Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God
Paul Copan. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011. 252 pages.
Paul Copan’s book consists of a response to the New Atheists’ aggressive claims summarized by Richard Dawkins’s description of the Old Testament God as a “moral monster.” Copan is not the author one might expect to take on the task, since he is not an Old Testament (OT) scholar but a professor of philosophy and ethics (Palm Beach Atlantic University). Nonetheless, the enthusiastic endorsements of this work by well-respected OT scholars such as Christopher J.W. Wright, Gordon Wenham, and Tremper Longman III piqued interest. Copan openly affirms his dependence on others: “I am basing my work on thoughtful, credible scholarship that offers plausible, sober-minded explanations and angles that present helpful resolutions and responses to perplexing Old Testament ethics questions.” By means of careful biblical exegesis, archaeological insights, and references to ancient Near Eastern literary conventions, Copan attempts to provide explanations for what appear to be morally questionable divine actions.
The book is divided into four parts of significantly varying lengths. After an overview of Neo-Atheism in part one, the second part addresses such issues as whether God can rightfully require praise and sacrifices, rightfully demonstrate jealousy, and rightfully ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The lengthy third section makes claims that OT Law was an accommodation to Israel’s hard hearts and thus should be evaluated morally on that basis; that the behavior of OT individuals should not be blamed on God; that OT Law was actually a huge improvement over the laws of surrounding neighbors; that “kooky” laws like those surrounding clean and unclean food had an instructional purpose; that the “death” penalty often represented the maximum sentence which was rarely imposed; that a close examination of the apparently “misogynistic” laws reveals an improvement over those of surrounding nations; and that “slavery” in the OT was much more humane than that word connotes for readers today.
Copan also addresses what is perhaps the most difficult issue facing Christian readers, wherein the OT God is accused of commanding and participating in indiscriminate killing and ethnic cleansing. Copan’s strategy here is to apply three basic principles. First, God has the right to judge nations that have profoundly rejected his ways and stand in direct opposition to him, but this should not be called “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” (163). God was opposed to religious practices and not to any specific ethnic group. Second, Copan advocates for a much more sophisticated reading of the OT texts which takes into account archaeological discoveries, exaggerated and stereotypical language common to battle accounts, and evidence from the biblical record itself that counters the common assumption that the Conquest consisted of the wholesale slaughter of Canaanites. Combined with the recognition that the books of Joshua and Judges follow ancient Near Eastern literary conventions of exaggeration and stereotype, Copan argues that it is possible that there was no killing of innocent noncombatants. Thirdly, Copan argues that the warfare methods of the Israelites were much more humane than was common in that era and that the comprehensive destruction texts describe actions limited in both time and geography.
Copan’s conclusion becomes more philosophical as he tries to deal with questions of whether society can be moral without God and whether society has moved beyond its need for God.
Overall, there is much to be commended about this book if one holds the same presuppositions as Copan does. He clearly does not see a problem with God being involved in violent actions which function as part of divine judgment and take place within a culture that is on the way to something better. Copan is quite conversant with OT biblical scholarship and picks and chooses what could be of help to solve the problem. While one could question his argument that Jericho had only a “hundred or fewer soldiers” and that many of the battle locations were not cities as we might envision them but rather military outposts (176), he does provide thoughtful and usually plausible arguments in response to these kinds of issues.
Critics of this work will find numerous weaknesses. Copan often picks the most positive possible interpretation and combines it with a best case scenario in order to downplay the negative interpretations of divine activity. One could question whether all of these factors coalesce so nicely. However, Copan has tackled these issues head on and moved readers forward to consider alternative ways of reading these troubling texts which lessen the moral offense. While Copan is certainly not convincing on every count, he provides much incentive for further reflection on a topic all Christians need to face.