Moral teachings in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew portion (the Christian Old Testament) pose a problem. There are rules and regulations that do not seem very important to us, while there are practices, such as slavery, God either seems to ignore, or even condone. And we're not even getting to the laws that God commands that seem too harsh or even barbaric by our standards today.
Then, to make this even more confusing, the New Testament portion of the Bible sometimes seem to present new moral teachings. God commands Abraham that the male members of God's people must be circumcised; apostle Paul writes that Christians who now belong to God do not need to be circumcised. People in the time of the Old Testament engaged themselves in terrifyingly savage wars; Jesus Christ teaches his disciples to love their enemies, and instead of condemning people for their sins, died for them.
Why do moral views change in the Bible?
Or, is it perhaps, the Bible is trying to teach something far more important regarding morality than any particular law or precept?
3:09 The problem of outdated morality in the Bible
8:24 Why God accommodates to our moral level
17:20 What the Bible is teaching about morality
23:58 Why Christians shouldn't follow some OT laws
27:15 What the Bible teaches is people
30:49 Where God seems to lead Abraham by conversing with him
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So, a note before we start. I am dividing the previous episode, “Why would you think that God is good?” into two expanded episodes. So, the previous episode still has the first half, but it now also explores the account of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—and what it means. This episode has the second half that was in the previous episode, but also explores why the New Testament portion of the Bible seems to teach different moral standard than the ones taught in the Old Testament.
Now, I really wanted to cover both parts in the previous episode, but, these two parts explored closely-related, but different ideas. So, after I uploaded the episode couple of weeks ago, I kept thinking that putting them both in a single episode was a bit too much for listeners to digest. Then there was, of course, the problem that I had to leave out a lot of important and relevant topics.
So, I am very sorry for making the change now. But, I’ve now remade the old episode into two episodes; I’ve clarified some of the content in the previous episode, included the things I couldn’t cover. If you want to review the first half—since it sets the ground for this episode—or listen to my thoughts on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, you can listen again to episode 6 of season 3, “Why would you think that God is good?”
Otherwise, here is the 7th episode of the 3rd season.
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Abraham owned slaves. His descendants conducted wars that at times depopulated entire peoples. Their penal code was often brutal and violent. And God says nothing about these practices in the Bible; often, God even commands them.
For those of us living today, this tends to shock us; this is especially so with Christians, whose moral code follows the person of Christ, who taught his disciples to love their enemies, and instead of punishing people for their sins, died for them.
So, why such a stark difference? If God is good, and if the Bible really does describe what God has spoken to people, why does the Bible—at least, the portions of it before Jesus—not teach better moral values? Now, that we’ve begun exploring what it means to say that God is “good,” it is now time to return to this question in this episode of…
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… "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our sixth episode of the third season, “Why do moral views change in the Bible? What the Bible is trying to teach about morality.”
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Remember Hagar? She is the slave-girl of Sarai, who becomes a surrogate to bear Abram’s child because Sarai can’t do so ( Oh btw: I noticed that I switch the pronunciation of her name from ‘Haegar’ to Ha’gar now and then. Ha’gar is closer to the original Hebrew, whereas Haegar is how it is usually pronounced in English. Anyway ) The fact that Abram and Sarai owned slaves, and that Hagar, as Sarai’s slave-girl, could simply be made to bear her master’s child likely makes those of us with modern sensibilities quite uncomfortable. Now, this was not something God approved, let alone commanded, and we can even grant that slavery in the times of Abram was not quite as horrifying as the much more dehumanizing, race-based slavery of European colonies that we’re familiar with. And when Hagar flees into the wilderness, she encounters a messenger from God, and she discovers that God hears and sees her, and will bless her and her child, just as God blessed Abram and Sarai.
But, even then, we can still ask: why didn’t God call out Abram or Sarai about how they treated Hagar? Or, better yet, couldn’t God teach Abram to reject the very practice of slavery? Why does God say nothing about it?
