Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 7 (2007) - Review

Gershom M. H. Ratheiser, Mitzvoth Ethics and the Jewish Bible: The End of Old Testament Theology (Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 460; New York/London: T & T Clark, 2007). Pp. xiv + 409. Cloth, US$145.00. ISBN 0-567-02962-X.

The title states the double-edged thesis of the book. It is time to replace theology of Hebrew Scripture with a method suited to its nature: descriptive study of ethics founded on the divine commandments of the Pentateuch.

Ratheiser clearly regards the critique of OT theology to be an important dimension of his argument: nearly half of the book is devoted to the review of theological works from Gabler to Brueggemann. His reviews, while generally accurate, are rather tedious, with two thirds of each page in footnotes, frequently in German.

Old Testament theology, he concludes, has been primarily Protestant, though it has begun to include others. It has been supersessionist, though less so in the last half century. It has insisted on digging out the theology of literature whose primary concern isn’t theological. For these reasons, Jewish scholars have been indifferent to Biblical theology for most of this time. Only in recent years have some, e.g., Y. Kaufmann, J. D. Levenson, Goshen-Gottstein and M. Tsevat, entered into the discussion.

Ratheiser seems indifferent to the rhetorical exigencies of the various generations of Biblical theologians. Gabler sought to free the theology of the Bible from church doctrine, while later theologians sought to save it for the church. Biblical theology is justified by its capacity to respond to the  exigencies that arise within scholarship and in the religious communities. Jewish scholars became interested once they absorbed historical criticism. Now both Jewish and Christian Biblical theologians are trying to articulate a post-critical way of interpreting the text.

Ratheiser maintains we should begin by recognizing that this is the Jewish Bible, of and for Jews. He proposes what he terms “ethics” as an alternative to “theology.” His premise is that the Jewish Bible is an “ethical identity marker.” Because God's character is the same as his will, narratives of his deeds are lessons for Jews, which are congruent with the commandments of the covenant.

Ratheiser does not explore the content of the commandments, but rather seeks to identify leading attributes of an ethic based on them. One is holiness, defined as being set apart for YHWH, purified of contamination by the profane and unclean. Ḥerem is the opposite. Israel is holy in its being, by virtue of election, but must become holy in fact by obeying the commandments. Holiness is the essence of Jewish life: Jews must be separated from the rest of creation to live in close contact with God.

The other attribute is justice, an attribute shared with ANE cultures. The poor, who are under YHWH's protection, are the primary beneficiaries of justice. The kings, responsible for maintaining a just order, served as agents of the divine. The cult characterized persons as צדיק or רשע, according to whether they conformed to or violated cosmic order. Since righteousness was being in harmony with cosmic order, the result should be shalom, peace and well-being.

The instructions for life needed to be communicated to the people. Besides the commandments themselves there are narratives, which function as lessons, paradigms of cases governed by commandments. Some narratives center on problems calling for theodicy, e.g., stories involving persons who suffer for no fault of their own. The Bible teaches readers to tough it out without answers, but in hope of redemption.

Ratheiser applies his ethics to Joshua, who is an example of a YHWH-pleasing life, a legitimate successor to Moses. He makes appearances in the Pentateuch as Moses’ understudy and as one of two faithful spies. He succeeds Moses by divine election. He earnestly adheres to divine law and is confirmed by divine miracles. When the land is conquered, Joshua distributes it to tribes, thereby establishing justice. When he is about to retire, Joshua consolidates his accomplishments with a renewal of the covenant.

Although Ratheiser eschews theology, he does not ignore the role of the divine warrior. Indeed, the battles in the book of Joshua resemble sacred ritual; the humans simply perform roles in a divine enactment. Holiness and justice result. The execution of ḥerem separates Israel from others. YHWH demonstrates that Israel is his chosen people and that he is guarantor of the covenant.

There is a synergism between YHWH's action and that of humans. Joshua is an exemplary army leader who knows his limits and the source of Israel's power. He calculates tactics deliberately and conforms scrupulously to the law. He is a just ruler who responds to complaints and preserves the memory of the acts of God while providing stable institutions for time to come. As Ratheiser summarizes his life, the encouraged one becomes the encourager.

In evaluating this book, it is doubtful whether Ratheiser's mitzvoth ethics can be distinguished from Biblical theology. At first reading, his scheme is rather like W. Eichrodt's, in which all other subjects can be subsumed under covenant and commandment. Like Eichrodt, too, Ratheiser treats the commandments as an abstraction, characterized by the praise-worthy attributes.

Despite his characterization of his project as ethics, Ratheiser describes YHWH's role in the wars of conquest and notes the frequent references to his deeds and promises—further evidence that this is theological discourse. Ratheiser fends off the morally questionable character of what he depicts by insisting that his is a descriptive, not normative account. The result is discordant: ethnic cleansing to protect the nation from temptation is characterized as just and holy. A normative or “confessional” theology would have to be more honest and forthright.

Finally, Ratheiser at times seems to be engaged in special pleading. “Jewish scholars… insist that (Judaism) has a greater interpretive value than the Christian vis-à-vis [Hebrew Scripture], for it accepts the pluriformity of the biblical text. Judaism need not look for a historical and theological connection between the Jewish bible and halakhah…” (p. 152). This is undoubtedly the “instinct” of the Jewish religious community. However, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in fact spawned a number of reading communities, and each has a living connection with the text. If in fact the meaning of a text is in interpretive transactions, Biblical theology should include as broad a representation as possible; each has a distinctive and potentially valuable contribution to make. Ratheiser's Jewish theology/ethics of the commandments could contribute significantly, especially since Christians tend to downplay the divine commandments in favor of promises and fulfillment.

Dale Patrick, Drake University