Is God a Moral Monster? By Paul Copan
Summary by Jeff Stauffer
Chapters 1 & 2 : The New Atheists and the Old Testament
Paul Copan lays out his plan for the book in these two brief opening chapters. One goal is to provide guidance for Christians for how to deal with Old Testament ethics that at times, seem “so strange and even otherworldly.” A second goal is to provide some direct responses to a group of authors he coins “The New Atheists.” These popular writers (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) have written numerous popular books criticizing religion as a whole, but often with a direct polemic against the Old Testament and some of the difficult passages found within. Each of these issues will be addressed in subsequent chapters (such as Canaanite “genocide,” the binding of Isaac, harsh Mosaic Law, slavery and others.)
Copan provides a brief summary of three common themes among arguments by these and other atheists:
1) Even though they emphasize cool-headed scientific rationality, they often come across as angry and arrogant.
2) Their arguments against God’s existence are often flimsy and based on straw-man examples. Copan even provides two examples of prominent and respected atheist philosophers (Quentin Smith and Michael Ruse) who are often embarrassed by how these “New Atheists” construct such fallacious arguments.
3) While criticizing religious leaders, they aren’t willing to admit to the terrible acts carried about by atheist leaders such as Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong.
Chapter 3: Great Appetite for Praise and Sacrifices? Divine Arrogance or Humility?
Richard Dawkins accuses God of narcissism and vanity because he claims that God, at times, acts out of jealousy and craves attention. He also claims God is prideful and demands our worship. However, Copan begins his response by addressing God’s humility. Humility isn’t a denial of one’s skills (this would be false humility, “like Yo-Yo Ma saying that he can’t play the cello all that well”), but instead is a proper understanding of one’s abilities and God as the source for these gifts. As the Creator of all things, God is worthy of all praise. Copan states that God doesn’t command us to worship him. The typical biblical story involves people spontaneously praising him out of joy; a natural outpouring of love for what he has done. God’s humility even extended to the role of Jesus’ death on Earth: Philippians 2 speaks of “the depths to which God is willing to go for our salvation.”
Chapter 4: Monumental Rage and Kinglike Jealousy?
Copan opens by stating that comedian Bill Maher, Dawkins, and even Oprah Winfrey have been turned off by God’s jealousy. He then goes on to describe how jealousy can be either good or bad. We’re all aware of jealousy’s downside, but Copan points out that “it’s good to fiercely guard the precious.” He likens this to a wife who becomes rightly jealous when another woman flirts with her husband. Sometimes jealousy is the appropriate response. Copan provides numerous biblical examples of God as a “concerned lover” or someone who craves a relationship with his people (Hosea 11:8, Ezek. 6:9, Jer. 2:13.)
He concludes with pointing out that if God is “jealous for our best interests” and wants what is best for us, then it is in our best interest to seek him out. Abundant life can only be found when we live our lives as they were meant to be lived, and that means seeking God’s design and plan for us. If we view the world like this, God’s jealousy suddenly becomes a good thing.
Chapter 5: Child Abuse and Bullying?
Here Copan expands on the commonly-used attack against the Old Testament’s story involving Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. ”What kind of God would require such obedience?” people often wonder. Copan begins by providing some context for the passage at hand. First, we are reminded of God’s previous promises to Abraham that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars. Also, God’s choice of words when he commands him to go up one of the mountains has a very similar construction to God’s earlier calling of Abraham to go from his hometown of Ur. Copan believes this similarity is not lost on Abraham as he is reminded of God’s faithfulness in the past. He also reminds us of God’s deliverance of Ishmael and the miracle child given to Sarah. Given this backdrop that shows Abraham’s trust in God, we read that Abraham told his servants that “we” would return from the mountain, confident that God would either spare his son or even raise Isaac from the dead.
Next, Copan switches to a philosophical argument surrounding whether or not God committed an immoral act of killing an innocent human life. He argues that there are some exceptions to the rule that we commonly accept: One is the case of an ectopic pregnancy which is deadly to the mother if the pregnancy is allowed to continue. Another example involves the terrorist attacks from 9/11 when the president gave an order to shoot down the planes to save lives. However, Copan’s strongest push is to point out that this moral law “applies in a world in which dead people don’t come back to life after being killed.” He concludes that God’s command wasn’t immoral or contradictory.
Chapter 6: God’s Timeless Wisdom?
