Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

by Jeremiah Unterman
Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

by Jeremiah Unterman


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Justice for All demonstrates that the Jewish Bible, by radically changing the course of ethical thought, came to exercise enormous influence on Jewish thought and law and also laid the basis for Christian ethics and the broader development of modern Western civilization.

Jeremiah Unterman shows us persuasively that the ethics of the Jewish Bible represent a significant moral advance over Ancient Near East cultures. Moreover, he elucidates how the Bible’s unique conception of ethical monotheism, innovative understanding of covenantal law, and revolutionary messages from the prophets form the foundation of many Western civilization ideals. Justice for All connects these timeless biblical texts to the persistent themes of our times: immigration policy, forgiveness and reconciliation, care for the less privileged, and attaining hope for the future despite destruction and exile in this world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827613263
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 03/01/2017
Series: JPS Essential Judaism
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 352
File size: 429 KB

About the Author

Jeremiah Unterman is a resident scholar at the Herzl Institute, Jerusalem. He is the author of From Repentance to Redemption: Jeremiah’s Thought in Transition and numerous scholarly articles. 

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Justice for All

How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

By Jeremiah Unterman


Copyright © 2017 Jeremiah Unterman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8276-1326-3


The Jewish Bible's Unique Understanding of God

The Ethical Relationship of God to the World and Humanity

In modern times, the abundance of unearthed Ancient Near Eastern writings — myths, laws, treaties, temple inscriptions, prayers, wisdom instructions — has provided us with a wealth of information about the gods and their interrelationships with the world and its inhabitants. To be familiar with all of these writings is an impossible task, as much material remains still unread! Nonetheless, certain key universal characteristics about these gods can be confirmed from published discoveries:

• The gods are natural beings. In that sense, they are no different than humans. They eat, drink, sleep, fornicate, make war, are born, and even die (or can be killed). They are part and parcel of nature. However, while they are not supernatural, they are superhuman in such characteristics as strength, longevity (some can even be resurrected), and other powers.

• While possessed of superhuman powers, the gods are not omnipotent. As natural beings, they are affected by nature. They also are subject to time, magic, divination (trying to ascertain the gods' plans that will affect humans, often in order to circumvent them), and destiny.

• Ethically the gods are capricious. Sometimes they behave justly, and sometimes they don't. Nor do these texts view the gods as ethical paragons. Their attitudes toward humans are notably problematic. On the one hand, Mesopotamian kings see their divine charge as ensuring justice in society. On the other, humans are created to be slaves to the gods and to enable them to rest, as befits their divine royalty.

What emerges is that the least significant difference between polytheism and monotheism is the numerical one. Two of the more pervasive epics — the Babylonian creation saga (Enuma Elish), and the flood story in the Gilgamesh epic — will illustrate these characteristics. They will each be compared and contrasted with the relevant Hebrew Bible stories to point out key differences in the latter's perception of God.

It is important to note that while the Babylonian creation epic is a self-contained literary unit (as is the Gilgamesh epic), the biblical creation and flood stories are subunits of a much larger literary creation. Therefore, the observations here will sometimes refer to relevant passages in other portions of the Torah, the larger literary provenance of the biblical creation and flood stories.

The Babylonian Creation Epic

The most famous and prevalent ancient Near Eastern creation epic is known as Enuma Elish (Akkadian for "When above"). Most scholars date the epic's origins to the First Babylonian Dynasty (1894–1595 BCE), which is considerably earlier than the traditional thirteenth-century BCE date for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The storyline is as follows:

Before heaven and earth had been created, only the two original divine parents, the male Apsu (the primeval sweetwater ocean) and the female Tiamat (the saltwater ocean) existed. The commingling of their waters brought forth several divine offspring who, in turn, gave birth to others. As typical of teenagers in their exuberance, the clamor of the younger generation of gods disturbs the "great-grandparents," who can't get any sleep. In his rage, Great-grandpa Apsu decides to kill off his younger descendants, who, hearing of his intentions, devise a preemptive strike. Their wisest, Ea, ironically concocts a magical incantation to cause Apsu to sink into a deep sleep, at which point Ea takes his crown and kills him. Ea establishes a palace on top of the slain Apsu and, through the goddess Damkina, gives birth to the future savior (and real hero of the epic), Marduk.

In the meantime, Great-grandma Tiamat, very upset by what has transpired, is incited by the god Kingu to avenge Apsu. She decides to go to war against those responsible for Apsu's death. She gathers her divine and monstrous allies and appoints Kingu as commander. Word comes to Ea of the impending attack, and eventually Marduk is persuaded to lead the younger gods, but he does so only on the condition that he will become the supreme divine authority. His condition is accepted by the assembly of the younger gods, who give him "kingship over the sum of the whole universe." They then give him a test and place a garment before him. At his command, the garment is destroyed. He commands again, and the garment is entirely restored.

