Evolving Faith: Biblical Morality

From where does morality originate? How do we know right from wrong? For many Christians, the answer to that question comes in the form of the Bible — but how moral would we really be if we followed all of what the Bible taught?

Many Christian leaders call people to a standard of “biblical living” — but do we really want to be “biblical”? Should we aim for being biblical?

Are the morals presented in Scripture really timeless truths and the foundation we should build on? Or are we comfortable enough with the concept of evolving faith to admit that our ancestors’ sense of morality also evolved over time as culture grew? That their sense of what God may have been telling them was okay is not to be the blueprint any longer for us today?

Grab that discomfort you’re feeling and let’s go on a journey to explore biblical morality. To begin, it is biblical to own slaves. It is biblical to own other human beings as personal property. (Ex 12:44; Ex 21; Ex 23; Lev 19; Lev 22; Lev 25:44-46 [“You may buy slaves… you can bequeath them to your children as property…”])

On the flipside, it is biblical for a father to sell his daughter as a sex slave. (Ex 21:7)

It is biblical to kill innocent women and children. In fact, complete infanticide and genocide are approved as biblically moral acts. (1 Sam 15; Deut 2; Deut 3; Deut 20)

It is biblical to force a woman to marry her rapist. (Deut 22:28-29)

It is biblical to openly discriminate against handicapped people and exclude them from serving God. (Lev 21:16-20)

The list could go on and on with dozens of examples… and to be clear: by “biblical” I do not mean something that is simply found in the Bible. It would be one thing to say the Bible included stories of people doing these things, but that they were not endorsed or commanded by God. However, these are things the writers of Scripture felt were specifically endorsed and commanded by God! It’s not just Old Testament laws, either– for instance, slavery was endorsed and accepted in the New Testament as well (Eph 6:5; 1 Tim 6:1).

When I look at the morality presented in the Bible, I can’t help but think: God forbid we ever aim to live biblically.

What about marriage? We keep hearing these calls to return to “biblical” marriage, usually defined as a covenant between one man and one woman. Let’s take a look at what biblical marriage really is, though:

The first time we see the word “marriage” in Scripture, it is in reference to Jacob and his multiple wives (Rachel, Leah, and both their slaves). The next time is in reference to Moses and his (at least) two wives. Biblical marriage appears to be one man and as many women as he wants. It’s even codified that way in the Law — “If a man has two wives, and loves one but not the other…” In other words, God did not say, “Don’t have two wives.” He never offers condemnation for having two wives, but rather accepts and endorses it. This particular law quoted above goes on to define how to divide the inheritance among polygamous marriages.

So no, the Bible does not define marriage as being between one man and one woman. It legally codifies marriage — supposedly from the lips of God — as being between one man and as many women as he wants. (Following this law, Caleb had 5 wives, Gideon had ‘many’ wives, Saul had two wives, King David had at least 18 wives, Solomon supposedly had a thousand wives, and nearly every other biblical hero practiced polygamy.)

But it gets even worse from there: biblically speaking, in a marriage relationship women were property, just like slaves. They were bartered and sold and owned. They were second class citizens (if they were people at all) to be used in largely arranged marriages. In the books of Joshua and Judges, women were even given in marriage as prizes and rewards to male Israelite soldiers.

I look at all this, too, and I think: God forbid we ever aim to have biblical marriages.

Humanity existed for thousands of years with this polygamous-property understanding of marriage. Recently, a better way of understanding marriage, a monogamous-equality understanding, has come to be accepted. (This development is surprisingly recent, dating back to just the 19th century.) In other words, we as humankind finally realized in the past two hundred years or so the old way of doing things may not be the best way to do things…

Just like the best way to do things might not be owning slaves… or forcing women to marry rapists… or discriminating against people… or committing infanticide or genocide…

I’ve written before about how the Bible and Jesus are two separate entities, and how our highest calling as Christians is to follow Jesus, not to follow the Bible. Many have asked how I could possibly separate the two, and it is topics like these where I ask, “How could you possibly not?”

See, just like monotheism and afterlife theology are not static, timeless consistent truths presented all the way from the beginning of our faith narrative, morality is ever-changing and evolving as well. I think it’s pretty impossible to flip through the pages of our Story and honestly come to any other conclusion. The morals presented in the early Old Testament writings are shocking, brutal, and entirely immoral by today’s standards. If you want to hold to the position that Scripture presents timeless morals for us to follow, then you are implicitly admitting that the world has better morals than God does.

But here’s the deal: morality didn’t stop with the early writings of the Old Testament. It continued to grow and evolve. By the time we reach the end of the Old Testament, after — again, what else? — the Babylonian captivity, we see a more evolved sense of morality from our ancestors. When the prophets were looking to learn the lessons of the Babylonian exile, they landed on the idea that the Israelites were being judged for not caring about people. For not taking care of the poor. For not offering hospitality to strangers. For not loving their neighbors. For mistreating their servants. For not caring for the sick and the outcast.

Suddenly, morality was shifting. Evolving.

This was the message of prophets like Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. For instance, Isaiah opens up his message to God’s people by essentially saying, “Yes, you’re great at keeping the finer points of the earlier Old Testament morality. You offer sacrifices and go through all the rituals and festivals and everything you think I want. But you should have been doing better.” Isaiah goes on to specifically identify this new evolved morality:

“Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right: seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow.” (Is 1:17)

Morality was shifting away from ancient brutality to a greater focus on people. Specifically, the people who generally were not taken care of by society as a whole. The people who fell through the cracks. Because Israel didn’t help them, they were being judged — and that’s what allowed the Babylonians to capture them.

Of course, Jesus comes on the scene and this sense of morality evolves even further. By the time Jesus came, the Jewish people had all but abandoned most of the brutal ancient morality. For instance, the prescribed punishment for breaking most every Law in the early Old Testament was stoning someone to death. When Jesus walked the earth, that practice had fallen by the wayside already. They inherently understood that morality was not a fixed thing, that it would grow and evolve — and when some prideful moralists approached Jesus supposedly ready to stone an adultress, he called their bluff and introduced a new evolution in morality at the same time.

Jesus essentially said, “Yeah, you guys don’t stone people any more. But if you really want to devolve back to that, you who is without sin, go ahead and throw the first stone.”

Ancient morality gave way to a justice- and people-focused reality, which then gave way to the complex morality of Jesus: love. Black and white became gray, which became multi-colored beauty.

It’s this positive trajectory of morality we ought to be focusing on when we talk about the Bible. Atheists rightly point out the ugly brutality of the early Old Testament morality, and even some of the brutality remaining into the New Testament (such as slavery). They point out that the Bible is an absolutely lousy place from which to derive morals, and for Christians stuck in the world of timeless black-and-white morality, they are correct.

Instead, what if we approached the Bible as what it is: a story. In this story, ancient people lived in a brutal world and had brutal morals. As time went on, they became more focused on justice and people, and when Jesus came on the scene he became the catalyst for the greatest moral evolution toward love.

So rather than pick out proof texts to back up a black-and-white understanding of morality, it seems good to me to take the trajectory of the story as a whole and continue that trajectory today. It is by embracing that evolution that we are able to come to the quite obvious conclusion that things such as genocide and infanticide and slavery, which are endorsed in the pages of Scripture, are in fact not okay. Just because that’s the old way of doing things doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing things.

The Story doesn’t stop with the last page of Revelation. We are intended to continue living it out today — not stuck in the morality that existed 2,000 years ago, but evolving. And if we allow ourselves to follow that trajectory and continue allowing our morality to evolve along the path of Jesus’ love, it will lead us into even greater freedom and equality in the future.