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There is no abstract, comprehensive concept in the Bible which parallels the modern concept of "ethics." The term musar designates "ethics" in later Hebrew, but in the Bible it indicates merely the educational function fulfilled by the father (Prov. 1:8) and is close in meaning to "rebuke." In the Bible ethical demands are considered an essential part of the demands God places upon man. This close connection between the ethical and religious realms (although the two are not completely identified) is one of the principal characteristics of the Bible; hence, the central position of ethics throughout the Bible. Accordingly, the Bible had a decisive influence upon the molding of ethics in European culture in general, both directly and indirectly through the ethical teachings in apocryphal literature (see *Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha) and the New Testament which are based on biblical ethics.

Social Ethics

The command to refrain from harming one's fellow man and to avoid doing evil to the weak is fundamental to biblical ethics. Most of the ethical commands specified in the Bible belong to this category: due justice (Ex. 23:1–2; Deut. 16:18–20); avoidance of bribery (e.g., Ex. 23:8), robbery, and oppression (Ex. 22:20; Deut. 24:14); defense of the *widow and the *orphan; compassionate behavior toward the *slave; and the prohibition of gossip. Added to these were the commands to sustain the poor (Deut. 15:7–11), feed the hungry, and clothe the naked (Isa. 58:7; Ezek. 18:7). The radical but logical conclusion derived from this is that man is obliged to suppress his desires and feed even his enemy (Prov. 25:21), return his enemy's lost property, and help him raise his ass which is prostrate under its burden (Ex. 23:4–5). Biblical ethics, which cautions man to love and respect his fellow man, reaches its highest level in the commandment: "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart, reprove your neighbor," which concludes with "Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:17–18). The principle aim of this commandment, as of others, is the avoidance of unfounded hatred which destroys the life of the society.

The general trend of social ethics was summed up by the prophets who said: "Hate evil and love good and establish justice in the gate" (Amos 5:15); and similarly: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). These passages and their like not only summarize the teaching of ethics, but also place it at the center of the Israelite faith. A summation of biblical ethical teachings is contained in the well-known saying of Hillel: "What is hateful to you do not do unto another" (Shab. 31a).

The Ethical Perfection of the Individual

Unlike the ethical system of Greek philosophy, which seeks to define the various virtues (who is courageous, generous, or just, etc.), the Bible demands of every human being that he perform the good deed, and behave virtuously toward his fellow man, and is not concerned with abstract definitions. This attitude is almost explicitly expressed in Jeremiah 9:22–23: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the strong man glory in his strength, let not the rich man glory in his riches. Only in this should one glory: in his earnest devotion to me. For I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight – declares the Lord." From this it follows that doing what is right and just is the essence of biblical ethics. The personal ethical ideal is the ẓaddik (the good man; see *Righteousness). Ezekiel defines him in detail for the purpose of explaining the doctrine of reward and *punishment, and his definition is nothing but an enumeration of the deeds performed by the good man and of those from which he refrains (Ezek. 18:5–9). The essence of all of these acts is the proper relationship between man and man, except for one commandment, to shun idolatry, which is solely a duty of man to God. A similar definition of the good man appears in Isaiah 33:15 and in Psalm 15. Added to the ideal of the righteous man in Psalms is the Godfearing man who finds happiness in the teachings of God and in the worship of Him and who shuns the life devoid of ethical earnestness (e.g., Ps. 1). The personal ethical ideal received further expression in the character of *Abraham, who was credited with several especially fine and noble qualities. He was complaisant in his relationship with Lot, hospitable, compassionate toward the evil inhabitants of Sodom, humble and generous in his dealings with the people of Heth, and he refused to profit from the booty of the war with Amraphel.

