The sin of moral relativity

The sin of moral relativity

Vayeshev - Genesis 37:1-40:23

The Joseph story is one of the Bible’s finest literary achievements. The sedras that make up its chapters end at moments of tension that make it practically impossible to wait for the next installment. Much of the vocabulary is found nowhere else in the Bible, words are carefully selected to deepen the plot line, and the midrash adds layers of interpretation that enhance the story’s genius.

Take chapters 39 and 40, parallel accounts of people who land in jail. The prisoners in chapter 40 are Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, “who have sinned against adoneihem,” their adon, or master. Their crime goes unstipulated, however, so the rabbis propose possibilities. Perhaps the baker left stones in Pharaoh’s bread and the cupbearer served wine with a fly in it. Alternatively, they neglected overseeing their respective kitchen staffs who did these things. Because neither possibility sounds dire enough to warrant the word “sin,” the midrash charges them with conspiring to rape Pharaoh’s daughter.

The idea that the sin was sexual arises through association with the parallel story in chapter 39, where Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce her household servant, Joseph. When Joseph resists, she twists the story around and accuses Joseph of accosting her — thereby sending Joseph to prison, where Pharaoh’s servants encounter him.

In both cases, we have a) servants of b) a powerful master (an adon) who c) are jailed d) on charges of attempted rape. Both use the language of sin. Pharaoh’s ministers “sinned against their master.” Joseph rejects Potiphar’s wife because to do otherwise would be “to sin against God.”

The careful reader cannot escape noticing the different objects of the word “sin.” The cupbearer and baker conceive of sin as an affront to Pharaoh, what Ibn Ezra calls a crime against the state, “a federal offense” (in our terms). By this account, laws are made by governments — whether dictators (like Pharaoh) or democracies (like Congress) — and sin consists in breaking the law.

Joseph, however, knows a higher authority, God, a point underscored by his calling God Elohim, not Adonai. The Targum actually changes it back to Adonai, as if Elohim were an error. But it is not. The point of avoiding Adonai (God’s name) is its similarity to adoni (“my adon,” “master”) — which is like adoneihem (“their adon”), the word used by Pharaoh’s servants. Since the Torah is written without vowels, the untutored reader might think Joseph too was afraid of being untrue only to “his master.”

Lest Potiphar’s wife think Joseph has no higher source of morality than fealty to human masters, Joseph adds, “I would be sinning against God,” and then carefully calls God Elohim so as not to make it sound like adoni, “[just] my [human] master.”

At stake is the Bible’s claim to an absolute morality. Adultery and (all the more so) rape are wrong absolutely, not just relatively. Even if Potiphar had not been a kindly overlord, even if Pharaoh had been a lowly citizen of no consequence, and even if Egyptian law permitted it, the sexual crimes with which the three men were charged would have been wrong.

I am appalled at the extent to which Americans think morality is relative: wrong for some but right for others. From pop psychology and anthropology, they learn that moral rules vary from person to person and society to society. Moral rules do indeed differ, but moral truths do not: Rape is wrong everywhere, regardless of whether a given society recognizes it.

Moral relativists confuse two separate philosophical issues: ontology and epistemology. Ontology is the facts, which are whatever they are. Epistemology is our knowledge of those facts, which, unfortunately but necessarily, falls short of certainty. Persons and societies differ on what they think about things, but what they think about things does not change the way things actually are. Some things are simply, absolutely, completely, and universally wrong whether our moral systems acknowledge it or not. The Nazis were wrong. Period. The same goes for slavery of black people before the Civil War and slavery of women today.

In biblical language, some things are not just errors, mistakes, or even crimes; they are sins, affronts not just against individuals and the social order but against God. Our ability to know for sure what they are is flawed. No longer able to believe in literal fiats from sacred writ, we are reduced to exercising appropriate modesty in declaring what they are. But when our best judgment concludes that something is terribly wrong, we must stand by that judgment.

And we must do so as Joseph did — lest we sin against God.

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