Is God a Moral Monster? 8

Is the Old Testament misogynistic? That is, does it convey or transmit a view of women as inferior. Copan says No. What do you think?

Paul Copan, in Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, sketches a series of passages/verses where he thinks the equality of women is assumed.

He breaks these into three categories: theological, historical and legal.

But he begins on a common theme for his book: the ideal is found in Genesis 1–2 with fallen conditions causing breakdowns in the rest of the Old Testament. Gen 1–2: both male and female are Image of God; Eve is from the rib as a companion; marriage is of equals etc..

Theologically: Gen 1:27; Exod 20:12: honor father and mother; etc.

A women is called an “ezer”: companion.

Historical: powerful matriarchs in Bible — Sarah, Hagar, Rebeckah, Rachel, Leah, etc — Miriam, Deborah, Ruth, and the Proverbs 31 woman.

Legal: women share legal and moral responsibility with men.

So what about the difficult passages?He examines the trial of jealousy in Numbers 5, the double impurity of the female child at birth in Lev 12, levirate marriage in Deut 25, coveting your neighbor’s wife in Exod 20 and the absence of female priests.

Copan’s major strategy is to justify the biblical texts by appealing to moral improvement or social improvement when compared with the Ancient Near East, points I don’t dispute. But what needs examination is why the Proverbs 31 is not more pervasive.

And this leads to this one: if Genesis 1–2 is the ideal, what becomes of the status — scriptural status — of the other texts that reflect the inferior fallen conditions?

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  • Tim

    “Is the Old Testament misogynistic? That is, does it convey or transmit a view of women as inferior?”

    To me, the inferiority question isn’t the most pertinent. The question is whether the OT treats women as property. I believe it does. As a human matter, women of course are acknowledged in the OT as precious creations of God. But as a patriarchal societal matter, they are often managed and viewed (in part) as property.

    Referencing Ruth and other key matriarchal figures is a common apologetic approach to be sure. And certainly their are plenty of instances in the OT where women are portrayed in a positive light, and even some where they have some amount of agency and are cast in the role of heroine. But read through the OT Law and it becomes rather clear, they are treated legally as half-way in between human and cattle. On the human side, they have some rights and responsibilities, on the cattle side they are treated as property of men.

  • smcknight

    Tim, I think you’ve offered a slur instead of a thoughtful nuanced response to this sketch of Copan’s chp.

    You begrudgingly cede the many passages about women that evoke advances in the ancient world and that evince threads of equality and leadership and authority, and then become dogmatic about “half-way” — it seems to me your use of “property” is about the way people use “consumerism” today. What do you mean? Patriarchal relationships aren’t propertorial so much as patriarchal. There’s a major difference.

  • Tim


    Wow. I’ve offered a slur? First of all, I typed this out as I’m getting my baby girl ready and getting out the door this morning for work. I typed up something quick to add to the conversation and didn’t perseverate over each last word to make sure it came across as diplomatically as possible. I didn’t intend to insult anyone and it is my impression that the OT Law treats women as property, and I thought the livestock analogy, when met half-way with human recognition of course, was apt. If you feel otherwise I’m sorry. As far as “ceding” anything, I think you’ve misread my posts if you think that extends to gender issues. I’ve argued that while the OT seems superior in social class egalitarianism, the Code of Hammurabi, to take another ANE legal code comparison, seems superior to the OT Law in matters of gender egalitarianism. I don’t know how you ever got the impression I thought otherwise. I have to head out. All the best.

  • rjs


    I don’t think that the OT law treats women as property in the sense it treats animals as property. The half-way statement is something of a slur.

    The OT has a very different and hierarchical view of community relationships though. The structure is one that places men in a superior position in general, and certainly is patriarchal in structure. Children could be sacrificed – as in the picture shown or as in the passage about Jepthah. But it is also true that men could be conscripted to fight and executed for failure to follow the commands (thinking of the story of the stoning of Achan and his family).

    I doubt if the OT view is any more or less disturbing than that in the other ANE codes.

    Frankly with respect to women – laws in places in the US have been equally destructive. But here as well it is not an issue of humanness, but more an issue of the orderly structure of society.

  • Professor McKnight,
    What standard can be used by Christians to judge the Old Testament as misogynistic? I can understand a non-Christian using a humanistic, utopian or even feminist grounding to judge but Christians? It always sounds to me like we are having the age-old argument that the God of the OT is a different and inferior God to One we “think” we find in the NT (selected Scriptures of course).
    Thank you for posting about this book. I’ll be looking into it.

