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A Critical Review of Is God a Moral Monster? (2017)

Craig Vander Hart

Book coverReview: Paul Copan. 2011. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 256 pp.


Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster? attempts a bold apologetic of the Judeo-Christian God's moral status in light of the recent attack on the biblical Old Testament by the so-called new atheists. These vocal atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris), both in writing and public debate, interpret the biblical God as a promotor of immoral acts, such as genocide, slavery, murder, rape, and so on. Richard Dawkins, for instance, writes that the God of the Old Testament is "a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser."[1] It is clear that Copan, a Christian believer, thinks that charges against the moral consistency, objectivity, and impartiality of the Judeo-Christian God must be answered.

The book begins with the question of whether or not religion, in general, is really a unique source of moral failure. Copan points to Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Zedong as examples of the evil done by atheists (p. 18). But are these accurate counterexamples? A distinction should be made between "acting immorally as an X" (first kind) and "acting immorally because of X" (second kind). In other words, would Stalin's actions have changed if he had truly been a devout Christian? If yes, then his evil could be due to atheism. If no, then his atheism is irrelevant. The controversy surrounds identifying who really is acting because of their religion or irreligion. There must be a causal relationship, not an accidental coincidence. Both parties in this debate must find clear examples of the causal relationship (the second kind).

To make his point, Copan cites serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's justification for murder—living in a morally neutral "naturalistic" universe. But it is not clear that Dahmer acted because of atheism. It is more likely that he acted for independent reasons—or for no reasons at all—and is simply rationalizing his actions with a nihilistic defense (one which further assumes that atheism entails nihilism, which is certainly not true a priori). Could religious atrocities be explained similarly? Clearly the answer is yes. The new atheists must equally focus on examples that cannot be ruled out in the way that the case of Dahmer can be. When Bertrand Russell was denied a job at City College of New York, the denial was clearly due to his atheism. To say that religious belief was not a factor in the discrimination against Russell would be to completely misunderstand the case.

So, to be clear, any immoral acts found in the Bible must be of the second kind in order to render religion a unique source of moral failure—in particular, they must be done out of obedience to God or because of a divinely mandated law. Moreover, as Copan himself explains, is does not necessarily imply ought (pp. 66-68). Copan rightfully points out that just because an activity is described in the Bible, it does not follow that it was prescribed by God. The fact that Lot was seduced by his daughters does not entail that God prescribed or approved of the seduction (see Genesis 19:31-36). Thus, the only serious objections to the biblical God's status as a moral agent and lawgiver would be clear examples of passages in which immoral acts are done because of God's will, or passages in which such acts are approved of by God. This explanation successfully defeats many charges against the Old Testament God. Nevertheless, there remain clear prescriptive passages in the Bible that Copan cannot explain away in this fashion.

One of the important themes of Is God a Moral Monster? is sex and marriage. Critics emphasize the role that bride price played in Old Testament marriage. Is it true that young women were purchased like any other object of property in biblical marriages? Does God endorse such transactions? Copan attacks critics for failing to acknowledge that male buyers could be thought of as property as well (p. 117). He asks: "Why automatically conclude that a woman is property because this marriage gift is given in the Old Testament but that a man isn't property under the dowry system?" (p. 117). The question seems like a red herring; but more importantly, Copan ignores passages (such as Deuteronomy 22:13-19) that require demonstrating proof of virginity (if the husband is suspicious). There are no passages indicating that a wife could divorce her husband or have him put to death because of proof that he was sexually active before their marriage. The focus is on women as a kind of commodity, and the guidelines are there to make sure that men receive the goods for which they paid.

Copan's discussion of rape is also worth careful consideration. While he ignores the obvious fact that the codes of the Deuteronomist betray a strongly male attitude towards women in general, Copan strongly contends that the well-being of women is at the heart of several controversial passages. Deuteronomy 22 discusses the fate of women who are raped, whether against their will or with "implied consent." The so-called consent of the female is simply her failure to scream out for help. What if no one heard her? What if her mouth was covered? The criteria that separate a bona fide rape from an implicitly consensual one are dubious at best. Verses 28-29 give instructions concerning what to do with a rape victim who was not the wife or fiancé of another man. Copan maintains that these verses do not prescribe the further evil of forcing the female to marry the rapist. Let us exam this point.

