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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Old Testament Morality

Old Testament Morality.

Christians generally at the present day profess to believe that every book in the Bible is God's word. How much of this profession is based on sincere conviction, and how much is mere pretence, it is not for us to say, but looking at the present attitude of the thinking world, it seems impossible to doubt that within a very few decades "plenary inspiration" will have become a dogma of the past. The more sagacious of the Bible worshippers have, indeed, already recognised the fact that their position is untenable. It is not uncommon to hear the admission in terms such as these: "Even if the Mosaic records cannot be completely brought into harmony with the discoveries of modern philosophers, it should be remembered that the Bible was not given to instruct man in science, but to teach him holiness and lead him up to God." It is proposed, in fact, to surrender a part of the fortification in order to save the rest; to give up the geology and astronomy of the sacred book as intellectual surplusage, and to stand by its religious and moral teaching as the only foundation of spiritual truth. A new issue is consequently now raised. The Church hesitates to say, as it said to Galileo, "If Nature differs from the Bible then Nature is wrong but it still exclaims—"If your morality and religion are at variance with the Bible, then your morality and religion are wrong." The Church, however, is not as powerful now as in the days of Galileo, and the advocates of biblical inspiration will have no light task in defending the sacred writings from serious charges of false theology and bad morality. They will find themselves involved in a conflict of incomparably greater importance than any arising out of a question of science, one too in which every man and woman of sound mind, from the Queen to the peasant, is competent to take a part. An ignorant man, knowing nothing of science, may be deluded by his priest into the belief that Lyell, Huxley, and Darwin are impostors, that Egyptian hares chewed the cud, and that there were three days and nights before the sun was made; but if he be true to his own conscience—and woe to the man in whom the voice of conscience is mute—he will page 258 refuse at the bidding of priest or Bible, or any other external authority, to say that evil is good and good evil.

It is not intended in these remarks to disparage the Hebrew Scriptures, regarded from a rational point of view, but to protest against those who would thrust them upon us as the voice of God, to which our reason and conscience are both to be prostrated. The unknown and forgotten compilers of the ancient legends which constitute the bulk of the so-called historical books of the Old Testament were probably honest men who little thought that the most trivial passages in their writings would be elevated into canons of faith, and who profess only to record the semi-barbarous exploits and laws of a people who had scarcely seen the dawn of civilisation. The theology of these books, too, is such as no enlightened theist can now accept, their conceptions of the deity abounding in anthropomorphism of the grossest kind. But when we reflect that they treat of a period in the world's history when religion had scarcely risen to the level of polytheism, it will be seen that the old Jewish idea of the divine being was, relatively to the age, far in advance of that of modern Christendom. The Hebrew Jehovah was, it is true, bloodthirsty, jealous, vindictive, and vain, but he was on the whole a less unamiable being than the Heavenly Father of the Calvinists.

The question, however, now immediately before us is this : A re the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis to Esther—our view being directed for the present to the former half only of the Old Testament—to be accepted for all time as an infallible, or even a useful, moral and religious guide? Do we find in them lessons of purity, self-denial, gentleness, charity, or any great religious doctrine such as the immortality of the soul? Now it can easily be shewn that such direct teaching as these books contain was never intended and could never be adapted to mankind in general. It is not, indeed, to be denied that amongst a vast mass of obsolete, frivolous, or offensive ceremonialism some passages are to be found—the greater part of the decalogue for instance—enjoining an unexceptionable though somewhat negative morality; but, unhappily for the theory that these maxims were regarded as of universal obligation, the same god who thundered from Sinai the Commandments—"Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt do no murder," had a short time previously instigated his chosen people to perpetrate a most discreditable fraud in the matter of jewellery upon the unsuspecting Egyptians, and afterwards urged them in the most emphatic manner to slaughter the unoffending Canaanites wholesale. Righteousness in these books usually means Mosaic ritualism, and hatred of Baal. To do evil is to neglect Jehovah's priest and to sacrifice to the wrong god. Moral turpitude is seldom rebuked; mercy and gentleness often. Jael is solemnly blessed in the congregation by a prophetess of the Lord for page 259 being, perhaps with the single exception of the "man after God's own heart," the most perfect incarnation of treachery and murder, whom the Almighty for his inscrutable purposes has seen fit to create; while Saul, for being more merciful than his God towards the Amalekites, is deprived of his throne, and to make amends for the error, Samuel "hews Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." Occasionally, indeed, some outrageous crime seems to provoke a shade of divine displeasure. Thus David was rebuked by Nathan and sentenced to punishment; but mark! not on account of his foul breach of moral law, but because "he had given the enemies of God occasion to blaspheme;" because, in other words, the notoriety of the affair amongst neighbouring nations would damage the prestige of Jehovah worship. It is impossible to conceive a greater discordance than that which exists between the spirit of the old Hebrew ethics and those of the Gospel; and nothing can be more amazing to one who is unaccustomed to the inconsistencies of Christian theologians than that the Hebrew law should be regarded as God's law for mankind, in spite of Paul's distinct and oft repeated assertions to the contrary, and in the teeth of Christ's words quoted in the latter part of the fifth chapter of Matthew, except the still more astounding proposition that Christ is identical with the very Jehovah whose sentiments he repudiates and condemns!

