Anyone familiar with the writings of the new atheists is aware of their penchant for taking potshots at Old Testament ethics. Their moral objections target such things as: (1) God’s desire to be worshipped, (2) God’s preferential treatment of the Israelites, (3) the Old Testament’s apparently low view of women, (4) the Old Testament’s approval of slavery, (5) the divinely ordered massacre of Canaanite people groups, and (6) the Old Testament’s peculiar laws related to food, hygiene, and other matters.
Richard Dawkins infamously sums up these complaints and more in The God Delusion when he calls God “a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
So where and how to begin responding to these raving claims? One good place to begin is Paul Copan’s new book, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Copan systematically addresses each of the above objections and more. He not only presents helpful rejoinders to the new atheists’ objections but also provides an astute analysis of Old Testament ethics that demonstrates a proper sensitivity to (1) the historical-geographical context of the ancient Near East, (2) numerous complex and perplexing hermeneutical issues that arise in Old Testament studies, and (3) the moral, social, and cultural presuppositions that contemporary readers invariably bring to their reading of the Old Testament.
In sum, what Copan offers is an informed, patient, and crucially nuanced treatment of the Old Testament moral code. Of course, as Copan rightly notes, the new atheists are not interested in nuance, so his responses to their objections are unlikely to change their minds or, for that matter, soften their inflammatory rhetoric. For those who are willing to approach the text sympathetically, Copan’s treatment of these thorny issues is richly rewarding.
Here is a brief summary of some issues Copan addresses and how he responds to each:
- Arbitrary Dietary Laws: The Israelites were only permitted to eat split-hooved and cud-chewing animals. And they could only eat fish with fins and scales. Isn’t this irrationally arbitrary and just plain kooky? Copan proposes that the point of these requirements was their symbolism. Organisms that meet these criteria do not cross spheres or living boundaries. That is, they live entirely on land or in the water. Thus, the dietary criteria symbolized purity for the Israelites. And “unclean animals symbolized what Israel was to avoid—mixing in with the unclean beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations. Israel was to be like the clean animals—distinct, in their own category, and not having mixed features” (81).
- Polygamy: The Old Testament was apparently misogynistic. After all, doesn’t it endorse polygamy? Copan notes, however, that the fact that many O.T. patriarchs had multiple wives does not imply that this was a morally acceptable practice. “Is” does not imply “ought.” (This is just one instance of many where this principle applies to Old Testament ethical issues.) Also, Copan shows how passages that have been interpreted as showing divine approval of polygamy (Exod. 21:7-11; Deut. 21:15-17; 2 Sam. 12:8) actually do no such thing.
- Slavery: Ancient Israel’s moral code permitted slavery. This is morally repugnant and a sure sign that the God of the Old Testament was indeed a “moral monster,” right? Not so fast. First, Copan notes that the Old Testament “servant” (ebed) should not be equated with “slave” as we understand the term (vis-à-vis Amercian slavery). In ancient Israel, such servanthood “was a voluntary (poverty-induced) arrangement not forced” (126). Secondly, the Old Testament standard for servanthood constituted an enormous moral advance on other ancient Near East practices where slaves were considered property and were stripped of their familial and social identities. O.T. servants were considered persons, not property. And, thirdly, the Old Testament servant laws were actually devised to protect the poor. “Israelite servitude was induced by poverty, was entered into voluntarily, and was far from optimal. The intent of these laws was to combat potential abuses, not to institutionalize servitude” (127).
- Killing the Canaanites: In several O.T. passages, God commands the Israelites to completely destroy several Canaanite people groups, including the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. This appears to be blatant genocide. Copan makes many interesting points in response to this accusation, most importantly that this was not genocide or “ethnic cleansing” because God’s command was not was not based on ethnicity but sin (162). In fact, Canaanites who repented were spared and welcomed into the Israelite community. Secondly, we tend to overlook just how severe the Canaanite debauchery was, as they were steeped in extreme idolatry and sexual perversion. Thirdly, as Copan puts it, “the conquest of Canaan was far less widespread and harsh than many people assume” (170). The O.T. phrase translated “utterly destroy” does not imply that literally everyone is killed, but need only suggest a good trouncing of the enemy. And, fourthly, the main concern was to eliminate the Canaanite sins and the deadly religious practices that inspired them rather than the Canaanite people themselves.
Copan offers a variety of observations intended to either diminish or eliminate our moral qualms with God’s commands and moral regulations in the Old Testament. Depending on the reader, these will be more or less convincing. But however helpful or persuasive his points are, we need to keep in mind the biblical observation that God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8). In particular, as Copan wisely notes, “We live in a time when we’re very alert to racial discrimination and intolerance, but we aren’t as sensitized to sexual sin as past generations were. We live in a time that sees death as the ultimate evil. Perhaps we need to be more open to the fact that some of our moral intuitions aren’t as finely tuned as they ought to be. The same may apply to our thoughts about what God should or shouldn’t have done in Canaan” (192).
One of Copan’s emphases in the book is that we should not resist the new atheists’ accusation that the Old Testament ethical standards were imperfect: “Instead of glossing over some of the inferior moral attitudes and practices we encounter in the Old Testament, we should freely acknowledge them. We can point out that they fall short of the ideals of Genesis 1-2 and affirm with our critics that we don’t have to advocate such practices for all societies” (62). This cannot be stressed enough.
What we find in many of the Old Testament laws and regulations are either temporary concessions to human sin (e.g., regulations regarding divorce, slavery, and polygamy) or God’s punitive response to human sin (i.e., God’s commands to destroy certain Canaanite people groups). The new atheists consistently ignore or refuse to adequately appreciate this context of God’s response to human fallenness. Scripture’s moral “ideal” when it comes to all human relations, as Copan notes, is found in Genesis 1:26-27, which affirms humans as divine image-bearers who should work together in harmony. It is also evident later in the New Testament, such as in some of the teachings of Jesus. To represent the Old Testament moral code in isolation of this is a gross distortion of Scripture and a complete Christian ethic.
My criticisms of the book are minor. First, Copan occasionally refers to God as “other-centered” (e.g., pp. 27 and 201), presumably to combat some new atheists’ claims that God is ego-centric or, in Dawkins’ terms, “megalomaniacal.” While God is surely extremely other-concerned, even self-sacrificially, he is not other-centered. This would be inappropriate, since God deserves everyone’s primary respect and concern, including his own. (For a brilliant and inspiring exposition of this point, see Jonathan Edwards’ essay “The End for Which God Created the World.”)
My second quibble is less significant and essentially a matter of emphasis. There were a few places in the book where I thought Copan would have done well to concede the difficulty of some of the problematic O.T. passages. He does make this general point at times, as when he says, “For anyone who takes the Bible seriously, [the] Yahweh-war texts will certainly prove troubling” (188). But I was disappointed that Copan did not concede his (or anyone’s) inability to completely resolve the moral problems presented by a few other passages.
Again, these are really minor complaints, especially when you consider the breadth and depth of the discussion in Is God a Moral Monster? Because the book deals with so many controversial and sensitive subjects, I suppose that readers should expect to take issue with some of Copan’s analyses. (I was surprised that I agreed with nearly all of them.) But whether or not readers agree with Copan’s approach to each particular problem passage, his book is sure to educate and edify. Is God a Moral Monster? is an immensely valuable resource for anyone interested in Old Testament ethics or for those who seek informed responses to the new atheists’ objections concerning the topic. Copan is to be commended for this superb work.