book response: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan (2011)

During my Haiti trip I brought my Kindle and read in transit and in down time. After finishing Tom Sawyer, I read a book I bought on sale at Amazon, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan, a Christian philospher and apologist who teaches in Florida. He uses the criticisms of the Bible by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism as the topics for his chapters. I found the book helpful but uneven. Some things were really good, but not everything. I have many highlights which I will be interacting with in this book response.

The following assertion is an example of the "not-so good" because it is reductionist.
The Theme of the Pentateuch: Abraham’s Faith and Moses’s Unbelief Biblical scholars have pointed out that the theme of faith holds the Pentateuch (Genesis–Deuteronomy) together at its seams. The two major players are Abraham and Moses. Abraham is the positive example of faith, while Moses is the negative example. Abraham had faith without the law of Moses, which was given at Mount Sinai. Despite his wavering, he trusted God’s promise, and so he was declared righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). By contrast, Moses actually failed in his faith—even though he lived under the law given at Sinai. p.43
The footnote points to the work of John H. Sailhamer who is certainly a respectable source, yet if I can rattle off a few examples of Abraham's lack of faith easily, I think Copan leaves himself open to readers' doubts. This theme is attractive yet needs more development than provided in the couple pages he devotes to it.

In contrast, I am powerfully attracted to his summary statement about the crucifixion of Jesus. "God’s glory is revealed in God’s self-humiliation." p. 53 I'm guilty of being fickle. However, my reading background in theology allows me to receive some things with ease and remain skeptical of others. Your own reading mileage will vary as well.

Copan looks squarely in the eye of the ugliness of the Old Testament.
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. We can also show that any of the objectionable practices we find in the Old Testament have a contrary witness in the Old Testament as well. p.62
For Copan, these aren't contradictions, but accommodations of God for the warped humanity he seeks to save, the very line of reasoning Jesus used when asked about divorce laws. Jesus says divorce was explicitly permitted in the Torah because of the hardness of our hearts.

The laws are not only concerned with restricting the wickedness within but also with distinguishing their culture from those without. For example, the kosher food laws that forbid God's gift to humanity, bacon, to Jews. Why such hardship? "Every meal was to remind them of their redemption. Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations, choosing them as the means of blessing the world." p.81 There was to be no distinction between secular and sacred or church and state in the Mosaic culture. Everything was sacred.

But some legislation was over the top. Although many parents can sympathize with such extreme laws such as stoning rebellious adolescents, we can't actually endorse them. It's lunacy. Copan offers a posssibility, though it doesn't hold much water for me. "Especially in exemplary or first-time cases, God seems especially heavy-handed. God isn’t to be trifled with. He takes sin seriously, and he is often setting a precedent with first-time offenses." p.90 My difficulty is what this implies about God. Is God consistent or not? In my reading, such laws seem much more human than divine in their origin which leads to questions on how inspired are these scriptures. In later topics, I suspect Copan might have the same questions.

When Copan contrasts the Mosaic laws with contemporary legislation from other Ancient Near Eastern societies, the Israelites look like progressives. However, the slavery laws, which are atrocious are given a pass for being on an incrementalist path by God. 
This was also the type of incremental strategy taken by President Abraham Lincoln. Though he despised slavery and talked freely about this degrading institution, his first priority was to hold the Union together rather than try to abolish slavery immediately. Being an exceptional student of human nature, he recognized that political realities and predictable reactions required an incremental approach. The radical abolitionist route of John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison would (and did!) simply create a social backlash against hard-core abolitionists and make emancipation all the more difficult. p. 153
I could work with this if there wasn't so much non-incrementalist laws as well, e.g. so many offenses requiring the death penalty.


The main reason I bought this book was to learn how Copan handles the genocidal passages in Deuteronomy and Joshua. He notes that within the Biblical texts, the claims of complete extermination, were contradicted by later appearances of those tribes in later history. Also, the exemptions for Canaanites such as Rahab and the village of Gibeon demonstrate God's permission for incomplete destruction. Using examples of hyperbolic language from other ancient near eastern documents, Copan shows that hyperbole is normal for battle campaign descriptions. The question arises in my head, did God speak in hyperbole through Moses to Joshua and the Israelites? Copan seems to anticipate this question but cheats on his solution. He blames Moses for using colloquial hyperbole.
Joshua carried out what Moses commanded (Deut. 7 and 20), which means that Moses’s language is also an example of ancient Near Eastern exaggeration. He did not intend a literal, all-encompassing extermination of the Canaanites. p. 185
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Do you see what he does there? He is not acting like a dedicated inerrantist. He is saying God's message got muddled when it came through Moses. He could also be saying Moses communicated in person God's hyperbole with a wink of the eye, but it was lost in the transmission to us today. In that case, he was accurately communicating God's words to his immediate audience, but not to us, today's readers. Maybe some of us did read into the text the hyperbole, but the church has been guilty of using these texts to justify her own acts of terror. Jesus also used hyperbole. Most believers throughout the church's history get that, which is why most of us retain both our hands and eyes. This is a big deal. What God says is not the entirety of what he means. Proof texting is a deadly game. Context is so important. The most important context is that Jesus reveals God. The most important revelation of God's character is that He is Love. This information from the New Testament needs to color everything we read in the Old Testament.

But wait, say my atheist and skeptical friends. Even if the Israelites didn't commit genocide, they did rack up a body count. Their ferocity seemed to be spiritually fueled by God's wrath. What is to be made of God's wrath? Isn't it embarrassing for the modern believer? It's not when one considers the atrocities practiced by the Canaanites and atrocities in general. He quotes Miroslav Volf who lived through the Balkan war.
Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love. p. 192
Copan comments, "The apostle Paul brings these features together: 'Behold then the kindness and severity of God' (Rom. 11:22)." p. 192

The last objection he considers is hell. Why shouldn't God bring everybody to heaven. Again he looks to Volf.
Why doesn’t God show absolute hospitality to all without exclusion? Isn’t this the truly peaceful alternative?” Miroslav Volf astutely observes that “absolute hospitality” becomes difficult when the unrepentant perpetrators sit down with their unhealed, violated victims. Such a perverse view of hospitality would actually “enthrone violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.” p. 201
I have to concede this is a strong argument.

I learned much from this book. I think Copan's arguments may concede more than he intends. The argument at-large is a good one, even when individual arguments can be weak. His explanation of ancient near eastern culture, based on current archaeology is excellent. This book, however, is not the final word for me on the genocidal passages, but it does contribute to mute the alarm when I read these passages. Other books that have helped are The Joshua Delusion by Earl and Divine Presence amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua by Brueggemann. I talked about them last year, here on the blog.
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