant," was it fully universalized. Yet it was assumed throughout Israel’s history that the law of the covenant must be observed as divine command within the covenant brotherhood, and this had a radical influence on Israel’s attitude toward the law. In part, this limitation of obligation to the covenant brotherhood was an aspect of the common tendency, primitive but still persisting to our day, to draw a sharp distinction between the "in-group" and the "out-group." But in part also, it was uniquely related to Israel’s God. This will become apparent if we note some stages of development in her history.
It is probable that the most primitive code in the Old Testament is the ceremonial code (the so-called J Decalogue) which is found in Exod. 34. Its content need not detain us except to observe that the codification of Hebrew law begins, not in a statement of general ethical principles such as the prohibitions of murder, adultery, theft, lying, and covetousness found in the Decalogue of Exod. 20, but in provisions for exclusive and imageless worship of Yahweh, feasts and sacrifices. The note of exclusive worship was vital to the keeping of Israel’s faith pure; the ceremonialism, which it shared in kind with other primitive groups, was destined to be in tension with morality throughout Israel’s history.
Though the dating of the Decalogue as it appears in Exod. 20:2-17 is in dispute, and it is doubtful that in its present form it is Mosaic, there is no adequate ground for doubting that under Moses both the religious and the social structure of Israel took shape.7 What is more significant than its date is the unique convergence of duties owed to Yahweh with universal moral principles which it embodies. Without this convergence, it could neither have occupied the place it held in Israel nor lasted to be normative in Christianity up to our own time.8
The Covenant Code, which is affixed to the Exodus Decalogue, illustrates admirably the blending of moral with religious considerations, and within religion the mixture of adoration and gratitude with ceremonial observance, which characterizes Israel’s faith as a whole. It begins with an injunction to imageless worship, provisions for altars and sacrifices, and assurance of the divine presence and blessing. Then follow nearly three chapters of very explicit provisions concerning slaves, punishment for deeds of violence and theft, restitution for injury to property, family relations, helpfulness to the stranger and to the poor, observance of the Sabbath as a day of rest for servants and even for the animals. They are not provisions for our day, but in the setting of agrarian society in the tenth century B.C. they show an admirable sense of justice, moral responsibility, and humane concern for the underprivileged. Interspersed are stern warnings against sacrifice to strange gods and firm injunctions as to the modes and times of sacrifice to Yahweh. The code proper ends with t:he strange injunction,9 which sounds to modern ears neither moral nor religious, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk," and is followed immediately by the renewal of the covenant.
Not only its preface and epilogue, but recurrent references to the Hebrews having been strangers in the land of Egypt, give the Covenant Code its setting. Without a sense of gratitude to Yahweh and of moral obligation derivative from his care a law code might have been developed in Israel at this time, as had occurred centuries earlier in Babylon in the Code of Hammurabi. But without the covenant it is doubtful that it would have been so humane; it is certain that it could not have had the powerful sanctions it possessed.
Yet it is not so clearly in the codes as in the voices of the prophets that we see the roots of Israel’s attitude toward the law. In the next section we shall consider further what they say to us today. But we cannot read them correctly unless we see them in protest against perversions of the covenant, endeavoring to call Israel not only forward but back to what was deepest in her history. Many generations have thrilled to the story of Nathan finding the courage to say to the guilty; David, "Thou art the man" (II Sam. 12:7 K.J.V.), and of Elijah rebuking Ahab for the theft of Naboth’s vineyard (I Kings 21). It was not simply because murder and theft were forbidden by the law of the land, but because they were contrary to the law of a higher Sovereign, that these men could thus speak up to kings. The message of Amos is in no sense an abrogation of the doctrine of the chosen people, as is sometimes inferred from Amos 9:7; it is an attempt to jolt the people loose from a self-centered, complacent, mechanical conception of the covenant. Its true center, he saw, lay in obedience to God’s law, not in feasts, solemn assemblies, and burnt offerings, and divine election meant election to moral responsibility. The stance from which Amos speaks, giving meaning to all he says about social justice and the corning "day of the Lord" in his call to repentance and prediction of doom, is epitomized in the words:
You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities.
A similar note rings through the prophecies of Hosea, Micah, and the first Isaiah. The harshness of Amos is alleviated by the portrayal of God’s tender love for his erring people, the promise that a remnant shall repent and be spared, the prevision of the coming of the Prince of Peace. But at no point in the writings of the eighth-century prophets is the law of the covenant abrogated or universalized. It is because the Hebrews are God’s people that they are obligated to obey his law. Their disobedience cannot cancel out God’s hesed, but neither will God’s mercy save them from destruction if they persist in flouting his just demands.
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Copyright 1957 - 2010 by Georgia Harkness. Abingdon Press. "Christian Ethics." All rights reserved. No part of this lesson may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
1. How did the world in which the Apostle Paul lived contribute to his life and ministry?
2. In what ways was the Apostle Paul a “man of two worlds”?
3. How did the Apostle Paul’s work show a certain genius for missions and apologetics?