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date: 23 April 2024

Moral Agency in the Hebrew Biblefree

Moral Agency in the Hebrew Biblefree

  • Anne W. StewartAnne W. StewartPrinceton Theological Seminary


Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central questions of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The Hebrew Bible offers multiple perspectives on these questions, and at least three different models of moral agency can be discerned. Some traditions indicate that humans are fundamentally flawed moral creatures who are incapable of choosing the good apart from divine intervention. For example, the psalmist confesses: “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5) and prays for a divine change in the human condition: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (51:10). Other traditions, however, frequently take the more optimistic view that humans are capable of choosing and acting in accord with the good, though they may not always exercise their inherent capacity to do so. The Deuteronomic law, for example, is based on the notion that humans have the ability to distinguish obedience from disobedience and to act accordingly. Thus humans will reap the consequences of their actions, for God “maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and [God] repays in their own person those who reject him … Therefore observe diligently the commandment” (Deut. 7:9–11). In other words, humans are held responsible for their moral choice. A third view, found especially in the book of Proverbs, takes a middle view that moral agency involves a combination of internal and external factors: while most, though not all, humans are inherently capable of choosing the good, their capacity for moral agency requires cultivation by external forces. That is, humans are capable of moral choice, yet their ability to choose according to the good depends upon both an innate receptivity and training by others. The Hebrew Bible thus reflects a diverse set of viewpoints about the status of human moral agency, the extent of human accountability, and the factors that influence human action.


  • Biblical Studies
  • Christianity
  • Judaism and Jewish Studies
  • Theology and Philosophy of Religion

Joshua frames faithfulness for the Israelites as a choice between serving YHWH or other gods. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua implores the Israelites, “whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:15). This exhortation presumes that humans can indeed make choices, yet this very issue is a contested question in much of the Hebrew Bible. Do humans have a will capable of choosing the good, doing the good, and evaluating the good? These are the central issues of moral agency, the notion that humans can be morally responsible for their actions, that is, that they are capable of deliberately exercising agency for good or ill. The issue of human choice animates many texts in the Hebrew Bible, which presents a variety of perspectives concerning the nature of the human condition and the human ability to discern the good and act upon it.

Models of Moral Agency in the Hebrew Bible

The writers of the Hebrew Bible did not offer explicit philosophical reflections on the nature of moral agency. Nonetheless, they did generate extensive commentary about what it means to be human, and several distinct views of moral agency are implicit within these texts. These views can be classified into three models that, while they are heuristic categories and not native to the texts themselves, identify various ways in which the Israelites conceived of human moral nature. There is often overlap between multiple models within a single text, but the distinctions are useful for analysis.

A dominant model of moral agency in the Hebrew Bible presumes that humans can exercise agency over their actions and are capable of good moral choices. This capacity is associated with the לב‎ (“heart” or “mind”). King Hezekiah, for example, connects good actions with purity of heart: “Remember now, O LORD, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart (בלב שׁלם‎), and have done what is good in your sight” (Isa. 38:3). Carol A. Newsom explains that the לב‎ is the organ that is the “locus of the person’s moral will” and responsible for a person’s actions and thoughts.1 In this view, humans possess the ability to make moral choices, even if they do not always succeed in doing so. They have, in the words of Jacqueline E. Lapsley, the right “moral equipment.” As Lapsley puts it, “refusal to orient one’s will to do the right thing constitutes a failure in the proper use of one’s moral equipment, not a defect in the equipment itself.”2 Lapsley terms this model of moral agency virtuous moral selfhood, and she finds this notion that humans are inherently capable of making moral choices to be widely assumed in narrative, priestly, prophetic, and wisdom traditions, as indicated by “the emphasis on the human capacity to freely make choices that accord with the divine will, the urgency of the call to choose responsibly, and the gravity of the consequences of choosing rightly or wrongly.”3 This is not to say that humans always succeed in choosing rightly, of course, yet their failure is attributed to a corrupted will, not an inherent inability to choose.

