Monday, September 2, 2013

Is the Bible a Good Source of Morality?

In a 2013 study by the American Bible Society, 77 % of Americans reported that they believed morals and values are declining in the U.S., and cited a lack of Bible reading as the major culprit for the trend.[1] However, does the Bible actually endorse values that are beneficial to society? While it certainly does contain a great deal of moral wisdom, there this also a large amount of prescribed unethical behaviors as well.

The Good Bits

Certainly, Christian and Jewish faiths have a long history of promoting love and compassion to their fellow man. One of the earliest known Hebrew writings outside of the Bible was actually a clay pot inscribed with the words “Give rights to slaves and to widows! Give rights to orphans and foreigners! Protect the rights of the poor and protect the rights of minors!”[2] In addition, it was the Christian monk Telemachus, who ended the brutal Gladiatorial games in Ancient Rome.[3] In modern times, faith-based humanitarian charities help the disadvantaged across the world. Christians and Jews both often cite the Bible as inspiration for their good deeds, and indeed it does mandate a variety of ethical behaviors. For example:

  • 5 of the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, lie, steal, or commit adultery and honor your parents (Exodus 20:12-16).
  • “Love thy neighbor as thyself." (Leviticus 19:18).
  • "Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked" (Psalms 82:3-4).
  • “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 5:44).
  • This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
  • “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16).

The Bad Bits

While it easy to find good morality in the Bible, it is equally simple to find examples of backwardness. In fact, the Bible outright promotes slavery, misogyny, child abuse, intolerance, and rape.

  • Slavery: There are a number of passages which promote the practice in both the New and Old Testaments.[4] For instance, Exodus 21:20-21 explains that it is acceptable to beat a slave as long as he or she survives for at least 3 days; in both Ephesians 6:5 and Titus 2:9 slaves are told to obey and serve their masters.
  • Misogyny: Disrespect toward women is also found in both Testaments.[5] In the Old Testament, women who are found to not be virgins before getting married are stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), while there is no such punishment for males. In the New Testament, women are told to be subordinate to their husbands in all things, not to speak or ask questions in church, and never be allowed to teach or hold authority over a man.[6]
  • Child Abuse: The Book of Proverbs is quite adamant about beating disobedient children. It is mentioned in 5 separate passages including: “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell” (Proverbs 23:14), and “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18).[7] Deuteronomy 21:18-21 and Leviticus 20:9, on the other hand, state in no uncertain terms that disobedient children should be stoned to death.
  • Intolerance: The Old Testament is chock-full of examples of intolerance toward other religions and cultures.[8] For example, in Deuteronomy 13:12-16, Jews were instructed to murder all human and animal inhabitants of a town found to have at least one worshiper of a foreign deity. The New Testament may be less violent, but it is just as intolerant. Not only does it forbid allowing non-Christians into one’s home (2 John 1:10), but it claims Jews belong to the “synagogue of Satan” (Revelations 3:9) and nonbelievers have an “evil heart” (Hebrews 3:12).
  • Rape: In numerous passages in the Old Testament, rape was promoted as acceptable spoils of war.[9] If a man rapes a non-betrothed virgin, he will have to pay 50 pieces of silver to her father and then marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). However, if she was betrothed, both the rape victim and rapist are to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Let’s also not forget the provisions in Exodus 21:7-8 that state “When a man sells his daughter as a [sex] slave, she shouldn’t be set free in the same way as male slaves are set free. If she doesn’t please her master who chose her for himself, then her master must let her be bought back by her family.”

Righteous Men Behaving Badly

There are also a number of stories in the Bible whose protagonist behaves abhorrently despite God considering him to be righteous.

  • In Genesis 9:21-25, Noah became drunk and passed out naked. His son Ham saw him naked, and as punishment, Noah cursed him.
  • In Genesis 19, the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah tried to rape a couple of angels sent to visit Lot. To appease this mob, Lot insisted they rape his virgin daughters instead.
  • There was a similar story in Judges 19, where a mob of men wanted to rape a guy who came to stay at a righteous man’s house. The righteous man allowed his visitor’s concubine and his own virgin daughter to be raped and murdered by the mob.
  • In Numbers 15, Moses had a man stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
  • In 2 Kings 2, the prophet Elijah summoned "she bears" to murder a group of children who had teased him for his baldness.

Would society be better off if we used the Bible as a guide for our morality? Technically, we could, as long as we ignored the innumerable bad examples of upright behavior touted by the “holy” book. The problem is that the same people who wrote the good bits also wrote and/or agreed with the bad bits. Thus, the Bible shouldn’t be followed blindly just because a portion of it makes sense. Instead, I like to think of it as merely a series of snapshots of historical morality that have varying salience with modern social needs.


Funny video satirizing God’s tolerance of slavery

List of good Bible passages

List of misogynist Bible passages

A mix of immoral Bible passages

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