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.