ETHICS: SOME PRELIMINARY REMARKS
We shall be concerned with ethics for a while. Prior to that, however, I find it necessary to deal with some matters which we will not have the opportunity to discuss later on.
Can We Have Ethics Without God?
Some people have suggested that, of the Ten Commandments (Twelve in Islam—17:23-37), the last six are quite sufficient as ethical guidelines. Why, then, should we need the first four? Can’t we have ethics without God, which even atheists could subscribe to?
The answer is that God underwrites all ethical commandments. Omit God, and you pull the rug out from under those six, as well. Remove the initial commandments, and there remains no reason to accept the rest, either. Without God as lawgiver, you are down to absolute zero, adrift without a compass in a sea of moral relativism. You will be forced to re-invent ethics from scratch on your own. But everyone has their own thoughts on the matter, and who decides whose ethics are better than the rest? Your word is as good as mine. As one of Dostoevsky’s characters says: “If there is no God, then I am God.” Who’s to say that incest isn’t good, or murder is bad? The conscience of people, you may say, will prevent them from doing bad things. What about those who don’t have one?
Only divine sanction can establish, validate, and legitimize rules that are applicable to all human beings, for only God is the ultimate authority. (You could accept the Buddha, for instance, as ultimate arbiter, but the Buddha, too, was a human being—unless you unconsciously elevate him to the status of God.)
Further, without the love of God or fear of God, there is not enough incentive to behave ethically. Except for a few high-minded souls, the majority of people will then obey the whims of their Base Self, because moral conduct requires effort—sometimes, a great deal of effort. It is easier to do the safe thing than the right thing. The atheistic experiments of the twentieth century demonstrated that as soon as God-driven motivations are removed, all hell breaks loose, leading to the suffering and deaths of millions of human beings. We can only conclude that morality is not feasible in the absence of belief in God.
Unless we strictly abide by the rules of ethics, it will be not at all difficult for evil to take possession of us, via our Base Selves. It sucks you in like quicksand, as symbolized in a couple of 2015 TV season finales. Left: The black Kree stone swallows Jemma Simmons in Marvel’s Agents of Shield (S02E22). Right: The darkness engulfs Emma Swan in Once Upon A Time (S04E23).
Did They Really Do Those Things?
In a forthcoming article, I will be maintaining that the prophets and saints are ethical superheroes—that they are exemplars for all humanity to emulate. From this point of view, the Bible’s treatment of prophets is, to say the least, problematic. If we accept it at face value, we would be constrained to speak of biblical personalities or perhaps biblical characters, but not prophets, at least not in the sense we mean it.
You see, superior ethics is the most important point about the prophets. Take that away, and we are left with an empty husk. It’s not that prophets are infallible: they aren’t, since to err is human and they’re human, too. But their errors are more in the nature of a lapse (Ar. dhalla) or shortcoming (Heb. chet). They’re minor sins, not major ones, committed unwittingly and despite themselves. More often than not, these occur for our own education and edification, so that we as human beings may draw lessons from them.
By contrast, the Bible makes the prophets commit huge sins. This not only disqualifies them from being proper ethical role models, it also undermines their main task, and that of the Bible, which is to successfully proclaim the word of God: their credibility is damaged beyond repair.
The cavalier treatment accorded the prophets by the Bible begins with its very first book.
Genesis Chapter 19 describes how Lot and his two daughters escape the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re living in a cave in the mountains. The two daughters then inebriate Lot with wine until he is wasted and have sex with him.
Now drinking (and getting drunk) may not be a major sin in itself, but the attendant clouding of cognitive and mental faculties can lead to major sins, as exemplified in this story, which is why intoxicants are prohibited. Incest, on the other hand, is a major sin that does not befit even an ordinary person, let alone a prophet or his daughters. The Koran states: “Do not even approach fornication; it is an abomination and an evil way” (17:32). This being incest makes things even worse.
Genesis Chapter 27 deals with Jacob. As David Plotz summarizes it:
Jacob is so perplexing—a favorite of God’s who appears to have no moral compass, no filial feeling, and the heart of a con artist. Earlier, Jacob wheedled the birthright out of his older twin Esau in exchange for a bowl of pottage. In this chapter, Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob, con Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that belongs to Esau... [Isaac has failing eyesight, so Jacob impersonates his brother.]
Isaac, believing Jacob to be Esau, gives him his grand blessing—making him master over his brothers and promising him wealth and power. And when Esau returns, there [is no going back]. In a heartbreaking moment, poor, innocent, stupid Esau weeps and begs, “Bless me, too, Father!” But Isaac can’t undo his blessing to Jacob and can only give Esau a lame substitute benediction instead.
The words of the Prophet come to mind: “Whoever deceives is not one of us.” This is all the more so if the person in question is a prophet. It is inconceivable that a vocation as mission-critical as prophethood could be transmitted by such perverse means, by rewarding a lie for personal gain.
Exodus Chapter 32: Moses is on top of Mount Sinai conversing with God. The Israelites demand that Aaron make them a god. Aaron forges a golden calf for them. The Israelites bow down to it and worship it in the belief that it is the god who brought them out of Egypt. Aaron builds an altar to the calf, which is followed by an orgy.
