Ethics in Genesis

(This is page part of my my read-through of the Bible as a starting point for the development of a biblical theology of ethics. More on ethics. More on Genesis)


The first ethical concept introduced in the Bible is ‘good’. Genesis 1 paints the picture of a world that God created, and it was very good. Whatever we end up saying about the ethical ‘good’, the placement of this account at the start of the Bible, and its historical place at the start of time, gives it a position of authority in defining good. Genesis 1-2 is a picture of ‘good’. Revelation will re-interpret this picture through the cross and resurrection and lordship of Christ, but none the less, we need to give this passage its due weight.

This idea of good is further outlined in chapter 2. There is a teleological order described in ch 1 where land is for plants and animals to live on (sand sea, sky etc), and plants are for animals to eat. That teleology is extended in chapter 2, where animals are potentially for helping humanity, but a better helper is found. Note that this passage is the first example of “not-good” in creation. It was not good for the man to be alone. Note the word helper here is not subordinate in any way (for that discussion you need to go else-where), in the psalms, God is our helper using the same word. So the teleology is not that woman is for man, but that people are for each other. (This is not saying that I disagree with the order-in-gender discussion, because I do not, however Genesis is simply not talking about this issue. the order issue needs to be determined in the NT). Equally, we see a reciprocal teleology in the call for Adam to care for the garden. Thus humanity is for creation just as much as creation is for humanity. the garden needed someone to work the ground.

The concept of ‘Rest’ in early chapter 2 is an interesting one. Does it hold an ethical content?

In verse 16, we see the first divine command. This is hard to pin down as an ethical category. Is it divine command in ‘it is wrong because I say it is wrong’, or is it teleological or consequentialist? The result of disobedience ‘for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die’ could be a simple statement of consequence, or it could be a declaration of the punishment for the crime. Whatever God speaks comes into being, so the distinction between ‘rule he made up’ and ‘consequence of reality’ is pretty fine, if it exists at all. However, what is notable is the need for the revelation of the punishment/consequence in language. Humanity could not reason out the consequence by themselves.

Finally, there is a fascinating ethical statement in v24: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh. 25 Both the man and his wife were naked, yet felt no shame.” This of course is used in NT ethics, and gives a possible glimpse of natural-order ethics. Alternatively, this example of natural-order could be an expression of the teleology of not-alone that in introduced earlier.

The Fall

The fall is the introduction of fundamentally not-good. Until now, not-good was really not-yet-good, as God completed is plan. Now the fall breaks the plan, and changes good to not-good. This suggests itself as a paradigm of ‘evil’ or ‘sin’

What is the role of the serpent? Despite historical and biological questions, the purpose in the narrative of the snake is to be an external source of the question. The concept of challenging God does not arise from within the woman or the man, but from another source. Assumedly, this is a reflection of the fact that the people are still ‘good’, and that they enjoy a sin-less existence. This is valuable data for a theology of temptation: In our sinful minds, we can create temptation, however there is also the reality of external temptation that introduces a though that would not have arisen otherwise.

Much has been made of the exaggeration in Eve’s response to the snake. She adds ‘or touch it’ to her reporting of God’s commands. The argument is that she reveals in her answer either a misunderstanding of God, or some other form of twisting of her words. Alternatively, she is reporting accurately, and the narrative saw no reason to introduce the concept until this stage. If it is the first case, then there is a point to be made abut the dangers of making god’s laws out to be harsher than they really are. this is a legit warning, whether or not it is intentionally in the passage. Some Christian thought has moved sex out of the ‘good in its place’ category and into ‘bad in itself’. This has caused untold problems, and is an example of making God’s laws harsher than they are, resulting in a revolt against the good command.

