The Biblical Origin of Human Rights


All Hebrew students in our third level (gimmel) Hebrew class this past semester were required to give a speech to the class in Hebrew. I chose to speak on the issue of the foundation of human rights. It was no small task for me to do this in the Hebrew language. However, I think the points made were enlightening, and they certainly led to a great deal of discussion in my class. Thus I am presenting a summary to you, our dear readers.

As a preface, it should be stated that Israel is the only country in the Middle East that really practices human rights. Yet is the most vilified country in the Middle East in this regard! While Israel does not have a stellar record and can be faulted for some failures1, its record is far above all authoritarian and neighboring states. I for one am glad to be a citizen of Israel where religious liberty and human rights are enshrined in the founding documents of our state.

Human rights include freedom of speech and conscience; religious freedom; freedom of the press, association; and property rights. The greatest modern proponent of human rights in my view was the late Dr. Charles Malik, the primary author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations in its early years. (Malik was the President of the American University in Beirut, Lebanon.) Yet, most nations in the U. N. are not required to practice human rights to be members. Authoritarian states like Russia, China, Cuba and all the Muslim nations do not practice full human rights. Malik argued that the modern idea of human rights is rooted in religious freedom based on the idea of the freedom of each person as a sacred being created in the image of God. Only countries influenced by the Bible, practice human rights in line with the Universal Declaration. I believe that Malik was correct. Religious liberty is the basic right from which flow all others. Here is a little history.

Stages of Development in Human Rights (Tribal Religion)

The first stage of human history is a tribal stage where one’s tribe or ethnic group determines religion. The tribal or national leader may be considered divine. He is not under any law but can make the law. The idea of suggesting other views of the nature of reality outside that which is transmitted by tribal tradition, is unthinkable. This tribal mentality still permeates the Muslim world, where changing religion is seen as disloyalty to the tribe. It also brings shame or dishonor upon the clan or family and must be avenged by killing the offender. Change comes only when one tribe or nation is conquered by another tribe or nation and is forced to embrace the religion of the conquering nation. The older gods can still be accepted, but first all must bow down to the gods of the conqueror.

Stage Two: Ancient Israel

Biblical faith is closely tied to the story of the Exodus where the people are freed to worship God. Is their God merely the tribal God of Israel? No; God is proclaimed as the God of all the earth and all nations are destined to bow down to the God of Israel. Israel became the witness people, showing the nations the reality of God and life in His Kingdom.

A new step was taken when Israel was scattered. Israelites sought religious freedom to continue to practice their own faith rather than embrace the religious beliefs and practices of the dominant nations. By the grace of God, the Jewish people were – for the most part – granted this freedom under the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. When this freedom was restricted, the Jewish people went to war. In the first century, Jewish people also sought this freedom for converts to Judaism. Within the Roman Empire, Judaism was a protected religion even though Jews did not worship the emperor as god.

Stage Three: The Universal Claim of the Messiah

The coming of Yeshua required a whole new quest for freedom. Indeed, as Daniel Boyarin argues, Christianity became the first universal religion. Why? Because Messianic Jews and Gentiles (before Gentile followers of Yeshua were known as Christians) claimed the right to convince others of their faith (evangelism) and that those who received the Gospel should have the right to make a free choice to become followers of Yeshua and to abandon Roman religion and Emperor worship. The Kingdom of God had broken into this realm of the earth, and only Yeshua was Lord. This kingdom included religious freedom, including sharing the gospel in public and private. It implied political rights since the government could be criticized on the basis of the justice standards of the law of God. This was a new reality, for faith in Yeshua transcended one’s ethnicity, though it was rooted in the Jewish people. For 280 years, Christians laid down their lives to assert their liberty without taking up the sword to defend it.

Constantine’s conversion made Christianity a legitimate religion (Judaism was also a legally legitimate religion). However, less than fifty years later, Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and Christian doctrine was enforced by the sword. Thus religious freedom was suppressed.

Now, of course, there are certain religious practices that have to be precluded – such as child sacrifice and cult prostitution, but broad freedom is still crucial since the conscience must not be coerced.

Stage Four: Laws of Toleration

The Reformation brought a new appropriation of Biblical truth, but still sought to enforce religious conformity by state power. The Reformation spread when rulers became Protestants and enforced Protestant doctrine in their domains. Europe became exhausted by religious wars, especially in England where laws of toleration began to bring about some measure of liberty.

Stage Five: Full Religious Freedom, Rhode Island and the United States

Roger Williams founded Rhode Island in 1636. This Puritan Baptist perceived the centrality of religious freedom and freedom of conscience. His was the first civil government and territory in history that practiced full religious liberty. From such ideas and the ideas of political liberty in such thinkers as John Locke in England, the colonies came into a greater and greater practice of liberty. The founding of the United States enshrined these concepts, rooted in religious liberty, in its very Constitution. Freedom of association, the press and assembly were guaranteed. Eventually more and more of the Western world embraced these ideals, even including Catholic countries. This religious liberty must include the right to promote one’s religion and the right to change one’s religion or worldview. This is now even enshrined in the New Catholic Catechism. Along the margin of my copy of the Catechism where it talks about religious liberty I wrote, “Roger Williams wins”!

The Attack on Human Rights Today

Today religious liberty and free speech are under attack. We are told that we must not offend the people of other religions by seeking to spread our faith. This strikes at the heart of the hard-won liberties of the Western world, and in fact without the belief that human beings are created in the Image of God, such liberties may not endure.

1. It should be noted that some on the extreme political left and right, really do not believe in human rights.