Trying to defend a conscripted marriage to a man who has raped you raises a multitude of problems. First, the relevant passages contain no indication that the male perpetrator has done anything immoral directly to the female victim. In Deuteronomy 22:24, the act of raping a neighbor's wife could be deemed criminal insofar as it damages another male's property. This interpretation is consistent with the context. The passage exists to serve as a guideline. But there is no guideline for compensating any female victim who is not "owned" by a husband, as no damage has been done to a man's "goods" in that situation (and thus the rapist is not stoned). In other words, the passage does not forbid rape when the female victim is unmarried. Second, while Copan maintains that the female victim can refuse marriage to the man who raped her, that caveat is not explicitly stated in the passage itself. The father of the victim has the right to refuse, but that is not tantamount to saying that the victim has that right. Third, Copan interprets the context as one of protection and care due to the fact that "it would have been more difficult for a woman to find a husband had she been sexually involved with another before marriage" (p. 119). So, the instructions are given to make sure that female victims do not lose their marketability.

It is noteworthy that there is no mention of the rapist's sexual misconduct possibly damaging his status as a future husband (assuming that he is not already a husband). Taking into account Copan's correct observations, we still are left with the following conclusions about the Deuteronomist's guidelines concerning rape:

  1. The sexual actions of men are only morally wrong and deserving of punishment when they involve misconduct towards the wife of another man.
  2. Female victims of rape who are not executed, or married off to the men who raped them, might have the ability to escape conscripted marriage if their fathers forbid it, but they will most likely live with shame until a male suitor comes along willing to marry a nonvirgin.
  3. Virginity is only an issue for women; never for men. The loss of it is wrong because it affects the interests of men, and it is punishable by death for women, but is never punishable by death for men. Men are only executed when their sexual acts inconvenience other men.

Copan maintains that biblical law apparently forbids rape during wartime. Rather, an enemy woman left without a husband or family could marry into Israelite culture if a Hebrew male soldier was interested in her (pp. 118-121). Deuteronomy 21 gives instructions on this matter, in which a period of grieving must be allowed for the widow before entering into marriage with the Hebrew male. Copan interprets this and other passages as elevating foreign women to the same status as domestic Israelite women because such marriages had to follow the same rules as inter-Israelite ones. However, at least one important passage, Numbers 31, gives us a clear example of women approvingly treated as the spoils of war.

Numbers 31 is a multiply problematic passage for Copan, who considers it in his chapter on ethnic cleansing. But it also has relevance to his discussion of rape. Unlike the passages he discusses in his early chapter on women, Numbers 31 presents us with clear evidence of virgin women singled out as the only legitimate spoils of war. God orders the Israelites to massacre the Midianites, which includes the killing of male children, but makes an exception for young virgin women who can be "spared" for soldiers (Numbers 31:17-18). Were these women (or young girls most likely) raped? Copan says no, citing his earlier defense of Deuteronomy 21. But no instruction is given in the Numbers passage that explains what the phrase "spare for yourselves" means. Despite this fact, Copan is sure that "rape was most certainly excluded as an extracurricular activity in warfare" because of his interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:10-14 (p. 180). However, Copan wrongly assumes that he can use clear passages (in this case from the D source), which reflect the nature of God that he wants to establish, in order to interpret the vague ones (this one from the P source).[2]

For the sake of argument, let's assume that these young women were not raped, but married. Is this really a morally superior understanding? These young girls have just witnessed the genocide of their parents, siblings, and everyone else that they knew. Now they are being assimilated into a different culture with, presumably, a different dialect and (arguably) a different god, and forced to marry the men who carried out the death sentence on their families. Even if Deuteronomy's marriage laws were followed, how does marrying these young girls differ morally from raping them? It differs economically, but it does not differ morally. Traumatized adolescent girls become the sexual partners of the killers of their families. Even if Copan is correct and rape was not encouraged, it does not follow that the passage demonstrates concern for the well-being of the female victims of war.

As noted, Numbers 31 is also relevant to the rules regarding genocide, which is discussed in Copan's chapters on ethnic cleansing (chs. 15-16). Here the issue is the biblical account of the conquest of Canaan. Many leading archeologists reject the historicity of this account, but it is the theological justification (and divine mandate) that matters here.[3] Copan does insist that the conquest of the Promised Land took place with "a lot less bloodshed" than traditionally thought (p. 170), and that the war rhetoric of books such as Joshua contain hyperbole; God never really intended to wipe out entire peoples. Instead, the goal all along was simply to eradicate Canaanite idolatry (p. 173). But certainly this is a red herring. Even if the biblical authors exaggerated when they claimed that they were supposed to remove entire peoples, the problem is not the quantity of persons killed, but the rationale for their deaths.

