Chapter 2: The Covenant, the Law, and the Prophets
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 Chapter 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.
With the appearance of the Deuteronomic Code and the great reformation under King Josiah in 621 B.C., the law becomes both more ritualistic and more humanitarian. The emergence of both notes, the one so clearly in keeping with the teaching of the prophets, the other apparently at variance with it, calls for explanation. We shall understand it best if we do not import into it modern notions of “narrowness” versus “breadth,” but see both as aspects of Yahweh-centeredness. The political situation of Judah was becoming more precarious; the people had seen Samaria swallowed up by Assyria a century before, and now the new Babylonian octopus was extending its tentacles from the East. What more natural than that the combination of nationalism and fear should intensify the demand for the destruction of all foreign cults (Deut. 12:1-3), make idolatry a capital offense (Deut. 13), and center all worship in Jerusalem alone (Deut. 12:13-14 16:5-6)? Again and again it was affirmed that the very existence of the nation depended on loyalty to the God of the covenant and obedience to his law. The prophets had said this repeatedly, and it was only natural that the law should be understood as entailing both ceremonial and moral obligation. The dual thrust of the book of Deuteronomy should not surprise us in view of the fact that in our own time political and social insecurity appears to be giving an impetus to a revival of religion which is in part marked by moral discernment while in other aspects it is perfunctory and external.
A few years after the great reformation, a fresh voice was heard, proclaiming persistently in opposition to the soothing optimism of the lying prophets of the time that this was no true reform (Jer. 6:13-14; 8:10-11). We cannot at this point follow the tragic, challenging story of Jeremiah, but with reference to the law he saw, more clearly than any other man of his time, that its essence could not be fulfilled by cultic busyness at the temple. Only the clean heart could suffice. This the people were not rendering to Yahweh (cf. Jer. 4:3-4, 14; 7:21-23; 31:33), and without it neither flirtation nor warfare with Egypt or Babylon could save them. There is a stark hopelessness about Jeremiah’s message which sets forth in bold silhouette the great hope of the new covenant. This complete despair of the inviolability of the national state, reinforced a little later by Ezekiel, paved the way for a new understanding of Israel’s destiny.
With the Exile, as every student of the Bible knows, came the discovery that Israel could still be Yahweh’s people, even without a political state, far away from the Temple and in a strange land. It is significant that this period is marked not only by the emergence of the synagogue as a place of worship but by a fresh attempt to recover, codify, and study the law. >From then on, Judaism was to be a religion of the Book, and no small part of it, along with the accounts of the great events of their past, was embodied in the law.
It was a natural development that postexilic Judaism should have become essentially a community of the law. From earliest times, Israel’s primary obligations had been to worship Yahweh only and to obey his law. These obligations had not been set aside by the destruction of the state and of Solomon’s Temple; in fact, the doom which had fallen through failure to observe them had but validated their binding character. The final chapters of Ezekiel, which give the constitution for a new messianic state centering in a purified Temple and its cult, foreshadow the emergence of a new legalism.
From the time of the Restoration onward, two strains characterize Judaic thought. They were prevalent in the time of Jesus, and as the Evanston discussions of “Christ — the Hope of the World” made evident, their counterparts were taken over into Christianity and persist to the present. One was the apocalyptic expectancy of the establishment of the kingdom of God by divine intervention. The other was the necessity to keep the law of the covenant within such remnants of the state as might remain and under any political regime that might temporarily hold sway. They stemmed from a common source9 the rule of Yahweh over his people, and were expressions of a common hope, the “good time coming” when Yahweh would again restore his people to greatness. Yet both the nature of this consummation and the requirements for its fulfillment were different. “If the Apocalyptic longed for the establishment of the Kingdom by the direct activity of God, the law gave voice to the strong feeling that God would neither bless nor set up his Kingdom over a people which did not keep his law.” 10 From the latter conviction stemmed the minutiae of oral tradition which constituted the Mishnah and the written commentary upon it which made up the Talmud. It produced both a “holy commonwealth” of the faithful and an artificial legalism against which Jesus had repeatedly to protest.
Let us see now what general observations can be gleaned from Israel’s course with reference to the law.
The first is that the law was by no means the barren and external thing that the legalists of Jesus’ time or the literalists of ours have too often made it. It was founded on bedrock — the righteous, sovereign rule of a protecting, gracious God who demanded its observance. It took on concreteness from the circumstances of the times — social, political, and economic — as ours inevitably must. Yet its basic frame of reference is timeless.
