The Bible is the origin in western civilization of human rights thinking and jurisprudence. Criticisms of the Bible as the foundation for human rights generally rely on a confused understanding of the Bible and the nature of the "Ten Commandments." How can we refer to the Bible for our understanding of human rights when the Bible itself seems full of stories that violate human rights?
Placing the Bible in Historical Context
The Bible—both the Old and the New Testaments—play an important role in the development of human rights. The “Natural law”, on which human rights are based, is derived from the Decalogue (the “Ten Commandments”). Regardless of one’s religious affiliation, it’s important to understand the role of the Bible in the development of human rights thinking in western culture.
Apart from its theological significance, the Bible is a historical document comprised of seventy-three books (forty-six in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. Protestant Bibles count thirty-nine books in the Old Testament). The books of the Bible were written over many centuries and were derived from oral tradition. They represent many different literary forms such as history, allegory and metaphor. There is no single author of the Bible, and it wasn’t until the end of the third century BC that the Christian Biblical canon began to resemble what it is today (the books that ended up in the canon were chosen on the basis of what the early Christian community used in the liturgy).
Violence in the Bible
It is not uncommon for critics of the Bible to point to violence in the Bible—especially violence which seems to be attributed to God—as evidence that the Bible itself is a source of hate. A typical example of this is the story in 1 Sam 15:1‑3:
And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey."
Human history is a story of our collective understanding of what it means to be human. This includes the religious awareness of human societies: our emerging understanding of what it means to be human in relation to the divine.
Primitive societies were engaged in a continual struggle for survival. Not only were we combating disease and poverty, but we were also learning to live with one another and to establish the boundaries of nationhood and coexistence with neighboring cultures.
Conflict between these emerging nations was often violent. The stories in the Old Testament of the emergence of the Jewish people was not unlike the emergence of other nations around the world. Territorial disputes were typically solved through war and conflict. In this respect, there is nothing unique about the story in 1 Samuel and stories like it. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans and so on were all engaged in violent conflict with their neighbors.
A Dramatic Intervention in Human History
What is unique about the emergence of Israel in the Old Testament however is that the day-to-day struggle was gradually informed by a consciousness that Yahweh, or God, was guiding the Jewish people to a fuller understanding of what it means to be human. This guidance took place within the real-world and historical conditions that the Jewish people found themselves in. From within the struggle for existence was the growing realization that there should be limits and conditions on their dealings with other nations. There was a growing awareness of what it meant to be a Chosen people, a nation informed by its faith in the One, True God.
Every nation in the ancient world engaged in brutal warfare and barbaric conquest. What is remarkable—and revolutionary—about the Jewish self-consciousness however is that they began, little by little, to understand that their destiny existed in a broader, “eschatological’ context: the destiny of Israel pointed toward a future existence of peace and harmony. This future existence would be realized both in the temporal and worldly order, but—more importantly—this destiny of the Chosen People would be ultimately realized in eternity.
Throughout the course of the Old Testament, the Jewish people begin to attenuate their brutal dealings with their neighbors. At various points, this brutality is curtailed by invasion and captivity. But the Jewish consciousness became, more and more, imbued with the awareness of something “Other”: a presence in their midst, so to speak, which led them to develop a highly sophisticated law governing their relationships with other nations and peoples.
It is only with the privilege of hindsight that we may feel any sense of shock at the goings-on of ancient peoples, and it is only with a certain hubris and convenient amnesia about the human condition that allows us to disparage the emerging consciousness of the Jewish people.
How God “Spoke” to the Ancient Israelites
Critics of the Bible often adopt an anthropomorphic view of God that the Jewish people themselves did not adopt throughout antiquity. Two features of their communication with God are worth noting here.
First, God did not “speak” in human words or command the Israelites to attack their neighbors with direct, human verbalizations from the clouds. God “spoke” to the Israelites through the prophets, and through the priests who relied on a system of lot-casting to help them determine the will of God (this practice is sometimes referred to as ‘cleromancy’). See for example, Leviticus 16:8, Numbers 26:55, Joshua 7:14 and 18:6, 1 Samuel 14:42, and Jonah 1:7 where lots are used to ascertain God’s will.
Secondly, God manifests himself in both the Old and New Testament within the context of Jewish self-awareness. In other words, human reason itself is on a journey of self-discovery and our language is an expression of that self-awareness. The Bible, in other words, represents a journey of awakening.
By way of analogy, consider a parent speaking with a small child. The parent does not discuss political, meta-ethical or the sociological reasons for being good. Rather, the parent speaks to the child in the language of the child. The parent uses metaphors and imagery understandable to the child. As the child grows, the language and imagery used in communication between parent and child changes and becomes more sophisticated.
"Forms of Life" & "Language Games"
The child’s world consists of building blocks and play-dough. The teenager’s world consists of parties, school and fitting in. The adult’s world consists of paying the mortgage and holding on to a job. At each stage in life, as we grow and mature, our language affects both our understanding of the world and the way in which we interact with the world. The language of an adult is meaningless to a child, and irrelevant to a teenager. The philosopher Wittgenstein referred to this particular role of language as a “form of life”: language is not independent of our experience of the world. The Jewish people’s use of language, including their use of theological language, was not independent of their experience of the world. That world was often brutal and savage. In time, their self-awareness changed and grew—and so did their understanding of God and their obligations to their neighbors.
It is in this context, the actual linguistic and historical context, that we should consider the Decalogue or “Ten Commandments”. Here we find a singularly unique code of moral behavior in the ancient world, unlike any other before or after it.
Moses inserts the Ten Commandments into the midst of a wayfaring—and wayward—people. The Commandments are not the product of a self-righteous or noble people. It is the product of an intervention in their otherwise-decadent existence, and it calls them back to some very profound principles of morality that govern their dealings with God, one another and with their neighbors. It provides them (and us) with a measure for human reasoning.
So natural, timeless, comprehensive and intuitively simple did this code of conduct become that it informed, not only the emerging Jewish nation, but every nation that came after it and which was born from it, including every nation in Europe and North America.
This singularly unique document, containing ten simple precepts, became a constant source of reference for the emerging nations of Europe ("Decalogue" literally means "ten words"). And it became the reference point for future jurisprudence, politics and ethical thinking. It formed the foundation for our understanding of the natural law and, by extension, our understanding of human rights.
The brutality of the ancient peoples, whatever we may make of it, does not, in any way, detract from the power and sublimity of the Decalogue. If anything, it underscores the significance of the “Divine Law” in the development of our ethical reasoning throughout human history: how remarkable it is that an ancient, warring people should come to define their national awareness with a set of laws that have inspired western civilization.