Morals Don’t Come From God: For This I Know Because the Bible Tells Me So

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Let me air out some new material here. The title of this post is the title of another book I’m currently working on. Its thesis is that despite fervent claims made by fundamentalists, when one studies the Bible’s many different legislations, law codes, and moral precepts comparatively, the biblical texts themselves tell us that its morals were shaped by ever-changing cultural and subjective perspectives, worldviews, and even ideologies. In other words although the Bible rhetorically presents Yahweh giving laws and statues—“Thus saith Yahweh…”—when studied more closely and contextually the Bible’s texts reveal that their moral precepts are subjective, cultural creations. It is the Bible itself that informs us that morals do not come from god Yahweh! Here is an excerpt from chapter 1, entitled:

Yahweh and the Moral Ideology of an Elite Priestly Guild

There’s a story in 1 Samuel 6 that recounts how the ark of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, came back to Israel and was placed in the hands of Levite priests after having passed through the town of Beth-shemesh. Here is an excerpt from that story.

Ark comes to Beth-shemesh ark_comes_to_beth-shemesh.jpg - 1448 x 1729 (624kb)

And the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping the wheat harvest in the valley, and they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. And the cart [upon which the ark was placed] came into the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite and stood there, where there was a great stone. And they cleaved the wood of the cart and offered up the cows for a burnt-offering unto Yahweh. . . Then Yahweh smote the men of Beth-shemesh because they had gazed upon the ark of Yahweh. He smote 50,070 men of the people, and the people mourned because Yahweh had smitten them with a great slaughter (1 Sam 6:13-15, 19).

What was supposed to be a joyous event, and which did in fact elicit praises and sacrifices to Yahweh, ended up being a calamity for the people of Beth-shemesh. Yahweh, their god, smote 50,070 of their men!

Our immediate question should not be why did Yahweh do this, as if a scribe were recording an historical event. But rather, why would an ancient scribe have presented Yahweh doing this? Who would have written such a story and why? What purpose could it possibly have served?

Similarly, 2 Samuel 6:6-7 recounts the story of how a commoner by the name of Uzzah reached out with his hand to save the ark of Yahweh from crashing to the ground, since the oxen carrying the ark had stumbled. However, what should have been hailed as a pious act of saving Yahweh’s ark from being broken to bits upon the ground turned out to be something quite different. “And Yahweh’s anger was kindled against Uzzah and he smote him there and he died.”

What do Uzzah and the men of Beth-shemesh have in common that would have elicited such a response from their deity? Besides the fact that they either gazed upon the ark of Yahweh or touched the holy relic, they were both commoners! Or more specific to the interests of these stories, they were non-Levites!

These are powerful stories and were undeniably written to convey a poignant, if indeed disturbing, message: that under no circumstances are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only the Levites were allowed this privilege. These are not historical narratives, but dramatized lessons crafted by elite priests who wrote to authenticate and legitimate their own social position, authority, beliefs, and morals. Both the Beth-shemites and Uzzah, as well as numerous other characters in the Hebrew Bible, function as literary foils to demonstrate that under no circumstances are non-Levites to minister to Yahweh’s cult, touch Yahweh’s sacred objects, or even gaze upon them. Only Levites could minister to Yahweh; all others no matter what the circumstance would be brutally struck down by Yahweh himself. That is the message behind these stories. And they were written by elite Levite priests to legitimate Levite ideology by presenting Yahweh, their deity, as a spokesperson for their own views and beliefs.

In other words, these stories exemplify what ancient literature is and how it was often used. Its “moral legislation”—that Yahweh will slaughter any non-Levite that touches, even gazes upon, his holy objects—is not some objective moral with a supernatural origin, but rather a carefully crafted lesson created by Levite scribes whose purpose was to endorse, legitimate, and safeguard their own authority and ideology, and often against the views and claims of rival guilds (such as the Aaronid priestly guild), by using the deity as their spokesperson. No non-Levite would claim this Yahweh with this moral dictate as their god. Rather, it is the literary creation of Levite priests.

In fact, this is how ancient scribes or guilds legitimated their views, authority, and even social position in the ancient world. They wrote texts and stories which exemplified their views and beliefs, and authenticated them by presenting them as divine decree. How do we know this? By studying the Bible’s many and often competing texts each on their own terms, in their own literary contexts, and as part of the larger literary matrix of the ancient Near Eastern world. We will see in subsequent chapters that many of the texts penned by ancient Israel’s priestly guilds were written in response to or against other rivalry priestly guilds who also wrote texts that advocated different views, agendas, and beliefs, and who legitimated these competing beliefs, ideologies, and even moral codes by using the same literary technique—placing them on the lips of their cultural deity. It was only centuries later that these competing texts were collected together, codified as scripture, and still later marketed as “the Holy Book.”

In fact, a powerful textual argument for why this moral legislation is subjective is because the Bible itself bears witness to other texts written by other priestly guilds wherein Yahweh is presented as proclaiming, against the Levites who wrote the Samuel passages above, that now all non-Aaronid Levites who touched Yahweh’s holy relics or even set foot in his Tabernacle were to be put to death!