  • Tim

    “I don’t think that the OT law treats women as property in the sense it treats animals as property. The half-way statement is something of a slur.”

    I sincerely disagree. I would appreciate it if you and Scot confined your responses to the argument and cut it out with the personal attacks/criticisms. Helpful advice of course I welcome, but labeling an argument a slur implicitly conveys a moral criticism and I don’t appreciate it. Also, I don’t believe my analogy concerning livestock is someting unique to me. I am sure ANE scholars have shared and expressed similar sentiments in the past with respect to how women were treated in ancient Israel and surrounding regions.

  • Tim

    …typed from work. I’ll continue this in the evening.

  • rjs


    People have made such an analysis of US law in places – that the law has reduced women to livestock. It is a fairly common rhetorical method to make a point. But I don’t think that it is generally correct, not of the rather patriarchal laws in the US that turned all property over to a husband in the not too distant past, nor of the OT laws.

    These are laws for the orderly running of society – with each element having a defined place. They are abused at times (far too often) but we get nowhere by over stating the case.

  • James

    The major difficulty in this discussion is treating “the Old Testament” or “ancient Israelite society” (or the ANE for that matter) as monolithic sources of study that provide clear and coherent answers to modern questions. The fact that we can even debate this shows that both sides (misogyny and “progress toward equality in the ANE”) are evident in the OT.

    To me, the larger question here is: to what extent do the various “difficult” passages of the OT represent the identity of God? Talking about this question is a way to get around the “God of the OT vs. God of the NT” discussion because we are speaking not of different gods, but of different interpretations of how God works among God’s people.

  • smcknight


    This book is by apologist Paul Copan and it essentially is a response to the New Atheists attacks on the Old Testament, and Paul’s complaint is that they have not treated the OT fairly.


    Then don’t slur the OT without defining the terms: what do you mean by property? How does the Bible treat cattle vs. how does it treat women? If you think they are the same, you are just mistaken. Fundamental here is how property works in a patriarchal society and how families work in a patriarchal society.

  • Travis Greene

    The OT, while generally patriarchal, did not invent patriarchal culture. That helps me deal with some of the more troubling laws. Like for instance the provision that rapists must marry their victims. That sounds, and is, terrible–but less so when we consider that, in that culture, rape victims would have been like the disabled, robbed of what gave them economic value, and thus relegated to begging or worse, and the law is an attempt to redress the harm the perpetrator has caused. Is it ideal? No. Is it something like viewing women as property? It certainly has economic value in mind in a way that makes me uncomfortable. But is it better than rape victims being consigned to a life of prostitution? Distasteful as it is, yes.

    I don’t know an easy answer to Scot’s question. I guess it’s not much different to let Genesis 1-2 and the NT overrule parts of the OT in regard to gender than the way we do so in regard to food laws and slavery and so forth. Doesn’t mean it’s not Scripture, but it does mean Scripture has a narrative arc that must be kept in mind.

  • J

    I heard Copan and others speak on this subject at EPS in Atlanta last year. I was very unimpressed. It frustrates me that Copan fails to seriously wrestle with the status of women in the OT. The truth is things are not as clear and tidy as we would like them to be. Even under Mosaic law women were not equals, in many ways they were second-class citizens. To brush this problem under the rug and pretend it does not exist only damages our honesty and witness with unbelievers who notice the problems. William Webb (SW&H) does a much better job thinking through this issue than Copan. And Copan’s doctrine of Scripture inevitably affects how he approaches this issue. A certain understanding of inerrancy a priori prohibits certain readings of the texts he deals with. That much was implicit during the panel discussion at EPS.

  • Hi, Scot! I couldn’t figure out what you were saying with this sentence: But what needs examination is why the Proverbs 31 is not more pervasive. Do you mean using Proverbs 31 as supportive & persuasive in Copan’s argument?

    After decades of reading Proverbs alongside Psalms & other scripture most days, I’ve come to appreciate the structure of Proverbs from the personified female voice of wisdom in early chapters to the wise, God-fearing, actively engaged & community oriented woman in Proverbs 31. I’m planning on writing more in the near future, as you know, and this is one of the subjects that is further front than other topics.

    PS, should you respond here, I’ll catch up after we make our trek homeward in the next 24 hours.

