Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster?

The rise of neo-atheism, that is, militant atheists who see themselves as evangelists for their cause, has generated a spate of publications that are nothing but ferocious polemic against organized religion, invectives against people of faith, and vituperation of those who acknowledge the existence of God.

Those who are debunking Christianity say that God is only for suckers. The apostles of neo-atheism have published several books whose aims are to denounce traditional Christianity and to denigrate the God of the Bible.  Neo-atheists have published best-selling books in order to spread the gospel of atheism.  Among the most popular books written by these militant atheists are Christopher Hitchensgod is not great, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Even some Christians have written books and articles criticizing the God of the Old Testament.  These Christians are offended by the violent nature of the God who revealed himself to the people of Israel.

In his book, Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress Press, 2009), Eric A. Seibert seeks to address some of the passages where God’s behavior seemingly contradicts other passages in the Bible where God is presented as a loving and forgiving God. Seibert believes that it is impossible to reconcile (what he believes to be) these irreconcilable views of God and that these disturbing actions of God cannot be defended.

Another Christian who has a problem with the God of the Old Testament is C. S. Cowles.  In his article, “The Case for Radical Discontinuity,” in Show Them No Mercy, ed. Stanley N. Gundry  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 13-44, Cowles emphasizes the dark side of God.  To him, the God of the Old Testament is the warrior God, the God who ordered the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites, and who ordered “the wanton and indiscriminate slaughter of ‘women and children, the aged and decrepit’” (p. 17).

In response to the claims of the neo-atheists, Paul Copan has written an excellent book titled Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). In his book, Copan addresses the issues raised by the evangelists of neo-atheism and provides a rationale to show that the God of the Old Testament is not a moral monster.

Copan interprets key texts of the Bible with the help of history, archaeology, and the culture of the Ancient Near East to present a reasonable explanation “to perplexing Old Testament ethics questions” (p. 11). Copan’s book is divided into four sections.  Each section is divided into chapters dealing with texts that raise issues about the nature and the character of God.

Section 1 introduces the neo-atheists and how they interpret the Old Testament.  In describing the polemic of the new atheists, Copan says their criticism of Christianity, at times can be angry and nasty.  As for their denial of the existence of God, Copan wrote: “The Neo-atheists’ arguments against God’s existence are surprisingly flimsy, often resembling the simplistic village atheist far more than the credentialed academician” (p. 17, emphasis his).

Section 2 deals with the God of the Old Testament: “God: Gracious Master or Moral Monster?” In this section Copan discusses whether the worship of God and the sacrifices offered to him are signs of divine arrogance or divine humility.  He also discusses whether the binding of Isaac was an act of child abuse.

Section 3 deals with life in the Ancient Near East and in Israel.  In this section Copan deals with several ethical questions: the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the dietary regulations of the Old Testament, some of the laws that seem strange to modern sensibility, what had been considered acts of barbarism and harsh punishments, the way women were treated in Israel, the problem of slavery, and the killing of the Canaanites.  He concludes this section by addressing an issue that is the basis for atheists’ abusive denunciation of religion, that religion causes violence and that religion is the cause of all evil.

Section 4 deals with whether morality can exist without God.  In one chapter Copan explains how God is the foundation of goodness and in another he shows how the God of the Old Testament reveals himself in Jesus Christ and how God involves humanity in the unfolding of the divine purpose for the world.

In examining the work of the Church, Copan points out that, notwithstanding its flaws, the church “has played an important part in bringing huge benefits to civilization. This impact has often been inspired by devotion to Christ, which overflows to love for one’s neighbor to the glory of God” (pp. 217-18).

I enjoyed reading Copan’s book, primarily his assertion that, contrary to Seibert and Cowles, the God of the Old Testament, the same God who became flesh and lived among us, is not a moral monster but a loving God, a God who became one of us, a God who suffers with us and for us.

It is evident that, here and there, Christians disagree on how to interpret a text.  Although I agree with Copan’s argument and with his conclusions, I disagree with his interpretation of the plight of the female slave in Exodus 21:2-6.  At a later time, I will write a post on this text and explain my disagreement with Copan’s interpretation.

Since Christians are often asked to explain these difficult texts to people within and outside the church who struggle with what they read in the Bible, this book is a must read.  Copan’s book provides a basic understanding of several passages that raise ethical questions, not only in the mind of believers, but also to people who have questions about the ethical behavior of God.  Buy the book and read it.

I want to thank Copan and Baker Books for making the book available for review.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Evil, Hebrew God, Old Testament, Theodicy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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