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

, October 16, 2017

Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2017, 320 pp.

Professor Jeremiah Unterman whose fields are Biblical studies and Jewish ethics has produced a major work on the Biblical origins of ethics which broadens the scope of his earlier book, From Repentance to Redemption. Formerly Adjunct Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University and the Director of the Association of Modern Orthodox Day Schools in North America and currently Resident Scholar at the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, Professor Unterman’s Justice for All focuses on the foundations and content of ethics in the Hebrew Bible and its lasting influence in these fields. The work is of particular importance in light of the attacks on the Bible and the argument that its ethical precepts and legislation are mainly derivative. Unterman undermines such claims throughout his book and relates to the wide range of opinions regarding the authorship of the Hebrew Bible, placing it at a later date, even as late as the Second Temple period. Unterman masterfully refutes these points. Therefore, Justice for All is a timely and important contribution to our knowledge.

In his comprehensive introduction the author acknowledges the existence of ethical principles in ancient Near Eastern law codes which have been deciphered from clay tablets and stelae. That being said, he refutes the claims by many scholars that the Hebrew Bible has made only inconsequential contributions to the development of ethical values. He questions the hypothesis of the well-known Assyriologist Jacob J. Finkelstein who argued that ancient Near Eastern polytheism should not be condemned for failing to attain the same ethical standards as the Bible since polytheism involved the worship of immoral gods who had human weaknesses. In contrast, the single god of monotheism was the paragon of ethics.  Unterman claims that, in theory, it is possible that many gods could act harmoniously, while a single deity could be irascible and selfish. He then proceeds to characterize the gods of the epic Enuma Elish as a contentious group of humanoid, vicious creatures who were subject to magic and wished humans to be subordinate to them. In contrast, the God of the Bible created man in His image, allowed human beings to rule the world, and aspired to a world of harmony and tranquility through social justice and the ethical guidelines of the Biblical text. Indeed, God chose to reveal His will to the people of Israel and their prophets. According to Unterman, the superior level of Biblical ethics is linked to its monotheistic foundations. In fact, the Bible is the source of momentous innovations in the field of ethics. Justice for All describes these innovations in well-written and meticulously documented chapters.

The book is divided thematically into six chapters. Each chapter begins with a review of ancient Near Eastern epics or law codes that relate to the subject under discussion and concludes with the ethical content from the Bible. Briefly, Chapter One treats the Biblical accounts of creation and the Great Flood. Chapter Two continues with revelation and the Torah which are discussed as a covenant between God and Israel; a set of laws; a document which endows every Israelite with an aura of holiness, thereby making the People of Israel the messenger to the rest of the world and the example of living a righteous life; and as a declaration of an unbreakable bond between a parent (God) and His child (the Jewish people. Chapter Three concentrates on the treatment of underprivileged members of society in the Torah, with a strong emphasis on resident aliens (non-Israelites living in the Land of Israel) and the poor. It also relates to proselytes, widows, and orphans. Chapter Four presents the innovation introduced by the Prophets, namely that morality is more important than observing ritual. Unterman points out that the Prophets do not advocate a rejection of ritual but emphasize the hypocrisy of observing rituals and behaving in an immoral manner at the same time. Chapter Five deals with repentance. It focuses on how the Prophets broadened the concept of Biblical repentance – which conditioned forgiveness on a combination of confession, restitution, and punishment – in order to enable atonement as a result of sincere regret and “returning” to God alone, sans chastisement. Finally, Chapter Six deals with the hope of redemption, a major idea in the Bible. The hope of redemption made it possible for the Jewish people to survive exile and destruction by providing a firm belief in a better future.

Professor Unterman provides an extensive bibliography and indices of the subjects and Biblical verses. The latter are useful to those who wish give lectures or sermons on any of the topics relating to specific ethics. The footnotes at the end of the book are highly informative and contain numerous relevant references for further study. In summary, Justice for All is an eminently readable description of the Bible’s conception of ethical monotheism and will be of great interest to anyone who is interested in ethics, religion, Biblical or ancient Near Eastern studies.

About Abba Engelberg

Abba Engelberg graduated from Telshe Yeshiva (valedictorian) and Yeshiva University (cum laude), where he received rabbinical ordination. He received a Ph. D. from NYU in operations research and served as professor at Jerusalem College of Technology for 40 years, where he founded and headed the women’s division. He served as a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force where he achieved the rank of colonel. He has written books and articles in the areas of science and religion, including The Ethics of Genesis and The Ethics of Exodus.