On the other hand, some texts in the Hebrew Bible suggest that humans are not capable of such moral choice. While humans are still held accountable for their actions, this model presumes that there is a deep failure in the nature of humanity. Lapsley insists that even in this view “human beings are still moral persons, that is, they are still held accountable for their choices and actions: nowhere in the [Hebrew Bible] are humans depicted as dumb wood, not to be held responsible for their decisions.”4 Yet some texts indicate that humans are deeply flawed from the outset. The psalmist thus laments the need for a new heart: “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me … Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:5, 10). Indeed, “the incapacity of people to orient themselves to the good is a problem of fundamental moral equipment; it is a flaw at the most basic level of the moral self.”5 Lapsley terms this model neutral moral selfhood, suggesting that in this perspective the moral self is not inherently oriented toward a vision of the good.

Lapsley is quick to acknowledge that while virtuous moral selfhood is the dominant model in the Hebrew Bible, the two models can interact. In the book of Jeremiah, for example, she finds the virtuous model to be evident in the prophet’s repeated calls for the people to repent, implicit in which is the assumption that although the Israelites have erred, they know what is right and are capable of returning to faithfulness (e.g., Jer. 3:13–14). At other times, however, the extreme corruption of the people causes Jeremiah to express pessimism that humans are capable of moral choice after all (e.g., Jer. 13:21; 17:9). Lapsley suggests that one can glimpse a view of neutral moral selfhood in Jeremiah’s appeal for God to intervene, for the situation is so dire that it requires “unilateral divine action to resolve the moral conundrum created by that incurable corruption.”6

In Lapsley’s analysis, in most of the Hebrew Bible the question of moral selfhood is whether or not humans have an inherent capacity for moral action. Do they possess, in her terms, the right “moral equipment”? In other words, it is a question of whether the origin of moral agency is internal or external to the moral self. Is it an innate capacity of humans to choose the good, or is it an ability that can come only from outside the agent?

The book of Proverbs presents a third model of moral agency in the Hebrew Bible. Proverbs simultaneously presumes both internal and external agency as it promotes the cultivation of the moral self. At first glance, it may appear that the book simply contains both of these models in tension, with certain sayings expressing optimism about the ability of humans to choose wisely and others more suspicious about the capacity of some humans, particularly fools and the wicked, to do so at all. Proverbs’ model of educated moral selfhood indicates that one’s moral selfhood must be disciplined into being.7 That is, Proverbs implies that the “moral equipment”—the capacity to make moral decisions—is innate in the human but exists in potential only. It is like raw material that must be molded before it can be properly used. As Proverbs 22:15 observes: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy, but the rod of discipline drives it far away.” Discipline serves to shape one’s moral equipment, but one must have an inherent receptivity to instruction if discipline will be effective. For this reason, the parent constantly exhorts the student to listen and imbibe his teaching: “My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your hearth to understanding; if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures—then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:1–5). Within Proverbs, the development of moral agency requires both the external aid of discipline, which serves to orient one’s concept of the good toward wisdom, and an internal capacity to receive and profit from discipline.

According to the model of virtuous moral selfhood, the primary problem with humanity is a failure to align one’s will and action with what one knows to be good, while in the neutral model it is an inherent inability to act according to the good at all. By contrast, in the model of educated moral selfhood, the primary problem resides in a misalignment between one’s perceptions of the good and the reality of wisdom, a gap that can be bridged only by discipline. Yet it also presumes that the willing student is receptive to correction. These models of moral agency not only represent different conceptions of moral selfhood, but in many respects they also reflect diverse ways of grappling with the realities of Israel’s social, political, and theological landscape. For example, as the book of Lamentations responds to the crisis of Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 bce and its aftermath, it both embraces and questions the standard view of virtuous moral selfhood. Robert Williamson Jr. argues that even as the book frequently appeals to a view of moral agency found in Deuteronomy, which attributes the fall of Jerusalem to the sins of the people—in other words, the people possess the capacity to choose according to the good yet failed—it also critiques this view in several places.8 In chapter 2, Lamentations shifts blame to the corrupt priests and prophets who failed to warn Daughter Zion (the figure of personified Jerusalem) of impending disaster: “Your prophets have seen for you [Daughter Zion] false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen oracles for you that are false and misleading” (Lam. 2:14). Williamson explains that while this statement does not absolve Daughter Zion of all responsibility, it suggests that it was in part the fault of her advisers. “Daughter Zion’s wrongdoing,” he concludes, “is thus not willful disobedience but rather results from a lack of knowledge rooted in the deceptive oracles of the prophets.”9 Within the book as a whole, then, Daughter Zion is a free moral agent responsible for her actions and can also be viewed as under the control of the prophets’ manipulations, since she operates with a false sense of understanding. The tension between these two approaches is never resolved in the book but instead indicates “an instability in the communal model of moral agency in the Deuteronomic worldview, which is in the process of being renegotiated.”10 In other words, the various models of moral agency that are present in the Hebrew Bible are not abstract philosophical concepts but represent attempts to understand the human condition and respond to realities in Israel’s common life. Accordingly, different models are present in different texts and genres, a few of which are sampled here.

