Sunday, February 10, 2008

The tribal morality of the Bible.

The morality of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, confuses people. They don’t understand how God could, on one hand command people not to murder and then order them to kill. He forbids fornication and adultery and then turns over young girls to the men of Israel for their pleasure. He says: “Thou shalt not steal” and then orders the wholesale plunder of entire communities.

The atheist has one simple answer. The Bible wasn’t written by a deity at all but by men and the morality of the Bible reflects the morality of the men of those days. That is one thing that escapes people. Never did the Bible make a giant leap in the realm of morality. It was never any better than the men who lived at the time it was written.

Throughout the world, during the period that the Bible was written, slavery was common. And nowhere does the Bible condemn it. On the contrary it is, in some cases, ordered by the alleged Deity behind the book. He sanctions slavery. The Bible is unusually silent about child rape. A point one minister in New Zealand used in his own defense when he admitted to attacking small girls sexually. He said the Bible never forbade what he did -- and it didn’t. At every point in its existence the Bible reflected the values of the society around it.

Yet, you would think that a god, sending his word to man, could have done better than that. He didn’t forbid war but encouraged it. He didn’t recognize women as man’s equal but as his subordinate and property. Even the New Testament, written during a period when civilization, under the Greeks and then Romans had made some advances, is unable to surpass the common morality of the day. The best that it can offer in the way of slavery is to tell masters to treat their slaves well and to tell slaves to obey their masters. Apparently it never dawned on God, or his alleged son, to say: “Masters, free your slaves.”

For the most part the followers of Jesus saw nothing wrong with enslaving other human beings for centuries. Only as the culture began to change, following the unchristian Age of Enlightenment, did believers in any significant number become opponents of slavery. And even then it was the more orthodox believers who defended this crime and more liberal, or deistic, types who opposed it.

The morality of the Bible, and the church I think, rarely led humanity. It followed. As morality evolved the morality of the Bible changed. Ditto for the church.

The thing to understand about Biblical morality is the reason behind the double-standards of the Old Testament. The Hebrews were a tribe and they had a tribal mentality. So, of course, the deity that invented also had a tribal mentality. And that means there are rules for within the tribe and rules for outside the tribe.

Jehovah’s edict “thou shalt not kill” was a rule for within the tribe -- for the most part. He did make some exceptions which I will discuss momentarily. Where genocide was commanded it was against other tribes. The rules that the made-up god of the Hebrews spoke about were fundamentally rules for a people who had to live in relative close proximity to one another, who were related to one another, and who faced an existence of very limited resources in a harsh climate.

But when it came to other tribes then the rules were chucked out the window. That is typical tribal thinking. In the primitive economies of the day man produced very little and the region could be harsh and demanding. Every other tribe was a threat because their sheep or goats would eat the limited grass available and that means your sheep wouldn’t eat. If they drank the well dry you thirsted. Every other tribe was a threat merely because it existed. So the god of the Israelites was regularly ordering them to conquer, kill, plunder and spoil.

Even when this Jehovah fellow commanded the execution of Hebrews, for various sins, it was primarily to keep the peace within the tribe. In a world of tribal warfare each tribe must remain united or fact extinction. Life was a constant battle. There could be no tolerance for diversity in such primitive conditions. In addition to cohesion the tribe needed to remain strong and to outgrow competing tribes.

Jehovah wanted homosexuals within the tribe killed. Other than knowing nothing about sexual orientation, a relatively modern concept, the main reason to execute such people was because sexuality that didn’t lead to reproduction threatened the tribe. If it didn’t out-populate competing tribes in the region it could be wiped out.

Thou shalt not kill was necessary within the tribe for the tribe to survive. Killing others, outside the tribe, was seen as necessary for the same reason. Moral rules against adultery were necessary to keep harmony within the community. The men were the warriors who had to protect the tribe. If they hated one another, or wished to harm one another, it weakened the tribe and made them more vulnerable. Thou shalt not steal was a rule within the tribe so that there wouldn’t be divisions within the community. Again when it came to those outside the tribe, Jehovah was quick to recommend massive theft of the land, crops, and livestock of the tribes that his people slaughtered.

The Hebrews argued that they were a “chosen people”. And the moral code we see in the Ten Commandments (flawed though they may be) were a code for the tribe. Jehovah didn’t give a flying fuck about the other tribes. Kill them. Slaughter every man, woman and child, he said. In particularly vindictive moments he supposedly commanded that their livestock be killed as well -- though often he simple said to steal it.

If the Hebrews were “chosen” what does that say about everyone else? They were not chosen. In other words, they were rejected. They weren’t part of the tribe. And thus the moral codes of the tribe treated them differently than it treated tribe members.

Jehovah was the sock-puppet of the Hebrews of that day. He was a sad and rather pathetic god in that he had no moral grandeur at all. His morality was the morality of a backward, violent tribe.

In the New Testament man had moved somewhat beyond the tribal mentality. There were great trade routes and concepts of law established by the Greeks and the Romans. And these laws were seen as applying to all men equally. The ethics of Jesus reflected that reality. Instead of being as tribal as the Hebrews he spoke of treating others as you would be treated. This sort of reciprocity was necessary in a world of trade and exchange.

And while the Romans and the Greeks both moved humanity ahead in some important ways they also failed. They never saw the evil that is inherent in human slavery. And neither did Jesus. For once again, the New Testament, like the Old, never managed to go beyond the morality of the day. It didn’t do so because it was the work of the men of those days and not the writings of the some divine lawgiver.

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