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Is God A Moral Monster: Best Defense of the Old Testament


So says Gordon Wenham and Christopher J.H. Wright of Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2011). Wenham and Wright are Old Testament scholars of the first rank.

Their opinion carries weight, as does the exuberance of a galaxy of other excellent scholars found at the end of this blog post. Gordon Wenham says: "Lucid, lively, and very well informed, this book is the best defense of Old Testament ethics that I have read. A must-read for all preachers and Bible study leaders." Christopher J. H. Wright says: "This is the book I wish I had written myself. It is simply the best book I have read that tackles the many difficulties that the Old Testament presents to thinking and sensitive Christians and that give such ammunition to the opponents of all religious faith.

Paul Copan writes in such a simple, straightforward way, yet covers enormous issues comprehensively and with reassuring biblical detail and scholarly research. Use this book to stock your mind with gracious but factual answers in those awkward conversations.

Better still, give it to those who are swayed by the shallow prejudice of popular atheism without reading the Bible for themselves. I strongly recommend this book. We have wanted and needed it for a long time." I learned about the book from Justin Taylor who links to a synopsis found in Copan's own blog post: Here are some of the highlights of the book:

* THE HUMANIZING NATURE OF ISRAEL'S LAWS IN CONTRAST TO THE REST OF THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST: I argue that virtually point-for-point, Israel's legislation is significantly morally elevated-even if not ideal or universal. God meets Israel in the midst of deeply embedded fallen social structures and elevates them, even if not to the ideal level (cp. Matthew 19:8, where Moses permits certain laws because of the hardness of human hearts).

The Mosaic Law's morally elevated status is apparent in the far less-severe nature Israel's punishments; the Mosaic Law's lack of mutilation texts (I argue that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is definitely NOT a mutilation text); the protection of runaway slaves from their masters (anti-return laws); servants automatically freed if bodily harm comes to them from their employers (anti-harm laws); and so on.

* CANAANITE WARFARE DIRECTED AT NON-COMBATANTS: Noncombatants were not targeted in the Canaanite (or Amalekite) campaigns but rather non-civilian military, political, and religious centers ("cities") like Jericho, Ai, and Hazor; these were not civilian centers. War texts using comprehensive language regarding "women" and "children" are stock ancient Near Eastern phrasing, even if women and children are not involved.

* HYPERBOLE AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN BRAVADO: The biblical text, like other ancient Near Eastern war texts, uses exaggeration or hyperbole (.e.g., "let nothing remain"everything that breathed"). However, the biblical text itself (especially Judges, which is literarily linked to Joshua) reveals that a lot of breathing Canaanites remained and lived among the Israelites. "Wiping out" all the Canaanites was not what Moses intended in Deuteronomy 20 (the term "driving out" or "dispossessing" is much more prominent in these texts-which is NOT the same as "wiping out"). So Joshua (who didn't literally destroy everything that breathed) "carried out what Moses commanded."

* CONCUBINAGE AS HAVING A "SECONDARY WIFE": A "concubine" often refers to a "secondary" wife rather than a female used for a male's sexual pleasure (e.g., after the first/"primary" wife has died-like Abraham's wife Keturah after Sarah died).

* POLYGAMY PROHIBITED: Leviticus 18:18 indicates that polygamy is prohibited by the Mosaic Law; it is not morally permissible even if less than ideal-which is unfortunately commonly assumed by Christians.

* OLD TESTAMENT SLAVERY AS INDENTURED SERVITUDE: While critics commonly equate Old Testament "slavery" with the antebellum South's common harsh treatment of slaves, the term "slave(ry)" is misleading and should be understood as "contractual employment" or "indentured servitude"-much like a sports player who is "owned" by a team or a person contracted to serve a set time in the military. Normally, according to the Law of Moses, servitude within Israel was poverty-induced, and it was to be voluntary and temporary (no more than seven years). I deal with a number of difficult servitude passages.

