Relativist vs Absolutist Morality: Moses & the Midwives

Our weekly Bible Study has begun the book of Exodus. In two consecutive weeks, the text has resulted in a discussion of absolutist vs relativist ethics. In chapter 1, the midwives lie to Pharaoh in order to justify why they haven’t obeyed his order to kill the Hebrew babies. In chapter two, a young-ish Moses kills an Egyptian engaged in beating a Hebrew slave. 

The relativist case goes something like this: killing and lying are normally wrong, but in extreme circumstances, such as tyrant’s decree to exterminate children or a taskmaster mercilessly beating a worker, lying and killing are justified. The actor’s intentions are good; the end justified the means. The problem with this approach is that we can bend the rules whenever we wish in order to achieve some higher good. I might, for example, rob a bank in order to give a financial boost to a struggling charity. I can therefore justify stealing.

The absolutist approach declares lying and killing/murdering to be wrong always, regardless of the circumstance. This means that one cannot lie ever, even when a mad axeman requests directions to his next victim’s house. This approach is considered inflexible, blindly ignoring context and situation. 

The midwives and Moses appear to have subscribed to the former view. The text offers no comment on their actions, and God bestows no judgement upon them. Indeed, the midwives are commended and Moses’ swift departure to Midian upon being discovered is part of God’s plan for his life and Israel’s deliverance. However, I am not convinced that this means God approved of their actions. Even though these activities occurred prior to the decalogue’s reception atop Sinai, murdering and lying were even then understood to be wrong. Our consciences know such deeds ought to be avoided, and Moses carefully looked ‘this way and that’ before slaying the Egyptian. Yet God, in His sovereignty, is able to use human sin for His divine plan, in much the same way He used Satan in the story of Job, or the Roman soldiers in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. 

“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20)

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay