Jus­tice for All: How the Jew­ish Bible Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Ethics

Jere­mi­ah Unterman
  • Review
By – July 21, 2017

The Bible is arguably the source of much of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion’s eth­i­cal and moral val­ues. As Jere­mi­ah Unter­man, a res­i­dent schol­ar at the Her­zl Insti­tute in Jerusalem, demon­strates in his acces­si­ble yet schol­ar­ly new study, the eth­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion wrought by the Bible, whose impact is so clear­ly felt in our own age, can be traced to its break with the beliefs and val­ue sys­tems of ancient Israel’s neigh­bors thou­sands of years ago. By com­par­ing the Bible’s eth­i­cal pre­cepts to those of the civ­i­liza­tions in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Unter­man demon­strates the moral progress made by the Bible in com­par­i­son to oth­er ancient codes.

Unter­man begins with a com­par­i­son of the the Bible’s flood sto­ry to the flood sto­ry in the epic of Gil­gamesh. He con­tin­ues by pro­vid­ing an analy­sis of the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Hit­tite treaties and the Sinai covenant, includ­ing an elab­o­ra­tion of the Bible’s laws per­tain­ing to social jus­tice (with a par­tic­u­lar focus on the res­i­dent alien), as well as an exten­sive dis­cus­sion of the pri­ma­cy of moral behav­ior over rit­u­al as reflect­ed in the words of the prophets. Unter­man uti­lizes schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture to argue that the monothe­is­tic Israelite reli­gion was eth­i­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive for its day. While not shy­ing away from texts that are still trou­bling to con­tem­po­rary mores, such as the Bib­li­cal com­mand­ment to the Israelites to destroy the sev­en Canaan­ite nations upon enter­ing the land of Israel, Unter­man argues that more often than not, these ancient texts broke with the con­ven­tion of the day. 

Anoth­er com­par­a­tive analy­sis that Unter­man offers refers to the Jew­ish prac­tice of read­ing the Book of Lamen­ta­tions on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av to com­mem­o­rate the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple in Jerusalem. While schol­ars of the ancient world have dis­cov­ered sim­i­lar sources con­tain­ing laments over destroyed cities in Ur and Akkad, it is only in the Israelite text that a human voice emerges and themes of repen­tance and restora­tion are artic­u­lat­ed. The oth­er works refer only to the capri­cious will of the gods which, in the pagan belief sys­tem, is what caused the destruc­tion described in the lament.

Unter­man’s book is illu­mi­na­tive not only because of his clear writ­ing style and abil­i­ty to dis­cuss often-times dense schol­ar­ly works in acces­si­ble lan­guage, but also due to his suc­cess at con­vey­ing an excite­ment for the mate­r­i­al at hand. His work is cer­tain to inspire read­ers to seek fur­ther study of the Bible in its ancient con­text, an area of study that con­tin­ues to reap count­less intel­lec­tu­al, reli­gious, and moral ben­e­fits to those who con­tin­ue to seek con­tem­po­rary wis­dom from the most ancient of sources.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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