Distinguishing Feature of Social Ethics in the Bible

The lofty level of biblical ethics which is evident in the command to love one's neighbor, in the character of Abraham, and in the first Psalm, is peculiar to the Bible, and it is difficult to find its like in any other source; however, the general ethical commandments in the Bible, which are based on the principle of refraining from harming others, are a matter of general human concern and constitute the fundamentals of ethics. Some characteristic features of biblical ethics, such as due justice and the rights of the widow and the orphan, are prevalent in the ancient Near East (see below). Therefore the generalization that the Bible is unique among religious works in the content of its ethical teachings cannot be made. However, the Bible does differ from every other religious or ethical work in the importance which it assigns to the simple and fundamental ethical demand. The other nations of the ancient Near East reveal their ethical sense in compositions that are marginal to their culture: in a few proverbs dispersed throughout the wisdom literature, in prologues to collections of laws, in various specific laws, and in confessions (see below). The connection between ethical teachings and primary cultural creations – the images of the gods, the cult, the major corpus of law – is weak. The ethical aspirations of these cultures are sometimes, but not always, expressed in their religion and social organization, while the Bible places the ethical demand at the focus of the religion and the national culture. The ethical demand is of primary concern to the prophets, who state explicitly that this is the essence of their religious teaching. Basic sections of biblical law – the Ten Commandments, Leviticus 19, the blessings and curses of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal (Deut. 27:15–26) – contain many important ethical commandments. Biblical law itself testifies to its ethical aim: "Or what great nation has laws and norms as just (ẓaddikim) as all this Teaching…" (Deut. 4:8). While the wisdom literature of Israel is similar to that of the neighboring cultures, it is distinctive in the greater stress it places upon ethical education (see below). The assumption that God is – or should be – just, and the question of reward and punishment which follows from that assumption, are the bases of the religious experiences found in Psalms, Job, and some prophetic passages. The opinion of Hillel the Elder that the ethical demand is the essence of the Torah may be questioned, for it can hardly be said to be the only pillar of the biblical faith. However, there is certainly a clear tendency in the Bible to place the ethical demand at the focus of the faith, even if it does share it with other concerns such as monotheism (see biblical view of *God).

Biblical ethics teachings, though clear and forceful, are not extraordinary in content, for the Bible requires nothing other than the proper behavior which is necessary for the existence of society. Biblical ethics does not demand, as do certain other systems of ethics (Christianity, Buddhism, and even some systems in later Judaism), that man withdraw completely or even partially from everyday life to attain perfection. Asceticism, which views the normal human situation as the root of evil, is foreign to the Bible and to the cultures of the Near East in general. The Bible approves of life as it is, and, accordingly, makes its ethical demand compatible with social reality. However, the degree of justice which it is possible to achieve within the bounds of reality is demanded with a clear forcefulness which allows for no compromise. This makes the Bible more radical than most ethical systems. The ethical teachings of the Bible, like the Bible generally, are addressed first and foremost to Israel. But some biblical passages extend the ethical demand to encompass all mankind, such as the *Noachide laws (Gen. 9:1–7), the story of Sodom (Gen. 19:20ff.), or the rebuke of Amos against the neighboring kingdoms for their cruelty (Amos 1:3–2:3). The setting of the Book of Job is also outside the Israelite realm.

Sexual Ethics

What has been said up to here applies only to social ethics, in view of the fact that in the realm of sexual morality the biblical outlook differs from that of neighboring cultures. The Bible abhors any sexual perversion such as *homosexuality or copulation with animals, prescribing severe punishments for offenders (Lev. 18:22–23; 20:13, 15–16). The adulteress sins not only against her husband, but also against God (e.g., Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10; Mal. 3:5). Fornication is generally frowned upon, severely condemned by *Hosea, and legally punishable by death in some cases (Lev. 21:9; Deut. 22:21). The other peoples of the ancient Near East did not treat these offenses with such severity. They regarded *adultery as essentially an infringement upon the rights of the husband – damage done to his property, like robbery or theft – and not as an abominable act sinful to God. Society was reconciled to prostitution, although a certain stigma was attached to it. Therefore Babylonian law, for example, defines the legal status of the various types of prostitution and treats it as it treats other phenomena in society (e.g., Code of Hammurapi, 145, 181, in: Pritchard, Texts, 172, 174; Middle Assyrian Laws, 40, in: ibid., 183). There is little opposition to sexual perversions: homosexuality is numbered among the sins in the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" (see below); Hittite law punishes copulation only with certain animals, and even these not very severely (see below). This opposition, which is occasionally expressed, does not declare these acts to be an outright abomination. Fornication and more serious sexual offenses are ascribed to the gods in *mythology, and possibly played a role in the cult (see Kedeshah). Therefore, it is clear that the biblical stand on these matters is unique. The biblical sexual ethic was imposed by Christianity on most of the civilized world in theory if not in practice but in the ancient world it was unique to Israel.