Both the Old Testament and the Koran declare Aaron to be a prophet. God will forgive any sin against Himself, except associating other gods with God (shirk: polytheism and idolatry). What Aaron is purported to have done is a flagrant violation of the First and Second Commandments: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make any graven image. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:2-5). This gravest of grave sins is supposed to have been committed, not by any random person, but by Aaron, the brother of Moses and a prophet of God!
The Koran never imputes such an abomination to Aaron, but puts the blame on a person called “Samiri” (20:85, 95), sometimes rendered into English as Samaritan or Zimri. The Israelites heed his call over the protestations of Aaron, who is helpless to stop them. He is identifed as Dathan—who goads and leads the Israelites in their worship of the golden calf—in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments (1956). (The idol there looks like Hathor to me. Evidently, Mr. DeMille had the same qualms we do about portraying Aaron as an accomplice to idolatry.) The event is also related in 7:149-152. The Koran informs them that they have committed a heinous sin, that they should repent and kill their (Base) selves (2:54).
... Elisha (Elyasa) went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldhead!” they said. “Get out of here, baldhead!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24.)
While the children can’t be seen as entirely free of blame, it does seem hugely disproportionate—and therefore, unjust—that 42 of them should be killed for it. This sounds more like a Grim fairy tale.
I could go on, but you get the idea. However, as a final example, I have to go into the case of David a bit more deeply, particularly since we will be talking about him later on.
David and Bathsheba
This event, related in 2 Samuel 11, concerns three people: King David, the beautiful Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah. First, a fact that is relevant to what follows: according to the Bible, David had more than 7 wives and at least 10 concubines.
Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the story:
David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Bathsheba became pregnant. David sent for Uriah, who was with the Israelite army at the siege of Rabbah, so that he could sleep with his wife and conceal the identity of the child's father. Uriah refused to do so while his companions were in the field of battle, so David sent him back to Joab, the commander, with a message instructing him to ensure that Uriah died in battle. Joab placed Uriah on the front lines and had the other soldiers retreat from the area. Uriah was killed which allowed David to marry Bathsheba.
After this, the prophet Nathan visits David:
The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are that man! ...You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites.” (2 Samuel 12:1-9.)
This account charges King David with adultery and the murder of an innocent man. We are talking about a man whom God designates as His “vicegerent” in the Koran. Out of all the prophets up to and including Mohammed, the only other prophet the Koran confers this title on is Adam, the progenitor of humankind. And elsewhere in the Bible, David is exalted greatly as well. Hence, it is inconceivable that he should actually have committed these crimes. The Koran, without mentioning these allegations, gives a slightly different version of what transpired:
Have you heard the news of the two disputing men who climbed the [fortress] wall into David’s private chamber? When they entered his room, he was startled.
They said, “Have no fear. We are two litigants, one of us has acted wrongfully towards the other. So judge between us with justice, and do not act unjustly, and guide us to the right path.”
One of them said, “This brother of mine owns ninety-nine sheep, while I own only one. He says: ‘Hand yours over to me too,’ and he overpowered me in speech.”
David said: “Surely he has wronged you in demanding your ewe (to add) to his own ewes...”
And David realized that this was a test from Us. He sought forgiveness of his Lord: he bowed down, prostrated, and repented. So We forgave him for that. He has a near place in Our presence and an excellent resort. (38:21–25.)
If you look at a glass full of muddied water, there’s nothing to be seen, since it’s full of mud anyway. But if you hold up a glass of pure water to the sunlight, the tiniest speck will become visible, because the water is already clear enough. For this reason, what may be considered merely a misdemeanor in the case of common folks, becomes a serious crime if committed by a prophet or saint. In their case, it is not the deed itself, but the mere thought of it, that will result in a warning or will bring down retribution. This is why, when Ali the Fourth Caliph heard of the account above, he said: “Whoever says that David married Uriah’s wife as the legends narrate, I will punish him twice: one for falsely accusing someone of adultery, and the other for desecrating prophethood (defamation of the prophet David).” For the account ascribes grievous crimes to a prophet which not even an ordinary upright man would contemplate committing.
For what it’s worth, here’s my own take on the sequence of events: David sees Bathsheba and is smitten by her. A lewd thought crosses his mind. Whereupon two persons (were they angels? was one of them Nathan?) visit him, making him aware of his lapse. This is what David repents for: not the deed itself, but the mere thought of it. Later, when Uriah loses his life in the normal course of battle, David takes the widowed Bathsheba for wife.
Today, few Bible scholars would argue for its word-for-word literalness. Granted that the Bible has been stable for a very long time, the fact remains that there was also a time when it was not in existence, and a time when it was gradually formed: its period of formation.We know that the Old Testament was written down by various scribes over a period of hundreds of years. Copyists could have made mistakes, embellished stories, or intentionally added them to drive a point home more forcefully. These things happen with texts, especially when they’re ancient. People did not have the same regard for the purity of texts that we do today. Just as we have rejected certain Traditions for casting doubt on the Prophet’s ethics, we can also reject verses of the Bible when they defame other prophets, especially since we embrace all prophets as our own.