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Is God a Moral Monster? A Review of Paul Copan’s Book

March 17th, 2011 by Matt

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.

Is God a Moral Monster?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.

The Review
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:

[1] If God commands an action A then A is morally required;

[2] It is wrong to kill innocent human beings;

[3] 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 [3] 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 [2] 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?“).

Some Criticisms
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.

Final Thoughts
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.

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18 responses so far ↓

  • Paul Copan and Matt have some joint projects coming up that those interested in the topic of this book might want to look out for:

    Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan “Old Testament Ethics,” Lexham Bible Dictionary (2011).

    Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan “Some Reflections on the Ethics of Yahweh Wars” Old Testament ‘Holy War’ and Christian Morality: Perspectives and Prospects edited by Jeremy Evans, Heath Thomas and Paul Copan (Paternoster Press, 2011).

    Matthew Flannagan “Did God Command Canaanite Genocide?” Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (B&H Academic 2011).

    Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan “Does the Bible Condone Genocide?” In Defense of the Bible A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (B&H Academic, 2012).

  • To be honest this book sounds like it’s at such a level that I, as a layman, am unlikely to pick it up.

    What I might be interested in reading would be a book dealing with these issues written by someone like yourself, and/or Paul, and two Rabbis, one Orthodox and one Reformed, and maybe even two Muslims (Shia and Sunni) too.

    The Old Testament is not simply a Christian series of books, but an Abrahamic series of books.

  • Thanks Matt, it sounds like an interesting read.

    I can see how a desire for symmetry shaped the Mosaic law. “An eye for an eye” demonstrates that the writer was concerned with the punishment being exactly equal to the crime, but in practise no society would function like that. Instead of one maimed person who was a burden to the society you ended up with two.

    Rather the council of the village would determine a punishment (probably a fine) that was severe enough to compensate the injury.

    Of course the exception was murder. There was no fine that could compensate for the loss of a human life.

  • I wouldn’t say that Paul. I have dipped in and out of this book and read chunks of it and I can tell you there is a lot of solid material in this book; it helpfully brings together a heap of stuff that would take you hours otherwise to locate and fish out of other sources so you have it all in one place with all the sources helpfully there if you want to go away and read any further on it and Copan’s own novel work and insights extend all that which is excellent.

    It being presented in a layman accessible style is more helpful if anything – I cannot stand reading technical material written in huge complicated waffley sentences with gigantic words I have to run to the dictionary to look up. I end up re-reading every second paragraph and I progress through the work at a snail’s pace. I love it when I finally track down an important source and I begin reading it and I can just fly through it because the author has the gift of presenting complex stuff in plain English and that is what this book does.

    While a text like you described would be awesome, while that text does not exist this book cannot be ignored if you want to look into this area.

  • […] has posted his review of Paul Copan’s new book Is God a Moral […]

  • Hello, thanks for your review. It looks like an interesting book. Can you please tell me if Copan deals with the issue of the death penalty for apostasy in Deut 13? If he does, would you mind briefly telling me what his take on it is, and whether you agree with it?

  • Sheesh, not too many folks _had_ a clue on how to read these ANE texts until you and Paul broke things down for us. Watch out for people commenting on how Paul’s work here isn’t technical enough. Clearly, they could have figured this stuff out themselves. Not really. You and Paul are studs! Thanks for the excellent review :-I

  • Interesting that you are recommending it to your son. How old is he? I would greatly appreciate any recommendations you may have of accessible philosophy books suitable for an intelligent 15 year old (my son). Thanks.

  • Hi Madeleine, thanks for the response, however for a layman to be interested there has to be something novel as well as accessible (and having read the OP I’m not sure that it would be that accessible for me) and a book by two Christians that says actually being a Christian is really quite nice isn’t as appealing as two members from each of the Abrahamic faiths examining the books of the Old Testament and comparing their analyses in support of their own faiths and in contrast to the other two.

    As you say, that book hasn’t been written. 🙁

  • Good review and highlighting of the issues. I might have to read this one.
    I like the idea of incrementalism. However its implications are huge and unacceptable to most. if this was in fact gods intention for the older books, ie aimed at those of its age, one has to question its relevance for today. If we need such books and commentary to read in parallel with the OT one worries about those endorsing it as the word for today. Similarly the new testament is aging and, one could argue, includes incrementalism.
    While some great moral teaching can be extracted it may be dangerous to take things ‘as read ‘. Is a new canon in order?

  • Ie should some of the older texts be removed from the canon?
    (Course it might take another 2000yrs to reach a consensus on a new canon 🙂 )

  • 25 lashes 40

    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.

    This seems to be discussing 2 different situations. General rule for warfare and specific exception for limited situations.

    In some instances when the Old Testament contradicts contemporary moral norms it could be because these norms are mistaken.

    I suspect the is more correct than most concede.

  • JCT wrote: “Hello, thanks for your review. It looks like an interesting book. Can you please tell me if Copan deals with the issue of the death penalty for apostasy in Deut 13? If he does, would you mind briefly telling me what his take on it is, and whether you agree with it?”

    No he does not deal with that issue in his book and I don’t know what Paul’s take on this passage is.

    I have looked at in detail myself but, off the cuff, first, in its context I don’t think this is a penalty for apostasy as such; it seems like it is more a penalty for treason or fomenting rebellion. It is analogous to laws in other vassal treaties of the time where a person (or a dreamer or a prophet) encouraged people to violate the covenant they had made with the king and rebel against his laws. Hence the issue is sedition. In this instance YHWH had made a covenant with Isreal and had taken on the role of the nation’s king.

    Second, I would simply suggest you have a look at my blog posts on capital punishment and also the herem warfare language on this blog in the past – I think both are linked to in the review above.

    I do intend to look into this more in the future so I may write a blog post on it.

  • Weekly Apologetics Bonus Links (03/11 – 03/18)…

    Here are this week’s recommended apologetics links. Enjoy: … A Good Review of Paul Copan’s Book: Is God a Moral Monster?…

  • Hello again Dr. Flanagan,

    Thank you so much for responding to my question. I very much look forward to you blog post dealing with Deut 13 in the future. In that post, would you please also compare/contrast it with the death penalty in Islam for apostasy? That would be much appreciated.

  • In case you’re wondering Thom Stark says this book of Paul’s is the “worst piece of apologetics” he’s read.

    Thom also wrote this:

  • […] Which brings us to where Matt and I part company. Matt is an apologist for the God of the Old Testament. But the God of the Old Testament is an moral monster. […]

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