Moral Agency in Genesis

As a book about beginnings, Genesis grapples with fundamental questions of human existence by telling stories of the creation of the world. The book of Genesis begins by framing human moral agency in the context of the origin of humanity. The creation account in Genesis 2–3—which most scholars attribute to the J, or Yahwist, source—narrates the dawn of the moral self and indicates that moral agency was not an innate part of the human but was acquired in the garden. Lapsley has argued that this creation narrative moves through three stages in humanity’s emerging moral selfhood.11 In the first stage, the ’ādām, the earth creature, exists in an amoral world without the ability or occasion to make moral decisions. It is not long, however, before an element of choice is introduced into the world: “And the LORD God commanded the ’ādām, you may eat from every tree of the garden, but you shall not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will die” (Gen. 2:16–17). Here the human faces the first choice: to obey or to disobey. This choice does not imply a high degree of moral activity, for there is no vision of the good to motivate obedience. Even so, a nascent moral vision is represented by adherence to the divine will.

As the narrative continues, humans acquire moral knowledge through tasting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is not only moral knowledge but the general knowledge that makes all distinctions and judgments possible. Such knowledge gives humans a capacity to discriminate, discerning good from evil, as God does. Thus the serpent insists, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The taste of the fruit confers a capacity to make moral distinctions.

Within Genesis 3, moral knowledge is connected to the capacity to desire. The exchange between the woman and the serpent highlights the role of the senses and the appetite in making judgments. The woman’s choice to take the fruit is not a purely rational decision measured against either the divine will or her own. Rather, it is informed by what touches her senses, delights her eyes, and awakens her hunger: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6a). The consequence of eating this desirable fruit is self-awareness and self-consciousness: “Their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked” (3:6–7). That is, not only do the humans gain knowledge of good and evil, but they also gain knowledge of themselves. In this respect, as the humans become more like God in their capacity to make distinctions, they become less like animals. Newsom observes: “For the animals the powerful engine of desire operates within boundaries set by the hardwiring of their instincts. But in humans desire has now become conjoined with a reflective and creative self-consciousness.”12 Desire is not necessarily a destructive force, but “coupled with self-conscious choice, [it] is a highly unstable and unpredictable mixture. The birth of the human changed the world forever.”13

The ways in which this newfound moral agency affects the human predicament is a theme throughout the rest of Genesis. And, of course, the ability to make moral judgments does not necessitate that humans will make correct moral judgments. Indeed, the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 unravels the consequences of a terrible moral decision. The human inclination to make questionable moral choices in their acts recurs throughout primeval history. As Lapsley explains, “The possibility of moral choice is initiated in the garden, but the biblical writers express their considerable ambivalence about the implications of that ability within the story itself, and in the stories which follow it.”14

Moral Agency in Deuteronomy

The book of Deuteronomy reflects a robust concept of moral agency. At the heart of the presentation of Deuteronomic law is an assumption that humans have an innate capacity to choose. Thus Moses constantly implores the Israelites to keep (שׁמר‎) the commandments and to do (עשׂה‎) them, while warning of the consequences of failing to do so. For example, in Deuteronomy 4 obedience to the commandments is posed as a choice that is within human capacity. Yet it is not inevitable that one will choose rightly, and the dangers of disobedience are clearly articulated:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you. You have seen for yourselves what the LORD did with regard to the Baal of Peor—how the LORD your God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive today.

