Flexible Absolutes

Hezekiah was twenty-five when he began to reign, so he had known his industrious grandfather Jotham and had also grown up watching his father Ahaz chase after the vain glories of the surrounding nations. With the northern kingdom gone, there was still a strong movement within the people to practice idolatry. This meant that there were constant social clashes between the absolutes of the Jewish law and the relativism of common religions. The story of Hezekiah gives us an opportunity to examine the idea of moral absolutes.


The expression “moral absolute” is not used in the religious texts, which makes us wonder if the idea of absolutes is not just a reaction against relativism. We should examine that hypothesis. Traditionalists today argue against “situation ethics” by taking the stand that true morality does not change because of the circumstances. Is that a philosophical position for the sake of debate, or can we support it through ancient history, by looking at the Jewish Law? Was the Law absolute, or could it change in special situations? Hezekiah answers that.


To be sure, pagan religions had no absolute standards. The gods acted like immature humans who could be swayed by sacrificial gifts and personal weaknesses. They were man-made gods. Some civil laws were strict, but enforcement was often arbitrary. Officials expected to be bribed. The Jewish law was different in that it was simple and fair. No one had the right to murder, steal, commit adultery, or bring false charges, because that’s the character of the God who made us. The ceremonies were also based on being holy and untarnished by things that are common. The law had no wiggle room for accommodations, or did it?


Let’s see what happened when Hezekiah became king. Ahaz had left the temple in such a state of disrepair and desecration that it wasn’t ready for proper worship. The priests started carrying out the filth and cleansing the temple on the first day of the first month, the Jewish New Year, and it took them 16 days to get it done. Then the purified priests offered the simple sacrifices for then atonement of the nation. Once the priests and people were consecrated, they brought and offered a huge quantity of voluntary sacrifices of thanksgiving, with singing and rejoicing. That brought them to the dilemma of offering the all-important Passover. It was supposed to be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exodus 12:1-6). That was the law. It was too late.


To make it more difficult, Judah sent messengers and invited the remnants of Israel to join them, and they couldn’t all get together until the second month. Can the strict Jewish law be broken in order to do good? Let’s see. “For the king and the princes and all the assembly in Jerusalem had taken counsel to keep the Passover in the second month — for they could not keep it at that time because the priests had not consecrated themselves in sufficient number, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:3,4). Besides that, the priests killed the Passover lamb for everyone who had not had time to be ceremonially clean themselves. Hezekiah prayed, “May the good Lord pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God,… even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness. And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people.” (2 Chronicles 30:18-20)


Hezekiah broke the law to do good and God forgave him. King David broke the law to do good and God forgave him (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). These are rare examples, but we misunderstand the Law if we think that morality consists of impersonal absolutes. The Law is a tool to bring about a relationship with a living God, who has the right to clarify himself. The conflict is not between absolute morality and relative morality. The conflict is between doing our own will and doing the will of the God who defines morality by his own goodness.

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