Lesson 2b: The Prophets and Old Testament Morality

The Old Testament not only gives us moral norms but exhorts and encourages us to live by these norms by its promise of happiness if they are observed and of the consequences of going on the Way of Death. Furthermore it gives many examples of how to apply these norms in different situations. This is casuistry or moral instruction by describing concrete cases and showing the consequences of good and bad behavior. Gradually in Israel there grew up a class of expert lawyers whose business was to study and interpret the law and advise people that were called rabbis (masters). Their methods were much like later canon lawyers since they followed the legal hermeneutic of interpreting the law in the light of precedence or decisions by earlier rabbis of special note and accepted authority.

Thus a large body of tradition developed which after the time of Christ (about 200 AD) was written down as the Mishnah. Further decisions were added to this to form the Palestinian Talmud (c. 400) and the Babylonian Talmud (c. 600). This Oral Tradition is considered by Orthodox Jews today to be of equal inspiration with the Hebrew Scriptures. Since, however, this tradition originated with the Pharisees whose teaching Jesus in part disapproved of, it has never been accepted by the Church as a guide, though it is of much interest to scholars and helps us to understand the Jewish cultural context of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Middle Ages the Old Testament Laws were codified by a great rabbinical scholar Rambam (Moses Ben Maimon, in Latin Maimonides, d. 1205), the Jewish parallel to the Christian Thomas Aquinas. He also formulated a Creed of 13 articles for Orthodox Judaism. Yet among Jews there is no central authority to interpret the Law, but only consensus among particular groups of rabbis.

While an interpretation and casuistic interpretation of the Old Law was legitimate and indeed necessary (Jesus himself debates with the Pharisees in a rabbinic manner) it had the dangers of becoming legalistic. "Legalism" means to lose sight of the purpose of a law, to quibble about its wording so as to find loopholes in it, and to be more concerned about small matters than about the great ones. Against these tendencies and especially against the idea that external ritual observance was as important as sincere obedience to the moral precepts of the Law, the prophets of Israel proclaimed the words of God, "What care I for the number of your sacrifices . . . Put away your misdeeds before my eyes, cease doing evil, learn to do good" (Is 1:11a, 16b-17). Moreover even good deeds require the right intention of the heart. This does not mean, however, that good intentions alone make good actions. What is required is that one does what is right with the right intention. One must intend always the true goal of life, love of God and neighbor, and to reach that goal choose only means that will really lead to it.

The tragic experience of the Chosen People, however, was that they were as a people not faithful to their Covenant with God, although a holy Remnant remained faithful. As a result their nation was divided and hence first Israel in the north was conquered by the Assyrians and later Judah in the south was conquered by the Babylonians and the leading officials of Jerusalem were carried into a sixty-year exile. On their return the country was weak and poor and under Persian and then Greek and finally Roman domination.

The prophets, however gave hope to the people that a Messiah, or Anointed King, who would be the greatest of prophets and a priest, would some day come to restore the nation, provided they prepared to receive him by a strict observance of the Law. Yet only gradually did the Jews come to realize through the consequences of disobedience, such as the Exile in Babylonia, how destructive was wandering off into the Way of Death.

At the time of Jesus there was no clear religious unity among the people, who were divided into different sects, notably the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes, each with different expectations and different interpretations of the Scripture and the Law. Yet many hoped for a Teacher of Righteousness who would speak with authority in explaining the Law. They hoped also that the Messiah would come to establish peace and justice and that God would send his Holy Spirit to cleanse them from sin and enlighten their understanding of the Way of Life. Yet there were many different ideas about the Messiah, as there still are today among Jews, some of whom think that the Messiah is simply a symbol for justice and peace in the world.

Among the prophecies of the Old Testament are the four Servant Songs (Is 42:1-9; 49:l:13; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) of Deutero-Isaiah which speak of a mysterious figure who will suffer for his people. Some see in this Servant only a figure of the Chosen People itself, since in its witness to God it also suffers. In the New Testament, however, this Servant is identified with Jesus who dies on the Cross for the salvation of all humankind. No doubt both meanings are intended, but it is in Jesus that the martyrdom of the faithful remnant of the Jews is perfectly realized. The Christian Church as it shares in Christ's suffering servanthood in witness of the Gospel is also symbolized by these Songs. They manifest for us that the Christian way of life is a way of the Cross, since it requires total self-giving to God and neighbor.


  1. Re-read Ashley, Living the Truth in Love, Chapter I.

  2. Roland Murphy, 101 Questions on Biblical Torah

  3. Read in the Bible the Book of Tobit.


  1. What is the relation of the Prophetic Books to the Pentateuch?

  2. Were the prophets and the priests of the Old Testament at odds?

  3. What moral principles can one draw from Judith?

  4. What is a "morality of intention"?

  5. What is the difference between objective and subjective morality?


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