Published on May 14, 2018 by Joshua R Monroe

Jewish Publication Society, 2017 | 292 pages

Reviewed by Andrew J. Spencer


The Old Testament generally gets a bad rap when it comes to discussions of ethics in the public square. Some people talk as if the Old Testament is simply a hodgepodge of disconnected laws that Christians have cherrypicked to create a regressive moral agenda. Some scholars cast doubt on the authority of the Old Testament when they assert the text of the Hebrew Bible was written relatively late in history and written with primarily political motivations by rival groups of religious professionals. Other academic debates seem to focus on how the Hebrew Bible borrowed ideas from other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) texts to create an anthology of Mesopotamia’s greatest hits. It is not often the contemporary reader find books about ethics from outside of evangelical circles that take the Old Testament seriously and value its influence in positively shaping the cultural ideals of the West.

In Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, Jeremiah Unterman, resident scholar at the Herzl Institute, Jerusalem, argues that “the Jewish Bible not only changed the course of ethical thought but advanced it far beyond ancient Near Eastern society and religion in key ethical areas.” (xiix) In his approach to this topic, Unterman works from the supposition that the Hebrew Bible was written at a time more consistent with traditional dating, and that the texts were, at least to some degree inspired.

Unterman’s basic plan of attack for each of the chapters is to provide an overview of comparable ANE writings on a series of topics, then show how the Old Testament resonates, amplifies, and advances the ethical concepts. In Chapter One, Unterman takes up the topic of the relationship between God, the world, and humanity. In contrast to other myths, the Bible presents a God of order and justice. The relationship of God to Israel is the topic of the second chapter, unlike ANE texts, the Hebrew Bible presents the law as a public concern with the expectation that the whole nation participates in their individual roles in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant. The Old Testament also advances concepts of individual responsibility for sin, protection of property rights, and offers a realistic hope for a better future.

Chapter Three delves into social justice of the Hebrew Bible in contrast to other ancient texts. While many ancient texts reflect compassion for the weak as an ethical norm, the Old Testament amplifies these concerns and provides well developed methods that caring for the poor. For example, Unterman writes, “the Jewish Bible is the first to legislate food supplies for the poor.” (82) In the fourth chapter, Unterman argues that the Old Testament is different than other ANE texts in its celebration of the primacy of moral obedience over ritualistic piety. The Hebrew Bible is revolutionary in its expectation of mercy being more important than sacrifices.

Chapter Five illuminates the importance of repentance in the Old Testament, a concept that is frustrated in other ANE texts by the variety and capriciousness of gods. He also notes that the ordered nature of the God of the Bible creates the need for the Hebrew Scriptures to address the question of theodicy. An explanation of bad things happening to the seemingly undeserving is not a problem when there is little revelation and a confusion of moral wills, as in polytheism. At a basic level, the Old Testament advances an otherwise unknown idea that there is one moral code to abide by with a just judge who will balance the scales. In the sixth chapter, Unterman argues that the Jewish Bible is much different than other ANE texts because it has an advanced concept of eschatological redemption. This hope, Unterman notes, is “one of the most important influences of the Jewish Bible on the history of western civilization.” (177)

Based on the evidence he provides, there it seems that the Old Testament’s ethic is more notable for its differences from ANE than its similarities, particularly in terms of its treatment of humanity. As Unterman outlines the ethical teachings of the Hebrew Bible, he reveals that, far from being a regressive source for moral norms, it is really the foundation on which many of the Western ideals human worth, concern for the poor, and an ordered universe are based. Although Unterman does not address the question, from his depiction, an artificial divide between New and Old Testament ethics is unwarranted.

Justice for All is useful as a sourcebook for Christian ethics. Although it is by no means comprehensive, Unterman helpfully excerpts a number of ANE texts on the topics covered by each of the chapters. This helps inform a discussion of comparative ethics and place the Old Testament in its historical context. By examining the ethical content of the Hebrew Bible from a non-Christian perspective, Unterman highlights some of the qualities of the Old Testament that are often assumed by Christians in light of the New Testament.

Though Unterman does not argue for anything like inerrancy as many evangelicals understand it, his approach to the Old Testament is refreshing. He respects the text and approaches it with the belief that its ultimate source is God. There are points of interpretation that the reader might dispute with Unterman, but in the final analysis, he handles the text honestly and carefully. The comparative analysis in this volume is helpful in illuminating connections with other ANE texts, but it recognizes the distinctives of the Hebrew Bible. As such, this is a helpful book in demonstrating that the Old Testament is not just another loose anthology of myths from a dusty age long ago. Its enduring value for contemporary morality gives evidence of its divine origin.

Justice for All is an enjoyable read, is well resourced, and is helpful for those engaged in the study of the Old Testament and those who are working in biblical ethics. Unterman’s book would be a welcome addition to many libraries, as it fills a void in the literature of religious ethics.


Andrew J. Spencer (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) frequently writes at EthicsAndCulture.com. He lives with his family in Monroe, Michigan.

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Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

Jewish Publication Society, 2017 | 292 pages

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