The Yahweh of the Aaronids Countermands the Yahweh of the Levites

The same priestly lesson as above is to be found in Yahweh’s slaughtering of Korah, his family, and all those associated with him who dared challenge the authority of Moses and the Aaronid priesthood in Numbers 16 (for a detailed discussion see Contradictions #246-250, #254). This genealogical branch of the tribe of Levi (the Kohathites) not only questioned the right of Aaron’s descendants to be Yahweh’s sole officiating priests, but they too “sought the priesthood as well.” For this offense, however, Yahweh burnt them all alive: “And fire had gone out from Yahweh and consumed the 250 people [all non-Aaronid Levites] offering incense” (Num 16:35). The lesson: only the Aaronids may minister in front of Yahweh, and that includes offering incense! “No outsider, one who is not from Aaron’s seed, shall come forward to burn incense in front of Yahweh” (Num 17:5).

This sole prerogative of the Aarond priesthood, defended with death by their god, even extended to stipulating who approaches Yahweh and who does not. Any non-Aaronid—here including all other Levites!—who approached Yahweh’s Tabernacle or touched his sacred objects suffered the penalty of death. “Everyone who comes close to Yahweh’s Tabernacle will die” (Num 17:28). “And the children of Israel shall not come near to the Tent of Meeting so as to bear sin and die” (Num 18:22; cf. Num 3:10, 38).

In other words, according to the Yahweh of the texts written by those Levites who traced their lineage back to Aaron—thus the Aaronids—even the Levites (that is all non-Aaronid Levites) could not approach Yahweh’s sacred precinct or touch his sacred objects for fear of death (Num 4:15; 18:3, 32; see Contradiction #220). This is completely contradictory to the portrait of Yahweh in the passages from Samuel above—passages which, contrary to these texts in the book of Numbers, were written by Levites to legitimate Levite agendas and ideologies. This passage from the book of Numbers, on the other hand, was written by the Levites’ rivalry priestly clan, the Aaronids, and like the pro-Levite Yahweh of the Levite written texts above where Yahweh is portrayed condemning to death any and all non-Levites who even looked upon the ark, this corpus of literature (Leviticus and the majority of Numbers, commonly referred to as the Priestly source) presented, in like manner, a pro-Aaronid Yahweh who was portrayed condemning to death any non-Aaronid Levite or Israelite that even came close to Yahweh’s precinct. The Yahweh of this text, in other words, was clearly written to preserve and authenticate solely Aaronid beliefs, morals, and ideologies—and against those of their rivals, the Levites in general.

There’s a wonderful little story in Numbers 25, written by the Aaronid priestly guild, that puts this prohibition in context. An Israelite and a Midianite woman approach the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Aaron’s grandson Phinehas the priest, seeing this sacrilege, runs forward after the two and takes his sword “and runs the two of them through, the Israelite man and the woman, to her stomach”—thus, in effect, stopping Yahweh’s wrath, which this time took the form of a plague unleashed upon the congregation. Nevertheless Yahweh had already taken the lives of 24,000 people! Furthermore, for this zealous act, Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, is awarded “the covenant of eternal priesthood” from Yahweh himself, or more specifically from the Yahweh of the Aaronid scribe who wrote this passage (for competing priestly views see Contradiction #299). This story is what we call an etiological tale; its purpose is to narratively demonstrate how and why “Yahweh” awarded the priesthood to the Aaronids, and the Aaronids alone. In other words, like Numbers 16, it authenticates and legitimates through “divine”decree, the sole rule of the Aaronids as Yahweh’s priests.

As with the examples from the book of Samuel, these passages from Numbers also display a “moral teaching” that, although presented as stemming from Yahweh, actually comes from the culturally-shaped viewpoint and beliefs of the elite priestly guild that penned it.

Again, such stories are not historical renditions of actual events, depicting a ruthless unrelenting deity (as atheists often antagonistically assert). Rather, they were powerful narratives written by powerful elite priests. They warned against rebelling against their own priestly clan, questioning the clan’s authority, and approaching their proper cultic domain by presenting the god of Israel directing his fierce anger upon the people and slaughtering thousands of the congregation if any of his pro-Aaronid prohibitions were broken. In other words, the Aaronid priestly guild—rivals to the Levites in general—used Yahweh as a literary character, placed words in his mouth, and portrayed him as a death dealer to all non-Aaronid Levites and commoners who dared encroach upon the Aaronid priests’ cultic domain. This is just one small example of how rival priestly schools wrote texts to legitimate their own positions and authority over and against those of other priestly guilds. In other words, both priestly guilds used Yahweh, in similar fashion as their spokesperson, but with contradictory agendas, goals, and beliefs in mind.

Thus we begin to see that the Bible’s moral edicts, commandments, and prohibitions do not come from God, or god Yahweh, but rather are the creations of the elite scribal schools that wrote these texts and used Yahweh as a literary character, as a mouthpiece, to sanction and legitimate their own legislation, beliefs, and agendas. This conclusion is reinforced and corroborated when we compare the Torah’s 3 law codes (Exodus 20-23, Leviticus 11-21, and Deuteronomy 12-26) and other later moral codes and precepts, especially those of the New Testament—all of which are the focus of this book’s following chapters.

