Is the Bible the Best Moral Guide?
By Merle Hertzler
So far we have seen that the inspiration of the Bible is unproven. And we have seen that the Bible is sometimes mistaken. Now this does not necessarily mean that the Bible is bad. It just means that it is okay to question what we read.
You may be concerned where this is leading. Perhaps to you the Bible is the source of moral judgement. It is your only hope to find your way in life. You may wonder how anybody could attempt to chart his course through life without its moral compass. And you may be concerned that we are undercutting that hope. I can understand your concern. I once had similar views of the Bible. I still find passages in the Bible that are inspiring. But I find many other passages that I would question. And I find other books that are inspiring besides the Bible.
Perhaps you would claim that the comfort and guidance you receive from the Bible puts it in a class of its own, far above any other book. But is this really what we find in the Bible? Let's see. Let's take a few minutes to look at the guidance that the Bible offers. Do we need the Bible's guidance to know what is right?
Let's begin by looking at Deut 22:11. It says, "You shall not wear a material mixed of wool and linen together." Do you follow that rule? Did you check the labels before you dressed this morning? I think you ignored this commandment today, just like I did. Why do we ignore it? I neglect it because I think it is unreasonable. Why did you neglect it? If the Bible is your source of guidance, why do you simply ignore this rule, and live as though it doesn't exist? This rule is not reasonable, is it? Why would God care if we wore two kinds of fabric together? If you and I let reason override this rule, then it seems to me that reason, not the Bible, is our ultimate guide.
Many Christians have never read the whole Bible, and are not aware of the moral teachings that are found in it. Let's look at some. Exodus 23:19 tells us we cannot cook a baby goat in it's mother's milk. Do you worry about keeping this commandment? Gen. 17:14 tells us a child is to be punished when his parents neglect to have him circumcised. Is that fair? Ex. 20:8-11, 31:15-17, 34:21, and 35:1-3 tell us that no work may be done on the Sabbath (Saturday) not even the lighting of a fire. The penalty is death. Do you recommend that we kill people who light a fire in their fireplace on Saturday?  Lev. 3:17 tells us that we may never eat fat. So how is it that we eat hamburgers without guilt? Lev. 27:1-7 tells us that males are more valuable than females. Do you agree? If you are female, do you think males are more valuable than you are? No? Than these verses are mistaken, aren't they? Num. 5:12-31, tells us that if we suspect our wife has committed adultery, she is to be tested by making her drink water mixed with dirt. If she gets sick, she is guilty. Do you recommend that we implement this test procedure? I don't. Interestingly, there is no such test given for men. Is this fair? Deut. 22:5 tells us we may not wear clothing of the opposite sex. Do you think it is a sin for a woman to wear her husband's shirt? No? Then you disagree with Deuteronomy. Deut. 23:1 tells us that a man whose testicles are crushed may not enter the assembly of the Lord. Should we set up an inspection station at the church doors, asking every man to kindly drop his drawers for inspection, so we can keep injured people out? Or should we just pretend this verse isn't there? Deut. 25:11-12 tells us that a wife who grabs her husband's attacker by his private parts must have her hand cut off and is to be shown no pity. It does not matter that she was only trying to rescue her husband. Do you agree? I could give many more examples. 
When I mention these Old Testament laws, I am often told that the Law of Moses was not intended to make us good, but to show us our sinfulness and our need of Christ. But how could a frivolous and immoral law prove we were sinful? If you want to measure moral character, do you not need a reliable moral standard? You surely do not think that the laws mentioned above represent a high standard of conduct, do you? For if you thought they were wise, I think you would be following them. If they are faulty, how can they be used to prove our sinful state? If the inspection gauge in the factory is faulty, you could not use it to prove the whole production run is flawed, could you? And isn't this whole view of the-law-as-teacher callused to the needs of the people before Christ? Why would God leave them with an inadequate law for centuries just to prove a point to us that would follow later on? Could it be that the Law of Moses did not come from God, but was, instead, an early attempt of primitive man to define morality?
Besides, if Jehovah did give the Law of Moses, and we find that this first system of his to be faulty, does that prove that his second plan, the gospel, is good? If an engineer gives you a defective design, and the building collapses, would you trust him with the redesign? If he told you he deliberately gave you a deficient design in order to prove that you really needed his improved design, would you buy his argument? I think not. You would look elsewhere. So if Jehovah's first covenant, the Law of Moses, is not good, why not look elsewhere? Why give Jehovah a second chance? (But I find no reason to believe this law was given by God. It seems more likely to me that it was an early attempt by primitive people to define morality.)
