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Ethics In Ancient Israel

The foremost scholar on ethics in ancient Israel recently published a book on the topic entitled (unsurprisingly) Ethics in Ancient Israel. John Barton has been working in the realm of ethics and the Old Testament since his dissertation days in the 1970s. His latest book is a much needed and valuable contribution to biblical studies.

Ethics in Ancient Israel

In Ethics in Ancient Israel Barton does not unpack specific, concrete Israelite morality as much as he describes Israelite moral reasoning. How did they think about morality? Scholars have often denied the Israelites engaged in moral reasoning, assuming they simply obeyed divine commands whether or not such directives made sense. Moral reasoning is normally seen as the purview and contribution of the Greeks (e.g. Aristotle, Plato). Barton bucks this stereotype. The Israelites were not primitive barbarians, but quite thoughtful in their consideration of ethics.

This emphasis lends itself to interaction with the range of OT genres, so that a chapter describing methodologies needed to glean ethical thought from different types of OT literature is a most helpful resource. While study of OT ethics usually focuses on wisdom literature and the law codes, other genres, including narratives featuring morally ambiguous characters, render substantial ethical insight as well. Barton thus tries to utilize the breadth of OT literature.

Ethics in Ancient Israel is a study of ethical thinking in ancient Israel from around the eighth to the second century BC. The evidence for this consists primarily of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha, but also other ancient Jewish writings such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and various anonymous and pseudonymous texts from shortly before the New Testament period. Professor John Barton argues that there were several models for thinking about ethics, including a 'divine command' theory, something approximating to natural law, a virtue ethic, and a belief in human custom and convention. Moreover, he examines ideas of reward and punishment, purity and impurity, the status of moral agents and patients, imitation of God, and the image of God in humanity.Barton maintains that ethical thinking can be found not only in laws but also in the wisdom literature, in the Psalms, and in narrative texts. There is much interaction with recent scholarship in both English and German. The book features discussion of comparative material from other ancient Near Eastern cultures and a chapter on short summaries of moral teaching, such as the Ten Commandments. This innovative work should be of interest to those concerned with the interpretation of the Old Testament but also to students of ethics.

"Barton's erudite demonstration of the rich diversity and sophistication of ethical thinking in ancient Isreal is a valuable contribution to biblical scholarship and deserves a wide hearing."-- Bradley Gregory, Catholic Biblical Assocation

In its conventional sense the term ancient Near East includes a diverse range of cultures. This article limits its coverage to Mesopotamia from the Sumerian period (beginning ca. 3100 b.c.e.) through the Babylonian period (ending with the Persian conquest in 539 b.c.e.), Egypt from about 3100 b.c.e. to its conquest by Alexander the Great (332 b.c.e.), and Israel from the Exodus (variously dated from 1446 b.c.e. to 1280 b.c.e.) to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 c.e.

No writer in the ancient Near East appears to have addressed what we call medical ethics as an area of specific discussion. No one seems to have written even on that weak precursor of medical ethics known as medical etiquette. Nevertheless, medical ethics existed as much in the ancient Near East as in any other culture. The medical ethics of any society is generally congruous with that society's moral perceptions. As a subset of its ethical values, medical ethics will be as simple or as complex as any culture is monolithic or pluralistic. An ethical framework exists for the practice of medicine wherever those who treat disease, even in a magico-religious form, administer healing. In seeking to reconstruct the medical ethics of any society, one must understand the broad cultural framework within which healers function in order to appreciate the ethical considerations that directly or indirectly govern the practice of their art. This picture may be supplemented by the incidental illumination of relevant aspects of medical practice gleaned from medical and other literature, as well as by evidence of legal constraints upon the activities of practitioners of the healing arts.

MEDICAL ETHICS. The ethics of healers reflected an environment in which the understanding and explanation of reality were thoroughly religious: All aspects of life, including sickness and healing, received their meaning from religion (see Amundsen and Ferngren). The therapeutics employed by the asû and the seynu in dealing with acute diseases and injuries seem rational when compared with the predominantly magico-religious techniques of the āšipu and the heri-ha'ab. But the words of Owsei Temkin are cogent here:

Those ancient Near Eastern practitioners who seem to have been more rational than their magico-religious colleagues were not more ethical. Theirs were complementary, not competitive, professions. We do not have here a case of medical rationalism vying with superstition. Within their cultures neither approach was more or less rational than the other. Both perceived the causality of disease within an epistemological context in which spiritual, magical, and natural categories were not clearly distinguished. Hence, in this environment, the ethical obligations of healers must be appreciated in terms of their role as interpreters of sickness and healing within the broader cosmological realities and social values of their community. Within this general framework we can glean from the primary sources some specific, although fragmentary, aspects of medical ethics of the ancient Near East.

EUTHANASIA AND ABORTION. There is no direct evidence pro or contra regarding the ethics of euthanasia. It appears that in both Mesopotamia and Egypt those who committed suicide were regarded as having cut themselves off from the gods. A touching dialogue between a man contemplating suicide and his ba (soul), survives from Egypt, dating from the end of the third millennium b.c.e. (Pritchard). Although the man is not considering suicide owing to illness, the psychological struggle portrayed reveals a culture in which suicide was not accepted simply as a personal option without moral and religious compunctions, although the text suggests that it was not uncommon. Whether physicians assisted in suicide or viewed active euthanasia as opprobrious is unknown.

Prescriptions for induced abortion are found in the Egyptian medical papyri, but its legality remains unclear. In Mesopotamia, Middle Assyrian laws (fifteenth century b.c.e.?; Pritchard, 1969) stipulate that if a woman has an abortion by her own act, whether or not she survives the ordeal, she is to be impaled on a stake and left unburied. The purpose here (as in much other ancient law prohibiting abortion) is not to protect the fetus but to protect the husband's right to have the child he fathered. There is no mention of the involvement of physicians in abortion.

Little is known about the regulation of healers in Egypt. Although there appears to have been no system of medical licensure, medical procedure became rigidly prescribed over the centuries. A Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (first century b.c.e.), whose material on Egypt was derived from the sixth-century-b.c.e. Greek geographer Hecataeus, writes that Egyptian physicians gave treatment in accordance with ancient written procedures. If their patients died, the physicians were absolved from any charge. If they deviated from traditional methods in any way, they were subject to the death penalty, on the assumption that few physicians could be wiser than the physicians of old. In the Politics, Aristotle describes a slightly more flexible situation in Egypt, in which physicians could alter their prescriptions after four days; if they altered them earlier, they did so at their own risk.

Little evidence exists from the ancient Near East regarding experimentation with novel procedures. In a letter to the Assyrian king (seventh century b.c.e.?), a physician suggests that a particular prescription be tested on members of the domestic staff before being administered to a member of the royal family. While cesarean section is known to have been performed in Mesopotamia in the second millennium b.c.e. as a last resort to save the infants of dying women, the evidence suggests that the procedure was used only on slaves. These examples suggest the fear of risk involved in novel procedures. But there were other hindrances to therapeutic experimentation: the tendency of empirical physicians to rely on traditional procedures; the existence of a written tradition of medical knowledge and procedures in both Mesopotamia and Egypt; and the fact that medicine was often allied ideologically with religion. These factors are likely to have inhibited innovation that deviated from accepted practice even in late Egyptian medicine. Although evidence is lacking for Mesopotamian attitudes to novel procedures, they are not likely to have been more positive. 041b061a72


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