Ethical Teaching in the Bible


The orientation of biblical ethics is uniform in content, but is expressed in different ways, according to the viewpoint of the particular book of the Bible. The strongest and most radical expression of the goal of biblical ethics is found in the rebukes of the prophets, who chastise the people relentlessly for ethical transgressions and demand ethical perfection (especially in the realm of social ethics) without compromise. But their rebukes do not really constitute instruction, for they do not always teach one how to behave in particular situations.

Biblical law is concerned with providing ethical instruction in particular acts. The legal sections of the Torah explicitly and in detail forbid various offenses such as murder, robbery, and bribery, and explicitly demand support of the poor, love of one's neighbor, and the like (see below).

Both prophecy and law demand of man in the name of God that he behave properly. Their ethical outlook is a fundamental element in their demand that man do God's will, and therefore is not practical utilitarianism, even though they teach the doctrine of reward and punishment. This ethical attitude is given added depth in the Psalms, where it becomes a matter of religious feeling that throbs in the heart of the righteous man who seeks closeness with his God (see Ps. 1; 15, especially verses 2, 4, 24:4; 34:13–15). The Book of Job also stresses the commandment of righteousness to which the individual is subject, but from another aspect. Job is not content to protest that he did not commit transgressions of robbery, oppression, or bribery, but asserts that he actually observed positive ethical commandments and was strict with himself beyond the requirements of the law. For example, he claims he did much to support those in need of his help: "Because I delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of the destitutes came upon me, and I gladdened the heart of the widow" (Job 29:12–13). Job 31 contains a series of oaths concerning his righteousness, all beginning with ʾim, "if," which is often equivalent to "I swear": "(I swear) I have not rejected the cause of my man servant …" (verse 13); "(I swear) I have not made gold my trust …" (verse 24). Job is careful to be above suspicion not only in social ethics, but also in sexual ethics, for he claims: "If I have been enticed by a woman, and have lain in wait at the door of another man, may my wife be used by another …" (31:9–10).

The ethical teachings in all the biblical books so far surveyed are considered an essential element of God's demands of man. In this respect, the attitude of *Proverbs is different. Most of the proverbs aim at proving to man that it is worthwhile for him to follow the good path from the consideration of simple worldly wisdom. For example, Proverbs does not declare that adultery is prohibited but points out the dangers in it (6:24–35). In a similar vein are the following verses: "Do not slander a servant to his master, lest he curse you, and you be made to feel your guilt" (Prov. 30:10), and "If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat … for you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you" (25:21–22). Although there is also a reference to God here, man is placed at the center of ethical instruction. This approach is more practical and utilitarian than the approach of the Bible in general, due to the practical educational orientation of the Book of Proverbs. While Proverbs belongs to the category of general wisdom literature which was prevalent in the ancient Near East, it nevertheless differs from other works of this type in the prominence it gives to ethical instruction; in Proverbs it is of prime importance, while in the wisdom literature of the peoples of the ancient Near East, it is of secondary importance. There are two reasons for this: first, Proverbs aims at the education of the young citizen while the works of Ahikar and Egyptian didactic literature place more emphasis on the training of the official; second, Israelite wisdom literature identified the righteous man with the sage on the one hand, and the evil man with the fool on the other (e.g., Prov. 10:21, 23).

