Are There Ethics in the Hebrew Bible?

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
September 2009

There seems to have been much debate recently in the media about atheism. Perhaps Professor Dawkins and other vociferous authors have to be thanked for this. But it’s a good thing, if only to counter some really ignorant prejudices about the values of those who do not believe in supernatural beings that influence their life. We can start by noting that atheism has little to do with secularism: most Western nations are both religious and secular. Democracy requires both: religion is one of those beliefs that secular society permits because gods are not registered voters and do not offer themselves at the ballot box and cannot speak in public. Next, the horrible phrase “people of faith” (like “people of color”) implies that atheists have no faith, whereas they do; in fact, they put their faith in certain human values—individual liberty, reason, toleration, human autonomy, science. I don’t see that an atheist’s belief in these is much different in kind from a belief in an invisible and sovereign being (or whatever) that ultimately determines the nature and destiny of everything. Except that it is always open to verification. If it’s wrong, we expect to find out some time. Meanwhile, we should believe in something…..

But what about ethics? After all, religion is not about whether you believe in gods. This is merely metaphysics. What defines religion is the belief that these beings require you to do something about it rather than leave them in peace (and allow them to do the same to you). I repeatedly hear advocates of religion asserting that it is religion that gives humans ethics that bestow value on human life. I have rarely heard anything so ridiculous in my life. So let’s look at ethics in the (Hebrew) Bible.

There are various systems determining human behavior. The best known comprises, the “commandments” or “laws,” supposedly dictated by the invisible god and stipulating that humans should not kill, steal, commit adultery or worship any god but this one, etc. What are the reasons for such behavior? That it is good to obey divine commands—additional motivation being provided by threatened consequences of neglecting to do so. However, “only obeying orders” was summarily dismissed as a defense at the Nuremberg trials and although in some circumstances one can still plead “higher authority” as a defense against charges of misconduct, these pleas do not constitute an assertion of ethical behavior: they are just a get-out where one has clearly behaved unethically.

Religious believers may accuse me here of parody. But no: this is no parody; this is what much of the biblical “ethics” are -- rules that are imposed and expected to be obeyed. They are good rules because they are divine rules—and gods are good, or at least the god in the Bible. But ethics is about doing what is good because it is intrinsically good. It is children whom we simply command, and (at least until recently) punish for neglect of our commands because they do not as yet know better. But we are not children, and in fact, many Jews and Christians do behave ethically, obeying some commandments and not others. In doing so, they follow some principle of ethics because they are not children but adults.

So let’s take the wisdom literature as exemplified by Proverbs. Here we can find something closer to a rational system. The literary convention of parental advice to children can be ignored: Wisdom is not commanded but recommended as reasonable because it is in conformity with the way the world was created (this is what I take to be the point of Proverbs 8:22 : “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work”). The universe, it runs, was created with a moral as well as a natural order, and right behavior consists of discerning and respecting that order. Here we surely have something approaching a proper code of ethics (not, in fact, so far from Stoicism). Unfortunately, it has two major flaws. The less serious flaw is that it does not work because what Proverbs recommends as good does not actually bring the promised reward, nor does its opposite bring punishment. The writers of Job and Qoheleth both seem to have acknowledged this but have no alternative to offer other than to respectively suffer or enjoy life without much understanding of what “good behavior” means. In addition, the writer of the Job story makes it very clear (via the mouth of the Satan) that good behavior is supposed to be disinterested (now that is a piece of real ethics!), and that rewarding it negates this virtue. Yet the more serious flaw is the tendency (mostly outside Proverbs) to equate this “wisdom” to “torah” (divine instruction), and then, to make it worse, to define “torah” as a written corpus of commandments. Hence the wise person, as Psalm 1 has it, is one who meditates on this continually, rather than the one who thinks, reads, or reflect. Ethics out of a can.

And the prophets—so beloved of biblical ethicists? Joel, Obadiah, Nahum, Haggai, Zechariah, Habakkuk we can dispose of. Elsewhere we encounter rants against cultic irregularity (=bigotry, denial of human rights), xenophobia (ditto), exhortation to follow Torah (we’ve been here already). Some protests against social abuse, I will concede. But these critiques are hardly original, and being religiously grounded should not be confused with being religiously rationalized. If you want to challenge social or royal norms, you really do have to appeal to a divinity because nothing else counts. And why does nothing else count? Because the Bible is culturally totalitarian—unsurprisingly, because it emanates from a totalitarian world of monarchic societies. The development of monarchic religion in the Bible is hardly a supreme religious insight. Rather, it parallels the growth of ever-larger political units. Instead of local city-rulers fighting for supremacy (and their gods likewise), a supreme, if remote, “king of kings” controls everything (always through officials, of course), the semblance of world order that this emperor celebrates being reflected is the cosmic order governed by a supreme deity. (Plato’s monotheism, by contrast, has to be explained differently).

Western civilization, then, does not get ethics from the Bible (and I would say, not even from the New Testament, but I don’t have room to argue that. Go figure.) Ethics develop in a society where individuals have to make their own moral judgments about intrinsic goodness. In fifth-century Athens, we find Athenian dramatists using traditional myths and legends to explore ethical ambiguity, and especially the conflicts between duty to family city and nation. These are precisely the issues that will have confronted those Athenian citizens called upon to act as judges of their fellows in civic trials. In such a task there are no instructions from the gods, and indeed, no clear answers. Admittedly, the “good” was essentially political, and neither Plato nor Aristotle escaped this restriction. But it was a very good start. Where humans are (in theory) equal, and where political power lies within a citizen body, only educated judgment can hinder mob rule, while abdication of responsibility can easily lead to the return of monarchy. The moral lessons to be learned from the history of the Greek cities (and their Roman successors) can teach as much about democracy as the tragedies in which the heroes are typically caught between demands that are irreconcilable. Theocracy or totalitarianism actually triumphed. It is found first with Alexander, then the Caesars, and then the Roman Catholic Church. But for the time being, democracy, individual freedom, and ethics, are with us. Perhaps that is what we are fighting for in Afghanistan and Iraq. Or perhaps not. I am not sure the Bible would worry too much about torture: its god is quite comfortable with the idea.

Oh for the simplicity of a god to tell us what is right and wrong! If we read Genesis 2–3 in a certain way (the orthodox Christian way, for example) we have to conclude that when we try to do what we think is right, rather than simply obey a divine command, however inscrutable, we fall (and we get punished in a big way). “Doing what is right in our own eyes”—what heresy! Can any theology be more adamantly opposed to “ethics” than this?

Now, I treasure the Bible. And I even think that religion does have many advantages. But ethics is not one of religion’s gifts to humanity, and the Bible cannot serve a modern democracy as a moral guide—unless of course we decide ourselves, on or own ethical principles, which bits of it we will follow and which ones we will not. Come to think of it, though, isn’t this really what most of its believers actually do? So why not come clean and stop pretending that our Western culture is built on “biblical values”: for, thank god, it isn’t!

Article Comments

Submitted by Tang Gun Sumlut on Sun, 04/11/2021 - 04:32


Hi, I am Sumlut Tang Gun from Myanmar and a Master of Divinity Student of PBTS, Baguio, Philippines. I like this article and I would like to a chance to read coming next articles.

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