On 11 September 2001 Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Centre, killing thousands of innocent people. Ostensibly they did this because they believed God commanded them to do so. This event has reinvigorated a fear that has been latent in Western psyche since the 17th century when religious wars tore Europe apart. The fear of religious fanaticism, of people willing to murder hundreds in the name of God, has been whipped up by the new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al.
The phenomenon is not just limited to the popular atheological literature. These fears went centre stage recently at a conference entitled “My Ways Are Not Your Ways” which was put on by the Centre for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. Sceptics presenting at the conference argued passionately that the God of the Bible issues commands which are at odds with modern understandings of morality; adultery is punished with death, God is portrayed as commanding the killing of non-combatants in “holy wars” against the Canaanites, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, the Bible appears to approve of slavery and polygamy, and so forth.
In Is God a Moral Monster? Paul Copan attempts to address some of these concerns. What’s novel about Copan’s approach is that, unlike many standard philosophical responses to the above problems, Copan draws on recent conservative Old Testament scholarship by people like Gordon Wenham, Tremper Longman, Christopher Wright, Walter Kaiser, Richard Hess and numerous others. This is novel as much of what has been going on in evangelical discussions of Old Testament ethics for decades has been done almost in isolation from contemporary philosophy of religion and vice versa. Copan, who has degrees both in Philosophy and in Biblical Studies, brings this material together in an accessible manner.
There is no point in hiding the fact that I am a fan of Copan’s book. In a few places Copan cites my own writings as sources of ideas and in other places the overlap with my own thoughts on these issues is considerable. I have recommended it to my son who intends to read it as soon as he has finished William Lane Craig’s On Guard. However, this review will not simply be an exercise in cheer-leading; I will attempt to both summarise Copan’s work and add critical comments.
Is God a Moral Monster? opens with a discussion on the new atheism in general. In chapters 3 and 4 Copan addresses the charge that God in the Old-Testament is both jealous and egocentrically demands worship. Then in chapter 5 he turns to the binding of Isaac. I will touch briefly on this chapter.
Abraham and Isaac
Robert Adams puts the problem of Abraham and Isaac as follows; a Christian committed to biblical authority believes the following three propositions:
 If God commands an action A then A is morally required;
 It is wrong to kill innocent human beings;
 God commanded Abraham to attempt to kill an innocent human being.
These propositions contradict each other. Copan utilises and adapts my own response to this dilemma in Abraham and Isaac – Did God Command the Killing of an Innocent? This can be summarised as follows: a careful reading of the text in its narrative context shows  is true only if a certain context is assumed. God commanded Abraham to kill his son in the highly unusual situation where Abraham knew that his son would not stay dead but would come down the mountain afterwards and live on to adulthood to father children of his own. On the other hand  is defensible only in a context where this unusual context does not apply; the rule to not kill the innocent applies to a world where people do not come back to life after they have been killed. Hence, the story of Abraham and Isaac, if taken literally, does not entail that God commanded something immoral or contradictory. Copan adds to my argument by adding some interesting exegetical material paralleling the command in chapter 22 with the promise in Gen 12. He also shows an interesting relationship between Isaac in chapter 22 and Ishmael in the previous chapter.
In chapter 6 Copan sketches a perspective on the Old Testament law which he calls “Incremental Steps for Hard Hearts”. Copan argues that the Mosaic law tolerates certain evils due to the “hardness of hearts” of the people it is addressed to. For this reason the law does not purport to lay down a perfect ideal but rather to incrementally move the ancient Israelites in a better direction. An analogy illustrates this concept. Suppose a government wanted to transform contemporary Saudi Arabia into a liberal democratic state. A wise and prudent government would probably not implement all the reforms overnight. Instead it would work incrementally, starting with the original culture and making gradual reforms or improvements towards the ideal over a period of years. If the reforms were brought in overnight this could well spark greater evils and jeopardise the entire reform process. Similarly, God in the ancient Near East does not lay down a perfect utopian society; instead he works within the existing legal and social structures and gradually moves towards the ideal which was revealed at creation.
I think something like this picture of incrementalism is correct. Further, no just or wise government abolishes all the evils in a given society. Lying, for example, is, at least in normal circumstances, wrong but a law criminalising lying would be oppressive as human nature and social practices would mean that every person in society would be at risk of prosecution; the evils of suppression would be greater than the deceit which results from tolerating lies. Thomas Aquinas argued that,
“[n]ot all the vices from which virtuous men abstain are prohibited by human law. Instead, the only vices prohibited are the more serious ones, which it is possible for the greater part of the multitude to abstain from … according to nature and also according to the customs of the country.”
It is plausible that in certain social contexts, a just government may tolerate certain cultural practices while at the same time regulating the harms associated with them and providing moral exhortation to move beyond it.