(Deut. 4:1–4)

Here, as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, moral agency is connected to both knowledge and memory. To choose wisely requires right knowing and schooling in the commandments. In this sense, Moses proclaims: “See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples” (Deut. 4:5–6a). Just as knowledge informs obedience, so also obedience displays one’s knowledge and insight. Furthermore, obedience is linked to an act of memory: “But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deut. 4:9). The communal memory and preservation of Israel’s history is what will shape the next generation of moral agents.

Within Deuteronomy, moral agency is located in the heart or mind (לב‎). Obedience to the commandments is possible due to the right condition of the heart. In fact, the commandment is described as near to the heart; it is accessible to the moral agent: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away … No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:11, 14). Conversely, adverse action is a result of a heart that is oriented toward the wrong things. As Moses reports, “You have seen their detestable things, the filthy idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold, that were among them. It may be that there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is already turning away from the LORD our God to serve the gods of the nations. It may be that there is among you a root sprouting poisonous and bitter growth” (Deut. 29:17–18). A stubborn or twisted heart causes one to evaluate the situation wrongly and to pursue other gods. Consequently, testing a person and the person’s moral worth is a task of evaluating the heart. Thus Moses explains the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings as an act of God’s moral evaluation: “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut. 8:2).

Deuteronomy offers conflicting opinions concerning the nature of the heart’s morally worthy condition. The problem of moral selfhood in Deuteronomy is that the heart can go astray. It can direct a person wrongly, in effect using a distorted moral measure by which to make judgments. Thus Moses laments that God has not given the disobedient a heart capable of discerning: “But to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:4). The one who turns away from God, in fact, hears the wrong judgment in his heart: “All who hear the words of this oath and bless themselves, thinking in their hearts ‘We are safe even though we go our own stubborn ways’ (thus bringing disaster on moist and dry alike)—the LORD will be unwilling to pardon them” (Deut. 29:19–20a). This person’s moral equipment is, in effect, malformed, for it guides him in ways opposite to the accurate measure. Yet Deuteronomy remains largely confident that humans are indeed capable of right moral action, though this idea is challenged among the prophets.

Moral Agency and the Prophets

The prophetic tradition in the Hebrew Bible in many ways points to a crisis of moral agency. As the prophets respond in various ways to the threat and consequences of Israel’s exilic experience, they frequently frame their reflections as an issue of moral anthropology. The devastating effects of the exile raise serious questions for the prophets concerning the status of moral agency. Are humans really able to choose according to a vision of the good? Is their condition as an exiled people the result of failed moral choices or a reflection of a fundamental inability of the human heart to choose rightly at all?

The potential and limits of moral agency are highly contested in the prophetic tradition, with some of the prophets indicating that humans are indeed capable of choosing the good and bear devastating consequences when they fail to do so. Jeremiah 4:14, for example, exclaims: “Wash your heart clean of wickedness, O Jerusalem, that you may be rescued. How long will you harbor within you your evil designs?” While the human heart can err when infected with evil, it is possible to clean the heart and turn its inclination. Other texts, however, are much more suspicious about human agency and thus plead for divine intervention to fix the failed human condition. The heart cannot simply be washed clean but must be replaced entirely, as in Ezekiel 11:19, for God promises “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” In other words, obedience to the divine will requires a new moral organ.

The dominant stream in the prophetic tradition presumes that humans are capable of making correct moral choices yet repeatedly act against a vision of the good. Jeremiah remembers a time when Israel’s faithfulness was evident: “Thus says the LORD: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the first fruits of his harvest” (Jer. 2:2–3). Similarly, Isaiah describes the personified city Zion as having departed from faithfulness: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her—but now murderers!” (Isa. 1:21). As Lapsley explains, “For these prophets, the sinfulness of the Israelites is not caused by an innate problem in their moral constitution, but by a problem of their moral will that manifested itself at a particular moment in their history.15 Accordingly, while these prophets are quick to condemn Israel’s moral failings, they remain hopeful that Israel can indeed choose the good. As Isaiah’s oracle proclaims: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 1:19–20). This view assumes a robust concept of moral agency: the outcome is within Israel’s choice.

