Hebrew Ethics: Radical in the Ancient Near East, Yet So Familiar to Us

Many of our modern ethical concepts—including repentance, forgiveness, and justice—are ideas that we take for granted, regardless of our stated religious beliefs. However, these biblical ethics were radical and innovative during the time of Ancient Israel. Israel’s influential neighbors, including Babylon and Egypt, may have presented similar rules on occasion but had very different underlying principles.

In this episode, Dr. Dru Johnson talks with Dr. Unterman about biblical ethics. They discuss ancient notions of justice, law-keeping, fickle gods, and the treatment of foreigners across the Ancient Near East. Unterman highlights the specific and unusual features of Hebraic thought that have also informed our modern Western ethics more than we might realize.  Hebrew ethics are an innovation in their original context, and we would do well to unearth these radical and influential roots.


  • 0:00 Dr. Unterman discusses the problems with source criticism and his work studying Jeremiah
  • 1:46 Repentance and mercy in the Hebrew Bible
  • 7:07 Justice and the ethical basis of ritual in Scripture
  • 8:20 The radical innovations of the ethics, politics, and religion of Ancient Israel
  • 14:38 The Torah as a suzerain vassal-treaty
  • 17:51 How an ancient Babylonian might have responded to the Hebrew Ethical code
  • 21:50 The historically- and narratively-rooted Hebrew Ethical principles

Jeremiah Unterman is a resident scholar at the Herzl Institute, Jerusalem. He is the author of Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized EthicsFrom Repentance to Redemption: Jeremiah’s Thought in Transition, and numerous scholarly articles. 

Credits for the music used in the CHT podcast can be found at:  hebraicthought.org/credits