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.
Do you follow these verses? They tell you to do all that the Pharisees command you from the Law of Moses. Do you do everything the teachers of the law teach? And what about Matthew 5:18-20, which teaches that we should follow even the minor laws,
"For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Is the law that forbids the mixing of fabrics one of the least of the laws? According to these verses, if you ignore the least of the laws, you will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. So why do you ignore them?
Some say that Matthew 5 does not apply, for all "was accomplished" by Jesus. But if the author was trying to teach that this only applies until the death of Jesus, he used most unclear language. Besides, the book of Matthew was not written until years after Christ died. Why did Matthew even bother to write this? Is it not clear that when Matthew was writing this he expected his readers to believe they needed to keep the law if they wanted to be great in the kingdom of heaven? And so it appears that Matthew, writing long after the death of Christ, still expects that his readers need to keep the law in order to be great in the kingdom of heaven.
Even Paul writes, "Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law." (Rom 3:31) He also says, "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified." (Romans 2:13) So the New Testament simply does not distance itself from the Old Testament the way many hope.
Let's look at something more substantial than clothes or goat meat--the issue of slavery. Look at Exodus 21:2-7.
"If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment. "If he comes alone, he shall go out alone; if he is the husband of a wife, then his wife shall go out with him. "If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone. "But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently. If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.
Do you have an opinion on the morality of this passage? Is it right to buy slaves, even if the period is limited to six years? What do you think about the poor women slaves? If the men could go free after six years, why should the women be slaves for life? And look at the condition that was placed on these male slaves obtaining their freedom. If a slave had married while in slavery, his wife and children could not leave with him. Only the man could leave. Should a decent man accept this offer and abandon his family as slaves? What kind of family values is that?
Do you have an ounce of respect for the father who takes his little girl--the one that cuddles in his lap at night and calls him "Daddy"--and sells her into lifelong slavery? Why does the Bible allow it? Is it really moral to sell one's own daughter, knowing that she and her children will become slaves for life? I can't even imagine a person thinking this is acceptable. Help me out here. What am I missing? Isn't it immoral to treat your daughter like this?
You may suggest that conditions were different back then, so God had different rules. But do you really believe that? Suppose you are watching a movie. You see the story of a slave owner who buys young ladies and young men as slaves. You watch as a man sells his own daughter to be a slave. You watch as the slave-owner "gives" this young girl to another slave as his wife. You watch as her slave "husband" walks off after six years, free of all responsibility, leaving her and the children as slaves. You watch their wretched, abandoned lives as slaves without a committed father or husband. How would you react? Do you approve of these actions? I think not. Would you approve if the movie was set in the 500 BC time frame, but disapprove if it was set at a later date? What does it matter when the movie was set? Slavery is slavery, no matter when it happens. And it seems to me that slavery is wrong. Do you not agree?
Look, the movie is still playing. Here comes the slave-girl's father walking down the path. Look closely, I think I see something. Yes, look at his coat. See it? It is pure wool! He has obeyed Deuteronomy 22. He has not mixed two kinds of fabric in his coat. Does this change your view of this man? Does the material of his coat change your attitude toward him? No? Then why does the Bible condemn people who wear the wrong combination of fabrics, while allowing slavery to continue? Do you really believe there was a time when slavery was fine but mixing materials in your clothing was sinful?
One of the worst practices conceived by humans was the act of owning slaves. And yet the Bible allows it. Although term limits were imposed on male Hebrew slaves, the same rights were not given to people of other nations. In Lev. 25:44-46 we read:
Is not something very wrong with this book? How can you carry a book to church that allows slavery? Do you want your children to read this book?
There is a long list of sins in the Old Testament that carry the punishment of death, including homosexuality, adultery, and cursing parents. For instance:
Do you suggest that we follow these commands, and kill such people? And do you suggest that we follow the law and not mix fabrics? No? Then Isaiah says you have no dawn. For Isaiah calls us to the law saying, "To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn."(Isaiah 8:20 ) So Isaiah explains your problem. He says you have no dawn. You disagree with Isaiah, don't you?