Other texts, however, suggest a weaker view of moral agency as they begin to question whether or not humans are even capable of executing a moral vision. Within the book of Jeremiah, the prophet seems to grow more skeptical of the nature of the human heart as the book advances. As the prophet’s cries for repentance become less frequent, his confidence diminishes that humans can make moral choices at all. Jeremiah diagnoses the Israelites’ failure to obey as the result of a corrupted will: “Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of an evil will (בשׁרירות לבם הרע‎). So I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not” (Jer. 11:8). Although YHWH offers to restore those who repent, “they say, It is of no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will (ואישׁ שׁררות לבו־הרע נעשׂה‎)” (Jer. 18:12).

Jeremiah is highly critical of the will as a corrupted condition of the moral agent. Jeremiah does not condemn the people for lack of will, notes Douglas A. Knight, but rather “his primary concern is that they have developed a disposition, a willful purpose, and a preferred course of action that are all contrary to the will of YHWH.”16 The people bear responsibility for the choices that are informed by an evil will, yet Jeremiah recognizes that “the will can at times become so habitual and ‘second-nature’ that the proclivity borders on ethical neutrality.”17 It is, Knight suggests, “a subtle instance of the pernicious power of routinized sin, with the doer becoming the victim in the end.”18 That is, while the will reflects human choice, the power of the evil will is so strong as to compel humans to err. For this reason, it requires radical rehabilitation, whether by humans—“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskins of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jer. 4:4)—or by God—“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).19

The book of Ezekiel holds in tension two conflicting views of the moral self. In some passages, the prophet’s call to repentance indicates a conviction that humans are capable of making moral decisions. Yet in other places, the prophet employs deterministic language and suggests that Israel has been unable to make choices for the good since its birth. In chapter 20, the prophet tells Israel’s history as an unending cycle of disobedience. Despite God’s continued attempts to restore Israel, they persist in the legacy of the ancestors. God proclaims, “I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not follow the statutes of your parents, nor observe their ordinances, nor defile yourselves with their idols. I the LORD am your God; follow my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances … But the children rebelled against me” (Ezek. 20:18–19, 21a). Lapsley argues that Ezekiel resolves the tension between these two views in a unique way. Unlike Isaiah or Jeremiah, who seem to hold a vision of the moral self as an innate capacity of the human, even if it has gone astray, corrupted by an evil will, by contrast Ezekiel envisions a different form of the moral self that is not original to humanity but is only granted as a gift of God.20 In other words, moral agency is not internal to the self but is an external feature that must be divinely implanted. Thus Ezekiel portrays Israel as possessing a defective heart for which the only remedy is a divine heart transplant. God vows, “I will give them one heart and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them” (Ezek. 11:19–20). Unlike the vision in Jeremiah, in which God reforms Israel’s heart (Jer. 31:33), in Ezekiel’s vision the people require a completely new moral organ.

Lapsley finds that Ezekiel proposes a new solution to the problem of the moral self. In this view, the significance of human actions fades in comparison to the actions of God, who promises to make humans capable of acting according to the good: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (Ezek. 36:26–27). In this way, Israel’s past failings will be overcome, for “human beings are created anew by God and endowed with a new moral identity, that, because it is divinely-given, is not subject to the same failings that plagued the earlier vision of the moral self.”21

Moral Agency and Wisdom Literature

A major theme in Israelite wisdom literature is the formation of human character. The book of Proverbs, in particular, sets as its pedagogical goal the shaping of the student’s character in accord with wisdom. Consequently, this book has much to say about human moral agency. Proverbs assumes that the moral self has both an innate potential within the human and must be shaped by the external forces of wisdom and discipline. Yet not all people are born with a native receptivity to discipline. The book considers the qualities of various characters and their potential for formation, and what emerges is a sophisticated typology of the moral self.

