In a recent article, “Are There Ethics in the Hebrew Bible?“, Emeritus Professor Philip Davies answers the question he poses in his title, in the main, with a resounding ‘no’.
Davies reasons that much of what passes for ethics in the Hebrew Bible involves only sets of “rules that are imposed and expected to be obeyed”. But this is the kind of approach to ethics we might take with children. By contrast, the internalisation of ethical reasoning – which is expected of an adult – is markedly absent throughout most of the Hebrew Bible. But “[e]thics develop in a society where individuals have to make their own moral judgments about intrinsic goodness.”
Why does the Bible fail to develop any depth of ethical reasoning, except for a few limited exceptions? “Because the Bible is culturally totalitarian—unsurprisingly, because it emanates from a totalitarian world of monarchic societies.”
We see this in the divine speech at the end of the book of Job. God appears and simply demands obedience without justification, thwarting the more sophisticated attempts at ethical reasoning in earlier parts of the book.
The French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard says the same thing about the god of the Hebrew Bible in Just Gaming. Lyotard describes the Hebrew god as a god who never reveals the rationale for the obligation under which he places humans. And he’s funny:
“God commands. One does not know very well what he commands. He commands obedience, that is, that one place oneself in the position of the pragmatic genre of obligation. Then he commands a whole slew of small, unbelievable things: how to cook lamb, and so on. Which is surprising, because one does not expect God to hand out kitchen recipes, and it takes the Jewish people by surprise also.”
(Lyotard, Just Gaming, 52).
The practical upshot of all this is that the Bible doesn’t provide many very good solutions to ethical issues in the real world, unless its interpreters are prepared to cut and paste the bits of the tradition that they find useful… utterly subjectively.
“I am not sure the Bible would worry too much about torture: its god is quite comfortable with the idea… 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!”
(Philip Davies, “Are There Ethics in the Hebrew Bible?”)