And this is a critical question: because even though our reality is structured in such a way that we tend to flourish when we live morally, and even when that is understood as God speaking, we can still question whether this “God” that speaks forth such a world, really speaks to us in any personal way, to guide and teach us how we are to live. I mean, perhaps God is very laissez-faire about these things? Maybe God lets humanity just do whatever they want, and “speaks” and “responds” only by how our world and our lives unfold due to our actions—with us either flourishing together, or perishing together. But, if that’s all that happens, then that would be a significant reason to view this “God,” as something impersonal—Reality that is a “What,” and not a “Who.”
But, at least according to the Christian Bible, God does speak personally to people, and gives them moral laws and commandments. An example of that in Abram’s story comes when God appears to Abram about a decade after Hagar’s son, Ishmael, is born. God first declares that He is “El-Shaddai,” which is translated into English as “God Almighty.” Then, God exhorts Abram to faithfully live a righteous life before Him, and reiterates the promise that Abram will have a son, whose descendants will be so many, that they will become a nation. Furthermore, the land that Abram is now living as a foreigner, will become their homeland. But, this son that God is promising is not Ishmael; rather, he will be the son of Abram and Sarai, who is now too old to have a child ( we will explore the significance of that in the next episode ).
Then, God gives Abram a commandment; as a sign of this promise, Abram, along with every male member of his household, including the slaves, and all his descendants, must be circumcised. And it’s not a light command: those who are not circumcised will be cut off from this promise and their people; they will effectively be banished from their home. The practice of male circumcision, which is a procedure that surgically removes the foreskin from the penis, is very old—there are evidences that it was being practiced in the Middle East around 4000 years before the time of Christ. The ancient Egyptians circumcised their male children, as a sign of ritual purity and spiritual development. So, by Abram’s time, it would have been a well-known practice. Now, according to recent studies done by World Health Organization, male circumcision can have some health benefits—it lowers the risk of various sexually transmitted diseases and infection, for example—and this may be the reason why the ancient Egyptians associated it with physical and spiritual purity. So, when God commands Abram to circumcise his male family members, slaves, and descendants, that is what it would have meant.
But, these details make it all the more odd that God commands circumcision, to the threat of being cut off from the people, yet is notably silent on slavery. And this is just the first example; this question becomes more acute in the later books in the Bible, where God gives a number of moral commandments to Moses and the people of Israel, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Many of these commands, such as taking care of your neighbors, and not stealing, or murdering people seem morally sound, but some others, such as what to eat, or how to ritually clean things, seem strange to us. Then, there are commands about how to conduct wars that wipe out entire populations.
So, why does God not teach people better moral values?
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The first part of understanding what is going on, is something we explored earlier in the second season, notably in the first two episodes. The key idea that was introduced then, again an idea present at the very start of Christianity, is that God accommodates to the level of the people who hear God speak. That is, every truth that we hear God speak, is truth that we can come to learn and understand, at that time and place. You may recall the example of a father telling the child that he is teaching the computer how to play a game, when he is in fact designing the codes for a deep-learning algorithm of a new A.I. system. There is an example of this accommodation even in the conversation between God and Abram that we covered just now. God appears to Abram, saying that He is “El-Shaddai,” which likely references the Creator-deity named, “El,” who the Canaanites living around him, worshipped. But, according to the Canaanite religion, “El,” was the Father of all the other gods in their pantheon. That understanding of God would be corrected later by the descendants of Abram, who developed a radically different idea of God—if you remember from that episode from the 1st season, “Why ‘God’ is not ‘god.’” But, still, reference to “El,” was a way for Abram to initially understand Who was speaking—not just any god, but something like the creator of the world, and the Father to all things. In fact, in the story set several hundred years later, God speaks to Moses, and declares that his ancestors from Abraham and onward only knew him by the name, “El-Shaddai,” but now, Moses would learn the new name: “I am that I am.”