Proverbs suggests that certain kinds of characters are more susceptible to formation than others. The character of the simpleton (פתי‎) exemplifies both the potential and the difficulty of shaping the moral self. The simple one is infatuated with his own simplicity (Prov. 1:22). He is unable to foresee dangerous circumstances (Prov. 22:3b = 27:12b) and is susceptible to the influence of evil company (Prov. 7:7–27; 9:16). The simpleton is naturally inclined to a waywardness that may ultimately result in his demise (Prov. 1:32). For all of these reasons, there are tremendous obstacles within the simpleton’s own self to his formation as a moral agent. And yet the book is not entirely pessimistic about the formation of the פתי‎. Indeed, the education of the פתי‎ is one of its main ends (Prov. 1:4). The simple have an innate receptivity to external influence, which is both to their credit and to their detriment. For this reason, they are able to profit from discipline, even discipline delivered to others (Prov. 19:25; 21:11). However, the simpleton’s receptivity can result in his harm should he imbibe the wrong counsel. “A simple one believes every word” (Prov. 14:15a), which is why he is liable to be swayed by smooth talkers but is also not beyond the purview of correction. Only by ingesting discipline in ever greater degrees will he learn to distinguish the words of wisdom from the words of foolishness. In this respect, the development of his moral selfhood presupposes an inherent malleability, which is why the stakes of discipline are so high. Without proper discipline, his moral self will be shaped in the likeness of sinners, fools, and the wicked, but if he is shaped by discipline, he will learn to deploy his innate receptivity toward the further acquisition of wisdom.

The character of the fool, or “dunce” (כסיל‎), on the other hand, presents the consequences of uneducated moral selfhood. Lacking any inherent receptivity, the fool’s moral selfhood is shaped by his own internal perceptions. Proverbs indicates that the primary problem with the dunce is both his intractability and a distortion in his perceptions, emotions, and desires. It is not that the fool knows the good but chooses to do otherwise. Instead, his moral equipment is skewed such that he does what he imagines to be good, failing to understand its harmful consequences. Proverbs 14:8 reports that “the wisdom of the savvy discerns his way, but the foolishness of fools is deceit” (חכמת ערום הבין דרכו ואולת כסילים מרמה‎). The fools’ lack of wisdom deceives them, and they do not understand their own way. The fool also suffers from a confusion of desire: he loves what he should hate, such as folly (Prov, 12:23; 15:14), and hates what he should love, such as knowledge and understanding (Prov, 1:22; 18:2). It is not that fools choose the crooked path or pursue the wrong desires knowing them to be evil. Rather, they walk according to flawed perception and choose what is straight and pleasurable in their own eyes. Their moral equipment, in other words, is not lacking entirely but is severely impaired.

The solution to such distorted sensibilities is discipline, but nowhere does Proverbs promise that discipline will be effective for the fool. Indeed, administering discipline to a fool only results in frustration to the teacher. For the fool’s distorted perception extends to discipline itself. Failing to see the utility of discipline, he spurns words of advice, placing more trust in his own insight (Prov. 23:9; 28:26). At the same time, however, the book indicates that corporeal correction is appropriate for fools, perhaps as the only means that may catch their attention when words fail. So Proverbs 22:15 tells us, “Folly is bound in the heart of a boy—the rod of discipline removes it from him,” which testifies to the importance of early intervention. Yet the fool persists in foolishness (Prov. 26:11). There is a malfunction in his moral equipment because he rejects discipline and the counsel of his peers, which would calibrate his moral equipment properly.

On the other hand, the wise person (חכם‎) reflects a much different attitude toward correction. The wise person understands discipline as a means of education in the right perceptions of the world. Discipline calibrates one’s “moral aesthetic” such that one views the world in its proper dimensions and desires the things that lead toward wisdom.22 Every negative comment about the fool, every warning to avoid the wicked, and every cautionary tale that ends with death or Sheol is thus part of conditioning the student to view the world from the same perspective as the instructor. For this reason, discipline signifies more than simply the means of correction, whether words or physical discipline—it is about conveying a particular moral worldview.

Being a wise person or a fool is not a simple matter of either/or but is a result of the converging influences of one’s internal propensities and certain external forces of formation. Part of the underlying complexity of moral formation is the complexity of human motivation. Proverbs does not assume that the student is motivated solely by a pure desire for wisdom and aversion to foolishness. His moral equipment is not innately calibrated to such measures. Rather, the desire for wisdom must be cultivated, often by appeal to the more mundane motivations of wealth or longevity. The language of rebuke is in many respects an appeal to negative motivation, implicit in which is the notion that humans are prompted partly by fear and a desire to avoid pain. Thus certain warnings end with threat of death or peril. However, Proverbs also attends to a range of positive motivations that endeavor to increase the student’s receptivity to wisdom. Accordingly, the means for educating the moral self include appeal to a breadth of human motivations, both positive and negative.