The laws of Moses found in the Old Testament contains many rules that we would find bizarre today: Permission to sell one’s daughters into “slavery” (Ex 21:7), being killed for cutting one’s hair (Lev. 19:27), or the forbidding of planting two crops in one field (Lev. 19:19). These are just a few often quoted by those critical of the God of the Old Testament. Over the next 12 chapters, Copan plans to tackle many of these issues by providing some cultural context and possible explanations for the reasoning behind these commandments. But first, in this chapter he provides some general comments about these kinds of issues:
- Contrary to popular belief, these laws were not meant to be permanent rules for all people in all cultures. Copan repeatedly gives this message throughout the book: “Israel’s Old Testament covenant wasn’t a universal ideal and was never intended to be so. The Mosaic covenant anticipated a better covenant.” Even though, by our modern standards, many of these laws seem harsh, they contain many “moral improvements” when compared to other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
- Looking throughout the Bible, there is a sense in which God is easing rules and progressing towards an ideal. God seems to take into account the realities of cultural norms yet pushes for a higher ethical standard. Copan wants to also point out though that this is different from relativism. Some laws keep their restrictive limits such as homosexuality. But in others such as the treatment of slaves (Gal 3:28 says they are without distinction from their masters, an improvement from the OT), or permitting divorce (Matt 19:8) we see an easing of restrictions.
- “Is doesn’t mean ought.” Just because the OT describes sinful acts of some of its main characters doesn’t mean their acts are to be justified. It is often the exact opposite: they are all too human, but yet are still loved by God for their faith despite their deeds.
Chapters 7 & 8: The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness? Kosher Foods, Kooky laws
In these two chapters Copan delves into some theories behind what we would consider “odd and arbitrary Old Testament laws” surrounding what is acceptable food to eat. The concept of “clean” versus “unclean” are very common throughout these laws as well. Copan argues that we shouldn’t think of these phrases in terms of hygiene, but more so as symbols of life and death. God chose the Israelites and wanted them to stand out from other nations both morally, culturally, and theologically. Some of these restrictions had to do more with avoiding practices of surrounding peoples, such as the Canaanites who conjured up magic to produce fertile crops by the mixing of seeds. Many of the Mosaic laws may never be fully understood, but there are many examples such as this to suggest this as one possible explanation for their origins.
Next, Copan analyzes the concepts of clean versus unclean in more detail, providing some hypotheses surrounding the classification of animals and why some were considered unclean. One theory involves classifying animals based on their natural “boundaries” like animals that were meant to fly in the air, walk on land, or swim in water. If an animal “transgressed” these boundaries, they were considered unclean. For example, birds like pelicans or gulls live in the sky but also cross over into water, thus making them unclean. Some reptiles that cross between land and water were unclean. A second theory deals with a symbolic connection between animals and the kind of people God wanted the Israelites to be. Death was to be avoided in human relationships, so predatory land animals or even vultures were unclean. This symbolism also applied to animal sacrifices. Just as God’s people were to be holy and clean, the animal sacrifices offered by the priests were to be free from blemishes, creating a strong connection to the role of a coming Savior as the perfect sacrifice.
Chapter 9: Barbarisms, Crude Laws, and Other Imaginary Crimes?
This chapter deals with what appears to be harsh and crude criminal laws practiced by the Israelites. Copan opens with a few examples of crimes punishable by death according to the Old Testament: Cursing your parents, not obeying your parents, or even gathering wood on the Sabbath! He then reminds us that we must take into account the context in which these laws were written. Copan quotes from Thomas Hobbes in saying that life in the ancient Near East was “nasty, brutish, and short.” We have numerous comparisons with other cultures from that place and time which, in comparison, makes the Mosaic Law quite tame, including the Babylonian laws of Hammurabi, Hittite laws of Asia Minor, as well as laws from the Sumerians and Akkadians. Copan says, “The Sinai legislation presents genuinely remarkable, previously unheard-of legal and moral advances. Not surprisingly, critics like the New Atheists focus on the negative while overlooking dramatic improvements.” Next, Copan addresses some specific passages, of which here are a few examples:
Duet 21:18-21: This is the “not obeying your parents” rule that Copan mentions in the beginning of the chapter. But that was not telling the full story. This is not simply “a teenager who won’t clean up his room,” but a rebellious, stubborn son who is a “glutton and drunkard.” Copan comments that he is most likely a firstborn in the family, who would squander the family inheritance and bring ruin to the larger family clan. He also points out that the parents don’t simply take the matter into their own hands, but confers with the civil authorities.
Ex 21:23-25: This is a famous “eye for an eye” passage, where one’s punishment should fit the crime. But Copan points out that in most cases this isn’t taken literally. He points out that, as an example, the very next verse talks about a maidservant losing an eye. The punishment is not one’s own eye, but a monetary compensation. This by far is the preferred solution in the Mosaic Law: providing a “ransom” or “substitute” for repayment. The Mosaic Law also distinguished between accidental and intentional killing, something else that other law codes did not take into consideration. As a comparison, the Code of Hammurabi often called for the chopping off of heads, hands, or ears. It also included beatings of up to 100 blows as well as mutilations. Copan concludes, “So the expression ‘eye for an eye’ was a measure of justice, not something Israel took literally.”