Second, as the God of the Hebrews was too small, so was their moral outlook. Reference has been made to the humaneness of the codes. This was there, but so also was the line between the Hebrew and the alien. Those “strangers” living within the community of Israel had some rights, those outside it none. This distinction appears again and again with regard to treatment of enemies, family relations, slavery, debt, and even to the selling of diseased meat.11 The laws about sacred seasons, Sabbath observance, details of sacrifice, clean and unclean foods, bulk large in all the codes recorded in the Old Testament. And these were but the nucleus of the “sumptuary legislation” which had become so complex in Jesus’ time that thirty-nine different types of labor were forbidden on the Sabbath, each type requiring further oral legislation to designate what did or did not constitute it. 12 Why? The basic reason is that the Hebrews believed Yahweh to be the kind of God who required these things, and not all the preaching of the prophets could dispel this view.
This, of course, is not the whole story. There were injunctions to justice, mercy, and faith both in the law and in the prophets before Jesus’ time, and the Old Testament concept of God has in it grandeur as well as narrowness. Yet the codes could go no further than what the people believed their God to require, and in the concrete details of living their restricted vision of God left them limited.
The third deduction we must draw is in regard to what Jesus did with the law. Both of the foregoing elements must be taken into account to understand his attitude. He stood in a great tradition of law observance which he felt no desire or impulse to surrender. It was embedded in all his past, and with good reason he could say that he came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. Yet such fulfillment could come only through obedience to the God whose moral demands had undergirded it at its best, not through the petty legalism into which it had fallen. And his God was not the God of Israel only, but the Father whose love with infinite concern for human need embraced all men within its scope. Thus, where the law served both to honor God and to serve human need, he could rejoice in it; where it was at variance, he could boldly set it aside.
It need not surprise us, though it did both surprise and anger his contemporaries, to hear Jesus say:
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. (Mark 2:27.)
There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. (Mark 7:15.)
If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24.)
Any other attitude toward the law would have been to forsake both the hesed of his fathers and the way of the God he came to serve and to reveal. It was obedience in love which actuated Jesus, and it is this which he sets before us today.
3. The prophets
Jesus brought together the universal love of God and universal moral obligation, and saw in both the true fulfillment of the law. The prophets before him had in a measure approximated this insight, and Jesus stood in the prophetic tradition. Though we have already had occasion to speak of them, we must now see what was distinctive in their approach to the problems of social morality.
It is the almost universal consensus of serious students of the Bible that in the message of the prophets is the high-water mark of the Old Testament. There are fascinating and meaningful stories in the J, E, D, and P documents and the postexilic short stories, great devotional passages in the Psalms, substantial wisdom literature, and as we have seen, significant structures in Israel’s law. Yet the insights of the prophets from Amos through the Second Isaiah surpass them all. I shall attempt not to deal with the message of each one individually, for this has been done many times,13 but to draw some deductions from their general structure of thought.
The first observation to make is that the prophets, like the compilers of the law, proceeded from the assumptions of the covenant. This made their messages both religious and ethical, with an intertwining which makes it impossible to withdraw either element without losing the heart of their message. They never doubted that Israel was the chosen people of God and that a righteous, gracious, but exacting God demanded obedience of his people. What they objected to, as the burden of their message, were the misunderstandings of God’s will which substituted ceremonialism for justice, mercy, and faith, and the apostasies whereby the people persistently violated their side of the covenant.
Did the prophets reject the cultic side of Israel’s religion? Their invectives against the substitution of ritualistic correctness for righteousness leave open this possibility, and of the greater prophets Ezekiel alone, standing on the threshold of the postexilic period, expressly calls for a purified ritual as an integral part of the worship of Yahweh. Opinions differ as to whether the others rejected outright the sacrificial cult. It seems more probable, however, that what they protested was not its existence, deeply embedded as it was in the covenant relation, but its perversion through exaltation to a place of primacy. Comparably, no Christian today need object to the ritual and traditional observances of the Church when these contribute to the worship of God, but every Christian ought to protest when “doing things right” in the Church becomes a substitute for righteousness.
Second, the prophets must be understood in both an individual and a social context. This is true whether what is being considered is the source or the object of their message. They were for the most part lone figures assailing the popular mores, and hence misunderstood. But to assume that they were solely individual religious geniuses is to miss the fact that they emerged out of a religious community and spoke to a religious community. They were Hebrew prophets, not Greek philosophers or Buddhist Bodhisattvas, and they never dreamed of stepping outside of this framework. Furthermore, though we are accustomed to think of a progressive growth in a sense of individual responsibility from Amos to Ezekiel, the difference at this point is probably overstated. The message of every prophet, Moses, Samuel, Nathan, and Elijah as well as those who came later, was to every individual within the community of Israel, and neither king nor humblest subject was exempt from the obligation to obey the will of Yahweh. The application of this fact to mistaken modern notions of an “individual” versus a “social” gospel is obvious.