Motivation and desire are crucial aspects of Proverbs’ moral vocabulary and hold a central place in the formation of moral agency. For Qoheleth, by contrast, the role of motivation is not assumed. In fact, this book hinges on the utter meaninglessness of motivation, for the pursuit of wisdom, wealth, and security ultimately leads nowhere, as Qoheleth admits from his own experience: “I turned to all that my hands had made, to the labor that I labored to do—but it was all futile, chasing wind. There is no true gain (יתרון‎) under the sun!” (Qoh. 2:11). Consequently, Qoheleth is suspicious that humans can confidently discern the good by which to act: “For who knows what is good for mortals while they live the few days of their vain life, which they pass like a shadow? For who can tell them what will be after them under the sun?” (Qoh. 6:12). Nonetheless, Qoheleth articulates a vision of the good that embraces the mundane realities of daily life: “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God give us; for this is our lot” (Qoh. 5:18). As Davis Hankins observes, “Moral agents in Ecclesiastes emerge through passionate immersions in their attachments.”23 In other words, even as Qoheleth acknowledges the limits of human understanding, the sage embraces the ethical act of toil and enjoyment.

The various models of moral agency in the Hebrew Bible reveal different ways of understanding the moral self. These models continued to develop and expand in Second Temple Judaism in response to changing historical and cultural circumstances. Newsom has traced the development of these models in Second Temple literature and finds that they frequently acknowledge inner moral conflict to a much greater degree than earlier Israelite literature. Whereas Deuteronomy and Proverbs focus on “the acquisition of proper insight and the formation of proper desires so that one does not in fact experience moral conflict but is drawn reliably to what is right,” many Second Temple texts reveal an internal moral conflict, “a form of quasi-introspective subjectivity that was simply unavailable with earlier models of the moral self.”24 For example, the Damascus Document (also known as the Cairo Damascus document, CD) draws imagery from primeval history in contrasting the generation of the Flood, which perished because they “acted upon their desire” (CD II, 20–21), with the patriarch Abraham, who did not choose the desire of his spirit (CD II, 2–3). Newsom explains that “it is not that Abraham had good desires but rather that he, too, was characterized by wrongful desire but chose not to follow it. Thus, there is something constitutively impaired in human moral psychology—a wrongful desire—that can and must be resisted.”25

Newsom concludes that it is necessary to locate formulations of moral agency in historical and cultural contexts, for they cannot be arranged in simple chronological development. Rather, logically incompatible models can exist even within a single text. For this reason, “the social and rhetorical functions of a way of conceptualizing the moral self must always be a part of the study of the self.”26 Moral agency was never a univocal notion in early Jewish texts, and the diverse perspectives on the moral self illumine a lively conversation concerning what it means to be human—a conversation that continues to this day.

Review of the Literature

In the history of Old Testament scholarship, ethics has been of limited interest to many scholars, though that has changed significantly in recent years. In the early 20th century, the subject of ethics was often dealt with as a component of Old Testament theology, and ethical analyses of biblical texts tended to emphasize the role of law obedience or general moral codes. More recently, there has been greater interest in articulating the particularity of various texts, narratives, characters, virtues, and visions of the moral world, commonly associated with character or virtue ethics.27 Moral psychology has been an active topic of conversation in New Testament studies, especially related to the figure of Paul, yet it has had less attention in Old Testament scholarship. However, a renewed interest in biblical anthropology and the moral self has prompted several recent works.28

