Ethics in the Bible

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Ethics in the Bible are the ideas concerning right and wrong actions that exist in scripture in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Biblical accounts contain numerous prescriptions or laws that people use as guides to action.

Hebrew Bible/Old Testament[edit]

Main article: 613 Mitzvot
See also: Eye for an eye

Prescriptive utterances (commandments) are found throughout the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, some related to inter-human relationships (the prohibition against murder) while others focus on issues of worship and ritual (e.g. the Day of Atonement festival). Rabbinic tradition classically schematizes these prescriptions into 613 mitzvot, beginning with "Be fruitful and multiply" (God's command to all life) and continuing on to the seven laws of Noah (addressed to all humanity) and the several hundred laws which apply specifically to the Israelites (such as the kashrut dietary laws). Rabbinic tradition also records the aforementioned distinction between commandments that relate to man's interaction with fellow man (בין אדם לחבירו) and those that affect his relationship with God (בין אדם למקום).[citation needed] Many commandments are remarkable in their blending of the two roles. For example, observance of Shabbat is couched in terms of recognizing God's sovereignty and creation of the world, while also being presented as a social-justice measure to prevent overworking one's employees, slaves, and animals. As a result, the Bible consistently binds worship of the Divine to ethical actions and ethical actions with worship of the Divine.[citation needed]

Several Biblical prescriptions may not correspond to modern notions of justice in relation to concepts such as slavery (Lev. 25:44-46), intolerance of religious pluralism (Deut. 5:7, Deut. 7:2-5) or of freedom of religion (Deut. 13:6-12), discrimination and racism (Lev. 21:17-23, Deut. 23:1-3), treatment of women, honor killing (Ex. 21:17, Leviticus 20:9, Ex. 32:27-29), genocide (Num. 31:15-18, 1 Sam. 15:3), religious wars, and capital punishment for sexual behavior like adultery and sodomy and for Sabbath breaking (Num. 15:32-36).

The Book of Proverbs recommends disciplining a child:

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

— Proverbs 22:15

New Testament[edit]

The Good Samaritan

The main dispute of the Council of Jerusalem, whether non-Jewish converts should be considered bound to the Old Testament laws, is addressed elsewhere in the New Testament, e.g. regarding dietary laws

"Don't you perceive that whatever goes into the man from outside can't defile him, because it doesn't go into his heart, but into his stomach, then into the latrine, thus making all foods clean?"-Mark 7:18. (See also Mark 7)

or regarding divorce

"I tell you that whoever puts away his wife, except for the cause of sexual immorality, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries her when she is put away commits adultery."-Matthew 5:31. (See also Mark 5)

The central teachings of Jesus are presented in the Sermon on the Mount,[1] notably the "golden rule" and the prescription to "love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek".

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."-Matthew 5:43-44

Elsewhere in the New Testament (for example, the "Farewell Discourses" of John 14 through 16) Jesus elaborates on what has become known the commandment of love[according to whom?], repeated and elaborated upon in the epistles of Paul (1 Corinthians 13 etc.), see also The Law of Christ and The New Commandment.

Theological issues[edit]

Euthyphro Dilemma[edit]

A central problem in religiously motivated ethics is the apparent tautology inherent in the concept that what is commanded by God is morally right. This line of reasoning is introduced most famously in Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, which asks whether something is right because the gods love it, or whether the gods love it because it is right.

Moral relativism[edit]

The predominant Christian view[citation needed] is that Jesus mediates a New Covenant relationship between God and his followers and abolished some Mosaic Laws, according to the New Testament (Hebrews 10:15-18; Gal 3:23-25; 2 Cor 3:7-17; Eph 2:15; Heb 8:13, Rom 7:6 etc.). From a Jewish perspective however, the Torah was given to the Jewish people as an eternal covenant (Exod 31:16-17, Exod 12:14-17, Mal 3:6-7) and will never be replaced or added to (Deut 4:2, 13:1). There are differences of opinion as to how the new covenant affects the validity of biblical law. The differences are mainly as a result of attempts to harmonize biblical statements to the effect that the biblical law is eternal (Exodus 31:16-17, 12:14-17) with New Testament statements that suggest that it does not now apply at all, or at least does not fully apply. Most biblical scholars admit the issue of the Law can be confusing and the topic of Paul and the Law is still frequently debated among New Testament scholars[2] (for example, see New Perspective on Paul, Pauline Christianity); hence the various views.

God's benevolence[edit]

Further information: Theodicy

A central issue in monotheist ethics is the problem of evil, the apparent contradiction between a benevolent, all-powerful God and the existence of evil and hell (see Problem of Hell). Theodicy seeks to explain why one may simultaneously affirm God's goodness, and the presence of evil in the world. Descartes in his Meditations considers, but rejects, the possibility that God is an evil demon ("dystheism").

The Bible contains numerous examples seemingly unethical acts of God.

