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8 August 2018

Ethics of the Old Testament

So I was teaching a class in ethics the other day … stay with me! Ethics sounds boring or scary, until you get into it and can’t stop.

Anyhow, our topic was the ethics of the Old Testament. What matters, who to be and how to live comes in three ‘streams’ there: ‘the Law, the Prophets and the Writings’ (the old Jewish name for our Old Testament).

  • For ‘the Law’, see Leviticus 19 – an array of great ideas like loving each other as you love yourself (v18, Jesus’ second-favourite verse) through to weird (to us) stuff, like a three-day-old sacrifice being an ‘abomination’.
  • For ‘the Prophets’, see Amos 1—2, where the prophet slams everything ranging from genocide to ripping off the poor.
  • For ‘the Writings’, or ‘Wisdom’, see Proverbs 8: an amazing ‘ascent’ from ‘wisdom’ being a marginalised girl trying to get the attention of busy people, through to her being alongside God at the start of everything.

As I was chatting about this with the class, I had an Epiphany: one of those Big Visions of God. Except this epiphany was about Jesus, the Christ.

  • Jesus liked the law. He could see its real purpose. Check out Matthew 5—7.
  • Jesus was a prophet. He spoke truth to power. See Luke 11:42–52, or Matthew 23.
  • Jesus knew wisdom. ‘Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,’ he says of himself in Matthew 11:19.

In other words, Jesus integrates, embodies, weaves together, lives the Law, the Prophets and the Writings in one unified life. I sure can’t do that (and I even wrote Joined-up Life in an attempt to try).

  • At our worst, we turn laws into reams of petty compliance or legalistic oppression.
  • At our worst, we turn prophecy into angry, self-justifying ranting.
  • At our worst, we turn wisdom into sappy sentimentalism.

Not so Jesus. He just lives it all, and well. In Christian tradition, Jesus is the Christ because he is ‘Prophet, Priest and King’. (In Israel, priests taught law and wisdom made true kings.) He can do Prophecy, Law and Wisdom like no one else.

When John endlessly calls Jesus ‘the truth’, I wonder if he meant it like that. Not some vague abstract notion of truth, but the one who could so inhabit the Law, the Prophets and the Writings as just to be, well, True.

Somedays I get pretty dejected about church, people’s failures, my failures, the suspicions of Australians towards Christianity, the messiness of it all. But in class the other day, this Ephiphany, and then a surging conviction on top of it: someone who can do all that is worth following. And I really want to.



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