What Does the Bible Teach Us About Urgent Moral Controversies?

The Bible is blamed for virtually every evil under the sun. Here is a summary of the rap sheet: Slavery and racism began with Noah’s curse on his son Ham. The Crusades, Western imperialism, Islamic jihad, and even Nazi genocide were all inspired by biblical holy war. The degradation of nature, cruelty to animals, and overpopulation are all endorsed by God when he commands Adam to subdue the Earth. God’s election of Israel as his chosen people led to three thousand years of conflict in the Middle East. When God tells Eve “your husband shall rule over you” we see the origin of all the horrors of patriarchy, from polygamy to wife-beating. As for child abuse, think of Abraham’s appalling plan to make a burnt offering of his son, Isaac. Biblical condemnations of sodomy gave us centuries of cruel persecution of homosexuals. It would appear that the Bible has a lot to answer for.

At the same time, many champions of human equality, the emancipation of slaves, the liberation of women, vegetarianism, pacifism, respect for nature, the rights of children, and the abolition of the death penalty also claim to be inspired by the Bible. After all, the Bible does insist that God created every human being in his own image, male and female alike, and that in Paradise we shall see war no more, nor killing of any kind. What could be a more ringing endorsement of human equality than the biblical assertion: “there is no longer slave or free, Jew or Greek; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one”? As the most revered and reviled book in history, the Bible is routinely blamed for our evils and credited for our ideals.


In one dramatic biblical scene, Jesus debates Satan and both support their arguments by quoting verbatim from the Bible. Notoriously, the Bible can be quoted to defend contradictory positions about virtually all moral controversies. Whatever your opinion about slavery, gay marriage, divorce, capital punishment, polygamy, patriarchy, corporal punishment, race, sacrifice, war, or socialism, you’ll find support in the Bible. How could there be a coherent biblical ethics when the Bible is deployed as a weapon by all sides on every issue—when even the devil quotes Scripture?


The reason why the Bible has no coherent ethics, say most biblical scholars, is that the Bible is not one book but a whole library of books. Nor could these books have less in common. They range from myth and legend to chronicle and history, from codes of law to erotic poetry, from prayers to parables, from prophesy to romance. The seventy-three books of the Catholic Bible were written over a period of at least a thousand years, across different languages, religions, and cultures. The bewildering variety of biblical authors and genres seems to defy any thematic or doctrinal coherence.

I reject this scholarly consensus. I believe that there is a broadly consistent biblical ethics. I concede that the Bible does not get its unity from its many human authors; the Bible gets its unity from its editors. The Bible is indeed a library but one that has been arranged very, very carefully by anonymous editors over a very, very long time. It is a masterpiece of editorial committee work. Because of its literary unity, the Bible also possesses a broad ethical unity. But that ethical unity is not readily apparent. The Bible can indeed be quoted to support contradictory positions on most ethical issues. To discover the ethical unity of the Bible we must learn to read every verse of the Bible in light of the overarching purpose of the biblical narrative.


How do we discover that overarching purpose? In all artful literary narratives, beginnings and endings are particularly revealing of the purposes of the author. This is especially true of the Bible, the master narrative of Western culture, which begins and ends in Paradise. The Bible tells the story of how human beings were expelled from the Garden of Eden but can hope to someday reach the New Jerusalem: Paradise lost makes possible Paradise regained. Biblical ideals for human beings are most clearly revealed in these two paradises at the bookends of the Bible. Nor is Paradise restricted to beginnings and endings: throughout the Bible, we find evocations of Paradise in the images of the Promised Land, in the Messianic visions of the prophets, and in Jesus’s announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Bible is haunted from start to finish by Paradise, and this haunting gives biblical ethics its coherence. The Bible uses Paradise as a utopian critique of human failings. Careful attention to Paradise will reveal what the Bible says about our own dystopian world.


The Bible is a treasury of humanity’s highest ideals and yet the Bible is brutally realistic about human evil. The clash between those ideals and human reality gives the Bible great dramatic power. I invite readers to join with me in the adventure of reading the Bible as if it had one author and one message: may you be haunted by Paradise.

 

James B. Murphy, Ph.D. is Professor of Government, Director of the Daniel Webster Project, and Faculty Director of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Dartmouth University.


For Professor Murphy's recommended further reading on this question:

Murphy, James Bernard, Haunted by Paradise: A Philosopher's Quest for Biblical Answers to Key Moral Questions.