The Prophetic View of Morality

Were things really as bad as the prophets say or were the prophets holding the people to unrealistically high standards?  Was the behavior of the ancient Israelites markedly worse than that of the Egyptians, Assyrians, or Babylonians?  Granted, these were pagan cultures; therefore, we cannot expect them to measure up to the Israelite ban on idolatry. What about murder, theft, adultery, and false swearing? Were the Israelites worse than their neighbors or is human behavior like water in the sense that it seeks the same level everywhere?

See Also: Thinking about the Prophets: A Philosopher Reads the Bible (The Jewish Publication
Society, 2020).

By Kenneth Seeskin
Department of Philosophy and Department of Religious Studies
Northwestern University
August 2020

The late theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel was right when he said that the Hebrew prophets were some of the most disturbing people who ever lived. By any estimation, they were among the first and the most strident social critics in Western history. It is not just that they saw treachery, hypocrisy, and immorality almost everywhere they looked, but their condemnation of society was not voiced in their own name but that of God.

            We can start with Amos, the first of the great literary prophets who was active in the middle of the eighth century BC. Without any formal training as a prophet or religious leader, he proclaimed in the name of God (5:21-22):

I loathe, I spurn your festivals,

I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies.

If you offer Me burnt offerings – or your meal offerings –

I will not accept them;

I will pay no heed . . .

Why will God pay no heed?  There are two reasons: one social, one religious. The social reason has to do with the neglect of justice and treatment of the poor (2:6-7):        

. . . they have sold for silver

Those whose cause is just,

And the needy for [the price of] a pair of sandals.

[Ah,] you who trample the heads of the poor

Into the dust of the ground,

And make the humble walk a twisted course!

The religious reason has to do with hypocrisy. Though the people offer sacrifices to atone for their sins, their actions are outward shows of piety that have nothing to do with the desire to

improve behavior (4:4-5):

Come to Bethel [location of a holy shrine] and transgress;

To Gilgal [another shrine], and transgress even more:

Present your sacrifices the next morning

And your tithes on the third day;

And burn a thank offering of leavened bread,

And proclaim freewill offerings loudly.

For you love that sort of thing, O Israelites.

            It is well known that along with the other prophets, Amos predicts doom if the people do not change their ways. The sun will set at noon, festivals will be turned into mournings, and songs into dirges. Though a remnant of the population will survive, in Amos’ estimation, it is only ten percent of the population. The severity of the catastrophe is for him a measure of how low the people have sunk.

            Amos’ near-contemporary Hosea was just as critical (4:1-2):

 . . . there is no honesty and no goodness

And no obedience to God in the land.

[False] swearing, dishonesty, and murder,

And theft and adultery are rife;

Crime follows upon crime!

The prophets who followed were no different. Isaiah (1:10) compares Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah. Jeremiah (23:11) says that both the priests and prophets of Jerusalem are godless and that their wickedness extends even to the Temple. Ezekiel maintains (16: 47-52) that next to Jerusalem, Sodom does not seem all that bad. In fact, when Ezekiel sees the Glory of the Lord depart Jerusalem (8:10), he claims that the Temple is no longer worthy of God because it now contains “all detestable forms of creeping things and beasts and all the fetishes of the House of Israel.”

            This literature raises an obvious question: Were things really as bad as the prophets say or were the prophets holding the people to unrealistically high standards?  Was the behavior of the ancient Israelites markedly worse than that of the Egyptians, Assyrians, or Babylonians?  Granted, these were pagan cultures; therefore, we cannot expect them to measure up to the Israelite ban on idolatry. What about murder, theft, adultery, and false swearing? Were the Israelites worse than their neighbors or is human behavior like water in the sense that it seeks the same level everywhere?  If the comparison with pagan cultures is unfair, then we can rephrase the question and ask whether Jewish behavior in ancient times was any worse than it was in later ages.

            Rather than making sweeping generalizations, let us follow Heschel in saying that if the situation were as bad as the prophets say, other sources, e.g., the Books of Kings, would have pointed it out. Granted that there are some brutal despots and shameless idolaters who get discussed in these pages, but again we have to ask: Was there a profound moral deterioration or were things pretty much what a normal person would expect?

            I opt for the latter. Of course there was murder, theft, and adultery in Israel, but no more than one would have found in other societies in the Ancient Near East. Even if we move our focus away from the time and place in which the prophets lived, we might well ask: What society has completely eliminated them?  Where is justice totally impartial and where are the poor given the help they need to live respectable lives?  The more likely explanation for the prophets’ stridency is that they were idealists, by which I mean people who were profoundly upset – nay outraged – by the gulf between what the people were supposed to be and what they actually were. In the words of Isaiah (42:6; 49:6), the Israelites were supposed to be a light unto the nations. This could not happen if their behavior was no better than anyone else’s.

            The idealism of the prophets raises a time-honored question about the nature of morality. Should moral leaders set high standards for the people to follow and run the risk that most will fall short or is it more prudent to set standards which, though not perfect, have some chance of being fulfilled?  The danger of the former view is that if the standards are too high, most people will ignore them. If that happens, sin will be as prevalent as the prophets say it is.

            The second view, which we might characterize as realism, is that moral standards should take into account the way people actually behave. There is no point in demanding that all people act like saints. The danger of this view is that if moral standards are weakened, questionable behavior will begin to seem acceptable. While it may be true that no society has completely eliminated poverty, it is still wrong to regard it with composure.

