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Is God a Moral Monster?

Is the God of the Old Testament barbaric and bloodthirsty? Does the Bible condone slavery, polygamy, or violence against unbelievers? These are serious questions that are often raised by critics of Christianity (and by concerned Christians as well!). How would you respond to them?

These are some of the issues raised by Lee Strobel in a recent interview with Paul Copan about Copan’s recent book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. We’re posting the full interview, which was featured in Lee’s Investigating Faith email newsletter here at Bible Gateway, below. In it, Copan provides well-reasoned answers to some tough questions:

Lee Strobel: Your book covers a lot of topics that we can’t deal with here—kosher and purity laws; severe punishments; the nature of God in the Old and New Testaments; the nature of God’s progressive, unfolding revelation; and so on. But let’s tackle some of the leading themes of your book. You mention the New Atheists’ critique that God is a pathetic egomaniac who needs human beings to worship him. God condemns pride and praises humility, but the charge is that he himself seems to exhibit pride to an outrageous degree.

Paul Copan: As you know, words mean things, and we should get clear on definitions rather than toss around slippery or misleading terms. Humility involves an appropriate acknowledgment and realistic assessment of oneself. If you’re a skilled piano player, you don’t say, “I’m no good on the piano.” That’s being out of touch with reality. On the other hand, the pianist should recognize that this talent is a gift he’s received from God. By contrast, pride is an inflated view of oneself or one’s accomplishments; pride is a false advertising campaign to get people to think I’m better than I really am.

In light of these definitions, pride or vanity doesn’t apply to God; vanity doesn’t accurately describe God, who has a realistic—rather than a distorted—view of himself.

By his very nature, God is humble—and he dwells with the humble in heart (Isa. 57:15). He regularly displays humility in his interactions with human beings—especially in Jesus of Nazareth, who comes to serve humans. God’s greatest achievement is the Son of God’s self-humiliation: he not only takes on human frailty, but dies a degrading, accursed death—completely naked on the cross—to rescue us from our exile and alienation from God.

And when God calls on us to worship him, this fulfills our humanity since we are made to know and love God. As Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We are designed to know and love God. To worship God reflects our being in touch with reality and knowing our place in the universe—God is Creator, and we are his creatures.

LS: And what about God’s jealousy?

PC: Oprah Winfrey claims that hearing about God’s jealousy turned her off to the Christian faith. But she jumped ship in ignorance. Yes, we all know of the petty jealousy that springs from insecurity. However, there is an appropriate jealousy as well. For example, when a woman gets upset when another woman is flirting with her husband, this is completely proper. Something would be terribly wrong if she wasn’t jealous!

True love is protective of what is valuable; it is rightly jealous for single-minded affection. Thus, God is jealously protective of the loving relationship for which all human beings were designed; his jealousy springs from love. God is appropriately jealous when humans turn away from the source of ultimate satisfaction and joy and turn to God-substitutes that can’t satisfy.

LS: Some people claim that the Old Testament allows polygamy. What do you say?

PC: For one thing, the Old Testament makes clear from the outset what God’s ideal is—an ideal built into creation. In Genesis 2:24, a “wife” is to cleave to her husband, who is to leave his “father and mother.” What’s more, God himself models this covenant-love for his people; this ideal union of marital faithfulness between husband and wife is one without competition.

Furthermore, a closer look at Leviticus 18:18 reveals a prohibition against polygamy. It is a transitional verse introducing another set of sexual prohibitions, right on the heels of incest prohibitions. So that has led to confusion, but looking at the Hebrew text makes the prohibition quite clear. It forbids a man from marrying (literally) “a woman to her sister”—a phrase always referring to a female Israelite rather than biological sister. This is reinforced by the term “taking a rival wife”—the same terminology used of Elkanah (1 Samuel 1) who married Hannah and Penninah (a rival wife)—and clearly not biological sisters.

Furthermore, from Lamech’s wives (Gen. 4:19) to those of Abraham, Esau (Genesis 26:34-5), Jacob, David, and Solomon, wherever we see God’s ideal of monogamy ignored, we witness strife, competition, and disharmony. And God warns the one most likely to be polygamous—Israel’s king: “He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17). The Old Testament presents polygamy as not just undesirable, but also a violation of God’s standards; its narratives subtly critique this marital arrangement.

LS: What about those slavery texts in the Old Testament? They conjure up images of slavery in the pre-Civil War South.

PC: Servitude in Israel was radically different than slavery in the antebellum South. Although people on both sides argued that the Bible does—or does not—endorse slavery, I argue that we have good reason to think that the “biblical case” for Southern slavery doesn’t hold up.

For one thing, the term “slave” or “slavery” in the Old Testament is often a mistranslation. The Mosaic Law typically refers to “servitude” as indentured service—much like arrangements in colonial America: those who couldn’t pay for their voyage to the New World would work for seven years to pay off their debt, and then they were free to operate in society as ordinary citizens.