  • In the Book of Exodus, God deliberately "hardened Pharaoh's heart", making him even more unwilling to free the Hebrew slaves (Exod 4:21, Rom 9:17-21).
  • Genocidal commands of God in Deuteronomy, such as the call to eradicate all the Canaanite tribes including children and infants (Deut 20:16-17). According to the Bible, this was to fulfill God's covenant to Israel, the "promised land" to his chosen people.(Deuteronomy 7:1-25)
  • God ordering the Israelites to undertake punitive military raids against other tribes. This happened, for instance, to the Midianites of Moab, who had enticed some Israelites into worshipping local gods (Numbers 25:1-18). The entire tribe was exterminated, except for the young virgin girls, who were kept by the Israelites as slaves (Numbers 31:1-54). In 1 Samuel 15:3, God orders the Israelites to "attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys." [3]
  • In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to plague His loyal servant Job with devastating tragedies leaving all his children dead and himself poor. The nature of Divine justice becomes the theme of the entire book. However, after he got through his troubles his health was restored and all he had was doubled.
  • Sending evil spirits to people (1 Samuel 18:10, Judges 9:23).
  • Punishing the innocent for the sins of other people (Isa 14:21, Deut 23:2, Hosea 13:16).
  • In the Book of Isaiah, God created all natural disasters/the evil in the world. (Isaiah 45-7)


Simon Blackburn states that the "Bible can be read as giving us a carte blanche for harsh attitudes to children, the mentally handicapped, animals, the environment, the divorced, unbelievers, people with various sexual habits, and elderly women".[4]

Elizabeth Anderson, a Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, states that "the Bible contains both good and evil teachings", and it is "morally inconsistent".[5] Bertrand Russell stated that, "It seems to me that the people who have held to it [the Christian religion] have been for the most part extremely wicked....I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."[6]

The Old Testament[edit]

Elizabeth Anderson criticizes commands God gave to men in the Old Testament, such as: kill adulterers, homosexuals, and "people who work on the Sabbath" (Leviticus 20:10; Leviticus 20:13; Exodus 35:2, respectively); to commit ethnic cleansing (Exodus 34:11-14, Leviticus 26:7-9); commit genocide (Numbers 21: 2-3, Numbers 21:33–35, Deuteronomy 2:26–35, and Joshua 1–12); and other mass killings.[7] Anderson considers the Bible to permit slavery, the beating of slaves, the rape of female captives in wartime, polygamy (for men), the killing of prisoners, and child sacrifice.[7] She also provides a number of examples to illustrate what she considers "God's moral character": "Routinely punishes people for the sins of others ... punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth", punishes four generations of descendants of those who worship other Gods, kills 24,000 Israelites because some of them sinned (Numbers 25:1–9), kills 70,000 Israelites for the sin of David in 2 Samuel 24:10–15, and "sends two bears out of the woods to tear forty-two children to pieces" because they called someone names in 2 Kings 2:23–24.[8]

Blackburn provides examples of Old Testament moral criticisms such as the phrase in Exodus 22:18 that has "helped to burn alive tens or hundreds of thousands of women in Europe and America": "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and notes that the Old Testament God apparently has "no problems with a slave-owning society", considers birth control a crime punishable by death, and "is keen on child abuse".[9] Additional examples that are questioned today are: the prohibition on touching women during their "period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19–24)", the apparent approval of selling daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), and the obligation to put to death someone working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2).[10]

The New Testament[edit]

Anderson criticizes what she terms morally repugnant lessons of the New Testament. She claims that "Jesus tells us his mission is to make family members hate one another, so that they shall love him more than their kin (Matt 10:35-37)", that "Disciples must hate their parents, siblings, wives, and children (Luke 14:26)", and that Peter and Paul elevate men over their wives "who must obey their husbands as gods" (1 Corinthians 11:3, 14:34-5, Eph. 5:22-24, Col. 3:18, 1 Tim. 2: 11-2, 1 Pet. 3:1).[11] Anderson states that the Gospel of John implies that "infants and anyone who never had the opportunity to hear about Christ are damned [to hell], through no fault of their own".[12]

Blackburn criticizes what he terms morally suspect themes[need quotation to verify] of the New Testament.[13] He notes some "moral quirks" of Jesus: that he could be "sectarian" (Matt 10:5–6),[14] racist (Matt 15:26 and Mark 7:27), and placed no value on animal life (Luke 8: 27–33).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Sermon on the mount: a theological investigation by Carl G. Vaught 2001 ISBN 978-0-918954-76-3 pages xi–xiv
  2. ^ Gundry, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993).
  3. ^ The Dominion of Love: Animal Rights According to the Bible, Norm Phelps, p. 14
  4. ^ Blackburn, Simon (2001). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-19-280442-6. 
  5. ^ Elizabeth Anderson, "If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" In Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. p. 336. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6. 
  6. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1957). Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. New York: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. pp. 20–21. ISBN 978-0-671-20323-8. 
  7. ^ a b Elizabeth Anderson, "If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" In Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. p. 337. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6. 
  8. ^ Elizabeth Anderson, "If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" In Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. pp. 336–337. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6. 
  9. ^ Blackburn, Simon (2001). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 10, 12. ISBN 978-0-19-280442-6. 
  10. ^ Blackburn, Simon (2001). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-19-280442-6. 
  11. ^ Elizabeth Anderson, "If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" In Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. p. 338. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6. 
  12. ^ Elizabeth Anderson, "If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?" In Hitchens, Christopher (2007). The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press. p. 339. ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6. 
  13. ^ Blackburn, Simon (2001). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 11–12. ISBN 978-0-19-280442-6. 
  14. ^ Blackburn, Simon (2003). Ethics: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions. OUP. pp. 11–12. ISBN 9780191577925. Retrieved 2015-09-11. Then the persona of Jesus in the Gospels has his fair share of moral quirks. He can be sectarian: 'Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel' (Matt. 10:5-6). 

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