*Ecclesiastes, in those sections that deviate from stereotyped wisdom literature, casts doubt on the benefit of wisdom in general, and on the simple utilitarian ethical instruction contained in Proverbs. He knows that "there is not one good man on earth who does what is best (i.e., leads to the most desirable results, 6:12) and does not err" (7:20). In his despair he says: "don't overdo goodness …" (7:16–18).


Narrative is the one literary form in the Bible which is not entirely infused with an ethical orientation. In biblical narratives ethical instruction is presented indirectly in the form of words of praise for noble deeds, and even this praise is, for the most part, not explicit. Deeds which are represented as noble include Joseph's fleeing from adultery (Gen. 39:7–18), the mercy shown by David in not killing Saul (I Sam. 24; 26:3–25), and the story of Rizpah, daughter of Aiah (II Sam. 21:10). Abraham is the only biblical character who can truly be described as an ethical model. The other heroes in biblical narrative (Judah, Joseph, Moses, Caleb, Joshua), although blessed with fine qualities, are not described as models of ethical perfection. The Bible portrays their shortcomings clearly (though implicitly; Isaac's weakness of character, Jacob's cunning, the sins of Saul and David) and does not make the slightest attempt to whitewash the ethical defects of its heroes. However, it is the rule in biblical narrative that appropriate punishment follows specific transgressions: Jacob, who bought the birthright by deception, is himself deceived by Laban; David is punished for his sin with Bath-Sheba, and so on. Yet these features are not especially emphasized and thus do not give biblical narrative a prominent ethical orientation. It has been said that biblical narrative takes no clear moral stance, but rather rejoices in the success of its heroes even when they act immorally (Jacob, when he bought the birthright; Rachel, when she stole the household idols; Jael, when she killed Sisera). It is true that the main intent of biblical narrative is to make known the greatness of God, whose acts are the only ones that are perfect. Thus the narrator can afford to see human beings as they are. He does not force himself to moralize overmuch, or to make his heroes model men, but introduces the ethical aspect only where it suits the story. Thus in the narrator's attitude to his heroes one observes a kind of tolerant, knowledgeable understanding of human nature: it is this which makes most biblical stories great, both as literature and as ethics.


The Bible does not make a formal distinction between those commandments which could be classified as ethical, those which are concerned with ritual (circumcision, sacrifices, the prohibition against eating blood), and those which deal with common legal matters. Scholarship is obligated to differentiate between these categories and to see where the ethical aim appears. The ethical aim can be distinguished by recognizing the difference between the basic, general commandment "Thou shalt not murder" and the laws concerning the punishment of the murderer (e.g., Num. 35). Thus ethical commandments, in the strict sense, are laws without sanctions, to be obeyed but not enforced, e.g., the commandments of gleanings, the forgotten sheaf, and the corner of the field (Lev. 19:9–10, see *Leket, Shikhḥah, and Pe'ah); the prohibition against harming the orphan and the widow (e.g., Ex. 22:21–23); the prohibition against delaying payment of wages (Lev. 19:13). Aside from the clearly ethical commandments, there is a general tendency in biblical law to emphasize the aspiration for justice which is the basis for every law. To be sure, every law is based upon the ethical viewpoint of the legislator and attempts, through the power of practical regulations, to enforce the ethics accepted by the existing society; however, biblical law aspires to this end clearly and consistently, as for example, "Justice, justice shall you pursue" (as the summary of practical regulations concerning the establishment of courts, Deut. 16:18–20), the laws of the Bible are defined explicitly as "just laws and statutes" (Deut. 4:8). Accordingly ethical and social reasons were attached to several laws, such as the commandment for the Sabbath: "So that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave …" (Deut. 5:14–15). This tendency is revealed in laws whose purpose was to defend the weak and to limit the power of the oppressor, such as the laws governing the Hebrew slave (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12) or the relatively lenient punishment of the thief. Yet it must be remembered that law is based not only on the abstract viewpoint of the legislator, but also on the needs of the society according to its particular structure and customs. Therefore an evaluation of biblical law is incomplete if only the ethical aspect is considered; however, the discussion of the aim of law is not essential to the definition of biblical ethics.



