I once saw a bumper sticker that warned, “Read the Old Testament. It will scare the hell out of you!” While the religious intentions that probably lie behind that admonition are not congenial to my own way of thinking, the statement at least underscores that the Hebrew Bible includes many unsettling parts likely to disturb our modern moral sensibilities.
John Barton, professor at Oxford University, moves beyond the usual hand-wringing over objectionable parts in the Bible—the bloodshed, the oppression and exploitation, the harsh punishments, the treatment of women and slaves, and more. Although he acknowledges all these troubling elements—stating at the outset that “establishing the relevance of Old Testament ethics to life today is an uphill task”—his own concerns lie elsewhere: in trying to ascertain whether, in light of the Bible’s obvious diversity and inconsistencies on numerous moral points, there is any coherence to the moral positions taken in the Hebrew Bible. To accomplish this goal, he focuses attention not so much on the laws, as is commonly done, as on the stories that fill so many pages of the Bible.