Jeremiah Unterman: Uncovering the Roots of Jewish Ethics

What motivated you to write this book?

After many years of biblical studies and eclectic readings of ancient Near Eastern literature, I realized that the Jewish Bible made some huge advances in ethics over ancient Near Eastern civilizations. However, the scholarly tendency is either to ignore the ancient Near Eastern context, or to see the Tanakh as simply another product of the ancient world—which does not point to a significant difference in ethical values from, for example, Mesopotamian cultures. As I did not see any single, wide-ranging, scholarly study that represented my preliminary thinking, I decided to investigate the matter in a systematic way.

The more I read and studied, the more I became convinced that a very important goal of the Jewish Bible was to create a just society for all its members, and that this was a revolution in human literature and thought. I also realized that many of the ethical values of the Tanakh lay at the basis of Christianity and modern Western civilization. At this point, I felt compelled to write the book.

What is most surprising about the Bible’s ethical revolution?

Most surprising is how the Jewish Bible’s worldview and pragmatic ethics are so essentially different from anything else in ancient Near Eastern literature. It’s not that ethical values do not exist in the ancient Near East. They do. To take just one example, for 2,000 years, Egyptian civilization recorded a constant refrain: “to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked. …” Yet, this refrain was found primarily in statements of self-justification, along with wisdom literature. Ultimately, in daily life, it was the individual’s choice. The person did not suffer any consequences for not acting in accordance with this, and at death, he would use the refrain to deny wrongdoing so the gods would judge him favorably. However, in the Tanakh, care for the poor and stranger is critical for the very survival of the society (Justice for All: chapter 3). Why? Because in the Jewish Bible all requirements for human moral behavior are derived from God’s covenantal law to the people—part of a confluence of extremely significant ideas and actions that appear only in the Tanakh in the entire ancient Near East.

Further, only in the Tanakh was every immoral act against a human being also deemed an act against God. Even more so, as chapter 4 of the book shows, a unique prophetic teaching was that ritual behavior was acceptable to God only if given by a person who behaved morally.

How do you grapple with the problematic aspects of biblical ethics?

Justice for All is not an attempt to write a comprehensive study of the Jewish Bible’s ethics (a work that would require many volumes). Rather, the book seeks to deal with specific significant socio-religious issues which help one to understand the revolutionary aspects of the Jewish Bible’s ethics in trying to create a just society within the context of the ancient Near East. As such, the problematic ethical elements of the Tanakh are not investigated in an all-inclusive fashion.

Nonetheless, certain morally difficult matters are touched upon – including slavery, the statements in Deuteronomy which demand the annihilation of the seven Canaanite nations, the inequality of women in some legal areas, and the major challenge to ethical monotheism: theodicy (the justification of God in the face of unjustified evil).

How does one understand these problems and others? 

First, it is essential to comprehend the ancient Near Eastern social context. We are not dealing with the considerable development of ethics that has taken place in the modern democratic Western world over the past nearly four centuries. The ancient Near East was patriarchal, had slavery (including debt-slavery), and practiced, here and there, utter destruction in limited geographic areas. In other words, within the ancient Near Eastern worldview, these norms are not considered moral problems. However, as I illustrate, in each one of these areas (although not in all ethically problematic matters), the Jewish Bible shows some progress in mitigating them, or some ambiguity in confronting them.

Second, as revolutionary as it is, the Jewish Bible is only the first stage in the development of Jewish ethics. In ancient and medieval rabbinic Judaism, slavery will be eliminated, women’s stature will be significantly elevated (by establishing monogamous marriages, court-directed divorce, etc.), and the laws against the seven Canaanite nations (and Amalek) will be seen as limited to the pre-monarchical biblical period and not actually carried out. These advances (and others right on through today) illustrate my conviction that the existence of any religion that remains ethically unchanged is at risk. Only a religion that continues to evolve ethically is worth its salt. At the same time, I don’t believe that the ethics of a religion should change simply due to “the fashion of the times.” Ethical change should be a sober process carried out through a deep analysis of all relevant factors—including the original reasons at the basis of the tradition’s values. In times of crisis, of course, decisions must be made more quickly, but these should be subject to review once time permits.

Another problematic aspect relates to some actions of our “heroes,” such as the patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Isaac risk their wives being raped in order to save their own lives; Rebekah and Jacob act deceitfully to Isaac, etc. However, the continuation of the narrative reveals that they are punished for their bad behavior through “a measure for measure” system. For example, Jacob tricks his father by wearing goatskin, and his sons trick him by dipping Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat. In reality, these narratives elucidate key ethical lessons: immoral behavior will be punished, and God does not need or want such behavior in order to bring His plans to fruition.