2 Kings 3:27 – Infant Sacrifice? In this passage the king of Moab sacrifices his son, and it appears that God approves of this event by pouring out his wrath against Moab’s enemy, Israel. Copan argues the Hebrew wording here means this is not divine wrath, but of human origin. So it was human fury that drove out the Israelites. And since child sacrifice is clearly prohibited in other passages (Deut 12:31, 18:10), one should not take this verse to imply God’s approval of such an act.
Chapter 10: Misogynistic?
Misogynistic (hatred of women) is the word Richard Dawkins used to describe the Old Testament God. Feminists often accuse the Old Testament of all kinds of sexism as well. Copan wants to remind us of the standard set forth by God in Genesis 1-2 portrays an image of equality between Adam and Eve as partners. And while the ancient Near East was dominated by patriarchal societies, God worked within these fallen cultures to “point Israel to a better path” that contained many protections for violence against woman. Copan lists numerous passages that point to equality from a theological view (Gen 1:27, 2:24, Ex 20:12), and historically as woman to be valued (Ruth, Deborah, Sarah, Naomi, etc.), and legal equality with men as well (Lev 18, 20), when dealing with adultery or incest. Next Copan lists some specific passages that allegedly promote female inferiority:
Numbers 5: This passage deals with the charge of adultery. Many believe this only addresses the man’s ability to accuse his wife, but Copan argues the surrounding context leads one to believe this law applies to both men and women. Also, this prevented the man from taking revenge into his own hands, requiring him to take the matter before the Priest.
Deut 25:5-10 – Levirate Marriage. Copan summarizes this passage, “If a man died without a son to carry on the family name, then his unmarried brother could marry his widow in order to sustain the family name.” While this custom certainly reflects a Patriarchal society, Copan again reiterates how God adapts imperfect customs, moving them towards the ideal. In this case, if the woman did marry her brother in law, she would be allowed to keep her property (even that which she brought into the marriage). Marrying outside the family would cause her to lose everything. However, Copan points to a twist here that gives the woman some power: The man was strongly discouraged from refusing this marital arrangement, and if he did, he could be shamed.
No female priests? Copan’s argument goes as follows: First, it’s not just woman that are excluded, but most men as well. One had to be from the tribe of Levi. Secondly, God’s original intent appears to be that all Israelites could approach Him as priests and walking with God (Gen 2:15, Ex 19:6). However, when they refused to go up the mountain, Moses was sent instead (Ex 20:19), thus initiating the custom of male-only priests. Copan concludes that there is nothing inherently wrong with female priests. On a related note, Copan also addresses why no females were allowed in the temple. In surrounding cultures, having sex with a priestess was a means for the Gods to bless the land with fertile crops, more children, and more livestock. The Mosaic law was to “prevent the Israelites from glorifying adultery in the name of religious devotion.”
Chapter 11: Bride-Price? Polygamy, Concubinage, and Other Such Questions
In many chapters so far, Copan has made reference to “Case law” or “Casuistic law.” This is where one makes laws based on the “case at hand.” Copan’s point is to note that these laws are describing less than ideal circumstances, but yet laws need to be put in place to try and better the outcome for all involved. We see these concepts play out again in this chapter. Often case law will be written with a format of “If …. Then…” For example, Deut 21:15-17 begins, “If a man has two wives…” or Exodus 21:7-11 that begins “If a man sells his daughter as a servant…”
In these and numerous other examples, Copan is pointing out that these laws are not endorsing the circumstance, but trying to make a better outcome of an immoral or otherwise difficult situation. So while some verses outright prohibit polygamy for example (Lev 18:18), other versus will give advice for a polygamous situation (Deut 21:15-17). He points out that OT critics often overlook this distinction. There are some other scenarios that he discusses, such as the “bride-price” (where a man would pay the female’s family money as a step toward marriage), female POW’s, and concubines. Each is provided a more favorable reading (by either arguing for a better interpretation, or as examples of case law) that provides females a higher standing in scripture.
Chapters 12-14: Warrant for Trafficking in Humans as Farm Equipment?
Copan groups the next three chapters together under a single heading which deals with issues surrounding slavery in the OT. One common theme that Copan returns to is making a distinction between what the Israelites would refer to as “servanthood,” and our modern concept of slavery that we associate with pre-civil war America. In the OT this was a voluntary agreement between people to enter into a contract as an indentured servant, usually for a set number of years to pay off a debt. When compared to other ancient Near East cultures, they were given many protections, the most important of which was recognition as persons, not property.