Copan simply assumes that God has the right to end the lives of peoples who do not agree with the dominant theology of Israel. This assumption also serves as a kind of preemptive strike against any future enemies that might poison Israelites: "Failure to remove the idolatry would put Israel in the position of the Canaanites and their idols before God. Israel would risk being consecrated to destruction" (p. 173). Here Copan avoids the problem by changing the subject. His reasoning is no different when discussing the Midianite massacre in Numbers 31. There God authorizes a preemptive strike against Midian in order to make sure that future Midianites will not seduce future Israelites into pagan rituals:

The death sentence for all males is unusual. However, males were the potential enemy army to rise up against Israel. Midian's brazen, evil intent to lead Israel astray called for a severe judgment. The intent of Moses's command was to undermine any future Midianite threat to Israel's identity and integrity. (p. 180)

Copan never considers the possibility that Hebrew proselytization might serve as a danger to Midianite integrity. Why is war justifiable against non-Israelite peoples due to their theological agendas, but impermissible against the Israelites because of Yahweh's agenda? Copan simply fails to think universally and morally here. He has already assumed that the rationale of Israel's God is justifiable because he believes that Yahweh is the true God and must have a good reason for authorizing the destruction of a civilization. Copan's argument here (and the entirety of his book) begs the question. He is not trying to objectively examine the moral status of Yahweh; rather, he is trying to exploit any possible loophole to maintain his belief that Yahweh is morally perfect and thus must be innocent of any charge of impropriety.

Copan tries to defend divine commands to go to war as last resorts, and therefore somehow a priori correct or justifiable. But this cannot explain all violent acts in accordance with God's professed will. The biblical flood wipes out all but one family, and after the waters diminish and a covenant is made with the survivors, we find Noah drunk and naked (see Genesis 9:21). Where was the divine foresight? What clear good consequences came of this last resort? Copan dismisses these questions by asking, "what theological reason compels us to assume that God must operate with maximum efficiency" (p. 165)? So, on the one hand, God's seemingly violent plans can be interpreted as "last resorts," but when the consequences of such plans lead to dubious outcomes, Copan wants us simply to accept that God is mysterious and beyond the scope of human reason.

If we accept Copan's premise, then either God's character can be judged by human moral standards, or else it transcends them. Copan cannot have it both ways. If the Bible presents an objectively moral worldview, then the New Testament command of Jesus to love one's enemies must be objectively true and obligatory for the ancient Israelites. Either we ought kill our enemies, or we ought to love them. Copan wants both answers to be correct, but this is an impossible dilemma to overcome without distorting Jesus' command or reading the Old Testament anachronistically. The simpler explanation is that the Old Testament authors had no idea that Jesus was going to exist and that he would go on to make claims that would obfuscate the meaning of Old Testament narratives.

Copan would never break from his theological presuppositions to accept that explanation, even if they impede exegetical consistency. This is someone who refers to the universal Christian Church as "the true Israel" (p. 168), which illuminates the way in which he works backward from a premise about a loving New Testament God (Jesus) to the source of that love. In other words, any Old Testament evidence of this God's moral culpability must be explained away in light of the more loving and inclusive New Testament passages. In the end, Copan's book only appeals to Christians who are worried the about possibility that their God might be a moral monster. Only such readers would be comfortable with his complete disregard of the documentary hypothesis (and subsequent scholarly positions about the composition of the Old Testament), as well as his outdated archeological positions.

While Copan's bold work does overcome some of the rhetorically powerful cheap shots that the new atheists have leveled against the Old Testament, it cannot deliver on its fundamental promise. The assumption—made by both sides of the debate—that the Old Testament's authors have the same democratic and egalitarian ideals that we do today is what leads to these absolutist positions. The Bible is a book worthy of serious study. It should not be so quickly ignored by its recent critics, but neither is it a collection of proof texts ready to arm pious conservatives in their culture war against same-sex marriage and other perceived social evils. The real problem to overcome is the need for this great book to be either completely perfect or completely barbaric.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), pp. 31.

[2] Here I am referring to the sources proposed by the Graf–Wellhausen (documentary) hypothesis in a rather uncontroversial way. See translations such as Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).

[3] William Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 37-74.

Copyright ©2017 Craig Vander Hart. The electronic version is copyright ©2017 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Craig Vander Hart. All rights reserved.