Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Society, Truth

The Bible’s Morality

BibleIn 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.

idolAnd 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.

34 thoughts on “The Bible’s Morality”

  1. In my most recent attempt to read through the Bible I really began to struggle with a lot of these passages and asked a lot of those same questions. How could a moral god call for such death and destruction to take place in his so called holy name.


  2. Obviously, I agree. I don’t know why it took me so long to register just how horrible those things are.

    Thanks for the comment by the way. And I’ve been looking over your blog — very interesting! I hope things went well for you yesterday…


  3. Nate and thebiblereader,

    I have long thought that Job was a “wisdom poem” not history, and I think that would be the view of many christians. There is no historical setting (like “in the nth year of king xxxxx”), and no family setting (e.g. “Job, son of yyyyy”), as would normally occur in any historical book. And God playing bets with Satan to see how Job will react, like some rat in a maze scientific experiment, doesn’t seem right. But once you see it as a morality poem, an extended proverb or parable, or something like that, it makes more sense.


  4. Thanks for your thoughts, unkleE. You’re likely right about that, but it still bothers me to be honest. The author of the story ended it in a way that’s supposed to make Job’s life even better than it was before, but it’s hard for me to get over the loss of those first children — it probably would have been hard for Job too, if he had been real. But I will agree — a story of fiction instead of history is definitely an improvement. 🙂


  5. Nate, you know that the prologue and epilogue are later additions, do you? As for some children replacing some other, I simply see that as one of the cultural beliefs of the time inside a fictional story, though one that is revolting to us now.


  6. Hey Nate

    I re-read this post recently, and I just wanted to add that the Old Testament doesn’t seem to support or suggest that David was being moral when he lied. It seems just to explain that he lied. Furthermore, when Abraham lied to Pharaoh the OT doesn’t seem to outline this as a moral act.

    The Patriarchs themselves didn’t always do the right thing by others, yet the Bible still records their inconstancies as well as their virtues. I think this i makes the Bible stand out, since many other historical records often only focus on their heroes successes and virtues, while ignoring and removing any notion that they had faults. In contrast, both the OT and the NT include both the faults and merits of the people they are writing about.

    The celebrated people in the OT did both selfless acts as well as selfish acts. And the same can be read in the NT. After all, Peter “the Rock” had acute moments of inconsistency even as he was with Jesus. I don’t think the Bible always points out when someone has done something immoral, instead it just outlines the action itself. Neither does it always directly say that someone has done something noble. It can be said for Saul, who I don’t think at the time (although I could be wrong) it is implied that he is being immoral when he tries to kill David out of jealously. Instead the reader can see through the unfolding of events that there were consequences to Saul’s actions.

    When John the Baptist was beheaded as the event is explained the NT does not directly state that this was an immoral and unjust thing to happen to a human being. Instead, the account unfolds. I think morality is shown more as a gradual unfolding of events. The Bible presents morality by a “persons fruits” you could say. The event itself is explained, but often it is not directly implied whether a persons actions were moral or not. (There are exceptions I know eg. Abraham was counted as righteous man/ David was a man after Gods own heart ect.) Anyway those were just some thoughts I had after reading this post again.

    Kind regards, Ryan


  7. So I suppose what I was trying to get at was that the Bible doesn’t always state that a persons actions were immoral or moral while it is giving account of it. Often people’s actions in the Bible are specifically stated as righteous before or after, but not during the actual account of what happened. I know there are exceptions.

    I think even words like morality can be tricky, since people in a Biblical context were more described as righteous, faithful, wicked, evil. How are these meanings related to our modern understanding of what is moral? I don’t know.

    Anyway, all the best 🙂


  8. Thanks for the comments, Ryan. And yes, I think you’re right that the Bible isn’t condoning the immoral things that its heroes do. However, the Bible still seems to show God’s morality as less than ideal. Like the episode with Abraham, for instance, where Abraham lies to Pharaoh, but God punishes Pharaoh instead of Abraham. If one of my children lied, I wouldn’t punish the other one, you know? But aside from that, I think your comment is spot on. Thanks again for chiming in!


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