For the week of August 18, 2012 / 30 Av 5772
Torah: Devarim / Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17;
Bemidbar / Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 - 55:5; Isaiah 66:1-24;
1 Samuel 20:18 -42


Situational Absolutes

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 12:8, 9; ESV)

People who believe in absolutes tend to resist the concept of situational ethics. Situational ethics is a concept whereby the basis of ethics is determined by their context. Therefore what is determined to be right in one situation might be wrong in another. Those who maintain that truth is absolute claim that right is right and wrong is wrong regardless of the situation.

An extreme absolutism with no regard to context is nonsense and harmful, however. In practice even the most ardent adherent of absolute truth must accept that certain things are right in certain situations and wrong in others. For example "cutting someone with a knife" is right and good when the context is surgery and wrong if the context is robbery. I expect that even most extreme moralists would agree that nakedness is appropriate in some situations and not in others. Therefore, however one determines what constitutes absolute truth, the situations of life we find ourselves in influences those truths.

This is not to say that absolutes do not exist. The existence of absolutes in the universe is self-evident. No sane person lives as if there are no set principles in life. Just as there are set physical principles in the universe, so there are moral laws that work in every culture, every place, and every time period. Murder, stealing, and adultery are understood as wrong, while love, faithfulness, and honesty are valued as good by every decent society in history.

According to the Bible the greatest absolute is God himself. He is self-existing, self-defining, and unchanging. And because it is he who establishes right and wrong, we can embrace a concept of absolutes and resist any attempt to manipulate his Word.

Yet God's specific directives for people are not the same for everyone in every place at every time. We see that in this week's Torah portion as God prepares the people of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Many of his regulations given to Moses were specific to the Land of Israel and were not relevant during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness or when they lived in Egypt. But once they possessed the Land, there were all sorts of new things they were obliged to do. Even though there were aspects of right and wrong that applied to them all along, other aspects were different.

Just as Israel went through a major transition when they entered the Promised Land, so they did again upon the establishment of the New Covenant. Not because God himself changes or his truth is relative, but rather due to the coming of the Messiah the new situation was radically different from what was before. The removal of the Temple and the sacrificial system made the rules of the Levitical priesthood obsolete. The forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of believers from all nations necessitated new ways of living never before experienced between peoples and between people and God.

The absolute nature of God's truth requires us to take his Word seriously and obey him regardless of our personal preferences. The existence of absolutes does not imply a cold, arbitrary application of ancient life principles into each and every life situation. Rather, we need to carefully discern God's will for the various situations in which we find ourselves.

Comments? E-mail:, or
leave a comment on

E-mail this TorahBytes to someone? Click here

Subscribe? To have TorahBytes e-mailed to
you weekly, enter your e-mail address and press Subscribe


[ More TorahBytes ]  [ TorahBytes Home ]