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Introduction to morality & ethics

Changes in morality from biblical times to today

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Conflicting moral beliefs: comparing biblical times to today:

There are a surprising number of events which are considered moral in the Bible, but profoundly immoral by today's religious and secular scholars.

A convincing case can be made that all of the major moral advances in the past two centuries have been accomplished by first abandoning specific biblical moral standards. These include the abolition of slavery, allowing women to vote, allowing women to enter professions including the clergy, expanding the definition of rape to include husband-wife forcible intercourse, etc.

There is no consensus at this time whether other, more recent, deviations from biblical standards will be regarded as a moral advance in the future. These include the decriminalizing same-sex sexual behavior, extending protections to persons of all sexual orientations, allowing same-sex marriage, etc.

A few are listed below:

Biblical event or activity Moral in biblical times Immoral today
Genocide: mass murder of innocent civilians. There are many instances in the bible where God ordered genocides. One is Joshua 6:21: "And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword."

Genocide in the Land of Heshbon is described in Deuteronomy 2:26-35   "...we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.

As described in the previous table: The systematic destruction of a race, religion or ethnic group is now considered by most civilized nations as the most serious possible crime. It is the ultimate violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 1,2 The U.S. has passed the anti-genocidal Proxmire Act. Canada went further by overcoming objections from some religious groups and passing a law criminalizing just the advocacy of genocide. Other countries have similar legislation in place. The International Court of Justice now enforces laws which forbid genocide and punish those responsible.
Slavery: the purchase, ownership, exploitation and selling of another human being as a piece of property. Human slavery existed before the time of Abraham. The Bible justified it (Genesis 9:25-27). Slave owners could beat their slaves to death, as long as they died a slow death (Exodus 21:20-21). Many biblical passages regulated slavery. No biblical passage condemns slavery.

Slavery is considered profoundly immoral today by almost all countries today. Sudan is an exception. Slavery is forbidden by United Nations conventions, and by the constitutions of the U.S., Canada and other countries. In spite of these laws, near slavery exists, even in North America.
Forced sex When a married man died childless, his widow was required to engage in a levirate marriage: she had to engage in sexual intercourse with her brother-in-law until they produced a son who would carry on the name of the deceased.

In most countries, people are allowed to choose whom they will marry. The concept of forced sex or forced marriage is considered profoundly immoral.
Religious intolerance There are many passages in the Bible which demonstrate religious intolerance, including the murder of non-believers entering the temple, and of men entering into inter-faith marriages. One of the worst incidences is described in 1 Kings 18:17-40 when Elijah challenged 450 priests to a contest. The latter worshiped another God. Elijah won; the other priests were executed. Murder, mass murder, and genocide of people because of their religion has been widespread in recent years, as seen in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Crete, Sudan, Middle East, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Philippines, etc. But in other areas of the world, individuals enjoy freedom of religion. Murdering or discriminating against a person on the basis of their religion is considered immoral by current standards in the latter countries.

Torturing civilian prisoners of war In 2 Samuel 12:26-31, there is a description of an attack by the army of the Israelites against the Ammonites. The city of Rabbah fell. The citizens of the city were then tortured in various ways - perhaps to death.

International agreements and conventions now exist to regulate the conduct of warfare. These attempt to guarantee the safety and freedom from abuse of civilians involved in a war.

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet The Golden Rule and other Ethics of Reciprocity
bullet "Hot" religious controversies menu
bullet Bible passages that appear immoral by today's standards.
bullet What the Bible says about human slavery
bullet Genocide menu

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  1. The English text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is at:
  2. The UDHR text is available in other languages at:

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Site navigation: Home page > Morality > Introduction > here

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Copyright © 2001 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-SEP-9
Latest update: 2010-OCT-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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