In the last post, I talked about why I still believe in some moral absolutes even though I’m no longer a Christian. In this post, I’d like to dig a little deeper into what kind of morality we find in the Bible.
Most of us view things like the Holocaust or the Tiananmen Square Crackdown as horrible atrocities. We would unquestionably say that they were immoral acts. Yet, there are similar episodes in human history that have been motivated by religion: the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, etc. The people responsible believed that they were carrying out the commands of God. If God sets morals, then these people were behaving morally — at least they believed they were. Now perhaps these individuals were misguided. It’s likely that God hadn’t really commanded those things. But what if he had? Would it have been moral to obey?
In fact, the Old Testament records several places where God did command the Israelites to do horrible things to other people. In Numbers 31, Moses tells the Israelites to kill all the Midianites except the virgin girls, which they could keep for themselves. If my family were Midianites, then my daughters would watch while my wife, my son, and I were slaughtered. Then they would be taken by the people who murdered us, and it’s certainly implied that their suffering would not be over at that point. Should we assume that this was pleasing to God? Remember, though traditions states that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, they’re actually anonymous. We don’t know who wrote them. Can we trust them when they attribute this kind of behavior to God?
And when we consider people like the Amalekites (1 Sam 15), I think we should make sure that we don’t just gloss over what happened to them. Sure, none of the women were taken prisoner -– everyone was killed. In some ways, maybe that was better than what happened to the Midianites. But really think about what that entailed. Again, if my family had been Amalekites, then my children would watch as I was killed. More than likely, my wife would be killed next, while pleading for the lives of our children. This would leave my three young children terrified and with no one to protect them. One by one, they would all be slaughtered with no way to protect themselves or to understand what was happening. It would be painful and horrifying for them. But this was not just punishment against the Amalekites; it was punishment against the Israelites too. Could you imagine being an Israelite father and being commanded to go and utterly destroy the Amalekites? Could you imagine killing an infant or a small child – slicing into them while their tiny arms tried to shield themselves? Could you imagine killing a pregnant woman? Could you imagine that this was God’s command?
The Book of Joshua is filled with horrors like that just so the Israelites could have the land of Canaan. In our own country, brutal things like this have happened before. Native Americans were driven from their lands, and sometimes they were treated just as cruelly. Do we think that was pleasing to God? Did God want the white man to have all this land? Many white people at the time thought that very thing. It was called “Manifest Destiny.” Do we believe they were right about that? Doesn’t it seem to be the exact thing the Israelites thought about their reasons to have Canaan?
In one of the last Bible classes I attended, we talked about Abraham’s amazing faith when he went to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22). Someone lamented that they weren’t sure they would have had faith strong enough to do that. Honestly, I hope they’re right. If someone today killed their child because a voice told them to, none of us would think it was a remarkable show of faith. We’d think he was insane. If a voice told me to kill my children, I hope I would have the sense to not listen to that voice. I hope I would realize that a good and loving God would not tell me to sacrifice my own child.
However, God’s position on this subject is a little ambiguous in the Bible. We’re told in Genesis 22 that God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. However, in Deut 12:31 we’re told that he despises human sacrifice. Then in Ezekiel 20:23-26, we’re given this strange passage:
Moreover, I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, because they had not obeyed my rules, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers’ idols. Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the LORD.
I’m not sure how to take that last passage. I honestly don’t want to read too much into it, but it’s certainly a scary concept. And if Ezekiel is saying that God commanded child sacrifice at some point in Israel’s history, then I don’t think he can be trusted as a spokesman for God. And this is one of the core points I’m trying to get across: the Bible was written by men. In order to determine if it was inspired by God, we need to examine passages like this. Would God really behave this way if he is just and loving?
Psalm 137:8-9 is supposed to be inspired, since it’s in the Bible. But it’s unpleasant to think that this could have been God’s attitude:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
There are also passages like 1 Kings 21:28-29:
And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.”
Why would God punish sons for the sins of the father, especially when Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son”? Then there’s the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). Abraham and Sarah lie by saying that they’re not married. So Pharaoh takes Sarah as a wife. In response, God afflicts Pharaoh’s house with plagues. In other words, even though Pharaoh was the innocent party, he was the one that was punished. And what about David pretending to be insane in 1 Sam 21, or lying to Achish about which towns he was raiding in 1 Sam 27? Are the things in these passages morally good?