But, it may be urged, the Bible invites us to draw near to God by recounting to us the deeds of holy men of old who lived, worked, and thought under the special guidance of the holy spirit. Let us take a glance at one or two of these typical characters as they would strike, not the subtle philosopher or mystic, but one of the toiling millions who tries to learn wisdom and goodness from the Bible, and brings to the task only common sense and an unprejudiced mind.

Abraham, the "father of the faithful," and "the friend of God," may, from the prominent and honourable mention of him in various parts of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, be regarded as the greatest of the ancient Hebrews. Bunsen says of him that he was "an immortal hero, a wise, pious, and righteous patriarch, a noble-hearted and high-minded man, who was the first to break the curse of slavery to the bloody worship of Moloch with its rites of infanticide; and was able to do this because he esteemed the voice of God speaking directly through his reason and conscience." So much for the philosopher's view. Our mechanic, however, who takes words in their plain literal sense, and has no taste for paradoxes, will gather a very different idea from his reading of Genesis. He will find that Abraham was a grossly superstitious man who, a traitor to his reason and conscience, if he had any, and in subservience to the bloody worship of Moloch was actually prepared to sacrifice his favourite son in obedience to what he page 260 must have known to be a diabolical prompting, if his views of the deity had been otherwise than low and degrading. Abraham seems not to have been devoid of generous impulses as far as his external relations were concerned, especially in the case of Lot and the king of Sodom, but it is much easier to discover revolting than humane features in his domestic life. He treated Hagar and her son with heartless cruelty, and twice in his career tried to purchase security for his life by the sacrifice of his own and his wife's honour! It is to be hoped for the credit of humanity that these episodes in the life of Abraham are not historical.

If we compare the history of this patriarch with that of the founder of Mormonism we may trace some striking resemblances. Both by divine command left their homes to originate a new theocracy. Both had repeated visits from angels. Both countenanced and practised polygamy, and both were great prophets of the Lord. Of course it would be unjust to contrast men living so widely apart, in point of time, by any absolute standard of morality; but, regarding them as exemplary, it is not easy to see that Abraham was the superior of Joseph Smith.

The next striking character we meet with in sacred history is Jacob. The life of this man is quite unique, and, if not an historical character, he is the creation of a genius of no mean order. We meet sometimes in the story of his life a quite artistic combination of sharp practice and religious cant, which leads to the suspicion that the lesson of Jacob's career has been well studied by some very godly men of our own day. Whenever he ventured on some unusually smart speculation, "the Lord" was certain to be concerned in it—see, for instance, Gen. xxvii. 20 and xxxi. 9—and we read indeed that "the Lord" agreed to afford him countenance in consideration of receiving ten per cent, on his incomings. Of all the queer episodes in Jacob's life, perhaps the most bewildering to piety and common sense is the scene at Isaac's bedside. Imagine, a scheming woman and her son fraudulently obtaining a blessing from a doting old man, whom the clumsiness of the imposture of which he was the victim proves to have been almost totally bereft of his senses, and by this act binding the destiny of unborn millions! The Almighty has apparently no voice in the matter. Isaac has pronounced some magical words which are irrevocable, and which, as theologians tell us, determine the pedigree of the Saviour of mankind. The spiritual as well as temporal fate of unborn generations hangs on the question whether goat's skin can be successfully passed off as human flesh, and the heirdom of the promise is bought for a dish of venison! Surely this is the apotheosis of absurdity, superstition and knavery.