Deut 15:1-18 is a great example of God’s command to legislate the release of debt from the poor. We again see God’s role in taking a bad situation in society and working towards a more ideal outcome: that of eradicating poverty. Copan then summarizes numerous passages that deal with a variety of circumstances: Injured servants (Ex 21:26-27), the death of slaves (Ex 21:20-21), engagements to servant girls (Lev 19:20-21), and even treatment of foreign slaves (Lev 25:42-29). In each of these and other examples, Copan again points out an “unparalleled improvement over other ancient Near Eastern codes.” He provides context and commentary that provides a more honest reading of the text than what most New Atheists or other OT critics are willing to concede.
He concludes this section with a common complaint among biblical critics: why Jesus or other NT writers never explicitly opposed slavery. Copan responds with a few examples to the contrary: Jesus’ declaration in Luke 4:18 that he came to “proclaim release to the captives… to set free those who are oppressed.” He also points to Paul’s opposition to the dehumanization of people and to refuse to view them as property (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11). But more importantly, Copan argues that they were more concerned with people’s spiritual status versus their social status. They also did not have the influence or power to overthrow Rome’s institution of slavery.
Chapters 15-17: Indiscriminate Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing?
Some of the most difficult passages of the OT that call into question God’s character are from commands to kill the Canaanites and other acts of war sanctioned by God. Richard Dawkins goes as far as labeling this “genocide, bloodthirsty massacres, and ethnic cleansing” carried out with “xenophobic relish.” However, Copan spends three chapters placing this entire issue in a different perspective:
- God was concerned with sin, not ethnicity. This is backed up by archaeological evidence that shows the Canaanites to be racially unidentifiable from the Israelites. Their differences were cultural and theological, not ethnic.
- Many texts that use the phrase “to drive out” the people did not require killing all inhabitants, but to clear the land of military outposts. The Hebrew word “haram,” often translated with phrases like “utterly destroy” or “destruction” is not geared towards entire populations, but should be applied to soldiers in battle.
- OT passages like Joshua 10:40 or 1 Sam 15 that describes entire cities being wiped out may in fact be Near Eastern hyperbole. Copan provides evidence from numerous sources (Hittite, Egyptian, Moab, Assyrian) that all use similar writing styles in military scenarios. He argues these are not to be taken literally. We even see examples where people from these allegedly wiped-out regions return to the story later, such as Judges 1:21.
- Copan refers to archaeological evidence that argues for “towns” like Jericho and Ai to actually be small military outposts with very little civilian populations. Thus, OT commands to kill “every man woman and child” appear to be mere “rhetorical bravado” and not literal accounts of mass genocide.
- Copan’s summary reminds us that all of these military accounts were for a period of time for a particular culture and shouldn’t be construed as license for all warfare in all time periods done “in God’s name.”
- He also reminds us that “the full picture is not always available to us. We aren’t necessarily in the best position to decipher God’s purposes.” The book of Job is referenced as an example.
Chapter 18: The Root of All Evil?
This brief chapter asks the question of whether religion is the cause of violence. Copan responds by saying we need more religion, not less! He points out that there has been plenty of violence to go around, even in non-theistic cultures. He also makes some brief comparisons between the history of the Christian Church and Islam. While some have argued that the wars of the OT are just like Islamic Jihad, Copan responds with several notable differences. One, he points out the wars of the OT were limited in scope both geographically to the Promised Land as well as in time. Islamic jihad is worldwide and eternal. Also, the Canaanite wars were not to be considered normative or ongoing, whereas the military aggression of Muhammad is supported both then and now, and is “an intrinsic pattern” to their religion.
Chapter 19: Morality without a Lawgiving God?
New Atheist writers will make the claim that they do not need God to be moral. Morality has its origins in genes, not God, they claim. But Copan rebukes their stance with this argument:
“If we’re nothing more than the products of naturalistic evolution trying to fight, feed, flee, and reproduce, why trust the convictions of our minds – whether about truth or morality? If we’re just dancing to our DNA – over which we have absolutely no control – how do we know we’re right about anything?”
He argues that they are borrowing language they cannot justifiably use. He concludes with a brief example of a book written about the history of rape from a biological perspective. If rape is simply a part of human nature and history, Copan says, what right do we have to claim that it ought to be ended?
Chapter 20: We Have Moved Beyond This God (Haven’t We?)
Copan concludes his book with a few comments about the positive influence Christianity has had on the planet over the past 2,000 years. While Christopher Hitchens may quip that “religion poisons everything,” Copan points out that sociologists and philosophers of history alike often credit Christianity as the major influence on all of civilization that has allowed for modern science, the protection of the poor and disabled, the founders of the original universities and hospitals, and advocates for human rights and political freedoms. Not a bad track record for a movement that started out among the “politically and socially disempowered” within Roman society!