Marduk, fully armed, goes out to meet the ostensibly invincible Tiamat. "He let loose the Evil Wind, the rear guard, in her face. Tiamat opened her mouth to swallow it. She let the Evil Wind in so that she could not close her lips. ... Her inwards were distended and she opened her mouth wide. He let fly an arrow and pierced her belly. He tore open her entrails and slit her inwards." Having killed her, "He split her into two like a dried fish: One half of her he set up and stretched out as the heavens. He stretched the skin and appointed a watch with the instruction not to let her waters escape." With the other half of Tiamat, Marduk establishes the earth. He takes possession of the tablet of destinies, sets up the stars in constellations to define the twelve-month calendar, fixes the path of the sun, creates the moon, delineates the month into days, and arranges abodes for the gods. Marduk then kills Kingu and out of his blood creates mankind to serve the gods. Finally, he is lavishly praised by the gods. Humans are urged to remember Marduk's fifty names and rejoice in them, so that humanity's land shall be fruitful and it shall go well with them.

Significant commonalities exist between the Enuma Elish story and that of the biblical creation story from Gen. 1:1–2:3, both in content and sequence:

• At the beginning, nothing identifiable exists (no heavens and earth in Enuma Elish, only chaos in Genesis).

• The first words mention both heaven and earth.

• Water is present as part of the stuff of creation. Apsu and Tiamat are watery beings. Water is mentioned in Gen. 1:2.

• Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom ("deep water" in Gen. 1:2) are probably from the same linguistic root.

• Creation occurs through divine speech (the garment in the Babylonian story; all of creation in the biblical one).

• The creation of the heavens, the firmament to keep the upper waters in place, dry land, the luminaries, and humans all occurs in the same sequence.

• Divine rest follows.

However, the contrasts between the two stories are remarkably revealing:

• While creation occurs through violent, unjustified conflict in Enuma Elish (are the noisy activities of youngsters really a good reason to kill them?), the Bible depicts a universe in which creation takes place in complete harmony as God's commands bring cosmic order into being. Not only is there no violence but the biblical ideal (Gen. 1:29–30) is that both animals and humans should be vegetarians.

• The gods are part of nature: they are born, have sex, give birth, and die. They are subject to nature. (Remember how the wind prevents Tiamat from closing her mouth?) The Bible's God is not only supernatural but He alone rules nature.

• The gods are subject to magic. In the Bible, magic can never affect God.

• Humans are created to serve the gods. In the Bible, God creates humans to rule the earth: "fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, and all the animals that teem upon the earth"(Gen 1:28).

• In Enuma Elish, humans are made out of the blood of the evil god. In the Bible, the human is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27).

• The constant delineation in Genesis is that creation is "good" (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21) and that the totality is "very good" (1:31). That the word "good" here refers to ethics and not aesthetics ("a good painting," "good-looking," etc.) may be inferred from the second verse of Genesis. The "wind" (Hebrew, ruach) of God "flutters" over the face of the waters. The word "flutters" is used elsewhere in the Torah only of an eagle "fluttering" over its young (Deut. 32:11). Why does the Bible use this rare word to express what the "wind" of God is doing, when other words are commonly used about the movement of the wind ("moves," "blows," "carries")? Apparently the intention in Genesis is to bring to mind a mother bird (the Hebrew verb here is in the feminine), that is, God's spirit is hovering over the stuff of creation like a mother bird over her young. Creation, as it were, is being born, and the goodness of that birth is best understood as ethical. (Ask any mother!)

• God's day of rest at the end of creation is sanctified: "And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation that He had done" (Gen. 2:3). God's rest explicitly serves as a model in the Ten Commandments for requiring complete rest from work not only of the Israelites but even of their slaves and animals (Exod. 20:8–11).

Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy. You shall work for six days and do all your labor, and the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. You shall not do any labor, you, and your son or your daughter, your male servant and your maid servant, and the alien who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

• In other words, Divine rest in the Bible is in stark contrast to the gods' rest in Enuma Elishwhere the result is the enslavement of humanity to the gods. That enslavement, in turn, is a consequence of the need of the gods for sustenance. As one who is supernatural, the biblical God has no such need. In the words of Psalm 50:10–13, "For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts of a thousand mountains. ... Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of he-goats?"

The ethical emphasis in the biblical story, in contrast to the Babylonian, cannot be denied. Three major biblical ethical innovations appear:

a. Humans are blessed by God to be good rulers, not slaves. The implication of the creation of the human in the image of God is to be rulers over the earth! Gen. 1:26 reads, "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and all the teeming things that teem upon the earth.'" Much ink has been spilled on the question of the specific image of God in which humans are made. Not enough attention, however, has been paid as to how the two halves of the verse fit. It seems logical that the second half of the verse is intrinsically related to the first. That is, the "image of God" here is specifically one of ruler. As God rules over the universe, He gives humanity a fiefdom, the earth. And if humanity is to rule over the earth, then humans must do so in the fashion that God rules over the universe. Since the Bible understands God as a good ruler — indeed, the best possible ruler — then humans also must be good rulers. This viewpoint clarifies the succeeding commandment in verse 29: "God said, 'Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit, for food.'" Why are humans commanded to be vegetarians? Because the ethical purpose of God's nonviolent creation is to lead to a world without bloodshed! Furthermore, humans are supposed to be good rulers over the animals, and a good ruler does not eat his subjects!