    Tim, #1, we do need to come out of some place to get to God’s true humanity for us, do not Christians believe? Your critique continues to have a static flavor to it, from my POV. Alongside many positive stories of strong women within the OT, the cultural laws of the ANE grow weaker. I’d surmise, without being sure, that you haven’t lived with your family in a culture where the normative situation for women is SUB-huMAN. I’m in one such place, right now. yeah. Women create parallel cultures to maintain a sense of worth & identity when continually devalued. I note the continual re-knitting together of alienated men & women in God’s sight in the OT & NT. I’ll focus, there.

  • smcknight


    Proverbs 31 is quite the picture of a woman operating in society in flourishing ways and with considerable status. It seems to me that Copan could have used this image of women more to prop up some of his points. It’s good to appeal to Genesis 1-2 but I’m not sure there’s that much to go on, while Prov 31 might be an Eve-like figure.

  • Adam


    Any chance you’ll be reading and reviewing “Disturbing Divine Behavior” by Eric Seibert as a contrast to Copan’s voice?

  • smcknight

    Adam I did a brief on it when it came out.

  • DRT

    August 18, 1920 (about 90 years ago);

    The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

    Baptist Faith and Message, 2000 C.E.

    He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.

    I think the OT is not all that bad.

  • Tim

    Scot (10),

    “Then don’t slur the OT without defining the terms”

    Scot, I hope you appreciate that as I feel my analogy is apt, I would disagree that I am “slurring” the Old Testament. You seem to think I’m just throwing around inflammatory rhetoric, and I just honestly don’t feel that I am.

    I also tried to convey that I typed out my response as I was trying to prepare to leave for work. I did not have time to write a whole treatise, carefully defining terms, using diplomatic language, noting any caveats, and supporting my assertions with detailed arguments and references. I’m sorry, I just didn’t have the time. But just because I didn’t have the time to do this for you, doesn’t mean I’m slurring the Old Testament. At the time I wrote my post, and even now, I feel my analogy was apt. Perhaps I am wrong in my analysis, and if so I hope I’m open enough to see that and admit it if a convincing case can be made. But right now this is my honest take on the OT, but it is not specific to the OT, it is general for that time and region. I’m not selectively singling out Judaism or Christianity here. So if I’m slurring the OT, I’m slurring most of the ANE as well. And I don’t think I’m doing this. Concerning supporting my assertions with detailed arguments, this will require a good deal of digging on my part, likely a good half hour to hour of my time, and I’ll see if I can get that information to you tomorrow as I don’t have the time tonight. Let me know if you’re interested in revisiting this topic then, as I don’t want to invest that time and effort only to discover that you and RJS have moved on from this thread.

    Now, I want to address how personal things have become and your and RJS’s accusations toward me. This is somewhat difficult for me, as quite honestly I like you and RJS, and I appreciate your dialog with me and this online community here at Jesus Creed. But when you both start levying these personal attacks against me, it frustrates me and offends me. I don’t think I deserve them (the attacks, not constructive advice), and it feels quite condescending and judgmental at times even if that has not been your intention. I have tried time and time again to keep things from getting personal (in a negative way) and really just focus on the arguments. But you both have increasingly made that more difficult for me. So this is me acknowledging how personal things are getting, and providing feedback to you that you can take as you will (though I hope you receive it positively as intended).

  • Scot McKnight

    Well, Tim, of course, I accept your point, but I said “slur” because I think it is one and it is not at all personal. Nor was RJS’s.

    You are sensitive about how atheists are treated; be sensitive too about how believers treat and read the Old Testament. Particularly women who are searching for that text to have meaning for them…

    I would also urge you to take criticisms as criticisms and not personal attacks. Notice that no one has taken any of your strong criticisms, and you’ve leveled plenty, as personal attacks.

  • Tim


    I appreciate your thoughtful response. I guess the tricky issue here is how one can express criticisms of the OT without those criticisms being taken personally by those who hold the OT dear to them.

    As an example of what I’m talking about, take just the name of your series you’ve (perhaps rhetorically) titled, “Is God a Moral Monster?” I’m sure you realize that by posing this question, you are opening the door for some to say, “based on my reading of the OT, in certain places, yes, he is conveyed that way.” Now, this could be deeply offensive to someone who holds the OT dear, but I don’t think the person making such a criticism of the OT should themselves be open to personal criticism with respect to their person or any breach of etiquette in articulating their points. If the question is asked, criticisms should be allowed and welcomed, even if the person receiving such arguments disagrees. I also don’t think the person making such arguments needs to bend over backwards convey their points in the utmost gentlest terms just to assuage other people’s sensibilities. This would certainly be a double standard if this were the case, as advocates of more traditional views here on Jesus creed often see no need to soften their arguments yet strangely they escape criticism for failing to do so.