More about the Aaronid worldview, moral legislation, beliefs, and eternal laws and covenants, as well as their portrait of a pro-Aaronid Yahweh can be found in chapter 2 (The Seven-Day Creation Account and the Priestly Writer) of my recent publication Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate.

4 thoughts on “Morals Don’t Come From God: For This I Know Because the Bible Tells Me So

  1. This sentence struck me: “Again, such stories are not historical renditions of actual events, depicting a ruthless unrelenting deity (as atheists often antagonistically assert). Rather, they were powerful narratives written by powerful elite priests.”

    I think your approach is much more interesting than dismissing a cruel deity, and opens up a conversation that can be connected to present-day institutions. It could provide a bridge conversation between atheists and religious practitioners. I’m excited you’ve decided to take up this topic.

  2. Ryan, exactly my sentiments. In the broadest strokes I am attempting to redirect our culture’s conversation about religion, or the Bible specifically, to the texts themselves. Too often the exchange between atheists and theists boils down to a heated tit-for-tat that is mostly subjective in nature—the “I believe this, you believe that” narrative. Here I’m really trying to bring all parties to a conversation about an object of mutual study—a collection of ancient texts where it is the texts themselves, their observable textual data, that leads us to draw conclusions about the compositional nature of these ancient texts and the competing beliefs and ideologies of their many authors. So my claim in this project is that the textual evidence itself informs us that the Bible’s moral legislations were shaped by cultural and subjective beliefs, albeit presented rhetorically as stemming from God.

    On another note, as a biblical scholar whose object of study is a collection of ancient texts (not religion in general, not faith, not God), I feel that the number one problem of what I have been calling “biblical illiteracy” among the Bible’s modern readership is the pervasive ignorance about ancient literature in general and the conventions scribes used in composing these texts. Any talk about Christianity must be a talk about ancient literature. Although atheists in general are more apt to comprehend the Bible’s ancient texts—simply because their approach is more objective and certainly less subjective—many times I feel that they unfortunately articulate positions in manners that are not only not helpful but which also display a certain “ignorance” about the text as well. Understood correctly: the Yahweh of these ancient texts are literary creations (so I’m making no theological claim about a metaphysical God, and quite frankly even leaving the door open for such an idea). Knowing this then allows us to articulate things differently, such as in the quote above. So When reading the biblical literature, we’re not talking about a genocidal, wrathful deity in any metaphysical sense, but a literary creation that then ought to elicit the question: why did our scribe compose a story presenting Yahweh in these terms? What purpose did it serve, and who was its target audience? This line of reasoning seems, or should seem, friendly to theists. So I’m moving the conversation from an erroneous subjective reader-oriented perspective of this text as a portrait of God, of God’s word and will to one that rightly acknowledges on an objective level that the portrait of God in these texts, what he says and wills, are all reflections of the scribal culture that created the text. These are their stories and they served a purpose for them. Modern readers often forget this.

    One of the conclusions to my Conclusion in Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, which are drawn from the textual data of Genesis 1 and 2, seems apropos here:

    What we are doing here is simply noting the observable textual data and the literary techniques used by ancient authors and the conclusions this evidence leads us to draw about the text. In other words, we are talking about the text and the beliefs represented in that text, and that includes how our author understood and portrayed his god. Thus the text itself and all things in it are an expression of his beliefs, his worldview, his concept of God, and his culturally defined perceptions about the world. Our task as mature responsible readers of the twenty-first century is to acknowledge this, and to understand the hows and whys behind all of this. Being honest to the texts is our first and most immediate task, albeit perhaps the most difficult.

  3. I think you are referring to “subjective” in the sense not used by philosophers when they refer to subjective morals. They mean if it seems moral to you (or some group of people) then it is moral.

    Here you are saying what actions we are morally permitted to take is dependent on circumstances. That is a bit different.

    Consider this:
    Child A obeys his parents and does x.
    Child B obeys his parents and does “not x.”

    An objective moral realist can properly believe both children are acting morally. You do not need to accept subjectivity in order to believe this. Yes you do have to accept that circumstances change the morality or an action – but that is different than subscribing to relativism or subjectivism.

  4. Joe, did you read the article and the biblical examples used?

    Since I am a biblical scholar dealing with a text, and often its reader, I use the term subjective to define reader-perspective—the subject here is always the reader. The object, like object of study, is the text.

    In the above textual examples, I demonstrate that while the rhetoric used by ancient scribes may present a moral edict as originating from Yahweh, and thus objective, that is perceived as not coming from the culture or scribe, our subject in this case, it is nonetheless subjective. That is they are defined by the subject—our scribe and their culture. Moreover, when the Bible’s many law codes are studied comparatively this subjective aspect becomes even more pronounced. Thus, the biblical texts themselves show us that its laws and commandments were defined subjectively, by the scribe and/or culture.

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