That said, I am not convinced by one particular argument Copan gives for incrementalism. Copan relies on an interpretation of Matt 19 that God forbade divorce at creation but tolerated divorce in the Mosaic Law due to the hardness of peoples hearts. Jesus in this New Testament passage points hearers beyond the Mosaic Law to the original creational ideal. This is a common reading of Matt 19; however, in Divorce and Remarriage David Instone-Brewer has argued compellingly that this reading is mistaken. Brewer argues that Jesus was not pointing beyond the Mosaic Law but simply defending the Shamanite interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 against the dominant Hillel interpretation of his time (I summarise this in “‘Till Death do us Part’ Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage“).
The statement “hardness of heart” was a reference to divorce being permitted (not tolerated) when a spouse was repeatedly and unrepentantly unfaithful to his or her vows. On this reading, divorce deviates from the creational ideal only in the way that restitution does; the creation ideal is that restitution should never be necessary because no one should steal but because people do steal, God permits victims to gain restitution.
In articulating an incrementalist perspective, Copan sometimes speaks as though the Mosaic Law is a temporary law, designed for a primitive people which has been superseded by the New Testament. However, nowhere does Copan address Jesus’ statement that he did not come to “to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matt 5:17) which, on the face of it, contradicts this claim. Nor does he engage with the work of scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl who argues that Paul, in fact, drew upon and applied Jewish Halakah to a new context where Jews and Gentiles were both members of the covenant community. This leaves one wondering how these kind of considerations fit into his picture.
The “Weirdness” of The Torah
In chapters 7-8 Copan addresses The Torah’s “weirdness”. He summarises different rationales for the food and cultic laws of the Old Testament such as, unclean foods, ceremonial washing and so forth. These chapters are a little difficult to follow because it is not clear how the different symbols of life, death, creational boundaries, predator, victim and the role of blood relate to each other.
However, Copan does do a good job of showing how these laws functioned to symbolically separate Israel apart as a particular nation. He argues that they function like a monk’s habit or a monastic vow of chastity; the monk, as part of a vow, agrees to abstain from perfectly licit activities and dresses differently in order to set himself apart for a particular priestly vocation.
Ancient Near Eastern Context
Chapters 9-12 provide specific commentary on particular Old Testament laws considered to be morally problematic. Here, Copan helpfully appropriates a lot of material which many critics appear to not be able to find, despite much of it being readily available in commentaries and monographs on Old Testament ethics.
One interesting feature of Copan’s analysis, which flows from his “incrementalist” perspective, is his constant putting of the laws into their ancient Near Eastern context and reading the Mosaic Laws from that vantage point. An example will illustrate. From the perspective of a 21st century society which has abolished slavery, the laws in Exodus about the release of slaves sound like a step backwards towards slavery. In our own history, we identify slavery with the practices of slave owning in the antebellum south. However, to an ancient Near Eastern society, in which slavery was already institutionalised, the tenor is very different. The text commands slave owners to release their slaves within seven years, to liberate any slaves being abused immediately with no compensation to the owner and to provide shelter to any slave fleeing a harsh master. It commands that people are not to be pressed into slavery against their will and so on. In this context, the law is a critique of the abuses of slavery and an enjoinment to treat slaves as people not property. Copan also points out that Old Testament slavery was more like a form of indentured servitude than the kind of slave owning that occurred in the antebellum south (I argue for this in “Slavery, John Locke and the Bible“).
In situation after situation Copan argues that the Torah is speaking into an already existing body of ancient Near Eastern case law and that often it reformed or critiqued these laws, making substantial improvements to them. He notes, for example, how the “trial by ordeal” in Numbers 5 occurs against a backdrop of existing “river ordeals” where suspects of a crime would be thrown into a pit of tar and declared innocent if they did not drown. Numbers 5 disarmed the existing trial by ordeal which made it easy for a woman to pass. Similarly, Copan notes that Deut 25:1-3, the law which restricted flogging to 25 lashes on the grounds that any more was degrading, while sounding harsh to our ears, was issued in a legal context where the minimum number of lashes was 100 and could be as high as 200.
Copan also clarifies cultural practices behind the text. For example, Copan points out that the “bride price” mentioned in The Torah did not involve the purchasing of women as property but was a form of financial security provided for the wife as protection against her being abandoned.
In a similar vein, Copan points out that Deut 22:28-29 required a man who had seduced a woman to marry her or else provide her with financial security. He makes the point that it does not command a rape victim to marry her rapist (I show this too in “Does the Bible Teach that a Rape Victim has to Marry her Rapist?“).
There are, in these sections, some claims that reasonable people might debate. In discussing human sacrifice, Copan accepts that Jepthah actually sacrificed his daughter and rejects the rival reading that she was set apart as a consecrated virgin on the basis of what appears to be an ad populum – most scholars do not accept this rival reading. I think there is something to it and it is worth exploring.