    Now, I agree that I have in the past offered many criticisms myself. You are correct on that. But mine have always been directed to the argument. As in, “I think your point is wrong, and here’s why.” Or, “I think you’re representation of facts/scholarship on this issue is slanted or faulty.” If I do make a personal criticism, it is in response to a personal criticism, either of myself or others. You took the example of atheists. Certainly I defend them, as I feel they are often misunderstood and many of my dear friends are atheist. But I only defend atheists if I feel the criticism is unwarranted. If I feel the criticism is warranted, even if I don’t personally like it, I don’t object. But criticisms of atheists are criticisms of real people, not some text where we are offering critiques from a (hopefully) scholarly point of view. I guess my frustration is when I try to articulate arguments concerning the Bible, people then somehow personalize that to themselves or the Christian community.

    To conclude, I hope this helps clear the air a little bit, and hopefully we can continue on a more positive and constructive note. Also, let me know if you are interested in continuing the conversation we started concerning whether the OT treats women in part as property. Thanks Scot.

  • rjs


    But the OT also treats sons, in part, as property. But this doesn’t equate sons with livestock – or between human and livestock. Why is it an appropriate analogy for the way women are treated (which varies from place to place in different books and situations)?

  • Tim


    My point was a legal one, and applied to OT Law. So while you mentioned some diversity in how the OT treats women, the Law is (I presume) meant to represent a unified whole – and it was to this I was speaking. I also made no mention of children, slaves, foreigners, or any other category of person you might introduce. So no comparisons were drawn there. As you are still engaging me on this topic, I’ll make sure I present to you my supporting arguments and references for my points tomorrow evening, and I look forward to receiving your response then. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

  • rjs


    I am not going to be online much as I am busy all day today.

    I hope you realize though that my only push back was on the statement “half-way in between human and cattle” with the analogy to livestock, not with the rest of the comment.

  • Tim


    I appreciate that, but I had reasons to use the cattle analogy. Mainly, the analogy was chosen as (1) livestock are living creatures (so something inanimate would probably make a poor analogy), (2) livestock are bought and sold, and don’t have any agency in choosing how or when that happens, and (3), if harm comes to the livestock, the owner of the livestock is compensated. I think you will find the OT Law treats women, in part, in much the same way. Not entirely so of course. That’s why I said half-way, though perhaps we could quibble about the ratio. So I had reasons for choosing this analogy.

    I don’t want to waste my time in providing supporting arguments for this, referencing passages in OT Law and drawing from other sources if you won’t have time to continue this conversation. But I really would like to continue this at some point if you are still interested. Let me know RJS.

  • Tim

    …I forgot to add (4) livestock retain no agency in their domestic life, (5) livestock can be treated however the owner wishes, and discarded whenever the owner wishes.

    Again, the analogy was not that women in OT Law are legally synonymous with livestock, but rather possessing rights and responsibilities proscribed in the OT Law halfway between human and livestock. OK. I look forward to continuing this conversation later today, or sometime this weekend RJS if you wish. Let me know.

  • Susan N.

    Tim, although I have followed this series — ‘Is God a Moral Monster?’ — from the beginning, when I saw the topic on this one, I backed off, deciding not to touch it with a ten foot pole. Being a woman myself, who has been exposed to very conservative biblical doctrines and came away from this type of teaching skeptical…cynical, even, I figured it’d be difficult for me to comment objectively. I really don’t believe that the laws regarding women in the OT so much indicate God’s view toward women as the cultural context of that time. In the exceptional stories of women (I always think of Ruth, though there are more), I think God allows us a glimpse of what His true character and opinion of women are in those stories which are *counter* to what the ancient Jewish laws and society indicated.