The dialog between Eve and the snake reveals a movement from teleology and divine command to consequentialism. The fruit becomes desirable because it is removed from being an item with a purpose (part of God’s plan) and becomes a tool for a result (knowledge). Secondly, the command from God stops being a command that you obey because God commanded it, and instead is questionable because it could result in an un-desired consequence (denied knowledge). The snake’s challenge of the punishment also shows a degrading of the command. Where (probably) God was warning the man and woman about the consequences of their action, the snake interprets it as a threatened punishment for disobedience. In this mind-set, the rule is only to be obeyed because the punishment is to be feared. once the snake challenges the reality of the punishment (“You will not surely die”) the reason to obey the rule is removed.

It does seem like the first few lines of Genesis 3 demonstrate a change of ethical paradigm that change the meaning of the words uttered by God in such a way that allows the woman, and then the man, to decide to disregard them. Is this an implicit warning against consequentialism and utilitarianism? I think it is at least a hint of a warning which, given its prominent position in the biblical narrative, is significant.

With the sin comes the next ethical concept: shame. the man and woman realise that they were naked, and seek to hide themselves. This is clearly not a statement that the first sin had anything to do with sexuality, but that the original state of being naked without shame is now destroyed, and barriers are being erected between them. That barrier is also erected between them and God, so when they hear his voice, they hide.

Genesis 4

God’s interactions with Cain also raise interesting ethical categories. Firstly, the reasons for God accepting one offering and refusing the other are not made explicitly clear (although the text does make it reasonable to infer some things). More importantly, this is not a measure made against written law, but a behaviour that is made appropriate because of their existing relationship with God – there are things that are right to do and things that are  just not right because of who God is.

God responds to Cain

Genesis 4:7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

If the relationship-appropriate model is an appropriate one, then there seems to be a concept that treating God inappropriately is a gateway to greater sin that is lurking and waiting to seduce/steal you away. This is exactly what does happen, and Cain quickly descends into murder.

Lamech is utilitarianist?

At this stage, it is possible for me to do an ethical examination of every account in the Bible. That is not really the point of this read-through. Instead, I’m trying to see how the Bible as a whole lays out ethical frameworks. The next obvious places for this, then, is when God begins giving promises and commands.

Genesis 9

The first of these comes after the flood, where God established (or possibly re-established) his covenant with Noah and his family. He re-iterates his command to fill the earth, and then adds:

3 Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
4 “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.

This is a complex set of ideas. Firstly, we see the command given with a re-iteration of the authority that sits behind it – it is God who will take an account. On the face of it, this appears to be giving the motivation of fear – do what you are told for fear of punishment. However, in verse 6, God provides rationale for the command as well, suggesting that there is an intrinsic value in humanity and the image of God that makes it OK for humans to kill and eat other animals, but not OK to kill and eat humans. There is a complex interaction between the naked command of God and a creation-order ethic that can be seen as contradictory until we remember that the God who commands is the one who built the created order by his command.

This is also the first time that humans are brought into the punishment process, which is discussed more in Judgement in Genesis.


Another complex idea introduced by Genesis 9, which will likely shed light on the above issue, is the concept of ‘covenant’. At this stage of the read-through, I am not going to bring in external sources such as ANE definitions of covenant. However, the obvious two-way nature of God’s covenants, and the reciprocity involved, most likely has a significant impact on how we consider OT ethics.

Firstly, what does it do to the frameworks (teleological, deontological, consequentialist) that we try to cubby-hole biblical ethics into? How does the intrinsically relational element of covenant and covenant conditions affect how we read biblical ethics, how we apply it, and how we teach it to others?

Secondly, if covenant was out unifying theme for ethics, would that not further undermine Christian attempts to apply biblical ethics to non-Christians? They’re not part of the covenant, of course they could not be expected to see how good it is to live in the covenant way, and they won’t get any of the benefit. It’s like an Australian going around wearing All-Blacks gear: it doesn’t make them part of the team, and it doesn’t even give them any of the benefits. It’s just pointless. The problem is that they go for the Wallabies, until they fix that, it doesn’t matter what they wear (for non-Rugby people, insert good team and bad team here).