Further Reading

  • Barton, John. Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explanations. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
  • Birch, Bruce. “Moral Agency, Community, and the Character of God in the Hebrew Bible.” Semeia 66 (1994): 23–41.
  • Breed, Brennan, Davis Hankins, and Robert Williamson Jr., eds. “Writing the Moral Self: Essays in Honor of Carol A. Newsom.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40.1 (2015): 3–135.
  • Dell, Katharine J., ed. Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.
  • Janowski, Berend, and Kathrin Liess, eds. Der Mensch im alten Israel: Neuen Forschungen zur alttestmentlichen Anthropologie. Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 2009.
  • Knight, Douglas A. “Jeremiah and the Dimensions of the Moral Life.” In The Divine Helmsman: Studies on God’s Control of Human Events, Presented to Lou H. Silberman. Edited by James L. Crenshaw and Samuel Sandmel, 87–103. New York: KTAV, 1980.
  • Lapsley, Jacqueline E. Can These Bones Live? The Problem of the Moral Self in the Book of Ezekiel. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 301. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.
  • Newsom, Carol A. “Models of the Moral Self: Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism.” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012): 5–25.
  • Newsom, Carol A. “Genesis 2–3 and 1 Enoch 6–16: Two Myths of Origin and Their Ethical Implications.” In Shaking Heaven and Earth: Essays in Honor of Walter Brueggemann and Charles B. Cousar. Edited by Christine Roy Yoder, et al., 7–22. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
  • Stewart, Anne W. Poetic Ethics in Proverbs: Wisdom Literature and the Shaping of the Moral Self. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Yoder, Christine Roy. “The Objects of Our Affections: Emotions and the Moral Life in Proverbs 1–9.” In Shaking Heaven and Earth: Essays in Honor of Walter Brueggemann and Charles B. Cousar. Edited by Christine Roy Yoder et al., 73–88. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.


  • 1. Carol A. Newsom, “Models of the Moral Self: Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 131 (2012): 10.

  • 2. Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Can These Bones Live? The Problem of the Moral Self in the Book of Ezekiel (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 10.

  • 3. Ibid., 44.

  • 4. Ibid., 9.

  • 5. Ibid., 10.

  • 6. Ibid., 58.

  • 7. See Anne W. Stewart, Poetic Ethics in Proverbs: Wisdom Literature and the Shaping of the Moral Self (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 80–101.

  • 8. Robert Williamson, Jr., “Taking Root in the Rubble: Trauma and Moral Subjectivity in the Book of Lamentations,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40.1 (2015): 7–23.

  • 9. Ibid., 12.

  • 10. Ibid., 13.

  • 11. Lapsley, Can These Bones Live?, 45–48.

  • 12. Carol A. Newsom, “Genesis 2–3 and 1 Enoch 6–16: Two Myths of Origin and Their Ethical Implications,” in Shaking Heaven and Earth: Essays in Honor of Walter Brueggemann and Charles B. Cousar, ed. Christine Roy Yoder et al. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 13.

  • 13. Ibid.

  • 14. Lapsley, Can These Bones Live?, 47.

  • 15. Ibid., 79.

  • 16. Douglas A. Knight, “Jeremiah and the Dimensions of the Moral Life,” in The Divine Helmsman: Studies on God’s Control of Human Events, Presented to Lou H. Silberman, eds. James L. Crenshaw and Samuel Sandmel (New York: KTAV, 1980), 92.

  • 17. Ibid.

  • 18. Ibid.

  • 19. Compare also Deuteronomy 10, where the conversion, or circumcision, of the heart is a human act symbolizing covenant obedience: “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.” Deuteronomy 30 indicates that God will circumcise the heart—“The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart” (30:6), even as it is still within the power of the heart to turn away (30:17).

  • 20. Lapsley, Can These Bones Live?, 186.

  • 21. Ibid.

  • 22. See Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10–31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 18B) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 973.

  • 23. Davis Hankins, “The Internal Infinite: Deleuze, Subjectivity, and Moral Agency in Ecclesiastes,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40.1 (2015): 59.

  • 24. Newsom, “Models of the Moral Self,” 14.

  • 25. Ibid., 17.

  • 26. Ibid., 25.

  • 27. See, e.g., Katharine J. Dell, ed., Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue (New York: T&T Clark, 2010); and Christine Roy Yoder, “The Objects of Our Affections: Emotions and the Moral Life in Proverbs 1–9,” in Shaking Heaven and Earth: Essays in Honor of Walter Brueggemann and Charles B. Cousar, ed. Christine Roy Yoder et al. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 73–88.

  • 28. See Berend Janowski and Kathrin Liess, eds., Der Mensch im alten Israel: Neuen Forschungen zur alttestmentlichen Anthropologie (Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 2009); Newsom, “Models of the Moral Self”; and Brennan Breed, Davis Hankins, and Robert Williamson Jr., eds., “Writing the Moral Self: Essays in Honor of Carol A. Newsom,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 40.1 (2015): 3–135.