Are There Ethics in the Hebrew Bible?

The following article is written by a great biblical scholar, Philip R. Davies, Professor Emeritus at the University of Sheffield, England. It was originally published on The Bible and Interpretation website in September 2009.

In the Fellowship, we appreciate the insights offered by the latest scholarly research, even when they challenge long-held beliefs and dogmas. In fact, we appreciate them especially when they do exactly that, because it reminds us that long-held opinions can be wrong. If we truly value truth, then we must truly value evidence, and we must approach that evidence with critical minds. We may not always agree with their religious-spiritual-metaphysical convictions (or lack thereof), but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer us important data in other areas.

The path to truth is difficult, and it requires sacrificing our self-importance, admitting that we can be and often are wrong. Engaging in this process is a truly spiritual activity. With that said, here is Professor Davies’s article, with some commentary below.

Are There Ethics in the Hebrew Bible?

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!

Davies makes two really good points. First, the Hebrew Bible does not contain a comprehensive and coherent account of real ethics. Second, true ethical behavior cannot come from “just following the rules” — it has to come from within and to be recognized as good for its own sake. In other words, it cannot be forced upon us by others. Coercion and submission do not lead to ethical behavior.

But in this short article, Davies writes some things that deserve to be looked at in closer detail. For example, he writes that religion can be defined by “the belief that these [supernatural] beings require you to do something about [your beliefs about gods]”. He also writes that the idea that religion “gives humans ethics that bestow value on human life” is wrong.

These statements may be true in most cases. For example, if the god or gods you believe in require certain behavior from you, like authoritarian parents, it is not truly ethical, for the reasons Davies gives. And as he shows, no religion can give humans ethics, because, again, ethical choices must be made freely in order to be truly ethical.

However, they are not true in all cases and in all ways. They really depend on the specific metaphysical or theological convictions that make up the religion in question. And just as Davies points out that atheists too have faith, atheism itself can be described in very similar terms. How so? To get to that, we need to take a closer look at what ethics and reason really involve.

Ethics and truth have a lot in common. Just as an ethical choice is based on a recognition of something that is intrinsically good, a sound conclusion is based on a recognition of something that is intrinsically true. In other words, both activities rely on the existence of universal standards that we don’t simply make up for ourselves. No one can simply tell us that something is good or true. We have to determine that on our own. We are always entitled to ask why it is good or true, and to verify the reasons we are given by using our own conscience and reason, based on logic, evidence, and values.

But truth and goodness are also true and good regardless of whether or not we recognize it. Try as we might, we cannot get around this. Facts don’t cease to be facts simply because we don’t believe them. And unethical behavior cannot be rationalized away as ethical. For example, believing that a rape victim wasn’t in fact raped, despite the evidence, doesn’t in any way mean she wasn’t raped. And a rapist who attempts to convince himself that the act of rape really was good for himself, his victim, and society, is just plain wrong.

The point is twofold. First, there is a force behind these things — truth and goodness — that is inescapable. Davies demonstrates this in the very act of trying to determine the truth about the question, “Are there ethics in the Hebrew Bible?” There is something about truth and goodness that compels us to think, feel, and act in certain ways. “Is my thinking clear?” “Am I accounting for all the evidence?” “Are my feelings appropriate?” “Are my actions right?” Scholars are compelled to come up with the best, truest theories. And ethical people are compelled to make the best choices.

So we can easily take Davies’s statement and turn it around: atheism can be defined by the inescapable belief that these “gods” (metaphysical standards of truth and goodness) require you to do something about your beliefs in truth and goodness. In a word, to think clearly and to act rightly.

Second, the way truth and goodness “work” implies something about the nature of reality that directly contradicts many, if not most, atheists’ beliefs: that matter is all that exists, that all events are deterministic or random in nature, and that “supernatural” beings cannot exist.

Truth and goodness are abstract in nature; they are not material. If they are not just subjective illusions, they must have some kind of non-material reality. And since they can and, by definition, must be freely chosen, the mental-emotional processes we go through to reach them cannot be deterministic or random in nature. If we were forced by our biology to come to conclusions about evidence and what we should do, by definition that would not be very rational, or very ethical. It would be meaningless. So “where” do these universal standards “exist”, if not in meaningless, mindless matter? A universal, divine cosmic mind, an all-encompassing field of information that is the source of all possibilities, intelligence, reason, and values.

So religion may not “give humans ethics”, per se, but particular forms of it can provide a more rational account than materialistic atheism for how truth and ethics are possible, where they ultimately come from, and why they are universal. This may not be spelled out in the Bible, but it is evident in veiled form in the letters of Paul in particular. For example, when one is “in Christ” — when one has the “mind of Christ” — one can be truly ethical and rational, because one is then “in tune” with those universal, cosmic norms, and is thus able to recognize them and act upon them. And this encompasses clear thinking, appropriate feeling, and right action.

Paul would probably agree with Davies to a large degree. After all, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

Following the “divine will” is not the same as following a rulebook of what to do and not to do. It is experienced and known within. As to how to get to that point, that is probably best dealt with in another article.