This thought puts a different slant on the common argument using creation ethics. The argument goes: God created a certain order, and it is Good. Thus, even if people are not part of the kingdom/covenant/church, then getting them to live the way of the creation order is still good for them. HOWEVER, if biblical ethics is fundamentally covenantal, then the commands to restore that order only make sense within the relationship of the covenant. Let’s face it, the only place where the macro created order of God->humanity->creation is restored is within the covenant. so why are we forcing non-Christians to follow a tiny part of that order (say, in their sexuality) when they have got the whole pyramid upside-down?

Abrahamic Covenant

Genesis 12 adds to this covenant theme. There really seems to be no condition for God’s selection of Abraham. Even 12:1-2 is not detailing a condition for God’s blessing. The waw-consecutive that gets translated (or not) as “and” in the start of v2 is not really legitimately interpreted as an effect. That is, God is not saying “Go .. and when you have, I will…” rather he is saying “Go … I will …”. This further emphasises the nature of God’s covenant. That is, he chooses his people, and then they respond.

God tests Abraham

In chapter 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. At the end, God provides an alternative in a Ram, and the whole incident is a comment on faithful obedience to God and the fact that he will fulfil his promises. However, this incident provides an interesting test case in ethical reasoning. What is Abraham supposed to do when he recieves that command? What is he supposed to think?

If human sacrifice was intrinsically wrong, than God’s command would be wrong. But if God’s command makes things right or wrong, then this sacrifice would be right. Then we have the problem of the commandments against murder given to Moses and those that are still to come. So is God a capricious mind-changer, who just decides when killing is OK or not? Or is there an underlying pattern that we can divine about which killling is OK (or even required) and which is prohibited?

The problem with this kind of analysis is that we misunderstand the nature of the Bible and the nature of the ethics taught by it. First and foremost, the Bible points to Jesus. The main way that the OT does this pointing is through God’s pronmises and interraction with his people Israel. Thus the main point of this passage is the promises God has made to Abraham about descendents, not the ethical conundrum of child sacrifice.

 Moral ambiguity in narrative

Jacob’s entire story is one of deception and outright theft. Lots of reflection in the providence theme. Yet he was never directly rebuked for his behavior, nor does the text judge him (as opposed to the events of Abraham saying Sarah was his sister). Quite the opposite, he not only profits, but he advances God’s plans.

The events of Dinah and the Shechemites is another example of moral ambiguity. More work needs to be done on how these narrative events are handled as ethical material.

In chapter 35, we see a weird line

22 While Israel was living in that region, Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and Israel heard of it.

Even more ambiguous is chapter 38, with Judah’s sister in law managing to claim her widow’s rights (to an extent) through an incredible deceit and sleeping with her father in law while disguised as a prostitute. If nothing else, this passage exposes a bizarre double standard of behavior that saw a man who slept with a prostitute then condemning a woman for being one. Surely this double standard would be obvious to the original readers (who had ears to hear) as much as modern. Regardless, this double standard continues today in the stud/slut dichotomy in our modern language.

In an interesting coda in the Joseph cycle, we see the process that he follows to give food to people Gen 47:13 ff). Instead of being generous, he is shrewd, and he trades food first for money, then food, then fields and then the people themselves. He instituted a system very much like medieval serfdom, where Pharaoh owned all the land, the people worked as bonded servants, and Pharaoh took a 20% tax on everything. When we get to the legislative parts of the OT, this kind of centralization is very much against God’s pattern of life in Israel. Of course, Joseph was not to know that, but it is interesting to see that the consequence of this behavior is that he set the very conditions by which his own decedents would be enslaved by a Pharaoh who no longer remembered Joseph, so no longer treated his people with special consideration.

It’s an interesting thought that God’s people should not seek special treatment, but the good of all.

One thought on “Ethics in Genesis

  1. Pingback: Covenant and Ethics | Constantly Reforming

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