Formations 07.29.2018: Making Morality Manageable

Deuteronomy 30:11-20

It often seems impossible to do anything without causing some degree of harm—either to others or to the environment generally. Should you buy a new silk shirt? Many silkworms will die in the process. If you boycott silk, however, you could hurt workers in India and China who depend on silk production for their livelihood. Maybe you opt to choose cotton instead. But growing cotton demands a lot of water, making it environmentally taxing. How about synthetics? Well, they basically never break down, and they take a lot of energy to make.

In his new book There’s No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing, ethicist Christopher Gilbert explores how practically everything we do has ethical implications. It would be easy, therefore, to fall into despair of ever doing enough. For Gilbert, however, the key is to think small rather than getting overwhelmed by the big picture. “As much as we’d love to believe bad ethics come from bad people and good ethics come from the rest of us,” he says, “our everyday choices such as cutting someone off on the freeway, fudging on our taxes, taking credit for something someone else did—these are all ethical choices.”

We may not see the deeper implications of our individual behaviors, but they are at least things within our control. Gilbert notes that we may not think much about these things—even when we are outraged by grand, ethical abstractions. He explains,

When people list unethical behavior, they often cite the illegal actions of corporations or the heinous decisions of politicians—these are strong examples of a growing disregard for ethics, but what’s missing on the list are the smaller and far more numerous everyday choices we make.

In Deuteronomy, following God ultimately boils down to the choices we make every day. Shall we choose life or death, right or wrong? Doing good results in blessing, but turning away from God to do what is wrong results in calamity. Therefore, the writer insists, choose life by loving God, obeying God’s voice, and clinging to God (v. 20).

Perhaps serving God ought to be as simple as the writer of Deuteronomy describes it. Often, however, this is not the case—and then what? Gilbert encourages us to see morality as a ladder to ascend. We will never achieve moral perfection in this life, but we can at least discern whether we’re heading in the right direction: away from pure self-interest and toward consideration for an ever-widening group of those who will either suffer or benefit from our choices.

Christopher Gilbert, There’s No Right Way to Do the Wrong Thing (Gig Harbor WA: Inspira, 2018).

Ephrat Livni, “It’s Impossible to Lead a Totally Ethical Life—But It’s Fun to Try,” Quartz, 15 Jul 2018 <https://qz.com/1327804/its-impossible-to-lead-a-totally-ethical-life-but-its-fun-to-try/>.

Discussion

• Admitting that the spiritually correct course of action isn’t always clear, what can we learn from the sense of certainty conveyed in this passage?
• What are the issues on which believers can proceed with certainty?
• How can certainty on these issues guide us in other areas?

Reference Shelf

A Song of Power

As Bishop Robert Lowth noted 200 years ago, the law codes throughout the Mediterranean world were sung at the festivals in antiquity. The law book we call Deuteronomy was in the hands of the Levites (Deut 17:18) who were commanded by Moses to proclaim it at the Feast of Booths (Deut 31:9) . Though we do not know the precise nature of this proclamation of the law, which was handed down within levitical circles, it is likely that it was sung and that this greater “Song of Moses” (i.e., the entire book of Deuteronomy) was taught to the people. J. Lundbom apparently intuited at least part of the picture in his suggestion that it was the “Song of Moses” (chap. 32), rather than the entire Book of Deuteronomy as such, which was found in the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah. As the most archaic material in the book of Deuteronomy, this official “Song of Moses” dates from the premonarchic era of ancient Israel in essentially its present form. But that song was imbedded in a much larger “Song of Moses,” which we now call the book of Deuteronomy. For generations that song was recited in levitical circles as a primary means of religious education. Eventually it was put in written form and promulgated in Jerusalem as part of a reform movement in the days of King Josiah. Within that movement Deuteronomy became the center of a canonical process that eventually produced the Hebrew Bible as we now know it. That canonical text was recited within the musical tradition of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The memory of that tradition is still reflected in the Masoretic accentual system of the Hebrew Bible.

Duane L. Christensen, “Deuteronomy, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 212.

Choose Life

The appeal to make the right choice continues aspects of the preceding discussion of repentance in an effort to set aside two possible major objections (vv. 11-14). First, the requirements of the covenant are not impossibilities (literally, “they are not too wondrous for you,” v. 11). They are not heavenly mysteries beyond attainment (v. 12). In the opinion of Deuteronomy, and in contrast to a long tradition of Christian theology, the covenant is immanently “doable.” As the repentance discussion acknowledges, the problem lies in the human will for good, not the human capacity for good.

Second, the requirements of the covenant are not mysteries (v. 11). They are not hidden somewhere beyond the sea. YHWH has revealed the fundamental principles of his will for humankind to Israel (compare Mic 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: What does YHWH require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”). Moses has explicated them for a new generation facing new circumstances, thereby establishing the beginning of a tradition of authoritative interpretation. Joshua stands in the wings ready to take over leadership and continue the tradition. As a consequence, Israel cannot claim ignorance of YHWH’s basic intentions for its life as his people. The words of the covenant are nearby indeed. They are, in fact, “on your lips and in your heart” (v. 14; compare Deut 6:4-8).

YHWH has done all that he can: he has redeemed Israel from Egyptian bondage, given them the covenant through Moses, led them safely to Moab, and now reiterated the covenant once again. The promised land lies before them to be possessed. The words of the covenant are on their lips and in their hearts. Their future as YHWH’s covenant people lies open. It is up to them to realize that future. They face a choice.

Mark E. Biddle, Deuteronomy, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 446–48.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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