The Egyptian attitude toward ethics is expressed in literary works of different types. Among these works it is worth noting the books of proverbs (wisdom literature) which teach practical wisdom and proper behavior and include basic ethical principles such as not to covet, rob, or trespass, to be diligent in the performance of justice, and the like. Along with these principles, the books of proverbs include advice on practical knowledge which goes beyond the foundations of pure ethics; there is even the impression that the Egyptian sages advised their students to act justly because in this way they would succeed and achieve their goals, and not because justice is an ethical principle in its own right. According to Frankfort, however, this impression is the product of insufficient understanding of the Egyptian world view.

Another type of literature similar to wisdom literature in its ethical orientation and termed "ideal biography" by scholars is seen in the compositions which were engraved on the walls of tombstones and monuments to the dead. In them, the deceased tells what he did and how he conducted himself throughout his life, as for example: "I spoke the truth, I acted honestly … I judged both sides to the satisfaction of both. I rescued, with all my power, the weak from the strong. I gave bread to the hungry, and clothing to the poor, etc."

Another aspect of Egyptian ethics is revealed in the collection of writings called the "Book of the Dead." This is a collection of documents from various ancient sources, whose purpose is to assure the passage of the dead into eternal life. It contains statements which the deceased must make when he stands in judgment upon entering the world of the dead, such as: "I did not do evil to any man … I did not revile the name of the god, I did not slander the servant in front of his master … I did not murder, I did not cause a death … I did not sin by homosexuality, etc." (ch. 125). The deceased announces that he did not commit ethical offenses or transgressions of the cult, without distinguishing between the two. The list is arranged in a stereotyped manner, but it does contain certain ethical principles. On the other hand, the negative confession is close in purpose to a magical incantation, a kind of amulet which is helpful to every man after death even if he was not righteous during his life.

There is yet another basic concept in Egyptian culture which has, without doubt, ethical significance, namely, the concept of maʿat which means truth, justice, honesty, or proper order. It is said that the gods live in maʿat; the king who sets aright the order of the country and establishes just rules is setting maʿat upon its foundation; the way of an honest man – and especially the way of an official who must judge a just case – is maʿat; and also the order according to which nature behaves is maʿat.

It is difficult to discuss the meaning of the Egyptian doctrine of ethics, because the Egyptian world view in general is beyond reach; the reason being, in Bonnet's opinion, that the Egyptian ethics was not specifically related to the teachings and practices of the religion. Ethical qualities are not characteristic of the gods, and there are cases where Egyptian religion expresses a viewpoint which is not ethical. In Frankfort's opinion, one should not claim that the Egyptians did not have a highly developed ethical doctrine, but one should deal with what is particular to their outlook. The Egyptian saw his world as secure and orderly and nature as behaving always according to maʿat. The duty of man is to act according to the same secure and eternal law, to be congenial, not to be ambitious and bad-tempered, and to enjoy the good things in life without anxiety. The Egyptian does not know the fear of sin because his god does not demand that he observe positive and negative precepts. Instead, he helps those who generally behave according to maʿat, and corrects the sinner by means of punishment. According to Frankfort, the confession of the dead is not characteristic of the Egyptian ethical outlook; it originates in fear in the face of death, but does not directly affect the way of life.