Oh, you will tell me that Isaiah's message was temporary, that the Old Testament system was given only to help people out until the gospel would arrive. If the Old Testament was temporary, why doesn't it say so? Repeatedly the Old Testament declares that this system is to last forever. For instance:
Of course the law referred to in the above verses is the only law they had, that of Moses. But you disagree with these verses, don't you? You don't think that the law against wearing mixed fabrics or the law commanding the killing of those who curse parents is eternal, do you? So the verses are wrong that say these ordinances are everlasting, aren't they?
The New Testament
Let's look at an example from the New Testament. Luke 6:30 says, "Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back." Do you give to everyone that asks of you? If not, then you ignore this instruction. If you do follow this, and give to everybody that asks of you, then I will ask you for a thousand dollars, thank you. I suspect that everybody will ignore my request. It doesn't matter what Luke says, does it? Common sense says this is not a good command. So we ignore the written code, and go by our common sense. This indicates to me that our ultimate source of moral guidance comes from reason, not from the Bible.
Many will tell me Luke does not mean to give to everyone that asks--even though he says so--but that he is only asking us to be generous. Well, I agree that we should be generous. If this was the point, than that is what the writer should have said. He said, "give to everyone who asks". In that he must surely be mistaken.
New Testament morality has many problems. Luke 14:26 tells us we cannot be disciples unless we hate our father, mother, and children. What kind of family values is that? (And you cannot get around that verse by telling me that it means "love less" instead of "hate." If the author meant "love less" why didn't he say what he meant?) Matt.10:34 says, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Do you agree that the world needs yet another sword?
How should a guest treat a host? Some might respond by asking, "What would Jesus do?" Well, what would Jesus do?
Now when He had spoken, a Pharisee asked Him to have lunch with him; and He went in, and reclined at the table. When the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also?" ( Luke 11:37-40a)
So we find that, if Luke is to be believed, Jesus was sitting as a guest in a man's home, and his host was surprised that Jesus did not ceremonially wash his hands. And we are told that Jesus insulted his host. Is this the proper way to treat your host? You do not turn on your host with insults like this, do you? Is this the way you want your children to act when they are away from home?
And then there is the command of Romans 13:1-2 to obey the government, all government.
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
If we were to follow this passage, then we would be forced to always obey our government. And so it would have been wrong for the Northern Alliance to defy the Taliban, the American revolutionaries to declare independence from the British, and the people of the Soviet Union to resist the Communists. But most of us seem to honor someone who rebelled against a government. It seems to me that we allow them to ignore the verses because we know reason is a better source of moral instruction than biblical literalism.
Some will tell me that these verses are only a general rule to follow government, and that the command to obey God rather than man can override this rule. But notice the language of Romans 13. Every person is to be in subjection...There is no authority except from God...whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God. That clearly includes everyone and every government. Now if the author had intended to say that most people should be in subjection to most governments, that most authority is from God, and that most people who resist the authority resist God, he could have said that. If he was trying to convey that idea with the words he wrote, than the author was incompetent. He should have said what he meant. He does not say there are a few authorities not from God. He says there is no authority except from God. When he emphasizes the universality of the command multiple times, how can people just ignore it and say he is only referring to some authority? But if it applies to all authority, then it is saying that the French Resistance to Hitler, and the American Revolution from England were wrong.
And so it goes. People regularly ignore the Bible if it is not to their liking. They assume it must not mean what it clearly says. Wouldn't it be more honest to accept that it means what it says, but it is wrong?
It gets worse.
Imagine that your child comes home from Sunday school and shows you the handout he was given. It says, "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock." It shows a picture of a baby being thrown against a rock with his head splitting open. How do you react? I am sure that you would be upset with that literature. You would never want your children to be taught this, would you? But, if your children carry a Bible to church, they carry those verses with them (Psalm 137:8-9). And those verses teach that the act of throwing babies against rocks is blessed. Those are two of the verses your children carry with them in the little black book they carry to Sunday School. Don't worry, your child will never actually be taught those verses in Sunday school. Those verses never seem to make the cut.
How can a holy book praise people that smash babies against the rocks? Yes, I understand that the writer was angry against his Babylonian captors. I can feel for his anger against the soldiers, slave drivers, and political leaders. I understand the hurt. But how can he say it was blessed to kill Babylonian babies? You surely do not approve of going to your enemy and killing his baby as an act of revenge, do you? Isn't that an act of terrorism? Why does the Bible praise this? I would say that this writer is morally confused. I would say he is praising something wrong.