Copan appears to take it for granted that the capital sanctions in The Torah are literal commands issued by the court to kill people. In a short paragraph he mentions, but does not engage with, the conclusions of some scholars such as Raymond Westbrook, Joe Sprinkle, Walter Kaiser and others who argue on the basis of both internal textual evidence and external evidence about ancient Near Eastern laws that they “reflect the scribal compilers’ concern for perfect symmetry and delicious irony rather than the pragmatic experience of the law courts” and “were not meant to be complied with literally” but rather to “serve an admonitory function”. These authors argue that in normal cases those convicted could ransom their life or limb by making a monetary payment and/or agreeing to some lesser penalty which was usually decided by the courts. I think the arguments for this position are quite strong and would strengthen Copan’s case considerably. I examined them for them in my series “Capital Punishment in the Old Testament“.
One of the longest sections in the book concerns the massacre of the Canaanites. Here Copan makes several interesting arguments. In his article, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites: Divinely-Mandated Genocide or Corporal Capital Punishment”, Copan had suggested that the language of extermination in the conquest accounts was hyperbolic. Here he develops this point in detail. He observes that while early passages in Joshua describe Israel exterminating the inhabitants, later passages in Joshua and Judges proceed on the assumption this never literally happened. He also notes the pervasive use of hyperbolic language of “total destruction” in texts of this genre. These observations are supplemented with archaeological evidence to the effect that infiltration and struggle better fits the historical picture than conquest and extermination.
Even more interesting is Copan’s appropriation of Richard Hess’s position. Hess argues that the word translated as “cities” in Deut 20:16 means “fortresses” and argues that textual descriptions of Jericho and Ai, plus what we know of the archaeology and from the Amarna Letters, suggests they were probably forts and not cities. While I agree that the language of these texts is hyperbolic (I have defended this claim in detail in my series “God and the Genocide of the Canaanites“) here I am not entirely convinced by Hess’s position. The command of Deut 20:16 to leave alive nothing that breathes occurs in a context where civilian populations of cities have been mentioned only a few verses earlier in Deut 20:14.
God and Morality
Copan finishes the book with a popular level apologetic against the claim that religion causes wars and a popular level discussion of the relationship between God and morality. Here Copan’s analysis is rather quick and there is little engagement with the philosophical works on these questions. He makes no mention of Wolterstorff’s argument that human rights cannot have a secular grounding. And while he mentions the argument of Michael Ruse that naturalistic evolution provides grounds for moral scepticism, the more recent and detailed arguments of Mark Linville in “The Moral Argument” or Sharon Street’s “A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value” or even Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism in “Naturalism Defeated” are not mentioned. This omission is strange given these authors provide much more carefully crafted arguments for the conclusions Copan stakes out.
The popular nature of these final discussions highlights another feature of Copan’s book. On the one hand it is written in a popular tone aimed at the Christian layman and ostensibly responds to the new atheists, but on the other hand it draws on and utilises some serious Old Testament scholarship. There are allusions and responses to serious scholars such as Randall Rauser and Wes Moriston at crucial points. This wide rhetorical and scholarly range means that parts of the book will appeal more to scholars than to a general audience, while the for the final parts the reverse is more likely to be true. On the other hand, this is a book that may truly be said to have something for just about everyone.
The book responds to moral criticisms of the Old Testament for the most part by showing either that the Old Testament does not really endorse the practice in question or that when one takes into account both the passages’ context in the ancient Near East and the incrementalist position, the moral offence is removed. While this sort of analysis is often appropriate, it also suggests a certain imbalance; after all, one function of Canonical revelation is to challenge, reform and critique the mores and values of the reader. In some instances when the Old Testament contradicts contemporary moral norms it could be because these norms are mistaken. There is a real danger of idolatry here, of assuming that God is a 21st Century Western Liberal and that he shares the same trivial attitude towards sexual indiscretions that we do and is opposed to the harsher punishments common in non-Western countries and that any departure from contemporary mores is God simply “accommodating primitive middle eastern people”. I agree that much criticism of the Old Testament is acontextual and is often naïve in its exegesis; but it also is naïve in its arrogant dogmatic confidence in Western liberal ideals. Perhaps in some cases, the Old Testament offends because we have read it correctly and it highlights that we and our culture are mistaken.
Overall, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? is a must read for anyone interested in Old Testament ethics. It brings together important material that is otherwise scattered and demonstrates how this material responds to a line of moral criticism that has, by and large, been neglected by Christian philosophers until now. It is suitable for laymen who struggle to understand what the Old Testament is all about and provides a good example of how evangelicals can appropriate the moral teaching of the Old Testament. It is also a useful tool for scholars and Ministers as it explains and provides sources for answering many of the hard questions that arise from the Old Testament.