* NEW TESTAMENT SLAVERY AND ONESIMUS: I dip into the New Testament on the topic of slavery, as this is a different issue than Old Testament indentured servitude. In addition to arguing for the radically humanizing treatment of slaves in the New Testament, I argue that Onesimus was in all likelihood not a slave; that interpretation of Philemon comes significantly later in church history. For example, there are no "flight" verbs in Philemon, which would be strange if Onesimus had run away. Various scholars argue that Philemon and Onesimus were not only (alienated) Christian brothers, but possibly biological brothers as well.

Here are other endorsements: "The New Atheists have attacked the morality of the Old Testament with a vengeance. In honesty, many Christians will confess that they struggle with what looks like a primitive and barbaric ethic.

Paul Copan helps us truly understand the world of the Old Testament and how it relates to us today. I recommend this book for all who want to make sense of the Old Testament."

Tremper Longman III, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, Westmont College "In his latest book, Paul Copan strides boldly forward into a theological lions' den, fearlessly confronting some of the most difficult ethical issues surrounding the Christian Scriptures, and the faith built upon them.

I can't think of another work that deals with these complex and sensitive issues so comprehensively, and, at the same time, in such clear and approachable language. His defense of the biblical God is learned, courageous, and convincing."

Philip Jenkins, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities, Pennsylvania State University "In a civil and reasoned manner, Paul Copan leads us through the wilderness of challenges to the God and the message of the Old Testament.

By amassing and clearly expressing arguments aware of the ancient Near Eastern cultural context and of the Hebrew text of the Bible, the author presents a thorough treatment of key issues. This is essential and fascinating reading for anyone engaged in the 'New Atheism' debate."

Richard S. Hess, Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Denver Seminary "Paul Copan is the nation's leading apologist regarding problems with the biblical text, and Is God a Moral Monster? is vintage Copan. He takes on current New Atheist biblical critics and powerfully addresses virtually every criticism they have raised. I know of no other book like this one, and it should be required reading in college and seminary courses on biblical introduction."

J.P.Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, and author of The God Question "Paul Copan has done an outstanding job of explaining some of the most confusing and puzzling issues that emerge from the pages of the Old Testament. He engages with a myriad of serious philosophical and moral challenges to the portrayal of God in the Old Testament, and he answers these challenges adroitly with clear and easy-to-understand explanations from the biblical texts themselves.

This is a very readable book, and it will be a valuable resource for all Christians who desire to understand the Old Testament in today's context. I heartily recommend it."

J. Daniel Hays, Professor of Biblical Studies, Ouachita Baptist University "Most Christians today, myself included, are in dialogue with people we love who have been heavily swayed by the criticisms of Richard Dawkins, et al. against the morality of the Bible and its depiction of a horrific Yahweh God. What struck me in reading Is God a Moral Monster? is the degree to which we as Christians need to rethink in radical ways our reading and understanding of the sacred text if we are to have any persuasive reasoning in this on-going exchange.

Sometimes the real monster lies not so much in criticisms from 'without' as in our own holding to certain incorrect paradigms of thinking about the Bible. Aside from the apologetic importance of Professor Copan's work, of far greater value for Christians the way in which his book forces us to reevaluate the very nature of the God we worship. Read this book. It will awaken your vision of God in wonderful ways."

William J. Webb, Professor of New Testament and author of Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals Heritage Theological Seminary "The most difficult questions that can be asked about Scripture include a list of ethical challenges to several Old Testament texts and teachings.

These issues have been taken up with more fervor of late, owing to the growing popularity of radical atheism and skepticism. There's virtually no scholar I'd rather read on these subjects than Paul Copan. Building on his earlier research, Paul launches here into a treatment of a detailed list of such challenges, including the so-called genocidal conquest of Canaan. This handbook of responses to these and other tough ethical issues is able to both diminish the rhetoric, as well as alleviate many concerns.

I recommend this volume heartily."

Gary R. Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor, Liberty University and Seminary "Paul Copan has written a most powerful and cogent defense of the character of God in the Old Testament in the face of vicious attacks by the New Atheists claiming that the Old Testament God is nothing less than a 'moral monster.'