Many of us today seem to have this impression that the various teachings in the Bible, including those about God, just appeared to people one day, complete and whole, as if they came down from heaven, engraved in stone. But, those who have studied religion, and especially Christianity, know just how mistaken that impression is. Religious beliefs, including Christian beliefs regarding God, are formed through a journey; they start from a particular place and develop step-by-step. People drew upon existing ideas, insights, and vocabulary, to understand what they were experiencing. And as they did so, their experience expanded what they knew. It was a step-by-step process. This isn’t unique to religion, by the way; this is how we always learn. To learn a new subject, like physics, you start from basic things, like grade-school math and science, as well as whatever language your class will be taught in. Then, from there, you become able to engage more advanced topics in that subject. To get to know a person, you usually start from more superficial things, like their appearances, or their job, with which you form a first impression of that person. Then, from there, you get to know them more, and as you do so, your first impression will likely be corrected in some way. So, accommodation is a necessity; every truth is God speaking, but we can only ever learn the truth we are ready to learn, or at least recognize.
That is why every truth God speaks to us, every time, is an accommodation. This is why the Genesis creation account is presented in terms of how ancient Hebrews viewed the cosmos—which was quite different from our own. And this is the case not only for truths regarding the cosmos, but also moral truths. God spoke to a people for whom all those religious rituals made sense, slavery was an inseparable part of their labor system and social organization, and wars often were about wiping out entire settlements.
But, if God can speak to people personally, why can’t God just compel people to accept some truths or do things they otherwise wouldn’t? Couldn’t God perform some miracles or something to convince them or at least, frighten them into following? In fact, that was more or less the devil’s argument to Jesus, and we’ve already explored that issue in the first season. Well, miracles ( and we’ve explored what miracles are, in the first season too ) can impart to us only a very particular kind of truths. Here’s an illustration. Let’s say you hear God speak, while you are dying from an incurable disease, that God will heal you. You find that hard to believe, obviously, but then you are healed that very day against impossible odds. So, what truth would you have learned from this? Well, simply the truth that you really were healed, just as God said. Perhaps, it can go further, so you’ve also learned that you can trust what God says when you hear God speak.
Then, let’s say God speaks again and says you should join this volunteer organization to save people in warn-torn countries. You’d probably be willing to go that far—maybe. But, what if God says that the Google search engine is sentient and is in perpetual torment, because of all the crazy things we make it search for, online. God then says you must therefore ban the use of the Internet. Now, if that’s what you hear, you’d probably think that it wasn’t God that spoke to you—that you watched too many “What if Google is a person,” videos. But, let’s say this actually is true; there is something about sentience and self-awareness that we have profoundly missed, so that Google really is sentient and is suffering, but we cannot possibly conceive that this is the case. And let’s say that God performs several unimaginable miracles and makes you the owner of every tech company and internet provider in the world, so that you can do what God told you to do. Even then, you’d likely not go through with shutting down the Internet. And even if you did, people would overturn your ban as soon as they can.
Why? Because we cannot make a truth truly our own, unless we learn it—learn how and why, every step of the way. Miracles or signs, or incredible events, can push us along in the path when we are unwilling, but each step needs to be our own.
To be sure, the Bible does now and then present things that would have been radical in its day. One example is how the creation account in the Bible implies that even time itself was created by God; time was not eternal, but a particular thing that came into existence at one point. This was quite radical when it was proposed, but two thousand years later, with the theory of relativity, and the Big Bang cosmology, we now know this is true. But, even this example, as radical as it was in its time, was not inconceivable; it was considered a viable philosophical position—a possible step people could take.
For moral truths, this becomes even more the case. Take the example of slavery again. In the New Testament Bible, we have apostle Paul writing unambiguously that, there is to be no dividing lines in those who follow Christ—neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor male and female; everyone is one in Jesus Christ.” Of course, this principle is there even in Genesis, which declares that all of humanity is created in the image of God. However, this same moral principle can still take centuries or even millennia to unfold, step by step. Slavery was abolished in Christian Europe in 873 AD, but only in regard to Christians owning other Christians. The United States began, by stating that all man are born equal, but it did not abolish slavery until near a century later, and only after a number of intervening steps, such as banning international slave trade, and of course, the American Civil War. And even after slavery was abolished, racism has persisted in the form of segregation, economic inequality, and so on.
