In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
In short, God is a “moral monster.”
Paul Copan begs to differ with Dawkins’ evaluation of the Old Testament God, not to mention the similar critiques of other New Atheists—e.g., Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. In Is God a Moral Monster? he uses these critiques as “a springboard to clarify and iron out misunderstandings and misrepresentations.” More than that, he essays to defend the justice of God, properly understood and correctly presented.
Copan divides his work into four sections. Part 1 identifies the New Atheists and outlines their critique of God. Part 2 responds to critiques of God’s character that revolve around his desire for the praise of his people, his “jealousy” for their fidelity, and his command to Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Part 3 tackles what Dawkins calls the Bible’s “ubiquitous weirdness” and those passages he sees as morally monstrous. This section, the book’s longest, deals with kosher laws, criminal punishments, relationships between the sexes, slavery, the killing of the Canaanites particularly, and the so-called “religious roots” of violence generally. Part 4 concludes the book by questioning whether atheism can provide a foundation for morality and by pointing to Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Copan’s response to the New Atheists utilizes the following types of arguments:
First, he situates the Old Testament narratives and laws within the “redemptive movement of Scripture.” As a Christian, Copan reads the Bible as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is an unsullied creation, and the end is Jesus Christ. The historical and legal elements of the Old Testament take place in the middle, falling short of God’s creational ideals and in need of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work. Far from being “God’s timeless wisdom,” Copan argues, much of the Old Testament is “inferior and provisional,” offering “incremental steps toward the ideal.”
Second, Copan situates the Old Testament within its historical context, pointing out how its legal codes are often a measurable improvement on the contemporaneous legal codes of other ancient near eastern societies. Criminal punishments are less severe, relationships between the sexes are fairer to women, slavery is more strictly regulated, and warfare is less savage.
Third, regarding difficult Old Testament narratives, Copan points out that narration does not imply endorsement. Jacob married two women and used their maidservants as concubines, but this does not imply divine endorsement. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter because of a rash vow, but his action did not merit divine approval. Many New Atheist critiques of Old Testament narratives commit what Copan calls “the ‘is-ought’ fallacy.”
Fourth, regarding difficult Old Testament laws, Copan focuses on their context and their limited application. Take Deuteronomy 20:16–18, for example—where God commanded the Israelites to “utterly destroy…the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.” Copan points out several things worth keeping in mind.
- In issuing this commandment, God uses Israel as an agent of judgment against the Canaanites, whom God is judging for their wickedness.
- In addition to a concern for justice, God’s concern is religious: Unless the Canaanites are destroyed, they will corrupt the monotheistic faith and practice of Israel.
- This commandment, and others like it, has limited application to the initial entry of Israel into the Promised Land. It is not used as justification for Israel’s wars once they are established in the land.
- The commandment is not racially or ethnically motivated, since other passages of Scripture promise a similar judgment to Israel if she is disobedient to God and since Israel itself was a multi-ethnic host.
- The narratives describing the fulfillment of this commandment use “ancient near eastern exaggeration rhetoric,” meaning that the descriptions of total killing are not literally true and would not have been understood to be literally true by Israel or her contemporaries.
- The targeted cities are best understood as military outposts rather than non-combatant urban areas.
- Canaanites could escape divine judgment by joining Israel (as did Rahab and her household).
- Although some verses in Joshua describe the total destruction of the Canaanites after Israel’s entry into the Promised Land, other verses describe their continued presence. So, the Bible’s narrative portrayal of Israel’s “conquest” is itself ambivalent.
I doubt that New Atheists will think of much of this type of argument—focusing on context and limiting application. My guess is that they will still consider the commandment problematic, even contextualized and limited. Fine. But Copan’s point is that they should correctly describe what the narrative describes and understood the limitations of the commandments before they simply condemn them. One of the most irritating aspects of New Atheist critiques is their fundamentalist-like citation of Scripture without bothering to understand its contextual meaning. Copan’s argument helps expose the hermeneutical weaknesses of such New Atheist critiques.
In general, I found Copan’s argument to be persuasive, even probative at points. I think he successfully highlights numerous weaknesses in the New Atheist critique of the Old Testament God. Results may vary for different readers. Nonetheless, I think this is a valuable book for both atheists and Christians alike. It is valuable for atheists because it offers them a nuanced interpretation of difficult Old Testament passages. Rather than constructing straw-man arguments against the Old Testament God based on facile citation of passages plucked out of context, atheists need to argue with the passages as they are interpreted by believers who stand in the mainstream Christian tradition. The book is valuable for Christian readers because it helps them read their Bibles in a Christ-centered way, recognizing the less-than-ideal character of many Old Testament figures and the inferior-and-provisional character of many Old Testament laws.
If you are interested in this topic, I will interview Paul Copan at MinistryDirect.com/live on February 10, 2011, at 2:00 p.m. CST. You can submit questions via Facebook, Twitter, and email.
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Here’s the video of an interview I conducted with Paul Copan regarding his book:Vodpod videos no longer available.