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The Progress of Morality

 

 

 

The Progress of Morality

 

   
In the following paper I intend to examine the differences in moral perspectives between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The aim of this analysis is first to discover and establish whether there are meaningful differences. Naturally following as second is the question of what do those differences mean. Since the New Testament follows the Old both in chronological order and origin, as well as in explicit reference, it would be important to keep this relationship in mind, as it becomes relevant throughout the analysis. In an attempt to attain a firm grasp of morality, as perceived by each work, I will draw relevant parallels existing in both. Then compare and contrast them in order to reveal the differences and their implications.
A first step would be to refer to the explicit statements of the moral code as stated in the book of Exodus and in the Gospel according to Matthew, and to draw as much of the rationale behind it as offered in the scriptures. The second step of analysis would be to examine the powers at work at the time, and on the people, of each of the works. The third and last part of the picture would be clarified by the evaluation of different possible implications of the differences where they may arise. Once the above picture clarifies, it would offer a comprehensive description of the change in moral thought as expressed by the text, as well as possible explanations and implications of that moral process.
In the book of Exodus God speaks to Moses at length, dictating . the judgments which you [Moses] shall set before them [the people of Israel] (21:1). This chapter contains some of the most elaborate and straightforward descriptions of the moral code of the Old Testament. A parallel chapter in the New Testament appears in the Gospel according to Matthew as Jesus sits on a mountain and teaches his disciples (5:2). The first striking contrast appears in the tone in which the moral rule is stated. That is, the law in the Old Testament is brought down as a command, period. If you buy a Hebrew servant. In the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing (21:2). As seen in the first command, no explanation or reason is provided. Though intuitively moral, the rule of conduct is neither explained nor justified as it is being set by God. In the New Testament, Jesus begins his teaching by declaring that Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3). Though written in similar authoritarian tone, Jesus rule offers somewhat of an explanation in its second part. That is, it provides an initial reason in the form of the blessing of the poor as built upon their place in the kingdom of heaven. The contrast in tone offers a glimpse into the status of those rules as held by their peoples.
While the judgments handed down by God through Moses are stated as orders and offer no answer to any question of why, the teachings of Jesus offer a framework that serves as a reason for his laws. This framework is that of the Kingdom of Heaven, the notion of continuity as tied to the afterlife, and the salvation of the soul as elaborated upon by Paul in the book of Romans. The use of Gods compassionate stand reveals a world in which God welcomes all, even the poorest in spirit. The Old Testament never mentions the notion of the afterlife. It does not appeal to the redemption of the soul as reason for obedience. Instead, Gods rules are backed by punishment of death forming an immediacy of judgment, and referring solely to the people of Israel as the rules are directed at them through Moses (21:1). As for justification, whatever rule is stated is as it ought to be, for God has set it so.
The differences in tone and the manner in which the rules are delivered reveals one of the most crucial differences between the two works. It tells us much about the worlds of the two peoples as those of the Old Testament are engaged in an exclusive relationship with a jealous God (Exodus 20:5) and those of the New Testament are faced with a more compassionate and all inclusive God. The existence of this different moral framework is set by the commanding tone spoken to Moses in contrast with the forgiving and compassionate tone by which Jesus teaches his disciples.
The following succession of rules presents an interesting divergence. The series of rules dictated to Moses treats the behavior of people with themselves. He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death (21:12). The dealing of punishment is harsh and instant. The teachings of Jesus, in contrast, continue with a series of blessings offered to all, from the meek (5:5) to the peacemakers (5:9), reinforcing once more the compassionate and accepting modal of God.

