The Old Testament God doesn’t seem to make sense. “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris accuse him of genocide, and most Christians have no idea how to answer. Added to that are charges that God endorsed slavery, enacted grossly inequitable treatment of women, legislated unreasonably harsh punishments for minor offenses, and delivered an embarrassingly quirky set of strange laws and commands.
Paul Copan faces all these challenges squarely in his 2010 book, Is God a Moral Monster? One short answer to the question asked in that title is no; God is not a moral monster. But there’s another short answer, which is that really there is no short answer—and Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have acted irresponsibly to treat it as if there were.
Copan, professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University and current president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, is a student of Old Testament history and of the Bible. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins are not. They don’t even care that they are not. Therein lies the critical difference: for things in the OT are not always what they seem; and why should they be? If there’s any lesson the 21st century world has learned, preached, and even made the basis of a master moral standard, it is that cultures differ across time and place. To judge events in another culture without even caring to look at what might be on going below the surface is ham-handed at best, grossly judgmental at worst, and stupid and silly in either case.
The Ancient Near East (ANE) was vastly different from 21st century Western culture—much more so than most of us have begun to suppose. This is the all-important reality Copan urges us to keep in mind as we consider the strange and often difficult passages of the Old Testament. He also wants us to consider the altogether reasonable proposition that what God was doing with the Israelites was historically situated, and not all of it was intended as normative for all time. (Some of it was, and there are principles by which we can tell which is which.)
The biggest moral question there is that of war and genocide. Copan shows in three well-documented chapters that to a great extent we’re just reading it wrong. Linguistic practices were different in ancient Palestine than in contemporary Oxford, Cambridge, or New Haven, particularly as they pertain to war. Wild exaggeration (as we would view it today) was the norm. Readers at the time of Moses, Joshua, Saul and David—the audience for whom the relevant passages were written—would have known that a report of total annihilation really meant something much less than that.
Copan demonstrates this with comparative literature from the time, and further proves his point by citing the Bible’s own guidance to the Israelites concerning how to deal with the population that remained after they were supposedly all destroyed—proof that total annihilation hadn’t really been undertaken at all.
Further, in the few cases where total destruction actually can be responsibly inferred from the text (Jericho and Ai are examples), archaeology informs us that these were small military garrison cities with few non-combatants. The battles there were not the wholesale slaughter of thousands of civilians that many of us have supposed it was. In fact a strong historical case can be made that the Israel’s practice of warfare, under God’s guidance, represented a considerable moral advance over the practices current among other peoples at the time. Was it ideal? No. But it was a step forward.
The same goes for other thorny issues, such as apparent maltreatment of women, and certain seemingly kooky laws and commands (don’t wear garments of mixed fiber, for example). Copan repeatedly reminds us it was an early age in the progress of humanity, a brutal age, one of horrific practices of child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, rape, slaughter, and a host of barbarisms beyond our imagination. Our contemporary conception of slavery just doesn’t fit the OT context; it was something else entirely. Again, was it ideal? Of course not. But it was progress for the time.
God’s laws were in virtually every case a significant advance toward treating humans as fully humans, compared to customs among other peoples. God did not force Israel instantly into four or five millennia of social progress. He took them forward a step at a time. To fault this would be like faulting Abraham Lincoln for merely emancipating the slaves, when he ought to have selected a Black woman as his running mate.
So here you have my short answer to a question that has no short answer. If it seems inadequate to you I say “Good: it ought to seem inadequate.” In this space I cannot begin to cover these topics with the depth they require. But I can at least point you in a direction where you can do the study for yourself. Copan assures us that what he writes represents majority, mainstream scholarship. He also tells us that although he intended the book to be reasonably accessible to lay readers, he found it necessary to document his case in depth anyway—so if you question the scholarship, you have every opportunity to follow his sources and find out for yourself.
Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have pointedly refused to go there. The reason for that is transparent, or so it seems to me: they have locked themselves into an extreme atheism that blinds them to genuine scholarly insight and to the culturally sensitive treatment of peoples different than themselves. It is yet another example of their self-serving, selective application of values they claim to hold dear; a further illustration of what really motivates them. And what is that? By all appearances, it’s not knowledge, science, or regard for morality or human distinctiveness. It’s that they are persuaded that there is no God, and they hate him. Copan concludes his book with a positive case for God’s moral excellence. You and I need not follow the New Atheists down their unstudied, unthinking path to ridiculously reflexive conclusions. God’s goodness stands up to scholarly examination. He is holy and just, and the God of all the earth shall indeed do what is right.
Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2010. Paperback; 222 pages plus endnotes. Amazon Price US$10.19. (Also available on Kindle and Nook.)