In the final paragraph of the following article, the author discusses the connection between biblical theology and morality. While the connection is valid, the converse–that the theologies of other ancient Near Eastern peoples created immoral cultures–is not necessarily true. In fact, many ancient Near Eastern cultures had extensive moral and legal codes, and, in certain respects, some of them greatly resemble the Torah. This article is reprinted with the permission of Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., from
What Do Jews Believe?
The Hebrew Bible begins with the self‑evident proposition that God exists, that there is no other God, and that He created the world and all that is in it. The opening passage presupposes the existence of God: “When God began to create the heaven and the earth…” There is no hint at God’s biography before He created the world. Only at the moment of creation is there any story to tell. The biblical God acts intentionally to create a good universe where moral behavior is expected and order prevails. The biblical creation account establishes an ironclad connection between ethical human behavior and divine action. If individuals act morally, they will be rewarded with prosperity, longevity, and happiness. If they act contrary to God’s law, which is the moral law, they, their families, their crops, and their property will suffer.
This assumption was not taken for granted by the other peoples in the Near East among whom the early monotheists lived. Around 1900 BCE, the age of biblical Abraham, the Babylonians believed that heaven was populated by many gods whose contentious, jealous tendencies brought conflict in heaven and suffering on earth. The gods were capricious beings whose immoral actions caused chaos for humanity.
In contrast, the biblical view introduced the idea that bounty, good harvests, and longevity were divine rewards for moral human behavior just as floods, disasters, crop failures, and death were God’s punishment of errant human behavior. Biblical monotheism was a significant departure from the Babylonian assumption that love, wars, strife, and treachery among the gods determined arbitrarily the course of human destiny. The Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish, dating from this period, illustrates the difference between the prevailing religion and the Israelite religion, which takes the existence of God as a given. Enuma Elish begins with the creation and early biography of the gods. The mother and father gods of Babylonian religion, Tiamat and Apsu, gave birth to other gods:
When, on high, the heaven had not been named,
firm ground below had not been called by name,
naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter,
and Mummu‑Tiamat, she who bore them all,
their waters commingling as a single body;
No reed hut had been matted, no marshland had appeared,
when no gods whatever had been brought into being, uncalled by name,
their destinies undetermined
Then it was that the gods were formed within them.
Tiamat and Apsu gave birth to gods who challenge them and provoke them into jealous fits of rage. From these heavenly battles the world was formed, a place of chaos, suffering, and disaster.
For biblical Judaism, however, the world was a place of goodness and fullness if humans lived according to the moral law. The Hebrew God who created a universe from nothing presides over a world that is inherently good and perfectible. In this purposeful universe, “God saw all that He created and it was very good.” The biblical view introduced the idea that a moral cord binds the world and human destiny together.