    The rules given to Moses continue to treat action between people, set within a strictly exclusive framework: If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her (21:8). Here again, the isolated relationship between God and the people of Israel is shown by contrast with the foreign people, while the emphasis remains on the dealings between people. The rules given by Jesus, on the other hand, remain on an absolute level of positive rules as all the most attacked, the most reviled, and the most persecuted for Gods sake are blessed (5:11). The rules of the New Testament continue to deal with the relation of man to God, while the rules of the Old Testament continue to deal with the relation of man to man.
The New Testament urges the sufferer to Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (5:12). It prescribes divine reward for mundane suffering while the Old Testament prescribes mundane punishment for mundane crime. The added aspect of the afterlife serves in the former as a tool of judgment nonexistent in the latter. It is here that the chronological succession becomes highly relevant as Jesus makes an explicit reference to the people of the Old Testament (granted that while Jesus lives both peoples are the same yet I am referring to the forthcoming separation, and the two works, as key to the distinction between the two): You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor. It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men (5:13). It is here that Jesus refers to them as those who have lost their way, their flavor, and are good for nothing unless they mend their ways. He offers that very mending as Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven (5:16). There obviously are no parallel references to the New Testament in the Old Testament and so it becomes clear that the former claims the part of a reactionary moral revision of the latter.
The moral contrast, embodying Jesus part as a revisionist, reaches its peak as both passages arrive to the crux of their difference. The main moral prerogative of the Old Testament is plainly manifest in the following famous verse: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (21:24). This verse reveals a harsh and strict form of judgement. In the simplest form, it calls for equality of crime to punishment. It reveals a harsh world with little to no compassion, where the actions of a person warrant swift judgment and is met with a punishment equal to the crime.
The reaction of the New Testament is rather straightforward: You have heard that it was said An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also (5:38-39). If there ever was a question of moral contrast between the two works, here it is answered irrevocably. The harshness of the Old Testament is replaced with self-sacrificing compassion. The counter instinctive reaction to an attack on ones self requires a powerful motive to overpower the defensive urge to strike your opponent back, or at least defend both cheeks. This strong motive in the New Testament is clear and present as it preaches to a concept of righteousness precisely defined by being perfect (5:48) in contrast with your enemy. It preaches to exceed the mere refraining from crime, by actual positive moral actions for if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? (5:47). That suggests that people should not worry about repaying the evil actions of others in equal terms (as the Old Testament insists above), but concentrate on doing good deeds themselves. This in turn suggests that mankind should not be the judge, but leave that seat for God.
The most striking moral separation reveals itself through the contrast of mundane harshness with that of divine justice. Yet the differences discussed throughout this analysis can be pulled together to form a clearer and more cohesive picture of the contrast in moral perspectives between the two works. The tone and moral content of the commands revealed a God exclusive to one nation, harsh in judgment in ones own lifetime, and one that needs no justification but that of the eye for eye principal in the Old Testament. In contrast, the New Testament describes a God inclusive to all nations, compassionate in acceptance to the Kingdom of Heaven, and one that is justified by dealing divine justice rather than brutal earthly reprisal. In addition, while the former demands only to refrain from sin, the latter raises the ante and demands good deeds for redemption.
The sum of the above differences strongly suggests a consistent shift in moral thought. It can be called a shift since the later work is clearly written in reaction to the earlier work. The questions that needs to be answered before the meaning of this shift could be argued is that of why was the Old Testament seemingly less morally demanding and harsher in punishment; as well as the question of what might have caused such a shift in moral perspective.
In an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the world in which the people of the Old Testament lived we can look to their neighbors, their contemporaries. In the Babylonian text Hammurabis Code of Laws, dating back to 1700 BC, a striking verse can be found: If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out (196). Besides sounding familiar, this rule tells us allot about the world that surrounded Moses and his people. While cynically suggesting plagiarism on the Old Testaments account, it more seriously portrays a dangerous and cruel world where survival might be an end to which all means are kosher. Moses and his people arrive to the Promised Land as a nation without a land, forced to fiercely fight for their life against fierce and savage tribes and nations.
In contrast, Jesus preaches at a time when the Promised Land is kept under strict order by its Roman occupiers and their relatively advanced legal and moral system. The point I am suggesting here might answer both of the above questions since it is conceivable that if harsh circumstances called for harsh measures in Moses case, safer circumstances might have allowed softer measures in Jesus teachings. This possible explanation seems less far-fetched if looked upon through a modern American analogy. As it was clear to the Founding Fathers that settling the continent and securing their nations survival required harsh measures against any opposition, it can clearly be seen how Clinton, in a far calmer time, could afford to turn his attention to deal with the problem of poverty. In other words, as the fight for survival presses, further down the ladder of priority go notions of compassion and the like.
Suggesting to place the perspectives of the two works in context with their time offers one possible reason for the moral shift. Yet the religious perspective of the New Testament would regard the shift as a progress in moral thought sanctioned by a divine revelation. Whether by divine interference or by natural geo-social changes a shift has occurred, pressing forward the need to argue the meaning and nature of this moral change.
On the face of it the shift in perspective seems to have taken a higher moral stand. It preaches for unconditional love of ones enemy, it requires positive good deeds rather than just condemning negative bad ones, and it places judgment in the hand God, not man. Yet in order to argue whether this shift presents an improvement, both sides of the coin must be explored. The other view would be that the moral shift is a nave one. It can be argued that if religion is wrong regarding the afterlife and divine justice, we might be better off taking care of business ourselves. It can be argued that mankind often needs a good lashing and that everyone should consider the loss of their own eye before they pluck anothers.
In his book The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark offers an interesting thesis as he argues that is was precisely Christian values of love and charity [that] had.been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disaster struck, the Christians were better able to cope. (74). Though written from an historic perspective, Starks argument poses a compelling strike in favor of the Christian moral value of unconditional love. It offers an example of how the new moral perspective in a sense, pays off.
The opposite argument, hailing the New Testaments morality as a nave logical fallacy can be well stated by invoking Nietzsche, which out of a utilitarian and nihilist point of view regards all morality as the burden of the weak upon the powerful free spirits. In Twilight of the Idols he goes as far as accusing Christianity of the worst moral digression in the history of humanity (55). His argument can be rightfully taken as a tad extreme since if Nietzsche would have it his way, we might have been living in a lawless world where the strong would enjoy all that life has to offer while the weak would suffer unlimitedly.
To conclude, I would argue that between the two extremes of haling the moral shift of the New Testament as an astonishing improvement and condemning it as a nave regression, lies the middle ground that exposes what truly is the case. I would argue that certain circumstances call for certain measures. That is, that though in general it is better when people are compassionate and lenient, sometimes the true nature of mankind calls for unconditional harshness. Sometimes, a villain that has missed Sunday School might find his surrounding flocks leniency tempting. Sometimes, if that villain would have known that his surrounding flock would befall upon him with great vengeance (Ezekiel 25:17), he might have thought about it twice.

    So that the moral preaching of Christ, being a benevolent moral step up the ladder of ideals, might have climbed a step too high, leaving human nature lagging behind. On the same token, there are definitely cases where more compassion ought to be shown than that warranted by the eye for eye principal. In other words, there is a time to turn the other cheek and there is a time to knock your opponent down.


Ohad Maiman