Biblical morals

I’ve been having a discussion in the comments thread of Caity’s blog post on Kindness. The discussion revolves around the concept of morality: can we be ‘moral’ if there is no God?

My contention is that without the concept of God, there can be no absolute morals. By that I mean, no morals which would apply the world over. So, to take a topical example, suicide bombers could not be said to be acting immorally because they believe that it is right and moral for them to do so. There is no ultimate standard by which we can make value judgements on morality, therefore claiming that someone else’s action is immoral is actually illogical because you are only making judgements based on your own standard.

All of this hasn’t yet reached the point of Christian morality: all I’m doing is pointing out what I perceive to be inconsistencies in atheistic morals, and not defending Christianity as such.

However, Caity pointed out this quiz on Biblical morals, and I suggested that the writers of the quiz have got their theology wrong. She invited me to follow up this comment with something more detailed, so as a result that’s what I’m going to try and do.

The first thing about the quiz which struck me was that some of the questions are loaded. For example:

7. Your next-door neighbor is a nurse that works weekends in the emergency room of the local hospital so that she can care for her children during the week while her husband is at work. When you notice that she works every Sunday, should you…

Whether or not your next door neighbour works weekends in the emergency room of a hospital is irrelevant, it seems to be only there to act as an appeal to the emotions. But anyway, no matter. That question, along with pretty much all the others, is guilty of an important error: misunderstanding the purpose and role of the Old Testament.

This manifests itself in two different ways: firstly, that of immoral actions in the Old Testament. For example, the first question is based on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The question interprets the actions of Lot as an example that we must follow. But is that justified from the text, or anywhere in the Bible for that matter? No, I don’t think so. The narrative just details what happens, it doesn’t attempt to justify any of Lot’s actions. It certainly never offers it up as a model for us to follow.

The Old Testament – and in fact, the whole Bible – is full of stories about people. People do things which they shouldn’t, it’s unfortunately part of being human. Just because those stories are there doesn’t mean we can then go and imitate them, that’s not the point of the Bible.

The second misunderstanding is a less serious one, but still worthy of attention. The quiz seems to think that the laws given in Deuteronomy and Leviticus still apply to us today. This will require a little explanation of the laws given in those books. There are two kinds of laws: moral laws, and the ‘covenant code’. The moral laws would include the ten commandments, but the covenant code includes most of the rest.

The moral laws that were given still apply to us today. However the covenant code does not: it was given to the Israelites at a specific time for a specific purpose. The Israelites were to be ‘holy’ (set apart to the Lord) and many of the laws were to differentiate themselves from other nations. For example, there is a law about boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk – this may have been to prevent the Israelites following the pagan practices of other nations.

Either way, these laws no longer apply to us today as we are living under the new covenant – i.e. the covenant of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Now, you could ask at this point whether the laws as given were ever ‘moral’. I’d say to answer that question you would need to know about the history of Israel at that point, and the other nations. Understanding is the key. It’s difficult to be more specific than that here really, as there are a whole lot of laws (around 600 I think).

One question which I want to comment on a little more is this one: “12. What is the best way to curry favor with the Lord?” – the ‘Biblical’ answer being: “By ritualistically slaughtering animals and burning the parts.” Ignoring the historical error I mentioned above (i.e. the Israelites were commanded to offer sacrifices; now that command has been fulfiled and superceded by Jesus’ sacrifice – see the entire book of Hebrews, for example), this question also seems to ignore other relevant bits of the Bible.

For example, Hosea 6:6 says this: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The burnt offerings themselves did not please God. The attitudes of the people offering them did. Psalm 51:16-17 says:

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise. ”

So, what God was looking at is the heart, not at the sacrifices. It’s really the same thing today.

So, in summary, the quiz takes a rather superficial, lazy way of looking at the Bible. Although it may have been written in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion, it shows the danger of what can happen when bits of scripture are taken out of context. After all, who would want to worship the God portrayed in the quiz, tongue-in-cheek or not? You must always read scripture in context, and when I say that I don’t just mean reading the rest of the chapter, I also mean being able to put it in its context amongst what the rest of the Bible says. And unfortunately, to be able to do that requires study – something which I don’t think a lot of these Bible critics devote much time to.

If I had a pound for every time I’d come across the “But the gospels are full of contradictions” line, I’d … haev a few more pounds. But the point is, almost every single time either (a) the person making the claim hasn’t looked into it; (b) they’ve looked at a list of websites with contradictions and haven’t bothered to investigate it themselves. I’ve seen a few of these lists, and in every single instance the ‘contradiction’ or difference is just an insignificant detail (or, in a few cases, imaginary).

I don’t mean to say that there are no problems with the Bible, BUT it is a book which is difficult to understand and if anyone is going to get anywhere in debating it, they need to have a proper understanding of it first. Otherwise they’ll end up making exactly the same errors.

*phew*… according to WordPress my word count is now 1,160 words. That’s long enough for any blog post. Apologies for length, I do tend to waffle! If you’ve read all of that and want your five minutes back (or however long it took), your are welcome to a full refund. Apply to “Terry”, 3rd dark alleyway behind Victoria Bus Station, London…

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