What’s interesting about contracted servitude in Israel was that it was, first of all, voluntary: a person would “sell himself” or parcel out family members to work, and they would in return receive clothing, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. Servitude was also limited to seven years unless the servant voluntarily chose lifelong servitude, which brought both stability and security in difficult economic times.

Furthermore, if Bible-readers of the South had adhered to three Mosaic laws, slavery wouldn’t have been an issue: (a) Anti-harm laws: The Law of Moses calls for the release of servants maimed by their employers (Ex. 21:26-7). (b) Anti-kidnapping laws: The Mosaic Law also condemns kidnapping a person to sell as a slave—an act punishable by death: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:16; cp. Deut. 24:7). (c) Anti-return laws: Unlike the antebellum South, Israel was to offer safe harbor to (foreign) runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16)—a marked contrast to the Southern states’ Fugitive Slave Law. This law was also a marked contrast to other law codes in the ancient Near East. In Babylon, harboring a fugitive slave meant the death penalty!

LS: How do you answer those who claim that God commands genocide in the Old Testament?

PC: Critics fail to acknowledge that the language used about the Canaanites is the same language used about Israel—just one indication that this isn’t “genocidal.” God threatened to “vomit” out Israel from the land just as he had vomited out the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:25, 28; 20:22). If God commands Israel to “commit genocide” against the Canaanites and to “utterly destroy” them, then he is doing the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah in the Babylonian captivity. God promises: “I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation” (Jer. 25:9). Of course, Judah wasn’t literally utterly destroyed by Babylon; there were plenty of survivors, even if Judah’s religious, political, and military structures were disabled. The language of “totally wiping out and leaving no survivors” exaggeration or hyperbole was common in the ancient Near Eastern war accounts, and the Bible uses this exaggerated language as well. We use this when we talk about basketball teams “slaughtering” their opponents.

LS: Obviously, we shouldn’t read the Bible in a wooden or always in a strictly “literal” way.

PC: It’s important to distinguish between taking the Bible “literally” and taking it “literarily.” We shouldn’t interpret the Bible with some one-size-fits-all method. The biblical writers never intended this, but they use different types of literature or genres—poetry, prophecy, parable, Gospel—which require different approaches of interpretation.

I can’t go into a lot of detail here, and I even expand upon the “utter destruction” of the Canaanites in an essay with Matthew Flannagan in a forthcoming book with InterVarsity Press, Old Testament “Holy War” and Christian Morality (coedited by Jeremy Evans, Heath Thomas, and me). I would argue that this exaggeration applies to the sweeping language of warfare texts of Joshua (Canaanites), Numbers 31 (Midianites) and 1 Samuel 15 (Amalekites).

For example, Joshua (which talks about “leaving no survivors”) is closely connected to Judges 1-2 (where lots of Canaanite survivors remain).  Even within Joshua we read: “There were no Anakim left in the land” (11:22); they were “utterly destroyed” in the hill country (11:21). Yet Caleb later asked permission to drive out the Anakites from the hill country (14:12-15; cp. 15:13-19).  Joshua’s military campaign in Canaan simply wasn’t a territorial conquest, but a series of disabling raids, as Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen argues—not military campaigns resulting in utter decimation. And this is exactly what the archaeological record shows.

Furthermore, Deuteronomy and Joshua speak a lot about “driving out,” “dispossessing,” and “thrusting out” the Canaanites (Deut. 6:19; 7:1; 9:4; 18:12; Josh. 10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11:11, 14). If they are to be driven out, they are not literally killed or destroyed. You can’t both drive out and destroy. In all the alleged cases of “genocide,” we see plenty of survivors, which provides ample indication the biblical authors didn’t intend literal obliteration. So, if “Joshua obeyed all that Moses commanded” (Josh. 9:24; 11:12; etc.), and Joshua left many survivors, then Moses (in Dt. 20) must not have intended this either.

LS: Some Christians might say you are minimizing the severity of God’s judgment on an immoral, idolatrous culture. How would you reply?

PC: My point has been to show that critics typically take “utter destruction” texts literally, but they don’t do the same with the “many survivors” texts! Don’t get me wrong. God takes sin seriously, and in the Old Testament he brings judgment not only on sexually promiscuous, infant-sacrificing Canaanites. He, of course, did wait over 400 years until the time of judgment was ripe (Genesis 15:16). Yet he brought judgment on many other nations as well—including his own people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles!

I’m fond of quoting the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. He was born in Croatia and lived through the nightmare years of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia—including the destruction of churches, the rape of women, and the murder of innocents. He once thought that wrath and anger were beneath God, but he came to realize that his view of God had been too low. Here’s how Volf puts the New Atheists’ complaints about divine wrath into proper perspective:

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

If you found this interview useful or interesting, there’s plenty more in each issue of Lee Strobel’s Investigating Faith email newsletter, which goes out about once a month. You can sign up for free at the Bible Gateway Newsletters page.

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