    My husband’s native culture is big on sorting people out according to family/tribe, still adhering to ancient traditions. As a newer believer (convert to Christianity), he struggled and still struggles with passages in the Old and New Testament that seem to condone injustices toward women and slaves. His indignation is that these scriptures have been taken by the church down through history as a mandate for continuing these practices. He has questioned the authenticity of the source texts, wondering if they’ve been “edited” by mankind to suit their own ends. What I always suggest to him is, the fact that “women as property” or “slavery” are addressed in the Bible probably reflects more the reality of these societal conditions than God’s endorsement of them. In one sense, if the scripture says, “slaves obey your masters”, it is not saying that slavery is good in God’s eyes, nor His will, but that it really existed at the time of the writing, and the scripture is indicating a best response of a Christian slave. Looking deeper and seeking to understand the entire story is essential…

    Tim, I’m a nobody in terms of academic scholarship. But I sincerely seek to grow in knowledge and be courageous in looking at God and who I am in Christ with honesty. I have been in the position of words inflicting hurt (on both ends–the inflictor and the inflictee), and breaking down the dialogue and ultimately the relationship. In this sense, I identify with you and feel sad in reading the progression of comments. I respect Scot’s biblical knowledge and personal witness as well. I hope you will keep wrestling with these questions about God and find grace in the process as God meets you where you are. To me, that is what God was doing in the OT with the Jews–meeting them where they were spiritually, and leading them toward Christ. It continues today, with us. None of us has “arrived” until we see Christ face-to-face in eternity. That thought keeps me humble, or at least keeps yanking me back from prideful, all-knowing self-image. ~Peace~

  • Tim

    Susan N.,

    Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. I do understand that we take different views of the OT, and there is nothing wrong with that. For instance, you view the OT as meeting man where they are at, and I look at certain portions of the OT, particularly the OT Law, and it just looks purely human to me.

    I see no evidence that God put together a law for the Hebrew people as it looks, for all intents and purposes, identical to what one would expect of a law people would come up with for themselves. So, you could perhaps say I’m wrestling with these passages, and that I am on my own spiritual journey with God meeting me where I am at currently, guiding me closer to him.

    But if God is leading me anywhere with respect to my analysis of OT Law, it seems likely at this stage that his is leading me toward a conclusion that he had nothing to do with it. Perhaps that is the truth he wants to convey to me. Perhaps this is the truth he wants to convey to you, Scot, RJS, and the rest of humanity as well.

    But it is futile for me to speculate as to the mind of God. So I have to content myself with my own assessment of these matters, which is that the OT Law seems human, not divine, and being human carries with it not just the good of humankind, but the evil as well.

  • Susan N.

    Tim, you know, this ‘misogynist’ post has remained on my mind since I last wrote. I appreciate your thoughtful response, and understand where you are coming from. In fact, on the question of man’s will vs. God’s will, I wouldn’t disagree with you that human beings in search of God can go so very wrong. The thought occurred to me that I can sum up my response to this entire series on ‘Is God a Moral Monster?’ in two thoughts: 1) Not so much God, but humanity that should wear the label ‘moral monster’…and, 2) Trying to judge God’s character without looking at and applying what we know of the person of Jesus Christ is like trying to put together one of those assemble-it-yourself furniture projects after reading only half the instructions. Jesus has shown us how God really intended the Law to be lived: Love is the rule. Whereas OT laws were driven by humankind’s impulse for retributive justice, Jesus shows God’s heart for mercy and forgiveness. Often in reading the OT as living history, I see it as a sad commentary on our human condition and more in terms of “what NOT to do.” Where I have benefited tremendously from Scot and others who write scholarly but accessible (to the layperson) books that merge faith and living is in learning the broader context of the biblical narrative. Looking at the theological perspective of the Jews in the context of their culture has helped me to see more clearly what was behind their beliefs and actions. We all “see through a glass darkly” in this life; and I, like you, continue to pursue God using all the resources with which He has equipped me to do so–heart, soul, mind, and strength. Tim, you and I, on that level, are not so different. I don’t know your beliefs about Jesus Christ, but I do believe that if you genuinely keep seeking for truth with an open heart, God is faithful to provide and guide. Blessings on your journey, and I thank you for entering into this discussion with me. You have given me more to think about.

  • Thanks to you all for interacting with Scot on my book. Again, Scot, thanks for the attention you’re giving it.

    Just a note on J’s odd comment. J, I’m not sure what session you were attending in Atlanta, but it wasn’t mine! I didn’t even address the topic of women in Atlanta at the Society of Biblical Literature panel discussion (or any of the other meetings at which I spoke in November), nor have I done so in my previous writings. The first time I’ve addressed the “women” issue has been in my recently-released Moral Monster book. You may want to take a look at it to get clear on what I actually do say.