Third, though explicit monotheism and universalism were a late development, their nucleus is implicit in all prophetic preaching. The ceremonialism of Israel, though understood by the people as the mark of Israel’s particularity, had actually much in common with other primitive religious rites. This similarity was one reason why they found it so easy to take over Canaanitic worship. It was in the ethical insights of Israel, as these were seen most clearly by the prophets, that the greatest distinctiveness lay, and in their vision of the God of righteousness was the germ cell of monotheism. The gods of the nations were many because the nations were many; the God of righteousness was one, and in his hand lay the destinies of nations. As we noted earlier, no sharp distinction was drawn between nature and history; God was the Maker and sovereign Ruler in both spheres. From this conviction, implicit in the whole idea of the covenant but seen with fullest clarity by the prophets, it was a logical step to the conclusion that God had given to Israel special privileges in order to be the special servant of all mankind. This insight, glimpsed by Amos, was destined to come to full expression in the Second Isaiah.
Fourth, the prophets saw with utter clarity the persistent fact of sin, and saw it not as maladjustment or even as failure to “hit the mark” of some objective human standard, but as sin against God. It was rebellion against God and disloyalty to God that made the self-centered luxury of the rich, the exploitation of the poor, bribery, drunkenness, and harlotry such evils. This is not to depreciate the prophets’ sense of social justice; they had it in splendid measure. But it was grounded in something more basic than human law or tribal standards. Micah said:
what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
This conviction was the basis of both prophetic judgment and the message of hope. The God who could not countenance sin would not save from destruction even his chosen people who persisted in sin. But neither could the God of mercy abandon his people to their sins. A remnant would return; the Messiah would be sent; the Kingdom would come. Although one reads in the prophets page after page of denunciation and promised doom, it was never the prophets’ last word, for it was not God’s last word. Those prophets and theologians of today who, like the Old Testament prophets and Paul, from whom they draw much of their message, have a clear and powerful sense of sin would do well to accent as much the prophetic note of hope through the grace of God.
And fifth, in everything the prophets said, they spoke to the current situation. They spoke from a perspective that was more than “current,” but they never spoke in abstractions. Where they enunciated general principles, as in Micah’s definition of true religion just noted (6:8) or Isaiah-Micah’s still unfulfilled vision of a warless world (Isa. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1-4), they spoke to the people as they were, in terms of what ought to be. The prophets saw and set forth visions that still stir us, but they were not “visionaries.” It is because of their utter realism as they spoke within the conditions of a social and political community — or to adopt a current term, a responsible society — that next to the teachings of Jesus we find in them our firmest basis of social ethics.
4. Jesus and the Old Testament
Let us now try to draw together what Jesus took from the Old Testament and what, therefore, Christians may hold to be of permanent validity.
First, Jesus shared with Old Testament thought the general structure of God-centered moral living. It apparently never occurred to him to give ethical injunctions derived from any other source. A great deal of our contemporary problem about “love perfectionism” centers in the attempt to ground ethics either in human nature or in the structure of social institutions. The biblical view — both Old Testament and New — makes obedience to the will of God the final criterion of the good life.
Did Jesus accept the idea of the covenant, and with it of Israel as God’s chosen people? This question is crucial for the universality of his message. Apparently, at the beginning of his ministry he conceived his mission as to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” It was to this group and not to the Gentiles that he commissioned the twelve (Matt. 10:5-6), and his encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28) is significant in the fact that he both at first demurred and then yielded to her entreaty for the healing of her daughter. This gives the key to Jesus’ attitude. His own people were precious to him, and he never expressly repudiated the covenant relation. Yet to him so universal was the love of God, so compelling the need to serve every human being, that the covenant with its exclusive bounds was left behind. It remained for his followers in the early Church to make concrete the break which his acts and attitudes foreshadowed.
