Disinterested righteousness

(Jimmy Sellers) #1

One of the disadvantages of being part of the RZIM community is that your “to be read list” is constantly growing. @Steven_Croft started a post Answering the objection of man-made God; in one of the replies @Dave_Kenny recommend a book Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton as a resource to further study the topic.

I am halfway through the book. There are several points that I think would be of interest to the community but this one seemed particularly relevant to the subject of apologetics “disinterested righteousness”, it’s a term that I was not familiar with before reading Walton’s book. For this to make sense I will need to lay a little ground work from the book.

In a chapter on ethics and morality Walton defines them as:

“I (Walton) will use “morality” to refer to the behavior that results from inner convictions about right and wrong, and “ethics” to refer to those actions that represent attempts to conform to the best expectations of society.” Walton offers the following qualifier, “In that sense we are not speaking of ethics as the modern discipline. Instead, ethics will speak of the exterior element of connectivity while morality will be used to refer to the interior elements. I grant that these definitions are arguable and perhaps prejudicial, but I beg the reader’s indulgence as I use them to address the issues.”

Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 149). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

The short story is that the (pre-OT) ancients’ worship was driven by an outward obligation (ethic) to serve the god’s not by any inner feelings (moral) of right and wrong. Later on, Walton quotes Jean Bottero (an Assyriologist):

“Did morality, honest and righteous behavior, have an authentic religious and cultural value, a place in the practice of religion, a direct influence on the gods? We have never found any response, in all of our documentation, to such a question, a question that we ask ourselves from our own religious and “biblical” point of view. The ancient Mesopotamians never overtly concerned themselves with or imagined such preoccupations, which are so familiar to us. This must have been one of Moses’s great revolutions in Israel: to replace the purely material maintenance of the gods with the single and sole “liturgical” obligation in life to obey a moral law, thereby truly rendering to God the only homage worthy of him.”

Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 152). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Finally, to the point that I was trying to make, one more quote from Walton:

One final consideration in this category that highlights a difference between Israel and the rest of the ancient Near East concerns the issue of disinterested righteousness. If ethical behavior has an exterior foundation, a person behaves ethically because of the consequences—rewards or punishments—that are built into the system, whether by society or the gods. Disinterested righteousness can only be a viable option if a more abstract sense of righteousness exists.

Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 160). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Walton uses Job 27:1-5 to illustrate Job’s desire to maintain his integrity despite his friend’s encouragement to just take the Mesopotamian path of appeasement, a path that seeks to restore favor with the deity at any cost. Again, from Walton: “The book of Job therefore stands as stark testimony to the differences in perception between Israel and the ancient Near East as it seeks to demonstrate that there is such a thing as disinterested righteousness.”

Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (pp. 160–161). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

This concept of disinterested righteousness gives me much food for thought.

How often have we heard from skeptics that man has worshipped gods long before the OT was even written? They were right. How often have we heard that right and wrong is baked into our DNA that the God of Israel was a composite of the surrounding cultures in their ritual and their law and that they were no different than their neighbors. But if we are to understand what the ancient texts says this is not so. The God of Israel did a work in the heart of his elect. I hope you find this helpful as you engage in your circles of concern.

(SeanO) #2

@Jimmy_Sellers I have never heard of the term ‘disinterested righteousness’ before - very cool!

Of the many things that set Israel’s worship apart from that of the pagans, this is one that I had not fully understood.

Job is a great example - he trusted in God for forgiveness for his family, provision, guidance & meaning. When it looked like God had let him down, he could not just ‘appease’ God or ‘get along’ with God - he was in too deep to do that… He had banked his heart, mind & soul on God and so when trouble struck he had to wrestle it out with God.

It was much more a family matter than a business matter. Job was not just interested in settling accounts with a powerful being - he was interested in receiving love & justice from the Father.

(Dave Kenny) #3

@Jimmy_Sellers Great post Jimmy. I remember reading in some commentaries about the similarities of the Hebrew faith to that of surrounding Ancient Near Eastern religions and initially feeling threatened by that reality. As I have increased in my studies… I no longer fear this (thanks to authors like John Walton!)

Given God’s love for all of His creation (especially but not exclusively Israel), and the common ancestry of “the Nations”, it is no surprise that these commonalities exist. As I have been slanting my studies in the direction of Jewish/Christian studies and relations (although I myself am not Jewish), I have gained a new level of insight and appreciation of what the Torah really was and what kind of a gift this really represented not just to Israel (although it was entrusted to them), but rather the entire world (as Israel played role of priest and witness… both for good and for bad). Torah has always been a gift to be transcribed onto (into) its peoples hearts (Deut. 6:4-9, Ps 19:7-14 etc…) and caused a distinctly different flavour of worship that surrounding nations desired ( for instance: http://www.thenagain.info/Classes/Sources/SumerPrayer.html ). Imagine… a God that could be known… wow!

In Abraham, the nations saw something similar, but not identical to their cultic practices
In Moses, the nations saw something similar, but not identical to their cultic practices
In Israel, the nations saw something similar, but not identical to their kingdoms and politics
In Exile, the nations saw something similar, but not identical to the normal pattern of conquest and subjugation

As an aside… It seems to me that disinterested righteousness plagued a number of characters in the Bible, both the OT and the NT (Saul comes to mind… as well as the story of Ananias and Sapphira)

Based on my reading from other authors, this monotheistic expression of faith that the Jews exhibited and practiced caught the attention of many outsiders. Many were attracted as proselytes of Yahweh as their previous polytheistic beliefs became either too fantastic, too subjective, or too non-personal (ie: disinterested righteousness)

Thanks for uncovering and applying this learning into an evangelistic and apologetic way… sometimes these learnings blast right by me and I miss the profound apologetic angle that they present.

Got anymore?


(Hendrik Haueisen) #4

Thanks for the insights. Can somebody define the phrase “disinterested righteousness” for me? I am not sure if I totally get it, trying to fit these two terms together. Thanks!

(Tim Ramey) #5

Hendrik, the other posts display a thoroughness on the subject that I don’t possess. However, when you raised the question of what “disinterested righteousness” was, Romans 6 came to mind when it says, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.” It seems to me that it is saying that when we have our heart set on the “pleasures” of sin, we have no regard for righteousness.

(Jimmy Sellers) #6

@Sean_Oesch, @Hendrik_Haueisen, @Tim_Ramey

I apologize to the group as I had intended to add some clarity to this post but in the process, I have stumbled on to several essays on this subject that I am trying to summarize without further confusion. So until I am done with them let me offer this as clarification.

If we use modern law court langue to compare the Mesopotamian way of appeasement to their god(s) with Job’s appeal to his God it might look like this:

The Mesopotamians would plea bargain not because they were guilty but because they feared any further consequence form the offended deity. Remember, ethical behavior was externalized and when this failed they had no choice but to confess or admit to anything if it placated the god(s). They had no basis for a trial by jury as there was no clear-cut path to justice. The role of the ancient was to ensure that the god(s) were served. If the gods weren’t happy nobody was happy. (righteousness based on external actions)

Job demanded a trial by jury because he knew that he had not wronged God. (internalized righteousness) His view of righteousness was not external (based on consequence, rewards and punishment) but internal, an abstract He wanted righteous apart from any rewards or relief from God. Keep in mind all his friends and family encouraged him to just take the hit because he surly must be guilty of something, the Mesopotamian way.

This is what I understand “disinterested righteousness to mean” and why we can use this to counter the age-old refrain that people worshiped god(s) long before the Hebrews. I think we can safely say that the Hebrews worshipped their God the ancients merely maintained their god(s). More to come