Moral Progress in the Bible?

Rabbi Dr. Jeremiah Unterman delivers a public lecture for the Center for Hebraic Thought on November 1st, 2019, examining moral progress in the Hebrew Bible. He contrasts the religious and ethical views of the Hebrew Bible with the traditions of the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern culture. With our modern norms having been so influenced by biblical thought, we often underappreciate the distinctiveness of the Hebrew Bible. In contrast with the petulant, limited, and all-too-human gods of the surrounding nations, the Israelites worshiped a transcendent and powerful God who placed certain demands on His people.

Among these demands were what Dr. Unterman identifies as the three major ethical innovations of the Hebrew Bible, which underly our modern concepts of human dignity, equality, and redemption. The Creation narrative, the flood, and the Sinai treaty all radically oppose and rebuke the myths of their time and underly the most central of our current values. We would do well to remember our ethical foundations and the moral progress made by the Bible.


  • 0:00 Introductions by Dr. Dru Johnson and Abigail Smith
  • 1:53 Opening remarks
  • 9:00 The gods of the Ancient Near East compared with the God of the Hebrews
  • 20:41 The three major ethical innovations of the Hebrew Bible
  • 21:03 Humans as good rulers
  • 26:30 The Sabbath as the beginning of human rights and equality
  • 31:00 The Biblical flood narrative, human selfishness, and free will
  • 36:05 The Sinai treaty
  • 42:15 Closing remarks

For the book on which this talk was based, click here: Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics

Show notes by Micah Long.

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