The Moral Lessons of Exodus
by Noah Lugeons
Exodus is a good guide for morality only if you compare it to Genesis. I’ll give the book of Exodus the credit that it did seem that on some level the authors were aware that this book would one day be used as a moral guide. In Genesis we basically got a bunch of morally dubious just-so stories but in Exodus at least we get a haphazard, antiquated, random list of dictates.
Granted, that only comprises a small portion of the book. The majority of Exodus is consumed with god’s sick revenge fantasy against all things Egyptian and some really detailed instructions on how he wants his tabernacle (which are repeated no fewer than four times in the fucking book). So it seemed that the authors figured all moral enigmas could be taken care of in about four chapters but we need at least a dozen chapters to hammer down how many cubits of tanned rams’ skins and goat hair each curtain around the tent around the altar get.
So despite the fact that god spends the first half of Exodus breaking many of the commandments he’s going to lay down later, the book does manage to squeeze in a few good moral nuggets. It’ll make for a kind of long list, but I’m going to break all of the “commandments” down here and we’ll rate them all on a moral scale with the following grades:
- (M, +2) for truly moral,
- (A, +-0) for ambiguous and/or meaningless,
- (AM, +1) for ambiguous but leaning moral,
- (AI, -1) for ambiguous but leaning immoral,
- (I, -2) for immoral and
- (H, -4) for horribly immoral on several levels.
We’ll start with the eight and a half commandments:
- (AI, -1) You shall not make an idol or worship any god before me (fuck Jewish tradition, that’s one commandment).
- (AI, -1) You shall not take the lord’s name in vain (fuck Catholic tradition, this is a different commandment).
- (AM, +1) Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
- (AM, +1) Honor your mother and father.
- (M, +2) You shall not kill. (Hey, they finally got one that really is moral!)
- (AM, +1) You shall not commit adultery.
- (M, +2) You shall not steal.
- (M, +2) You shall not bear false witness.
- (A, +-0) You shall not covet your neighbors shit (fuck Protestant tradition, this is one commandment).
So far we’ve got 3 genuine moral ones, three that lean that way and two that lean against. That gives Exodus a +7 on the moral scale, so that’s not too bad. But then we get into all the sub-commandments and it gets pretty wonky.
- (I, -2) You shall make me an altar and kill sheep and ox for the fuck of it.
- (A) If you make me an altar of stone, don’t carve on it.
- (A) And don’t make steps that lead up to it or people will see your junk.
- (H, -4) When you buy a male Hebrew slave… (does it really matter what it says after that?)
- (H, -4) When a man sells his daughter as a slave... (and again, unless the next words are “he should get ass raped by porcupines, it’s not moral)
- (AI, -1) Whoever strikes a person mortally should be put to death. (Not having the capital punishment debate, but I’m only counting it as somewhat immoral to placate everyone)
- (H, -4) Whoever strikes mother of father should be put to death. (Regardless of your stance on capital punishment, that’s fucking harsh)
- (AI, -1) Whoever kidnaps a person should be put to death. (Can’t we just say, “thou shall not kidnap”? I’d give him a +2 for that)
- (H, -4) Whoever curses mother and father should be put to death. (So by god’s standards, you might as well hit them, too)
- (M, +2) Don’t hit people with stones when you argue (paraphrased)
- (I, -2) When a person beats his slave to death, he should be punished. (I hold back on the -4 because at least the asshole gets punished in this one, but…)
- (H, -4) If you beat him to death but he lingers on for a few days before dying, you’re all good.
- (I, -2) If you injure a pregnant woman so that she miscarriages, you owe her husband money. (I don’t know what to do with this shit, but I know it isn’t moral)
- (I, -2) If you take out your slaves eye you have to free him or her. (Well isn’t that nice of you…)
- (AM, +1) If your ox gores somebody it’s not your fault unless you knew the ox liked to gore people. (Okay, so that’s kind of moralish but holy shit, compared to the bad stuff it’s pretty light)
- (M, +2) If you leave your pit uncovered and somebody’s goat falls in, you owe them a goat.
- (M, +2) If your ox kills my ox, we sell the living ox and split the profits.
- (M, +2) Don’t steal other people’s livestock (but since we already covered this one, it should hardly count)
- (A) If you beat a thief to death who broke into your house, you don’t get in trouble. I’d count that as moral, except that it stipulates that he has to be breaking in at night, so if he breaks in during the day you have to use colorful language or something.
- (M, +2) Don’t let your ox eat my vineyard.
- (M, +2) Don’t catch my vineyard on fire.
- (AI, -1) If you steal something from somebody’s house that they were holding for somebody else, you’re in more trouble than if had been their thing. (No indication as to why, but no positive points since I’ve already awarded 4 points for the self evident notion of not stealing other people’s stuff)
- (AI, -1) If we’re arguing over who owns something, we should let god decide.
- (AI, -1) If I sell you a donkey and it’s sick, I’m in no trouble as long as I swear before god that I had no idea.
- (AI, -1) If your donkey dies while I’m borrowing it, I owe you a donkey.
- (H, -4) If you seduce a virgin you have to give her dad money and marry her. (and she, of course, has not choice in the matter and doesn’t even get a cut of the money)
- (H, -4) Kill witches. (This should really be at least a -8 if you consider the actual result of this passage)
- (H, -4) Kill people with other religions.
- (M, +2) Don’t oppress immigrants (Shame those conservative right-wingers don’t read the bible or they’d know this one)
- (AI, -1) Don’t charge interest to Jews. (The implication is that it’s okay to charge interest to others, but one way or the other I think it’s a dubious position to stake out as a “moral” one)
- (AI, -1) Don’t revile god or curse a leader of your people. (To which I say fuck god and the leaders of my people)
- (AI, -1) Don’t hesitate to give god good shit.
- (I, -2) Give your firstborn everythings (ox, sheep, children, etc.) to god.
- (A) Don’t eat meat that was mangled in the field.
- (M, +2) Don’t spread rumors.
- (M, +2) Don’t act as a malicious witness or follow a majority in wrong doing.
- (M, +2) Don’t steal donkeys even if you really hate the person who owns the donkey.
- (M, +2) Seriously, don’t steal the motherfucking donkey.
- (M, +-0) Remember that thing I just said about not oppressing resident aliens? yeah, exactly that again in the exact same words. Again. (No points for making the same moral point twice within eight paragraphs)
- (AM, +1) Leave your land unplanted one year out of seven.
- (AM, +-0) Again, repeating the Sabbath bit. (Again, no points for repeating the same shit over and over)
- (AM, +1) Hold three feasts for god each year. (I give them partial credit because celebrating with the community is a good idea… not exactly a moral imperative, but a good idea)
- (AI, -1) Don’t appear before god empty-handed. (To be fair, you’re not gonna appear before god anyway)
- (A) You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened. (WTF?)
- (AI, -1) Give the priests the best fruits.
- (AM, +1) Don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk. (Sure, cause that seems pretty fucked up)
And that’s pretty much all god offers in Exodus in the way of moral instructions. If you add up the 47 sub-commandments, you get a whopping negative 28 (negative 21 if you factor in the 8 and a half commandments). Even if you quibble with a couple of my scores, you have to admit that we’re dealing with a pretty crappy source for ethics.
It also bears mention that of the 15 things that I rated moral, 11 of them are meaningless if you don’t have any goats, oxen or vineyards, so even a negative twenty eight is probably too high a score. I mean, there’s no way I know of to quantify the relative morality of an act, but if there was, I’m willing to bet beating a slave to death would be way more than twice as immoral as spreading rumors.