Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, is the best apologia I have read for the disturbing actions and characteristics of the God of the Bible. I had read a lot on this subject and did not expect to find anything new, but I was surprised to find exactly that.
For example, he defends the Canaanite genocide by arguing that passages such as Deuteronomy 7 and Deuteronomy 20, which command the Hebrews to “completely destroy” the occupants of the Promised Land and not to “leave alive anything that breathes” don’t literally mean that. Rather, they are indulging in the same sort of hyperbole we use about sporting events: “our team totally annihilated them.” I’m not sure if I buy this, but it’s an argument I had not heard during 40 years in the evangelical church.
As you might expect, I do have some disagreements even with this very well-qualified author. Here are some questions I plan to consider in posts in the near future. I hope you’ll drop by if these topics interest you.
- Dr. Copan describes the Old Testament laws as “not ideal or universal” (page 60), and some of them as “moral upgrades” to others (page 148). Yet Psalm 19 describes the Law of the Lord as “perfect” and its statutes as “trustworthy.” Is this a contradiction or not? (See this post: Is the Bible Perfect?.)
- Does it help to think of God “moving incrementally” as he promulgated his laws (page 61)? (Post: Was God an Incrementalist?)
- Was God violently jealous because “he binds himself to his people in a kind of spousal intimacy” (page 36)? (Post: “I Am a Jealous God”)
- Had the Canaanites “sunk below the hope of moral return” (page 66)? (Post: Is Anyone Beyond God’s Love?)
- Did God command Israel to completely destroy the Canaanites, or did he really just mean to destroy their religion (page 173)? (Post: Did God Really Command Genocide?)
- Does the fact that Israel had “special revelation” (page 161) excuse their acts in Canaan? (Post: The Devil Made Me Do It)
- What are we to make of Deuteronomy 13:6-16, which commands stoning those who would lead people to other gods (page 92)? (Post: Religious Freedom in the Bible)
- The only full story of Jephthah in the Bible is when he offered his daughter as a burnt offering to God in return for winning a battle (Judges 11), yet the book of Hebrews holds him up as an exemplar of faith (Hebrews 11:32). Does Dr. Copan adequately explain this disturbing story (page 97)? (Post: Jephthah and the Character of God)
- Could the “Trial of Jealousy” in Numbers 5, with its bizarre test for adultery, be demanded by a suspicious wife as well as by a husband (page 105)? (Post: The Test for Adultery in Numbers 5)
- Does Exodus 21:7-11 allow a father to sell his daughter into sex slavery, or does it describe an honorable state of matrimony (page 113)? (Post: How to Sell Your Daughter)
- Does Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibit polygamy (page 117)? (Post: Does the Bible Allow Polygamy?)
- Does Deuteronomy 21:10-14 describe what I have called “rape-marriage” or is it “a protective measure for the woman POW” (page 120)? Was rape “most certainly excluded as an extracurricular activity in warfare” (page 180)? (Already refuted in Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?)
- Is the Old Testament’s prohibition against kidnapping “lost on, or ignored by, those who compare servanthood in Israel with slavery in the antebellum South” (page 131)? (Sorry, Dr. Copan, but God allowed Israel to kidnap and enslave foreigners. See Were Some Biblical Slaves Merely Prisoners of War? and the second half of Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves?)
- Is it true that “if the three clear laws of the Old Testament had been followed in the South — that is, the anti-kidnapping, anti-harm, and anti-slave-return regulations… — then slavery wouldn’t have arisen in America” (page 132)? (Again, see Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves? and Was Biblical Slavery All That Bad?)
- What are we to make of Exodus 21:20-21, which allows a master to beat his slave (page 136)? (Here’s what I make of it: Does the Bible Regulate the Care of Slaves?)
- Does Exodus 21:2-6 amount to a master holding an indentured servant’s wife and children hostage, or is the passage more humane than it first appears (page 137)? (Post: Holding Wife and Children Hostage)
- Can we take comfort that in Galatians 3:28, Paul “doesn’t abolish slavery; rather he makes it ultimately irrelevant” (page 157)? (Considered in Did God Intend to End Slavery by Changing People’s Hearts?)
- Is it true that “God prohibited Israel from conquering neighboring nations” (page 179)? (No. The “cities [city-states] at a distance from you” were to be conquered and enslaved. See Did God Command Slavery or Merely Tolerate It?)
- Is morality arbitrary without the commands of God (chapter 19)? (See What Morality Is and Since Evolution is Blind, Isn’t Atheist Morality Arbitrary?)
- Is it true that “Hell isn’t a torture chamber of everlasting fire” but only a “realm of self-separation and quarantine from God’s presence” (page 202)? (Post: “The Gates of Hell Are Locked on the Inside”)
- When considering the remaining mysteries of God’s behavior, should we remember the “trusted friend [who] pledges to meet us somewhere but fails to show up … [until] one moment after we had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay” (page 193)? (Post: Biblical Slavery: Are God’s Ways Higher than Our Ways?)