Ethics Above Ritual in Ancient Times

Leviticus 16-18 discuss atonement and behavioral sins. First it sets aside the 10th day of the 7th month as a day of atonement, then it discusses sexual sins, a form of interpersonal transgression.

A number of 8th century BCE prophets also stress the importance of interpersonal transgressions. Hosea 12 criticizes those who are dishonest: The merchant uses dishonest scales and loves to defraud. Ephraim boasts, “I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin.” Similarly, Amos 2 complains of Israel that “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name. They lie down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge.” Micah 2 sticks with this theme: “They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”

There is a debate in the area of human development about the introduction of ethics as a religious concept in the 8th century BCE, and if the period that begins with the 8th BCE and extends for a number of centuries is an “Axial Age,” an age in which human perceptions and values changed.

More so than the prophets of any other period, the early biblical prophets Hosea, Amos and Micah stress the importance of ethics, not just fealty to God or adherence to religious ritual. Similarly, at a parallel point in time and across the known world stretching from India to southern Europe, new concepts that stress ethics emerge. These include the Hindu Upanishads, the introduction of Buddhism and the Greek philosophers, all which had a heightened focus on ethics and behavior instead of religious legend.

The image above is a bust of Socrates, a key figure in Greek philosophical thought.