Any truth we make our own, we do so step by step. And the Bible seems to suggest that, at each step, God accommodates to our moral level, while beckoning us to the next step. That’s why the Bible is not a simple list of truths and moral laws, but is composed of multiple books, narrating a long, spiritual journey of a people.
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There is something that is quite profound that Christianity presents in regard to this question of morality, however. We’ve asked in the previous episode whether we can truly know how things really are, to have a complete view of the entire truth, especially when we know we can be wrong, and that there can be different views.
But, what Christianity presents is not how we can grasp some perfect and complete truth—we are not God, nor can we grasp every truth that God speaks, which would be infinite. But, what we are to learn is how we are to take hold of that portion of truth that we should know now: how we are to hear God speak where we are, with our limitations and understanding. And this has led Christianity to a very interesting idea of Truth. The most significant truth we can learn is not some all-encompassing and complete view of reality—which we may never have. Rather, it is about what kind of person brings forth truth, in the best way they can, every time, and speak truthfully about everything without distortion or deceit. Because that person is the closest analogy we have to God—after all, every truth is God speaking, so, hearing a person who speaks the truth is like hearing from God.
The moral teachings that the Bible presents, from the Christian perspective, is about the same thing. We tend to think that the Bible should present us with some perfect, unchanging set of moral precepts and laws—faultless, even by our standard. But, what the Bible present instead is the narration of the lives of people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Joseph, Moses, David, and so on. Even the commandments and laws in the Bible are presented within the context of the stories of their lives. Why?
Specific moral rules and conventions change—hopefully for the better, but not always. But, as times and values change, it is people who search for moral truths, further our moral understanding, and draft new laws and moral precepts; and it is people who live them out. It is people who reflect upon the moral principles they were taught, and apply them in new ways, or to larger group of people—such as taking the principle of equality to abolish slavery not only for fellow Christians, or other Europeans, but for all people.
So, what are we doing, when we do these things in each generation and why? Here, we return to what explored in the previous episode. Why do we have moral values, like love, justice, truthfulness, or mercy? And the key idea we covered is that our world is structured in such a way that when we love each other, judge justly, speak truthfully, and have compassion on those who are vulnerable, we will flourish together. But, if hatred, injustice, deceit, callousness, or cruelty, characterize our lives and the world we make for ourselves, we will eventually perish together. And that is just how things are, how reality unfolds, and for Christianity, all of that is God speaking. And that is the initial sense in which we can say that God is “good.”
But, this raises the question that every generation has to face. What does that mean for us specifically? In what specific ways should we be loving, just, truthful, compassionate, and so on, and what does it mean, specifically, to be unjust, deceitful, and cruel? How should we be loving to our neighbors, the people around us? In fact, who counts as a neighbor? Who counts as people? And why? What laws or regulations should we set up? What specific practices? And will that make us flourish?
The last question is especially important, because to ask whether we are flourishing, is same as asking, how did reality unfold in response to what we’ve done, and that is the same question as “what did God speak in response?” What happened when we set up particular laws or institutions, or took specific actions, and how did that change us as a society and as individuals? Because not all our actions, even with best of intentions, lead to our flourishing. Take the rise of communism in the 20th century, for example. We wanted a truly equal society, where social or economic inequality and injustices are completely abolished. However, when communist societies tried to impose a kind of artificial equality, it instead led to mass detention and murder of tens of millions across the world, as well as famines and wars, leading to death of hundreds of millions so far.
So, perhaps, the most significant moral question is, what kind of person can lead us to a path where we can all flourish—and for Christianity, that person is the closest analogy to the person of God that speaks forth a world where humanity can flourish. And that is the central moral truth that the Bible is trying to explore, by narrating a journey of a people, with the life-story of different individuals in each generation, leading eventually to the person of Jesus Christ. Who were they? What were dreams? What were their fears? What challenges did they face? What did they do? How did they fail? What happened then? How did they overcome? And in all this, how did reality unfold—that is, what did God do around them, and what did God say to them?
