Fri | Sep 24, 2021

Michael Abrahams | Should Bible be used as a moral guide?

Published:Monday | March 8, 2021 | 12:07 AM
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

“If your holy book tells you how to treat slaves, your holy book is disqualified as a source of moral code.”

The above quote is from a meme I posted on my social media pages several months ago. Along with the statement is an illustration of a man standing over and using a whip to beat a slave, who is lying on the ground. One of my Christian friends was offended by the meme and took me on, chastising me for posting it, accusing me of attacking her religion, and telling me to leave people and their faith alone.

I explained that the meme was not an attack, but simply a statement that if a book condones slavery, it ought not to be used as a moral guide. I went on to tell her that the Bible not only condones slavery, but states that a slave master is allowed to beat a slave to the point of being immobile for two days. I informed her of the verses, Exodus 21:20-21 (NIV), which state, “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

Like many Christians, my friend has never read the entire Bible, and was unfamiliar with the verses. She was sceptical about my comments and told me she would have to read it for herself. She did, and called me back, saying she saw the verses and declared that, “If it is in the Bible, and this was coming from God, then it is okay to have slaves.” She was comfortable with that.

My conversation with my friend raised an important question: Should the Bible be used as a moral guide? For many Christians, this is a no-brainer, and they will answer with a resounding ‘Yes’.

However, slavery is one of the most morally reprehensible acts on the planet. It is so inhumane that it has been outlawed in every country, although slavery and human trafficking still persist. Knowing the harmful effects of slavery, it would be disingenuous to insist that a book that condones this activity should be used as a moral guide.


Many Christians see questions such as this as an assault on their faith, but they ought not to. On the other hand, it would be appropriate for them to understand that this is not a matter of rubbishing or dismissing their faith, but rather a call for examining the proper context in which to view the Bible.

The fact is that, strictly speaking, the Bible is not a book, but rather a collection of books, written by dozens of authors, with different personalities, perspectives, and agendas, at different times, in at least three different languages. Some of the authors are unknown, and very little is known about several others. When they wrote their individual books, the authors did not do so with the intention of them being assembled in one tome. It was not a collaborative effort. In fact, the earliest canonical texts were put together hundreds of years after Christ’s death.

David Lose, a Lutheran pastor, wrote an excellent article in Huffpost in 2011 titled ‘Is the Bible a Reliable Moral Guide?’ According to Lose, “…I suspect the Bible was never intended to s erve primarily as a moral reference. Rather, I think that the Bible comes to us as a collection of confessions of faith of the ancient Israelites and Christians about the nature and character of God and was intended to invite readers into relation ship with that God.” Lose further added, “So back to our original question: Is the Bible a reliable moral guide? If with this question we are asking whether we can look to the Bible as a kind of divine or ancient reference book, finding direct answers to today’s moral questions, I’ll offer a definitive ‘no’.”


I agree with Lose’s sentiments. If we are to be honest, some of the acts the Bible claims are sanctioned by God, such as stoning to death rebellious sons or women (not men) who are not virgins at the time of marriage, are barbaric. Some Bible stories also demonstrate rather warped morality, such as the story of Lot, where his wife’s life was terminated after she simply looked back at her city, but her daughters were not punished after they got their father drunk and raped him, even though, within the pages of the Bible, are verses condemning drunkenness and having sex with someone other than your husband, wife, or concubine.

Some may wonder: So what if people use the Bible as a moral guide? Is it really a big deal? It actually is. When people do this, they use it not only as a guide for their lives, but also to make rules and laws to dictate to others how they should live their lives, and to punish, judge and discriminate against others; and doing so can cause harm to many of our brothers and sisters.

Today, we know much more about science, human behaviour, geography, astronomy, and many other disciplines than the biblical authors did. We also now know that many Bible stories are myths, parables and allegories, and that many tales are not meant to be taken literally, and that some of the rules stated in them were meant for specific sets of people, in specific geographic locations, at specific times.

The Bible is an awesome collection of ancient stories. Using it is a moral guide today, however, is a potential source of injustice and disharmony.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator, and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.