            The same issue arises if we move from the prophets to Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, he warns his audience that he has not come to abolish or relax the law of the prophets.

Accordingly (Mathew 5:19):

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments,

and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom

of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called

great in the kingdom of heaven.

In what follows, he interprets the law in such a way that it is more difficult to fulfill, not easier.  Someone who murders another will be liable to judgment, but so will someone who becomes angry with a brother or sister. It is wrong to commit adultery, but it is equally wrong to look at a woman with lust in your heart. It is wrong to swear falsely, but it is just as wrong to swear at all.  Who can live by these standards?  Who can love his enemies and turn the other cheek if they strike him?  At the end of the passage, Jesus gets right to the point: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

            Not surprisingly this issue has been debated by philosophers from ancient times to the current day. Broadly speaking, Plato took the side of idealism while Aristotle took the side of realism. As one of Plato’s characters says in the Gorgias (481b-c), if Socrates is serious about what he is arguing, then human life would have to be turned upside down because most people are doing the exact opposite of what they should do. In a later age, roughly the same debate broke out between Kant and Hegel, with Kant taking the idealist side and Hegel the realist.

            To understand what is at stake, it would be helpful to take a brief look at Kant. I think Kant sounded like a prophet himself when he said that to be legitimate, morality must be “stern, unindulgent, and truly commanding.”  Behind this view is the fear that if we lower moral standards to bring them into conformity with existing behavior, we will succumb to backsliding and start making excuses for things that we know to be wrong.

            Consider the example of The United States Constitution, which guarantees every citizen equal protection under the law. Although this is a worthy goal, it is doubtful whether the United States or any other country has ever lived up to it. Should we respond to this by saying that no country is perfect, and therefore, all we can do is proceed as we have been with mixed results, or should we say that the goal of equal protection is so important that we must keep it forefront in our minds at all times?  Kant would insist on the latter. The fact that that no society in history has ever lived up to the standard of perfect justice does not show that such as standard should be abandoned. Again from Heschel: “Man must live on the summit to avoid the abyss.”

            We do not have to probe very deeply to see that while they did not have the

theoretical sophistication of Plato and Kant, the prophets were on their side – or rather, they were on the prophets’ side. If this is right, then Amos would not have been phased if someone were to say that he was being unrealistic by insisting on justice for the poor. Nor would Isaiah have been phased if people had said he was unrealistic by encouraging people to put more trust in God than in horses and chariots. Neither was interested in incremental change; what they wanted was nothing less than a moral and spiritual awakening that would affect every aspect of human society.

            Let us return to the standard objection to idealism. If people live on the summit – or at least aim for it – then most people will fall short of it and be regarded as sinners. The answer to the objection is that the prophets wanted to make a wholesale condemnation of the behavior they observed. In fact, that is the crux of their message. As we saw, Amos thought only ten percent of the Israelites were worth saving.

            Wholesale condemnation of human behavior raises another question. Is the summit obtainable even for a person of exceptional character?  Does setting a high standard for people to follow present a challenge that is difficult but achievable, or is human behavior so corrupted that a high standard is completely out of reach?  Here I think Judaism and Christianity part company.

            As I see it, the Jewish answer to this question can be found in Deuteronomy 30: 11-14:

 What I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.

It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask:

“Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”

 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask:

“Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?”

No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may do it.

This implies that the law can be fulfilled. The argument usually given in favor of this view is that it would be unfair for God to hold people to a standard he knew they could not attain no matter how hard they tried. As the Jewish Neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen put it, morality cannot amount to a labor of Sisyphus.

            The Jewish view receives additional support at Deuteronomy 30: 15, where God says: “See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity” and then implores the Israelites to choose life. I take this to mean that even after Adam and Eve transgressed in the Garden of Eden, Cain slew Abel, and the Israelites provoked God all during the course of the exodus, God still offers them the opportunity to choose the right path. This is consistent with the prophets’ continual plea to repent while there is still time.

            Pelagius, a fourth-century Irish monk, opposed by Augustine and declared a heretic, advanced a position like this. Can people fulfill the law by exertion alone, or do they need God’s help at every step?  The argument against Pelagius is that it would be boastful for someone to claim he or she had reached perfection by their own efforts. Additional support for the Christian view can be found in the sorry state of Israelite history. As mentioned above, the Israelites provoked God and ignored Moses’ instruction at practically every turn. Ditto for the prophets. According to Ezekiel, God became so angry with them that he departed Jerusalem and allowed the Temple to be destroyed. All of this suggests that despite being given the opportunity to choose the right course, there is an inherent human tendency to choose the wrong one.

            It is not my purpose to decide this controversy. I simply want to point out that it arises because, in their classical formulations, both Judaism and Christianity opted for moral idealism. The result is that both had to deal with the fact that the majority of their followers would be sinners. In Judaism, this led to constant stress on repentance. The Talmud says that where the truly repentant stand, not even the righteous can stand. In Christianity, it led to stress on repentance and the gift of divine grace. Without these doctrines, both religions would teach that sin is all but inevitable and that there is nothing we can do about it. Therefore, we can understand Cohen’s claim that all monotheistic worship is based on the forgiveness of sin. I would only add that the prevalence of sin is the result of refusing to compromise on the standards of morality.

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