It would of course be a futile task to attempt within the limits of a single article anything like an exhaustive treatment of our present subject, or indeed to do much more than indicate page 261 the nature of the argument. "Time would fail me," says the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, "to tell of Gideon and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephtha, of David also and Samuel, and of the prophets," and as far as any moral purpose could be served, a most unprofitable task it would be. Many of the prophets were indeed heroic men who, in the true spirit of martyrs, fought single-handed against the king, people, and priests, but of the many and varied characters detailed in the books of the law and the so-called histories, how many can be cited as noble and great examples? There are doubtless, episodes in the career of some of these ancient men of renown, Jacob's wrestling with God, for instance, and David's fits of penitence, which, interpreted in a certain manner, may be shewn to have a deep religious significance, and these circumstances would have some weight in opposition to the views now advanced, if the world were peopled exclusively with Thomas Carlyles; but it would be hard in any case for the most industrious seeker after spiritual food to deduce any edifying or ennobling lessons from a study of Lot's career, or of Samson's, or of Esther's. It is difficult indeed to conceive of any valid excuse for allowing the stories of some of these worthies to get into the hands of children, except the fact that many of the allusions in them convey no meaning to an innocent mind.

It has often been urged, and it will doubtless be urged again, that to disparage the venerable books, and to defame the old patriarchs, judges and kings, whom Christians have always from their infancy invested with a halo of sanctity, is to do a very cruel and unnecessary, if not wicked thing. It must be admitted that to insult wantonly the sincere religious convictions of any Christian—or, we would add, of any Jew or Pagan—indicates a bad heart and a wrong head, and is not the part of a seeker after truth. Thus the prophet Elijah who, previously to his murdering a number of men for heresy, grossly insulted their religion and their worship, is a pattern of what a religious reformer should not be. It is a sacred duty fearlessly to proclaim the truth, but let this be done in the spirit of love as well as truth. Harmless superstition may, then, be left alone. But when is it harmless? Are not the false moral standards to which men bow their reason as fitting objects for the iconoclast as groves and high places? Does or does not the false morality of the Old Testament affect directly or indirectly the progress of mankind? If it does, then it is a deadly sin to suffer the question to rest, be the consequences what they may.

In order to solve the problem, let us consider whether the conventional morality of the present day is not more akin to the old Hebrew ethics than the Gospel maxims. Is not "an eye for an eye" all but universally regarded as a far more fitting rule of life than "love your enemies?" Is not fashionable vice practically condoned by respectability, a virtuous page 262 heretic shunned and persecuted, and a genteel orthodox adulterer welcomed into the "highest circles?" Are there no Judahs now-a-days who, without the smallest loss of social prestige", indulge in the lowest vices "by the way to Timnah," and on the judgment seat cry out with virtuous indignation, "Let her be burnt?" How can we hope that religious persecution will cease or even be abated while Josiah, who slaughtered the priests of Baal on their altars, is held up as a model for the young? Think of the hundreds of thousands of poor wretches who have been burnt for witchcraft! Perchance, sometimes, outraged human nature tries to get the better of the demon of superstition and pleads for pity on the poor victim. But no! Exodus says plainly "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and so the stake is lighted. How precious must the Bible be to the negro slave owner, who, as God's minister, carries out the divine edict against the children of Ham, and regulates his household morals on strictly patriarchal principles! Is the test book of foreign policy towards week states used by those most Christian powers, England, France, and Prussia, the sermon on the Mount, or the book of Joshua? Let the Danes, the Sihks, the Arabs, the Chinese make answer. What a scandal it is to civilisation that two of the most advanced and powerful nations in the world should slay each other by tens of thousands, and afflict with sorrow and desolation many an innocent home, from absolutely no other motive than lust of martial glory. Yet how can the Christian minister with the Old Testament in his hand denounce this work of the devil?

"The Lord is a Man of War." "He teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight," says the old Hebrew. "God is love," says the minister of a far different religion. The Christian world must not for ever halt between two opinions. "If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Jehovah, then follow him."