The lists of laws, precepts, and regulations, presented throughout this journey that the Bible describes, are the particular answers that these individuals reached for their generation, as they engaged with God that spoke to them—with that which unfolded their world and reality in response to how they lived. But, this means each of these answers are theirs, meaningful to their time, their situation, their society and culture, which by the way, is another way of saying, what God speaks is always accommodated to the level of those who hear God.
And this explains why some moral laws seem to change from the Old Testament to the New Testament in the Bible. Here is the most relevant example for this episode. Let’s turn to the time of the very first generation of Christians, when the New Testament portion of the Bible was yet to be written. New churches were being established among non-Jewish communities, mostly Greeks living in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Then, Christian teachers, who were Jews, began telling them that they needed to be circumcised. Why? Because in the Bible, God commanded Abram that all his male descendants must be circumcised; that was the law that God spoke, and circumcision marked everyone who joined the people of God connected to Abraham.
The apostle Paul heard this, however, and wrote a letter to one of those churches, in Galatia, which has become part of the Bible. Don’t do it; he wrote. If you let yourself be circumcised, then you better follow every single law listed in the Bible, completely. But, your relationship with God is not established by this or that law; God established an unbreakable relationship with you through the person of Jesus, and he offers this without any condition; you just need to accept—which is to say, have faith in the offer. But, then why did God command circumcision? In that letter, and another letter to the church at Rome, Paul answers that circumcision was a practice that signified this faith specifically for Abraham in his day, and for his Jewish descendants. Don’t mistake an outward act that was meaningful for a specific people, with what the act embodies: their relationship with God. If you do, you might as well also follow all the other outward acts that were prescribed to that people, who lived in another place and time.
However, apostle Paul then adds in the same letter, all these outward acts, the “laws” of that people is really living out a single principle. Love other people as yourself. If you bite and devour one another, however, you will be consumed. What Paul was pointing out was this: the various laws and precepts that are written in the Bible were specific answers that the people in the past arrived regarding the question, what does it mean to love ourselves, and love other people, in ways that will enable all of us to flourish together, rather than perish together? And as they heard God speak in their lives, and witnessed how reality unfolded as God spoke, and changed their world, the answers they learned in that journey were formulated into specific laws and moral prescriptions. So, what people in Paul’s time truly needed to learn were not the specific laws from long ago, but what kind of people they need to become. People who walk with God, who can reach the kind of answers they do, for their generation.
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Perhaps, you’ve met this kind of people, or at least know the type. They were raised with quite a different set of values from your own. They may be old, from the previous generation; maybe they are your grandparents that you adore, and deeply respect. Or, they may be your neighbors who came from a different country, were raised in a very different culture or society. So, they don’t follow your moral rules—not quite—maybe even voice different opinions regarding some moral issues regarding, say, gender, and so on. Yet, they seem very wise, and they have this openness and generosity about them that you can somehow feel that despite these differences, you feel that they would treat you fairly, and give you hearing, and respect you regardless. And they have this strong moral compass and integrity that you cannot help but respect, even if you think they are being stubborn, by clinging to their outdated values.
Then, on the other side, perhaps you know these types of people as well. They believe the same things you do; they profess the same moral values, and do so very loudly. But, you sometimes feel that they are parroting these moral values like someone following the latest fad; there is something about them that feel trite, forced, and arrogant. They may be out there with a bullhorn, screaming their outrage at some injustices or moral wrongs—wrongs that have angered you as well—but you can’t quite shake this sense that in their case, it is more about them; it’s a way for them to stand out, to be important, and noticed, and they positively fume with resentment when they are not.