If morality only exists because of what God tells us, then all these things from the Old Testament were morally right. In fact, we probably shouldn’t even feel uneasy when we read about them. If anything God commands is moral, then when we read that he commanded genocide it should feel moral to us. The irony here is that if morality is only gained from God’s commands, then it is truly situational ethics. After all, lying might be bad sometimes, but it wasn’t when David did it. Killing is bad sometimes, but not when it wiped out the Canaanites.
We don’t need a divine standard to tell us what is right and wrong. We already know what’s right and wrong. Doing good to other people is obviously better than doing evil: human suffering is reduced and happiness is increased. Those reasons alone should be sufficient for doing the right thing. If we’re only doing moral acts because we think there’s some reward or punishment waiting for us after this life, that’s just kind of sad. There are plenty of reasons to do good while we’re here. In fact, I would think God would prefer to reward those who do good simply because it’s good over people who only did it for what they’ll get in the end.
Many people in this world behave morally, and a vast percentage of them aren’t doing it because of the Bible. That alone should be proof to us that morality does not require the Bible. Unless they’re mentally unstable, all people know that infringing on the rights of someone else is wrong.
In fact, every culture throughout time has developed some sort of moral code. The Law Code of Hammurabi that I mentioned in the last post is a good example. God had given no law at that time, so how did those people know what was right and wrong? The Greeks and Romans developed a form of democracy without the Bible. How could they have done that if the Bible is the source of morality?
Some people have said that these things were learned during the Patriarchal age, before the time of Moses. Perhaps God spoke to the heads of all families, not just people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But the Bible itself gives indication that this didn’t happen. For instance, it’s hard for me to believe that if God was speaking to everyone like he was to Noah that no one else responded to his warning. Maybe it happened that way –- it just seems counter-intuitive. And Moses had obviously heard of God growing up, but the episode at the burning bush seems to be the first time he’d ever experienced such revelation. Pharaoh didn’t seem to know who God was, and if there was a patriarch in Egypt at the time, surely it was him.
And we have many examples of people in this period who worshiped idols – Laban and Rachel are two good examples (Gen 31). Why worship an idol when you’ve spoken directly to the true God? If God were giving them directions, I’m sure one of the first commands was not to worship idols. Why aren’t we tempted to worship idols today? It’s because we believe in a different type of god than they did –- yet we haven’t even conversed with God or experienced him in any kind of miraculous way. So why in the world would people who had conversed with God himself be tempted to serve a piece of wood or stone? They wouldn’t, and this points to there never having been a period of time when God spoke to the patriarchs of all families.
There are a couple of places in the Bible that show where God dealt with non-Israelites: Melchizedek (Gen 14) and Balaam Num 22 are the only two I can think of. But they certainly seem to be the exception rather than the rule. And throughout history, we’ve never found any evidence of other ancient peoples worshiping the God of the Bible. We have ample evidence of them worshiping idols or other deities, but no indication that they were familiar with the God of the Bible. Admittedly, we aren’t told all the details, so God could have really communicated with all the patriarchs throughout the world until the time of the Old Law. But the bulk of our evidence (including evidence from the Bible) indicates that non-Israelites didn’t know who God was. Yet they still understood that society prospers when people work together, and that is how they were able to understand morality.
There are some good moral teachings in the Bible, especially from Jesus. But even those aren’t evidence that we needed the Bible in order to understand those things. One of Jesus’ best known teachings is the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). But this same teaching was given by Hillel the Elder about a generation before Jesus: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” What about the notion of loving your enemy? There’s an ancient Babylonian text dating at least 700 before Jesus that says:
Do not return evil to the man who disputes with you;
Requite with kindness your evil-doer,
Maintain justice to your enemy,
Smile on your adversary.
— George Zerbe, pg 34 (link)
Check out this link if you’d like more examples. The point is that the Bible is not unique in its teachings of morality. And in certain places, it leaves a lot to be desired. Many people from many places and cultures have come upon the same moral truths. Maybe we evolved these ideas somehow — maybe God programmed them into us as instincts. Either way, we don’t need a particular religious text to tell us what’s right or wrong. And even if the fact that we all have an understanding of morality served as evidence for God, it would not count as evidence for the Christian god.
I don’t believe in God, but I can understand why people do; I don’t think it’s unreasonable. I just have trouble connecting the line from a belief in God to a belief in the Christian god. And I especially have trouble making that connection when we’re looking at morality. The Bible commands genocide on a number of different tribes. In at least one instance, it commands child sacrifice. And while other portions of the Bible teach genuinely good morals, they’re the same basic things that virtually every culture has discovered. We don’t need a religious book to tell us how to be moral. All we really need is rationality and compassion.