Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster?

This blog post is a summary and commentary on Paul Copan’s article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” published in Philosophia Christi (2009).[1] Basically, this article is a response to New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris who claim that the God of the Old Testament – and much of the OT’s ethical teaching – should be repudiated. Copan argues that the New Atheists know very little about how to properly interpret the biblical texts they find so disturbing, specifically the law codes in the Pentateuch.

canaanitesCopan addresses three main concerns in his article: (1) the interpretive constraints placed on specific passages in the Pentateuch by the larger canonical narrative (and the broader moral vision of the OT), (2) the importance of understanding the ancient near eastern (ANE) context of these passages, and (3) the “redemptive movement” that is evident. The persistent theme in Copan’s response to the New Atheists is that the biblical contexts of the passages they repudiate actually push for a higher moral ideal than is reflected in the individual passages themselves. The need for further moral improvement is presupposed by those contexts.

I will mention three constraints that Copan proposes for interpreting the law codes in the Pentateuch.

First, Copan argues that the codes should not be understood in abstraction from their place within the larger narratives. The broader moral teachings of those narratives are especially relevant (e.g. early Genesis and the Abrahamic promise), because they suggest that the laws had a specific purpose within the larger canvas of Yahweh’s dealing with his people, a purpose which is not necessarily for all times and all places.

Second, the law codes should be interpreted in light of Israel’s broader call to imitate the saving, compassionate, and liberating acts of Yahweh (as typified in the Exodus). The call to imitate Yahweh both precedes and outstrips the laws themselves. In Copan’s own words, “The model of Yahweh’s character and saving action is embedded within and surrounding Israel’s legislation” (p.16).

Third, Copan believes that the purpose of Israel’s laws is often misunderstood by readers who are ignorant of the ancient near east (ANE). The laws themselves reflect certain ANE concepts and practices, but they also progress beyond them in ways that suggest the need for further reformation. Competence in ANE literature is therefore crucial for discerning the “redemptive spirit” of Israelite law.

With these constraints in place, Copan makes five general points about how the law codes should be understood:

First, laws which (by modern standards) permitted cruelty were only tolerated by God for a time, not condoned. They reflected a diminishing of the more repugnant ANE codes, but were still far from ideal.

Second, the Deuteronomic covenant probably reflected God’s accommodation to the ANE understanding of covenantal relations. Copan writes that when we analyze the “structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty between Yahweh and Israel” we see that it is “patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite suzerainty treaties-with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain; also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cf. Deut. 30:19-20). In all of these examples, no one is denying [the presence] of ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic Law, but we [do not have] wholesale adoption [of it] either” (p.7).[2] Copan’s point seems to be that Yahweh is revealed as a suzerain in order to accommodate to Israel’s limited understanding. However, Yahweh is not reduced to the role of suzerain either. 

Third, the laws need to be interpreted in light of God’s developmental purposes for salvation history. God’s intention was to gradually reform the dehumanizing ANE customs and practices which had been inculcated into the Israelite social psyche. A partial and piecemeal strategy was preferable because an instantaneous social overhaul through direct legislation would have been unrealistic and counterproductive: “Think of the [modern-day] difficulty of the West’s pressing for democracy in nations whose tribal/social and religious structures do not readily assimilate such ideals” (p.6). Because God’s purposes for reform were gradual, many of Moses’ legislations should be viewed as imperfect, incomplete, and temporary in nature.[3]

Fourth, Israel’s codes were a significant improvement upon ANE codes. Slave laws were vastly improved, for example. There was also progress in sexual ethics (compared to Hittite law which did not forbid bestiality) and substantial development in the criminal system, as per the amount, kind, intensity, and proportionality of punishments. For instance, the demand for equality under the law was quite radical, since in the ANE, kings and leaders could escape indictment unfairly. In this sense, the legal principle of lex talionis[4] was a marked improvement because it insisted that retribution be exacted proportionately and without partisanship.

Fifth, we see new legislation in the later parts of the Pentateuch overturning earlier codes, as the Israelites became more willing to change. Copan writes, “we see Yahweh’s willingness to adapt ANE structures when humans seek to change in light of a deeper moral insight and willingness to move toward the ideal. Even earlier, various OT narratives subtly attack the laws of primogeniture as the younger regularly supersedes the elder (Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph/Judah over Reuben). In this biblical sampling, we have a subversive and more democratic ethic that, though not ideal and in places overlapping, is a drastic improvement over cuneiform law” (p.15).

Overall, Copan’s three interpretive constraints and five general points are the foundation for his treatment of specific problem texts – particularly those that suggest a morally problematic concept of God. In next week’s post, we will look at Copan’s treatment of the so-called genocide texts in which the Israelites are given divine sanction to wipe out the Canaanite people and inherit their land.


[1]Please note that the page numbers cited in this blog post may not reflect the actual pagination in Philosophia Christi.

[2]A “suzerain” is a superior feudal lord to whom loyalty is due. A suzerain can also be a state that controls the foreign affairs of another state.

[3]Copan argues that the initial covenant ratified at Sinai was fairly simple and straight-forward, but later strictures became necessary to reign-in the people’s sin and immaturity. In this sense the law became burdensome, as in Paul’s words, “the law was added because of their transgression” (Gal 3:19).

[4]The Israelites seemed to apply this principle in a non-literal way (i.e. it was never used to justify bodily mutilation – with the exception of capital punishment). Thus retribution for wrong was exacted in more appropriate ways than in other ANE codes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *