Making Sense of a gracious God within the Old Testament drama

Is God a Moral Monster?Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011)

The Old Testament (OT) at points can be extremely difficult to understand. Complicating matters are remarks made by popular Neo-Atheists like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris criticizing the OT God as a jealous, angry deity who supports heinous acts like genocide, human sacrifice, ethnocentrism, chattel slavery, and misogyny. Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God offers a well-written lay level response to these criticisms, demonstrating how the redemptive movement of God in Israel’s history puts the proper perspective on difficult OT passages, such as those relating to ceremonial cleanliness, kosher foods, cruel punishment, misogyny, bride-price, polygamy, concubines, slavery, and Canaanite killings.

Copan observes that not only are social aspects of Ancient Near East life alien to moderns, but the ancient social structures were badly damaged by the fall. It is within this context God starts a covenant nation, gives the law, and forms a culture. The OT law, however, was not the permanent ideal for all times and places, but looked forward to “a new, enduring covenant” (59). God met His chosen people where they were at, showed them a higher ideal, but “didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for” but “moved incrementally” (61, italics in original). The Ancient Near East cultures permitted slavery and the brutal treatment of slaves. The OT law permitted slavery but limited the kinds of punishments used on slaves. The New Testament declared masters and slaves as equal, but the ultimate ideal is the “genuine realization of creation ideals in Genesis 1:26-27, in which God’s image-bearers live and work together and are fairly, graciously treated; they are viewed as full persons and equals; and genuine humanness is restored in Christ, the second Adam/the new man” (63).

Old Testament heroes were flawed. Abraham lied about Sarah, Moses murdered an Egyptian, and David power raped Bathsheba and murdered Uriah; however, Copan points out that one must avoid the “Is-Ought” fallacy, and “the way biblical characters happen to act isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behavior.” The status placed on these OT heroes was not their moral perfection, but their uncompromising dedication to the cause of Yahweh, and trust in His promises (66-67).

Copan spends several chapters addressing the New Atheist criticism that the killing of the Canaanites is tantamount to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Militating against the charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing are the facts that God waited 430 years to judge the Canaanites as “the last resort” when their corrupting moral practices reached their lowest depths (159-160), that God’s command to destroy nations was never meant to be a “universally binding standard for all time and all cultures” (161), that Israel experienced divine judgment when she sinned (163), that Joshua’s use of Ancient Near East conventional warfare language, a form of exaggeration, precludes the literalness of statements about complete annihilation of a particular people group (170-173), that some Canaanites who responded positively to the God of Israel received mercy (175), that noncombatant Canaanites live outside cities like Jericho and Ai, which were government/military installations (176), and that Deuteronomy 20 indicates Canaanite cities could have made peace with Israel (180). The OT was not the ideal, but was part of a redemptive movement to the ideal, which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Copan lastly points out that Neo-Atheists can recognize morals and to a certain extent live by a moral code; however, they have not the philosophical foundations to explain why they are rights-bearing, valuable individuals (210-211). People have dignity and intrinsic knowledge of morality because they are created in God’s image, which is a better explanation why moral absolutes exist.

Is Yahweh the moral monster the New Atheists paint him out to be? According to the evidence, nothing could be further from the truth! What are your thoughts?

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