Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God

Written by Paul Copan

(Baker Books, 2011)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr


* This review originally appeared in our Lent 2014 Issue  – ed.

When I taught biblical history I became haunted by the realization that the course should be stripped down and simply become an apologetics for the strange things that occur in the Old Testament. Teaching the context in which these many strange events occur is fine, but hardly sufficient to ally the monstrosity of some of them to the modern reader. Courses like ‘biblical history’ try to do too many things simultaneously, and, thus, I wonder if they thereby accomplish any of them. Apparently I am not the only person on this wavelength, and was glad when I came across Copan’s Book.

There is a saying that the history of philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato (sometimes Aristotle is added). Over the years I have come to believe that modern apologetics is but a series of footnotes to C. S. Lewis. And that’s fine. That simply means we should read more Lewis. This book quotes him more than once,

Of course, Copan throws in something that you won’t really find in Lewis: an astute awareness of the biblical context. And that is required in a book such as this. Even though he’s not a biblical scholar, Copan seems to have a handle on the subject, and quotes liberally from the right sources.

I was most interested to see what he would do with the sacrifice of Isaac (Gn 22:1-14) – a pet of mine, having keenly attended to Augustine’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations of that story. If we take it as a test case, I would say Copan passes with flying colors. Historical context plays a part of his interpretation. Nevertheless, he doesn’t dismiss the moral gravity of the situation on the grounds that back then “everybody was doing it.” We expect more from God than that.  On the other hand, the grammatical context does play an important role in Copan’s analysis. He puts us in the literary mindset of the original readers. He points out the significance of the name of the mountain on which the sacrifice was to take place – Moriah – which means, among other things, provide, which hints at the fact that God is going to provide some solution to this grave moral problem. (p.48) And he tells us about the grammatical link between the original call of Abraham and this current text (p. 45), which, again, hints to the fact that God has something in store. He tells us that both Abraham and the reader were expecting some kind of deus ex machina, for God to “pull a rabbit out of his hat,” in so many words. After all, Abraham tells his servant that both of them will return from the sacrifice. (p. 48) Of course, it’s still a test – and isn’t there something strangely sick in that? No, says Copan. Such was the faith of Abraham, such were the number of assurances God had provided to Abraham by this point. I mean, more can be said than Copan has, but his solution is a pretty good one. For the record, he takes Augustine’s position. Abraham knew that even if was supposed to kill Isaac God would immediately raise him back up. Still, it’s not a perfect solution.

Copan also deals with the problem of God’s jealousy and seeming narcissism, the strange laws of Deuteronomy, the questions of misogyny, slavery, polygamy, and ethnic cleansing. This is a list that includes all of the things that have concerned Christian readers of the Old Testament since the early days. How he deals with the dietary laws (ch. 8) is quite interesting, as is his account of the harsh law of lex talionis (“eye for an eye”). (ch. 9) As for his chapter on misogyny (ch. 10), he states quite plainly that the Old Testament “spells out the ideal of male-female equality,” even though “laws regarding women in Israel take a realistic approach to fallen human structures in the ancient Near East… Do we see examples of oppressed women in the Old Testament? Yes, and we see lots of examples of oppressed men as well.” (p. 102) Copan lines up the passages that show the equality of the sexes (p. 103) and those that are “potentially embarrassing.” (pp. 104-9) His explanations here are generally quite satisfying. Given the nature of the subject matter, in some cases Copan’s interpretations cannot rise above the level of hypothesis. Of course, that’s nothing new in biblical study.

I was also especially interested in the subject of the ‘ban’ (herem), a subject we tend to refer today as ethnic cleansing. We are referring here to God’s command to destroy the Perizzites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites, etc. (see Dt. 20:16-18) I have seen this ostensibly horrible thing explained away in a lot of unsatisfying ways. Copan devotes a full three chapters (15-17) exploring this issue. He comes up with a lot of valuable insights. He doesn’t exhaust the topic, but if you can get a handle on what he says about the issue, you’ll be an asset to the Church.

In general, while reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking that a ‘critical’ or ‘skeptical’ approach to this subject is as irrational as that of the fideist. Assuming that the Old Testament is unjustifiable is as ahistorical as the assumption that it is altogether morally unproblematic. Even for someone who does not believe that this is the actual word of God, a benefit of doubt has to be extended to the authors and to the nation that functioned as the subject of these books. It is unscientific, I think, to believe that all pre-modern notions are unnatural and merely sponsored by self-interest. I think it is better simply to recognise the genius underlying the Old Testament, whether you are willing to grant that it is the word of God or not. Israel was a special nation. Surely their book would reflect this!

Would I recommend this as a part of an undergraduate course? Absolutely. It would not be sufficient as an introduction to the Old Testament, of course, but it would make a valuable point of focus for scholarly discussion.

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