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Old Testament ethics for the university

In campus chapel, a constant challenge is to bring the mind of the church and the mind of the university together. What I’ve outlined below is one of my attempts at this, a series of five theological reflections I gave earlier this year.

It’s based on the work of Waldemar Janzen. The characters of the Old Testament stories are not models in a flat, Sunday School way, and yet it’s clear that the Old Testament uses its characters and their stories for ethical purposes. In other words, the Old Testament does ethics through stories, even though its ‘heroes’ are often revealed to be morally ambiguous.

This means that Old Testament ethics is not primarily manifested in laws or concepts but in tangible human examples. Ethical living is always embodied in people and their communities, in their specific responses to specific situations. Janzen refers to these human patterns as paradigms.

Janzen goes on to identify five ethical paradigms, five angles on the good life. For each paradigm, I’ve used an Old Testament story (the same as Janzen’s opening examples), then I’ve asked how this paradigm plays out in the university.

1. The way of hospitality

[Story 1: Genesis 13] To defuse a family conflict, Abraham offers the best land to his kinsman Lot. In doing so, he keeps the peace, maintains loyalty, and puts Lot first. Yet this is not just a pleasant story, because at this point Abraham does not have any land himself. By seeking Lot’s welfare, Abraham demonstrates his trust in God’s promise — a promise that has not yet eventuated.

[Story 2: on campus] A university staff member meets students in the course of their day, but instead of treating them as small fish, this staff member smiles, says hello, and perhaps stops for a conversation, asking about the student’s situation. They let themselves be known as a friend to students. Students know they can trust this person, look up to them and turn to them. This is God’s shalom: you are welcome here; you will not be overlooked; there is a place for you.

2. The way of holiness

[Story 1: Numbers 25] While camped in the territory of the Moabite tribe, the Israelite tribe starts worshipping the local fertility god, corroding their relationship with their own god, Yahweh. Yahweh and Moses begin to plan a purge. At that very moment, two people are staging a ritual sex act in Yahweh’s sanctuary. A man called Phinehas springs into action, follows them inside, and in one go runs them through with a spear. Yahweh accepts Phinehas’s devotion on behalf of the entire community, and the people are restored to Yahweh.

[Story 2: on campus] Today we understand God’s sanctuary as a community: the Holy Spirit creates a holy people, cleaning us out so that we can live together with God. One beacon of this is Lizzy’s campus workshop, Binti Sayuni (daughters of Zion), which educates and inspires young women at university. Founded on Lizzy’s own life of dedication, this ministry is about formation, enabling women to shape their lives and set themselves apart for God, rather than being swept along in the currents of urban life.

3. The way of mercy

[Story 1: 1 Samuel 24] David spares Saul’s life, not only giving mercy to an enemy but also honouring God’s chosen king. David refuses to let his own opportunity be played off against God’s purposes. When they meet, Saul declares that David’s act mercy is not expedient, but a natural part of his character.

[Story 2: on campus] What does it mean for a leader to seek justice on campus? I was not present when Vice-Chancellor Emmanuel Mbennah met with staff and students following the campus strikes, but from what I’ve heard it was an excellent example of mercy in governance. He met with the disappointed parties and listened to them. He genuinely wanted to hear their concerns, and he let them know this. He could have spoken harshly or placed blame, but he simply asked them to give him time. He wants justice for them, and even though he cannot deliver it immediately, they know he is upholding their cause: he is mindful of their needs, and he is seeking their good rather than his own. For a powerful person to inquire after someone with less power — to listen — is a powerful expression of mercy.

4. The way of wisdom

[Story 1: 1 Samuel 25] Here we find David in a very different mood, and in this story he is part of the problem: in his rage he vows to kill every man in the household of Nabal, who is a himself a despicable character. It takes someone else to forge peace: Abigail, the wife of Nabal. In her wisdom she goes behind her husband’s back and speaks winsomely to David. In doing so, she not only protects her own household but also protects God’s future king from bloodshed. Her wisdom brings life beyond her own situation to the entire community of Israel.

[Story 2: on campus] Wise campus leaders see a world bigger than their own situation. In her classroom, Madam Sanga is not only mindful of teaching and assessment but also of students’ formative life stage, so she is intent on showing how the stuff of the curriculum plays out in real life. Canon Sebahene is a university director, but he does not keep himself aloof from students, for example giving up two weekends to be part of Binti Sayuni workshops. These two leaders do not allow themselves to be limited to their job description but use their influence to bring life further afield.

5. The way of the prophet

[Story 1: 1 Kings 21] Injustice upon injustice, the crown deprives Naboth of his life and his land. The prophet Elijah then brings God’s judgement to King Ahab. This is costly for Elijah — he is addressing a king! Bringing God’s message puts the prophets in direct opposition to the powers unless the powers are obedient to the truth. Yet prophets may also bring words of comfort and mercy, as Elijah does even in this story.

[Story 2: on campus] Let’s look to the students who will one day keep governments accountable, the students who will not become politicians yet who will still influence politics. A friend of ours works for a local NGO. Instead of seeking leadership in the church or in politics, he has maintained a sideways role, enabling him to speak truth to the centre. It is not an easy or attractive position to be in, but he is well placed to point governors back to their true calling.

Image credit: Warren Coetzer at Unsplash

Categories: University ministry Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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