Remember the story of the Passover? Moses keeps asking Pharaoh to let the people go from their bondage. Pharaoh refuses. Finally, according to the story, God comes up with a plan that breaks Pharaoh's will to fight. It involves sending an angel to kill all of the firstborn in Egypt. And we are told that this is exactly what happened--"There was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead." (Ex.12:30) No home survived? What a terrible slaughter. Maybe I should not play Monday morning quarterback--I was not there--but an idea comes to mind. Wouldn't it have been easier to threaten to kill Pharaoh? If he doesn't respond, kill him. Suppose his successor maintained the evil bondage. Ok, then you kill the next Pharaoh. How many Pharaohs do you need to kill until one of them will listen and end the brutal slavery? How do you like that plan? Isn't that more humane than killing thousands of innocent babies? Why not?
Imagine that you are watching the evening news. You see a picture of a missile being skillfully guided so that it misses the enemy bunker and slams into an orphanage. The reporter tells you that this is exactly where the missile was supposed to hit. The reporter describes the precision that was necessary to avoid the tanks and hit the babies. He tells you that these tactics will demoralize the opposition leaders, and cause them to submit to our requests. How would you react? You would be outraged, wouldn't you? When civilized countries fight modern warfare, they take special precautions to avoid killing babies.
But what happened in Exodus? If we believe the Bible, the big blow deliberately missed Pharaoh, missed the army command-and-control, and missed the slave drivers. Instead, we are told it was aimed specifically at the children. This is good? This is moral? Can you understand how I have come to the opinion that the writer of this passage was mistaken?
The slaughter of babies was a constant theme in the Old Testament. Repeatedly we are told that God sanctioned the slaughter of babies. For instance, In I Samuel 15 we read:
Can you imagine the gruesome scene (assuming it actually happened as recorded)? Hundreds of children would have been killed with the sword as they fled or cowered into a corner. Can you support such actions? Can you not see that it would be wrong to kill the infants in this way? Can you not see why many people think the Bible is mistaken to sanction such things?
Some will tell me that the killing of babies was okay, for God sanctioned it. But how do they know God sanctioned it? Isn't it possible that the writer was mistaken when he wrote that God said this?
Defenders of the Bible often resort to extreme moral relativism when they try to defend such verses. They try to declare that there is no intrinsic difference between right and wrong, and that all that matters is obeying God. So if the voice of God were to sanction rape, murder, slavery, or torture, they see no problem with doing those things. To them morality is all about obeying the rules, and has nothing to do with what is best. But if this is the attitude they have, then they would equally follow an evil tyrant God as they would a good God. For if there is no intrinsic difference between right and wrong, if all that matters is that we perform our duty as directed from above, if there is no value in questioning whether the act is right, one would then be forced to follow a God even if he commanded the most horribly depraved deeds.
No, it seems to me that some things are indeed bad. Killing innocent babies is bad. And this passage commands the killing of innocent babies. Is not this passage wrong?
If a friend told you he heard a voice from the sky claiming to be God and telling him to kill babies, you would not tell him to do it, would you? You would doubt that it really was God who was speaking, wouldn't you? You would demand overwhelming evidence. Why do you not have the same skepticism when you approach I Samuel 15? For we have found no reason to assume this passage is inspired by God. Is it possible that this writer was mistaken when he thought God was sanctioning the killing of babies? Which is more likely? That the author was mistaken when he thought God was commanding him to kill babies, or that a sovereign God of the universe was commanding the slaughter of innocent babies?
So it seems to me that the writers of the Bible sometimes presented a depraved morality.
The Good Parts
So we find that many people taught the Golden Rule long before Jesus. The Bible was not original when it proposed this idea. There have been many good books about morals.
I am for high moral standards. I am in favor of kindness, and love, and the rule of law. I am not convinced that the standard of morality that I see in the Bible is better than the standard that I reach by reason. That is why I choose reason.
NotesMatthew 28:1 makes it clear that Easter Sunday was the day after the Sabbath, making it clear that the Sabbath is Saturday. Besides, the Sabbath as described in the law refers to not working, and does not refer to a day of worship. here.
3. I use the term "Old Testament" because that is the term my intended audience uses for the Jewish scriptures. I mean no offense to followers of Judaism who sometimes do not like the connotation of the name.
CopyrightÓ Merle Hertzler 2002, 2005. All rights reserved.