The Sumerian legislator king Lipit-Ishtar announces in the prologue and epilogue of his law code that he acted lawfully and justly during his kingship and diligently guarded the freedom of the people of Sumer and Akkad, and insured that the father helped his sons and the sons their father. Hammurapi too, in the prologue to his law code, states that he ruled justly in his land, suppressed wickedness and evil, and prevented the strong from oppressing the weak; in his epilogue he commands that justice be done to the orphan and the widow so that the oppressed will find salvation in his just laws and will bless him before the gods. Thus, there was an ethical basis to law in Sumer and Akkad. Babylonian wisdom literature is not as abundant as that of Egypt, but the extant literature contains ethical instructions such as not to requite evil to one's enemy, not to gossip, and the like; there is also a warning not to marry a prostitute because she will not be faithful to her husband. In atonement rites, which were intended to save the sick and atone for injuries likely to be done to one's fellow man, the magico-cultic aspect is more important than the ethical aspect (see *Atonement). A type of ethical instruction is also included in the plentiful "omen" literature. Among the collections of omens of all types, which usually have no ethical content, are also omens which contain ethical teachings such as: "if one renders good, good will be rendered to him." The gods are, to a certain extent, considered to be the guardians of ethics and the dispensers of retribution to the evil. However, there is also a Babylonian document which expresses man's despair over the lack of justice in the rule of the gods. The author of this document clearly sees how society oppresses the just, the honest, and the poor and praises the wicked man who succeeds. Mesopotamian myth shows that the gods of Sumer and Akkad were not ethical. The religious Babylonian believed that man was created so that the gods could benefit from his labor, and was not certain that the rule of the gods was just and beneficent. The fear of sin was well-known to him, but the sin itself – if he sinned, how he sinned, when he sinned – was hidden from him.

Documents devoted to ethical instruction have not been preserved from the remaining civilizations of the ancient Near East, but there is some indirect information on this subject. For example, in *Ugarit it was the king's duty to pursue justice for the widow and to protect the weak (II Keret, 46:50; cf. also II Aqhat, v. 7–8). In Hittite law (188), punishment was decreed for copulation with some animals (Pritchard, Texts, 196), and in this legal collection, as well as several other Mesopotamian ones, there were laws concerning incest.


BIBLIOGRAPHIES AND ENCYCLOPAEDIAS: N. Amsel, Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues (1994); S.D. Breslauer, Contemporary Jewish Ethics: A Bibliographical Survey (1985); S.D. Breslauer, Modern Jewish Morality: A Bibliographical Survey (1986). IN THE BIBLE: F. Wagner, Geschichte des Sittlichkeitsbegriffs (1928–36); A. Weiser, Religion und Sittlichkeit der Genesis (1928); W.I. Baumgartner, Israelitische und altorientalische Weisheit (1933), 4–7, 24–30; F.R. Kraus, in: ZA, 43 (1936), 77–113; Kaufmann Y., Toledot, 1 (1937), 27ff., 31ff., 431–3; 2 (1945), 68–70, 557–628; J. Hempel, Das Ethos des Alten Testaments (1938); H. Duesberg, Les scribes inspirés, 1 (1938), 92–126, 481–500; H. Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion (1948), 56–80; N.W. Porteous, in: H.H. Rowley (ed.), Studies in Old Testament Prophecy (1950), 143–56; E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws (1951), 53; A. Gelin, Morale et l'Ancient Testament (1952), 71–92; H. Kruse, in: Verbum Domini, 30 (1952), 3–13, 65–80, 143–53; H. Bonnet, Reallexikon der aegyptischen Religionsgeschichte (1952); W.G. Lambert, in: Ex Oriente Lux, 15 (1957–58), 184–96; idem, Babylonian Wisdom Literature (1960); S.E. Loewenstamm, in: Sefer S. Dim (1958), 124–5; idem, in: BM, 13 (1962), 55–59; E. Jacob, in; VT Supplement, 7 (1960), 39–51; E. Hammershaimb, ibid., 73–101; M. Greenberg, in: Y. Kaufmann Jubilee Volume (1960), 5–28. IN LATER JEWISH THOUGHT: M. Lazarus, Ethics of Judaism (1900); G.F. Moore, Judaism, 2 (1927, repr. 1958), 79–111; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, Rabbinic Anthology (1963), 490–9; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; M. Kadushin, Worship and Ethics (1964); S. Bernfeld, Foundations of Jewish Ethics (1967); B. Herring, Jewish Ethics and Halakhah for Our Times: Sources and Commentary, 2 vol. (1984–89); L. Finkelstein (ed.), The Jews, 2 (19603), 1010–42; M.J. Routtenberg, in: F.E. Johnson (ed.), Patterns of Ethics in America Today (1960), 7–27.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.