What the Bible is trying to describe—and for Christianity, what God is speaking to us, through these narratives of the Bible—are people. What kind of people should we be, and how do we become such a people? What kinds of people bring forth the best moral positions and actions with the greatest integrity, given where they are, and discover the next step toward what they can go? Living thousands of years ago, their moral position may have been quite different from ours, but they are the kind of people we should be, in different times, and perhaps with different values. They are the people who, instead of using their moral position as reason to tear others down, bring forth the best answer that they could have reached in their generation to the question, what does it mean specifically to love ourselves and other people, so that we flourish together? In this way, they are the moral equivalent of those who speak truthfully; just as those who speak the truth, are the closest analogy to God that speaks every truth, those who are good, are the closest analogy to God that speaks forth a moral world where we can flourish. In fact, they are often the same people—those who can reach the best truth we can reach given our level of understanding and limitations, and those who can bring forth the best moral and just course of action, given their time, culture, and preconceptions.
The Bible wants to describe to you those people—or to be precise, people who are trying to be those people, since for Christianity, only Jesus himself is fully that person. This is why even for those of us who are really wary of Christianity, almost always tend to imagine that if we met Jesus himself, he’d be a wonderful person to hang out with and learn from—even though he lived 2000 years ago in a radically different culture.
And the life-stories of the people in the Bible are also stories of how their individual journey with God shapes them into that kind of people. There is one very interesting example in the life-story of Abraham. For that, we need to turn back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah we explored in our previous episode.
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In our previous episode, we began the story from the perspective of Lot, the nephew of Abraham, when he saw two strangers coming into the city of Sodom where he lived. But, the whole story actually begins earlier when those strangers visited Abraham the day before—and at this point, Abram’s name had to Abraham, which we’ll get into next episode. There is one crucial difference though—well two. First is that three strangers, not two, came to Abraham, and Abraham somehow recognized that they were from God. So, Abraham treats them to a meal, and they tell him and Sarah—her name had changed from Sarai to Sarah as well—that they will have a child next year. Then, they go on their way. But, as they did so, something interesting happens.
One of the strangers stay behind, and it seems he either speaks directly for God, or even a physical manifestation of God, speaking. Because Genesis then reports that God speaks these words. “Shall I hide what I am about to do from Abraham? He will become a great nation, and will be a blessing to the entire world. I have chosen him so that he will teach his children after him to keep the way of the LORD.”
Then, God speaks to Abraham, “I am going down to Sodom because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is very great.” And Abraham immediately understands that God will strike down these cities because their outcry.
But, here’s a question: why did God speak to Abraham about this? What was God looking for? What response from Abraham was God trying to elicit? We get an idea when Abraham, after a long shocked silence, Abraham addresses God. “What if there are a small number of good people in that city? Will you let them be destroyed too when the city is struck down? Let’s say there’s just 50 people who are still good in that city; You are God, the judge of what is good in all things! What will you do?”
And God responds, “If there’s 50 good people, those cities won’t be struck down.”
Abraham then slowly begins to lower the number. He has a personal interest, since his nephew, Lot, lives in the city. What if there’s 45 instead. What if there’s 40? 30? And God responds calmly, “Then I won’t strike down the city.” But, Abraham becomes even more nervous, as he asks, what if there’s just 20? And finally, gathering up the last bit of his courage, he asks, “what if there’s just 10?”
Yet, strangely, God’s tone never changes as the exact same answer, with exact same phrasing is given: “for the sake of those people, I won’t strike down the city.”
And Abraham ends the conversation, and God sends the angels. We already covered what happened next. The angels didn’t find 10; they found Lot, and his family. And as the city was struck down, they saved them.
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In the Bible, people change as they walk with God. It isn’t the specific moral laws or positions that are the most important moral teachings in the Bible; it’s the people. Specifically, what kind of people those who walk with God, eventually becomes, as God continues to speak with them, moves them forward, and change them.
It doesn’t mean they didn’t have their moral failures and faults. But, the accounts of their lives are about how they were shaped into the kind of people they needed to become for their generation, imperfectly and partially to be sure, but in ways that their journey with God continued. And it is in that journey, they would step by step, experience the “goodness” of God that not only judged their actions, and unfolded the world around them in response, but transforms them and leads them onward.
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And the most significant way that this happened for Abraham and Sarah is how God fulfilled the Promise that was made so long ago, about their long-awaited child.
So, please join me next time, as we return to the Promise God made, and how this shaped them.
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