Is God A Moral Monster?

Paul Copan is nothing if not ambitious. His latest book Is God a Moral Monster? is an attempt to make sense of the ethics of the Old Testament within the confines of two presuppositions: (1) the inerrancy of Scripture and (2) a theistically anchored version of moral realism. His goal is to defend the God of the Old Testament (YHWH, hereafter) from moral blame and counter the harangues of the so-called ‘New Atheists’ who would have YHWH condemned as the chief of sinners.

Growing out of the work he began in an article published by a similar title in Philosophia Christi and his earlier book When God Goes to Starbucks, Copan has produced a comprehensive guide to understanding the Old Testament’s ‘texts of terror,’ and he extends his argument to deal with some of the criticisms he received in his earlier work. Roughly, he employs the following strategy:

  • Demonstrate how the laws of Moses are embedded in a larger story that illuminates ethical ideals in ways that mere law-keeping cannot.
  • Establish the necessity of understanding OT ethics from an ancient Near Eastern (ANE) perspective, not a post-Enlightenment one.
  • Highlight the OT’s moral and spiritual tone as well as its redemptive spirit, which urges Israel toward a nobler ideal than possible through legislature.
  • Counter naturalism’s dubious foundations for objective morality, and contrast it with the better position of theism.

In addition, Copan defends the notion of God’s humility, and contends that his commands for worship are for our good, rather than his vanity. He also expounds upon the meaning of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Christ’s atonement arguing that in each case God’s intention was to give life.

Copan’s approach has many advantages. If he is successful, he will root the idea of worship in a natural law theory that envisages human well-being as being bound up with loving God, and he will avoid making morality subjective to arbitrary divine commands. He will have shown both through nuanced biblical interpretation and philosophical acumen, that the Bible is a reliable guide for knowing God and living well. Few have their faith shaken by discrepancies in the Gospels like they do by the violence in the Old Testament. Copan admirably understands the pastoral stakes, and has produced a text for anyone with floundering faith to thoughtfully consider.

However, success is a tall order. Not only is his goal a difficult one, but many of the moves he makes to get there are bound to be deemed controversial. William Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic is fundamental to Copan’s strategy of showing how the Mosaic Law was an “incremental step” towards a better ethic (as found in the NT). The idea is simple enough: In the ANE, the Law of Moses was a progressive document that made moral improvements over and against the prevailing legal traditions of the day. However, from our perspective, where Christian ethics have shaped our consciences and held sway over Western culture’s moral development, they appear barbarous and backwards. Copan deploys the redemptive-movement hermeneutic to get us to see the virtues behind the Mosaic Law, and largely succeeds. However, this will not sit comfortable with those who despise Webb’s views (though in this author’s opinion there is nothing to fear).

Those disposed towards an uncompromising view of divine sovereignty where God ordains all things for his glory will also find plenty to object to. Though, I for one count this is a good thing, others will question Copan’s statements that

God doesn’t take more credit than he deserves. For example, he doesn’t claim to make choices that morally responsible humans must make, nor does he take credit for being the author of evil in the name of “sovereignty” (which for some Christians tend to assign him when they praise God for evil things).

And after reflecting on God’s intentions to give us life, he quotes Thomas Torrance approvingly when he says, “God loves us more than he loves himself.” Surely, some will be tempted to call such a God an idolater.

Others will find his interpretative solutions novel. For example, in the (now much discussed) Deuteronomy 25:11-12 passage, Copan concludes that the English translations have it all wrong. The punishment of our “immodest lady wrestler” (Copan’s euphemism) should not be translated to say that her hand ought to be amputated, but that the hair of her groin should be shaved (!). Copan argues that this fits better as it is humiliation for humiliation, not mutilation for mutilation (humiliation?). Even if this is true, the reader will still be left wondering how this could be humane. Though it may have been more humane then the surrounding culture’s prescribed punishment, it is only barely so.

In his treatment of the obliteration texts, Copan argues that non-combatants, like women and children, were not included in the YHWH wars. Relying heavily on the work of Richard Hess, Copan avers that places like Jericho and Ai were strongholds that represented a defiant military presence in the land of Canaan. This may be true, and Copan gives this proposition a plausible hearing. However, the reader of Scripture will wonder why an inspired text made it a point to include noncombatants in its narrative. Literary arguments that appeal to common obliteration language in the surrounding ANE culture aren’t so helpful, as they compel the question as to why Scripture imitates such fabrications. True, everyone exaggerated their language back then, but everyone intended to be taken seriously as well. False bravado and the inspiration of Scripture do not go well together.

Lastly, some of his moral arguments are strained and seem to fall back on the worst features of divine command theory. One of the most exacerbating problems of OT warfare is that God commands human beings to carry out his judgment. It is not that God does not have a right to do with his creation and judge sinners accordingly. It is that he asks sinners to carry out his judgments on other sinners! Imagining an Israelite warrior shaped by the ethics of neighbor-love in the Torah for most of his life, and then, in an instant, carrying out actions that resemble those of Rwanda in the mid 1990s is morally incongruent (to put it mildly). One cannot imagine how one’s human psyche would be negatively affected by participating is such things. Would he not have some severe form of PTSD, some horrified conscience, some moral anguish? Slaughtering children, after all, is the stuff that moral monsters are made of. Everyone knows this. We do not need to be instructed or taught this simple moral principle. Yet Copan believes back then, such things would not have been psychologically damaging (why?), but that if it was, he should have trusted God anyways in the same way we are to trust him today when suffer at the hands of cruelty. Such an answer strains credulity.

All in all, however, Copan does an admirable job in explicating the ethics of the Old Testament within the framework of his commitments. The profoundest of problems facing Christian apologists today is met head on by a component and able scholar. Whether or not he is successful in abating it is entirely up to the reader.

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7 thoughts on “Is God A Moral Monster?

  1. I’m confused: you say that Copan doesn’t think that women and children are included in the Yahweh wars but then offer the critique that killing children would have been psychologically and spiritually traumatic? Great review by the way.

    • Sorry, the review is disjointed here. Copan switches gears and entertains the possibility of Israelite warriors experiencing PTSD from killing non-combatants and gives his “trusting God” rationale in response. Obviously, if non-combatants were not targeted then things are different, though the rationale still applies to the PTSD problems one might experience from any kind of combat.

      • Samuel Garcia says:

        Oh, I see why that would be problematic now. But it doesn’t seem to be a big problem, at least to me. And I’m not at that point of the book yet.

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