The Ethics of a Shepherd
It has often been said that there is little more to the ethics of the Hebrew Scriptures than doing whatever God commands you to do: If you have instruction directly from God himself or from a prophet, you should obey it. If you have God's law, obey that. There isn't supposed to be much more to biblical ethics than this principle of unfailing obedience.
But this view rests on an overly simplistic, even careless, reading of the biblical texts. In fact, the God of Hebrew Scripture holds individuals and nations morally responsible for their actions time and again, punishing them for their deeds even where they appear to have received no laws or commands from him. Thus, for example, Cain is punished for murdering his brother, despite the fact that neither he nor anyone else has heard anything from God on the subject. And Noah's generation is destroyed for their violence, and Sodom is annihilated for its perversity — despite the fact that they, too, have received no commands from God on these subjects. Similarly, the reader is expected to know, as the persons depicted in the narrative are expected to know, that Adam errs in trying to pin the blame on God for his having eaten the forbidden fruit (because God gave him Eve); that Noah sins in his drunkenness, and that his son Ham sins in looking upon his drunken father's nakedness and telling his brothers all about it — although God has commanded nothing on these subjects. And we are supposed to know, as the persons in the narrative are supposed to know, that there is something wrong with getting your father drunk and having sex with him, as the daughters of Lot do; or with raping your neighbor, even if you love her, as Shechem does; or with entrapping and enslaving your kinsman as Lavan does; or with enslaving another nation, as Pharaoh does — although God has commanded nothing on these subjects either. And one could easily fill pages with additional such examples. Moreover, Abraham's famous challenge to God over the justice of destroying Sodom ("Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?") is but the first of a series of texts in which biblical figures seem to hold God's actions to a moral standard that does not derive from these actions themselves.
The sheer quantity of such examples has led to the suggestion that the biblical authors in fact see God's commands as either supplementary to, or themselves expressions of, a fundamental moral law that derives from the nature of things; and that the biblical authors believe human beings should be able to discern this law, at least in its contours, even without explicit instructions from God. On this view, the ethics of the Bible is based, in the first instance, on a form of natural law.
But even if this is right, much remains uncertain: What precisely is the content of the natural law ethics that emerges from the History of Israel? How is this ethics related to the content of the Mosaic law imbedded in this History? And how does it relate to the instructions God is depicted as giving individuals on particular occasions regarding specific actions they are to undertake? All three of these questions will have to be given satisfactory answers if we are to attain a clear view of the ethics of the History. And such a view will be needed, I suspect, if we wish to gain a full picture of the ethics of the prophetic orations and other biblical works as well.
In this chapter, I will address the first of these questions, examining central aspects of the natural law ethics of the History of Israel, drawing largely from the stories in Genesis, which I see as setting the stage for everything that follows. I will suggest that the ethics of the History cannot be understood without recognizing the central role played in the narrative by the metaphor of the shepherd. In the History, the shepherd and the farmer are taken as representing contrasting ways of life, and two different kinds of ethics, which come into sharp conflict time and again — especially in the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. But the History sees the question of the shepherd's ethics as dating all the way back to the time of Cain and Abel. God's preference for the ethics of the shepherd is therefore portrayed as being prior to almost all of the laws or commands God gives to human beings. Any interpretation of God's subsequent covenants with biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, and David, must therefore be understood in the context of a prior ethical stance upon which the force of these covenants is based.
I'll conclude the chapter with some preliminary remarks concerning the relationship between the natural law ethics of the History and the laws of Moses and other instances of God's commands that appear in the narrative.
Author's original footnotes have been omitted from this excerpt.
Excerpted from The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony. Copyright 2012 by Yoram Hazony. Excerpted by permission of Cambridge University Press.