Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Sloane, Andrew, At Home in a Strange Land. Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2008). Pp. xii + 259, Softcover, US$19.95. ISBN 978-1-59856-084-8

It has become fashionable to describe the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible as a “strange land,” above all with respect to its ethical mores. In contradistinction to those who argue that we can only catch distant glimpses of this exotic country, Andrew Sloane has written a guidebook for those who wish to feel at home. He writes from a Christian standpoint, seeking to explain how the Old Testament might function as Scripture for the Church's ethical thinking.

After a brief introduction, Chapter 1, “Equipment for the Journey,” enquires into the moral authority of the Old Testament and questions of hermeneutics. Sloane aims to steer a middle way between those who would jettison the Old Testament when considering Christian ethics and theonomists who would emigrate there. An adequate hermeneutic, he suggests, will interpret texts within the Bible's overall meta-narrative and be aware that its ethics are primarily relational rather than propositional.

Chapter 2, “Getting Going,” turns from theoretical considerations to interpretations of representative texts from disparate genres, namely, law (Lev 19:9–10), narrative (2 Sam 11–12), poetry (Ps 24), prophecy (Micah 6:6–8) and wisdom (Eccl. 11). The author's concern that readers begin to appreciate the contemporary relevance of the texts is evident from the case studies on “microenterprise” [47–48] and the “UN Millennium Development Goals” [85–87] interspersed between the commentaries.

In Chapter 3, “Avoiding Pitfalls, Hacking through the Jungle,” Sloane tackles interpretation of more difficult passages, those concerning slavery, purity and “holy war.” His aim is to help readers see how they might accept the text as authoritative in contemporary Christian ethics. Regarding slavery, he concludes that “paradoxically, those very texts that cause us most concern today most clearly condemn slavery as we know it” [108]; and their contemporary relevance is illustrated by a case study of “modern-day slavery” [111–13]. On purity, Sloane argues that the categories of clean and unclean were intended to point to the orderliness of creation. More contentiously, he supposes that holiness is primarily a quality of God, in particular his transcendence [123]. Finally, Sloane interprets texts that speak of “Canaanite genocide” as “a justification not of human acts of violence but rather of God's action in the giving and keeping of the land for Israel.” In other words, “Yahweh's war in the OT is a matter of theology, not ethics” [141].

Chapter 4, “Exploring the Territory,” concentrates upon the interpretation of two texts and their significance for Christian ethics. In his study of Gen 1–3, Sloane focuses upon the themes of environment and gender relationships. He attends to the passage's structure and theology, delineating how it informs a Christian believer's moral vision. With respect to environmental ethics, Sloane concludes that the text “project[s] a vision of the world that calls us to repent of our selfish and destructive relationship with the ground and to embrace a responsible and caring one, and to call upon our political leaders to enact policies that do likewise” [159]. Concerning gender relations, he argues that patriarchal readings are not supported by the text—the act of naming, for example is interpreted as an act of discernment rather than domination [165]. Turning to the Decalogue (Deut 5:6–21), Sloane argues that the passage aims to shape a moral vision and inform people's conception of God [170, 189]. He offers comments on each commandment, paying particular attention to the dynamics of ancient agrarian society. The chapter concludes with brief comments upon the role of the “law” in Christian ethics [190–91].

Sloane's travels reach their destination in Chapter 5, “Bringing the Old Testament Home.” First, he examines how the Old Testament might be a resource for contemporary concerns surrounding cloning. Second, he works in the other direction, enquiring how the critique of idolatry in Isa 46 could address the modern world. In both cases Sloane argues that it is the “moral vision” of the Old Testament rather than individual proof texts that should inform Christian ethical thinking. In his concluding remarks, Sloane reiterates this contention, highlighting the prominence of justice as part of this vision, before encouraging readers to “try this at home” [219], that is, use the Old Testament in Christian ethics.

The book contains two appendices. Appendix A, “The Geek Zone (a.k.a. Annotated Bibliography),” contains further reading in the three areas of Old Testament and ethics, Old Testament introduction, and Christian ethics. Books are listed “in order of value” [221], so it is noteworthy that Sloane commences his list with works by Christopher Wright—wisely, in my view—but that Barton and Rodd trail in after Lalleman and Kaiser. Appendix B, “Further Travels in the Geek Zone (a.k.a. For Further Reading),” provides further reading for the topics covered in each chapter.

At Home in a Strange Land contains modern author, subject and Scripture indices.

Sloane writes with conviction and passion for his chosen audience of Christian theological students and pastors. He has a good turn of phrase (e.g. “Uriah drunk is more pious than David sober” [58]) and writes in a generally accessible style. Furthermore, he is not afraid to take on interpretation of thorny issues. In doing so he pays careful and commendable attention to the text to produce cogent commentaries (e.g. of David and Bathsheba's relationship [49–61]). Because At Home in a Strange Land is not a textbook, it does not aspire to present a comprehensive account of Old Testament ethics or to engage with issues in ethics more generally. And it does neither of these things. Although this would be a weakness if this had been the objective, it seems unfair to evaluate Sloane's work on the basis of what it does not contain. Instead, one can appreciate that it provides a relatively gentle introduction to issues in Old Testament ethics and that it will open the eyes of his intended audience to some of the possibilities that these texts have for informing contemporary, Christian ethical reflection.

But does it do this well enough? The inductive approach adopted by Sloane—he works from texts to moral vision—means he takes quite some time “getting going”—the title of the longest chapter. It is quite a long trek to this strange land: a hard slog rather than something more fleet-footed. On the way, of course, readers are treated to some detailed exegesis, which provides food for the journey. Sloane's interpretations are conservative, but carefully presented and aware of some of the more significant social differences between modern and ancient readers. On the other hand, perhaps because of the nature of his intended readership, he does not justify the positions he adopts regarding the provenance of individual passages or their dates. Another concern is that Sloane consistently highlights how his chosen texts present a “moral vision.” It is a weakness of this approach that it moves from detailed exegesis to higher levels of abstraction before attempting to “translate” the message and then “descend the ladder of abstraction” to produce concrete recommendations for today. Yet there is no discussion of this issue and the methodological challenges that it might raise for contemporary appropriation of the texts.

A further question is whether At Home in a Strange Land meets the needs of its audience more appropriately than other offerings in the field. To this question I think one must respond negatively. Sloane depends for his overall framework upon the work of Christopher Wright. Naturally, the two authors cover slightly different ground—and, as Sloane observes, Wright's first book on Old Testament ethics, Living as the People of God, is now out of print. Yet Wright's work, especially his more recent Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (which contains revised material from the earlier publication), is both more comprehensive and more accessible; granted, it is also significantly longer than Sloane's book.

In short, Sloane has written a helpful introduction for those who already have some basic Christian theological formation, but who have not studied Hebrew Bible ethics in any detail, nor thought about how the Old Testament could inform contemporary, Christian ethics. Its distinctive contribution is the focus upon interpretation of selected texts, and it would be a useful addition to reading lists for undergraduate courses that include a class on ‘Old Testament Ethics.’

Jonathan Y. Rowe, Seminario Evangélico Unido de Teología, El Escorial, Spain