I have difficulty finding adequate superlatives to express my joy and satisfaction in the masterful accomplishments of this book. It represents a landmark study of theodicy (the justification of God) in Old Testament ethics. Copan tackles such difficult issues as the alleged misogynist view of women and the practice of slavery in the Old Testament, and shows how God sets forth His egalitarian ideals at the very beginning (Genesis 1-2), condescends to work with Israel where He finds them in their hard-heartedness, but at the same time gives laws which are generally a great moral improvement over those found elsewhere in the ancient Near East and which call Israel steadily back toward the creation ideals. Copan provides the most comprehensive and compelling treatment I have ever seen on the problematic issue of God's command to destroy the Canaanites.

This book not only grapples with specific Old Testament passages and issues, but places them in the larger perspectives of God's universal blessing to all nations, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and modern issues such as Islamic jihad and the divine foundation of goodness and morality (vs. the claims of naturalism). For those who struggle with the claims of the New Atheists, or who have difficulty coming to grips with the picture of God in the Old Testament, this user-friendly book is an indispensible resource." Richard M. Davidson, Chair, Department of Old Testament Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament Interpretation

While we are on the subject of OT ethics, one might also note a blog post by Dr. Claude Mariottini in which he summaries Richard Hess's discussion of alleged "genocide" in the OT: [...] that is, God's order to the people of Israel to kill both the men, women, and children of the conquered cities (1 Samuel 15:3). One good example of God's order is found in the instructions for Holy War in Deuteronomy 20:

"But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them -- the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites -- just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 20:16-18 NRSV).

Hess's paper dealt with several passages in the Hebrew Bible dealing with the wars of conquest and whether archaeology proves or does not prove the reality of genocide in the wars of conquest. Hess noticed that in the rules of Holy War in Deuteronomy 20, the Israelites were commanded to conquer the cities ("towns" in the NRSV) that belonged to the inhabitants of the land.

In his presentation, Hess demonstrated that the Hebrew word for city, 'îr (עיר), means either a city, a village, a fortified place in a citadel where the king lived, or a fort. Most people in Canaan lived in unwalled villages. A fortified place was composed primarily of soldiers. Thus, the people living in the cities were not civilians, but military people employed to defend the citadel.

Thus, when the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Canaanite cities, they were not commanded to destroy the villages where civilians lived, but they were commanded to kill the armed people (soldiers) who were defending the city.

Hess also showed that the translation "men, women, and children" is not a good translation of the Hebrew words in the text. Literally, the Hebrew words mean "from men to women," meaning everyone who were in those fortified locations. In the wars of conquest, the text never mentions Israel conquering the villages or the places where the non-combatant population lived.

In fact, the Old Testament clearly says that most of the Canaanite population were not conquered. This is clearly seen in the books of Joshua and Judges. Below, I give a few verses where the Bible says that many of the population of Canaan were alive after the wars of conquest ended:

Joshua 13:1: "Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the LORD said to him, "You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed."

The text then goes on to list all the places not conquered. These lands include the land of the Philistines, those of the Geshurites, several territories that belonged to the Canaanites, and the land belonging to the Amorites.

Judges 1:21 says that the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem. Judges 1:27 says that Manasseh did not drive out the Canaanites who lived at Beth-shean, at Taanach, at Dor, at Ibleam, and at Megiddo.

The text also emphasizes that none of the population of the many Canaanite villages were conquered: "Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites continued to live in that land" (Judges 1:27).

Judges 1:29 says that Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer. Judges 1:30 says that Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, nor the inhabitants of Nahalol. Judges 1:31 says that Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, nor the inhabitants of Sidon, nor the inhabitants of Ahlab, nor the inhabitants of many other Canaanite cities.

These texts and many others clearly show that there was no genocide. In wars people die, both combatants and non-combatants. Whether people approve of fighting wars or not is another matter, but the fact remains that although people died in Israel's wars of conquest, there was no genocide of the Canaanite population.


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