b. The "image of God" refers to all men and women equally. Due to the basic biblical understanding of the patriarchal nature of human society, the biblical text does not depict a society in which men and women have equal rights in the legal and socioeconomic systems. At the same time, the equality of the genders in Genesis 1:26–28, in the dialogues between the patriarchs and matriarchs in the Genesis narratives, in the obligation of children to treat their parents equally in the Ten Commandments — "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16) — and in Leviticus 19:3 — "Each person shall revere his mother and his father," and in the view of Proverbs that both parents are seen as equal teachers of the child, all indicate that the Bible did not justify the reality of social imbalance as due to men being innately superior to women. Further, no negative stereotypes are ever attached to women as a whole. The fact that individual women, such as Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah, could be characterized and accepted as "prophetesses" is also evidence that women were not perceived in the Bible as inferior to men. So even if the Jewish Bible itself did not advocate a socioeconomic revolution in women's rights, it created the foundation for such a revolution in the future. In similar fashion, Jefferson's "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence eventually would be understood to encompass all humans.

c. The Divinely established beginning of human rights — the Sabbath rest as the first law of equality in society. The third great ethical implication of this Genesis creation story is God's rest at the end of creation that in the Ten Commandments serves as a model for human behavior. No scholar has succeeded in providing evidence for any weekly or regular day of rest in any other ancient society. The Jewish Bible invented the weekend (which has been adopted, in one form or another, by the vast majority of the world). This concept of the Sabbath rest had a democratizing influence upon society. All were equal for one full day a week (and on certain holidays), and no one could require anybody else to work on that day. Even the king could not ask his lowliest servant to work on that day! The effect of such a desideratum on society cannot be minimized. Here the Bible establishes a weekly rest period as the first labor law: human rights for all members of society, along with the limitation of government.

Truly, as an old observation states, "in the Bible, man was created in the image of God; in Babylon, gods were created in the image of man." More than that, in Babylon humans were perceived as slaves. In the Bible, they are royalty.

The Gilgamesh Epic's Flood Story

The best known and most pervasive Mesopotamian flood story appears in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic. The epic's origins are generally dated to as early as 2000 BCE, and Sumerian versions probably predate that. The main theme of the epic is the hero Gilgamesh's search for immortality. Along his journeys, he hears of a couple, Utnapishtim and his wife, who have been granted immortality by the gods. Most of Tablet XI consists of Utnapishtim's report of how he survived the flood and attained immortality. The main lines of the story follow: The great gods decide to flood the world (later in the story, blame for the flood is laid on both the goddess Ishtar and the god Enlil). In the Utnapishtim story, no reason is given for the deluge, although near the end of the story there is an allusion to some unstated human sin. However, in another well-known ancient Babylonian flood story, Atrahasis (another name for Utnapishtim), the deluge occurs for almost the same reason that we saw in Enuma Elish — the chief god, Enlil, is disturbed by the noise emanating from the increased human population and can't get any sleep (note again the capriciousness of the gods).

The great gods make their decision (to be kept secret from man) in a council attended by the god Ea. Ea repeats this secret to a man who is apparently his favorite, Utnapishtim. That Utnapishtim is a favorite of Ea is a surmise; no reason for Ea's revelation is given in the text. Ea urges Utnapishtim to save himself by building a ship of equal length and width, and upon questioning Ea tells him to hide from the townsfolk what he is doing. Utnapishtim builds the ship as a cube using workmen and pitch, asphalt, and oil. When the ship is completed, Utnapishtim loads it with his silver and gold, his relatives, and whatever he had of "the seed of all living creatures" — the game and beasts of the field.

As it begins to rain, Utnapishtim enters the ship and closes the door. The storm is so strong that "even the gods were terror-stricken at the deluge. They fled and ascended to the heaven of Anu (the sky-god). The gods cowered like dogs." The goddess "Ishtar cried out like a woman in labor ... [and] lamented ... 'Because I commanded evil in the assembly of gods ... how could I command war to destroy my people, for it is I who give birth to these my people!' The ... gods wept with her." The gods regret their hasty decision.


Excerpted from Justice for All by Jeremiah Unterman. Copyright © 2017 Jeremiah Unterman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. The Jewish Bible's Unique Understanding of God: The Ethical Relationship of God to the World and Humanity,
2. The Revelation at Sinai: Ethical Implications of the God-Israel Relationship,
3. Providing for the Disadvantaged: The Stranger, the Poor, the Widow, and the Orphan (with a Note on Slavery),
4. The Primacy of Morality over Ritual: A Prophetic Innovation,
5. The Requirement of "Return": The Development of Repentance from Torah to Prophecy (with a Note on Theodicy),
6. The Establishment of Hope: The Prophetic Promise of Redemption,
Subject Index,
List of Hebrew Bible Passages,

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