Book reviews — Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach by Waldemar Janzen

Klein, Ralph W

WALDEMAR JANZEN, Old Testament Ethics: A Paradigmatic Approach (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994). Pp.


+ 236. Paper $19.99.

Janzen, a Canadian Mennonite, wants to help Christians gain a firmer hold on the ethical components of their canonical story so that this story may become more effective in shaping individual and communal Christian life. His approach to the text is synchronic and canonical. He moves beyond principle and law to paradigm, which he defines as a model that imprints itself immediately and nonconceptually on the characters and actions of those who hold it. His narrative-canonical approach assumes that the story itself, extending through both Testaments, is the ethic. He offers a modern analogy: a composite paradigm of the “good driver” produces good drivers; the reading of legislation concerning traffic on the highways does not.

The central paradigm (illustrated by Abraham in Genesis 13) is familial, but there are four other supporting paradigms, namely, priestly (Numbers 25), sapiential (1 Samuel 25), royal (1 Samuel 24), and prophetic (1 Kings 21). For each of these realms a certain virtue was appropriate, such as promotion of harmony (familial), zeal for holiness (priestly), and quest for justice (royal). J. searches Israel’s stories in order to discover their inner image of a loyal family member, a dedicated worshiper, a wise manager of daily life, a just ruler, and an obedient proclaimer of the prophetic word. Key facets of the familial paradigm are life (existence in community structured along family lines), land (a promise of home and security), and hospitality (openness to the welfare of others and responsibility for it). The function of the prophets was to exhort the leaders in the other realms to live in keeping with the paradigms they represented.

Abraham’s selfless act to maintain family harmony with Lot mirrors God’s own goal of blessing all the families of the earth (“family” seems to be used in two senses here). God constitutes the ultimate paradigm of an upholder and restorer of a family’s salom. Other familial paradigms appear in Ruth and in Judges 19. In the latter case, J. finds positive examples in the hospitality of the father of the Levite’s concubine and in the old man in Gibeah. The men of Gibeah obviously provide a negative example. J.’s revisionist exegesis of this chapter is less convincing when he compliments the old man of Gibeah for offering his virgin daughter–no sacrifice is too high for a host in behalf of his guest.

Throughout, J. argues for the primacy of story over law. He rejects the usefulness of principles (self-interpreting abstractions) and considers laws (a subcategory of principles) to be shorthand formulations of ethical values and imperatives emerging from Israel’s story. The real authority of laws lies in our acceptance of the story that defines them. Between a principle, such as loving one’s neighbor, and implementation of this principle in modern situations stands the middle level of ethical imagination. Jesus’ telling of the story of the good Samaritan answers our quest for a concrete image of neighbor. The OT’s law codes are embedded in Israel’s story of her faith and are interpreted by the framework of meaning inherent in that story. The legal traditions promote and safeguard the life modeled in the familial paradigm.

Since the book is explicitly Christian in orientation throughout, in the final chapter J. looks at Jesus as priest, sage, king, and prophet. Jesus proclaims and embodies the kingdom of God as the chief ethical paradigm for his followers. When Jesus models the new life characteristic of the kingdom, these modes of modeling become a part of the message, not only a way to it.

Janzen distinguishes himself from a number of other ethicists (Birch, Brunner, Kaiser, Patrick, Yoder) and ethical systems, and he makes a powerful case for his paradigmatic approach. It is less clear to me, however, that the preservation of the salom of the family must be the center of an OT ethic (why does Genesis 13 not strike most readers as central to the story, much as I like his proposal that the first task of ethical living is trusting acceptance of God’s hospitality.

Ralph Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60615

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1995

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