Conceptions of Biblical Morality
Over the course of the first two books of the Old Testament, Genesis and Exodus, a noticeable evolution of the relationship between humankind and God takes center-stage. From the initial creation of Adam to the Ten Commandments delivered from Mount Sinai, God’s covenant with the Israelites is fulfilled through different means and varying modes of communication. The manner in which God interacts with his subjects over the early history of the biblical world helps to understand his motivation as a creator, and the moral reasoning behind the actions of his people.
The first instance of God’s relationship with human beings comes with the creation of Adam: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he crated them…” (Genesis 1.27). The fact that Adam was created in the image of God immediately depicts a face to face relationship of similarity. God and humankind share the same image, and are on a parallel field in terms of living conditions. “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” (Genesis 3.8). This equality of image, however, did not extend beyond a visual relationship. God entrusted the guardianship of the garden of Eden to Adam, but “commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” (Genesis 2.16-2.17). The violation of this command brought swift retribution from God, although the punishment came with a certain benevolence, as the creator did not destroy Adam, but instead sentenced him to life outside of the garden. Genesis 3.14-3.19 solidifies the power of God and the strength of his word as that of the law. This gives a very early indication that behavior should be modeled after the will of God. Adam and Eve were punished simply because they disobeyed the law of the LORD.
With the story of Cain and Abel, we see a deeper evolution of the relationship between mankind and God, and a more clear depiction of a sense of moral responsibility. Cain kills his brother, Abel, ignoring God’s warning that “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4.7). Interestingly, however, the punishment for Cain is not that which one might expect. Later sections of the Bible, most notably the chapters regarding the commandments in Exodus, clearly articulate the penalty for murder. God’s punishment for Cain is not death, but the banishment of Cain from his sight: “Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face…” (Genesis 4.14). Cain’s murder is as clear an instance of sin as can be found anywhere in the Bible, and yet his actions are not punished as harshly as others. The implication here is that the sound moral reasoning follows from obeying God’s word to the letter. Since God did not specifically articulate the sin of murder, the act itself...