Second, his ethical principles were those of Judaism, yet with a difference in emphasis which makes their impact new. Point for point, there is nothing in the teaching of Jesus which cannot be found in the Old Testament or in the rabbinical teaching. Pharisaism, though it had its faults which called forth Jesus’ rebuke, had also in it much that was great and good. Witness, for example, this passage from The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, written toward the end of the second century B.C.:
Love ye one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peaceably to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he repent and confess, forgive him. But if he deny it, do not get into a passion with him, lest catching the poison from thee he take to swearing and so thou sin doubly. . . [But] if he be shameless and persist in his wrong-doing, even so forgive him from the heart, and leave to God the avenging.14
Nevertheless, taken as a whole, the ethical teaching of Jesus leaves an impression which nothing in Judaism does. This is due in part to the conviction of Christians that Jesus fully exemplified his message, as no individual in prophetism or Phanisaism fully did. But it is due also to the extent to which Jesus always made human need the criterion of acts of obedient love to God. If the law of the Sabbath stood in the way of human service, it was to be suspended; he ate with publicans and sinners to win them to the Kingdom even at the cost of ceremonial uncleanness. Love of neighbor becomes freely given, uncalculating, unrestricted service, such as is epitomized in the parable of the good Samaritan, and this flows from the nature of the love of God. The love of God, though it appears not infrequently in the Old Testament and in the rabbinical writings, there carries with it a connotation of God’s love for the people Israel which was too small for Jesus. He took the moral framework of Israel and transformed it into something so universal, so compelling, that it became new.
And in the third place, as we shall see more fully in the next chapter, Jesus took the eschatology like the ethics of his time and made it into something different. His inheritance from the prophets moralized his expectancy of divine intervention; his own sense of relationship to God gave a new turn to both eschatology and ethics. Probably because of a conviction of the nature of his own messiahship, but certainly because of his conviction that the kingdom of God meant the righteous rule of God in a redeemed community for this world and the next, he made the kingdom of God and not the triumph of Israel the supreme note in his teaching. With all the ambiguities that surround the records of his teaching regarding the Kingdom, it is clear that it embodies the goal of God’s reign over the hearts and lives of men, and thus sets forth the great hope of a better world both now and in the world to come. To make Jesus’ conception of the Kingdom solely into a better society on earth is to lose its great overtones and foreshorten its vista; to deprive it of ethical content is to emasculate it into something Jesus himself would never have recognized.
Thus it comes about that Jesus, the greatest of the prophets, the fulfillment of the law, inaugurated a new covenant for the redemption of mankind. It is to him, and not to any other teaching or teacher, that we must look for our basic moral insights. It is with good reason that one is reported as saying of old, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
1. For a brief but still somewhat detailed summary, the reader is referred to my The Sources of Western Morality, chs. v, vi. For a more detailed study, J. M. Powis Smith, The Moral Life of the Hebrews (University of Chicago Press, 1923), though old is still the most useful single volume. For a penetrating survey, see Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Guide to Understanding the Bible (New York: Harper & Bros., 1938) in the chapter on “The Idea of Right and Wrong.”
2. The biblical narrative places the institution of the covenant in the time of Abraham (Gen. 17:1-8) with a still more general covenant in God’s promise to Noah (Gen. 9:8-17). These, however, are doubtless proleptic statements of a later development.
3. John Bright, The Kingdom of God (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 195 p. 25. Used by permission of the publisher.
4. For example, such important myths as those of the creation story, the fall, the tower of Babel, and the flood indicate Yahweh’s sovereign control of nature and history, and his union of righteousness with power.
5. Paul Ramsey, op. cit., ch. x, gives a significant comparison of the Hebrew covenant with the social contract views of Hobbes, Rousseau, Bodin, and Grotius.
6. The closing words of Bertrand Russell’s classic statement of atheistic faith, A Man’s Worship in Mysticism and Logic, and Other Essays (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1954).
7. See W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1946), for the most authoritative statement of evidence to this effect.
8. D. Elton Trueblood in Foundations for Reconstruction (New York: Harper & Bros., 1946) takes the principles of the Ten Commandments and applies them vitally to the problems of our time.
9. Repeated from Exod. 34:26, as are provisions for the Sabbath, feasts three times a year, the use of unleavened bread in sacrifices, and the offering of the first fruits to Yahweh.
10. Bright, op. cit., p. 171.
11. Note for example, Deut. 1:16; 7:2; 14:21; 15:1-2; 23:3.
12. See Ramsey, op. cit., pp. 49-50, for the list with illustrations of the finespun distinctions thus entailed.
13. The reader who desires a brief summary of the messages of Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Second Isaiah will find it in my Toward Understanding the Bible, pp. 67-74, or The Sources of Western Morality, pp. 120-40.
14. The Testament of Gad, tr. R. H. Charles, VII, 3-7.