Is the Old Testament God a Moral Monster?

Is the Old Testament God a Moral Monster? July 29, 2018

Have you ever read the Old Testament . . .  all of it?

It’s riddled with episodes of God becoming angry, God being filled with hot-boiling wrath, God changing His mind, God commanding Israel to destroy other nations — including the women and children, God creating “seemingly” crazy unreasonable laws, God allowing injustices, etc. etc.


All of this has given atheists, agnostics, and those hostile to Christianity ample ammunition to try and discredit the faith.

At the end of the 19th century, Enlightenment thinkers like Robert Ingersoll argued that the God of the Old Testament was a savage, unjust, awful Person. And that no one in their right mind could be a Christian as a result.

We have reincarnations of Ingersoll in people like Bill Maher, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins (a.k.a. “The New Atheists”) who employ the same logic and line of reasoning in support of atheism. (Ingersoll was agnostic, but his arguments contra the Hebrew/Christian God are identical to that of Maher, Hitchens, and Dawkins.)

Paul Copan has written a new book that takes dead aim at the logic used by such people and refutes it squarely and sharply. For that reason alone I applaud him and his work. The book? Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God.

While the book packs a strong academic punch, it’s written in such a way that any reader can understand it.

If the truth be told, I’ve been waiting for someone to write this book for many years.

I had the opportunity to interview Paul to give you a flavor of what his book is like. It follows.

Disclaimer: the person conducting this interview is not responsible for the various questions asked, quotes made, or implications therein. I hereby solemnly declare before God, angels, and mortals that I believe in the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, the 66 books of what we call “the Bible” or “biblical canon.” I believe that they are fully inspired, true, and reliable. I’m playing devil’s advocate in part of this interview because of what the book in question sets out to do. Continue on at your own risk.

1) What motivated you to write this book?

Old Testament ethical questions—especially that of “slavery” and “genocide” ranking at the top—have been an ongoing problem for Christians and non-Christians alike. Much misunderstanding exists about the world of the ancient Near East, confusion due to biblical translations, and the like. To make matters worse, the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and so on) have recently highlighted these themes, calling God a “moral monster” or “not great.” More people are asking questions about these themes, and nothing accessible and wide-ranging was available offering succinct, biblically researched responses to these matters. So I decided to tackle these matters, first in journal-article form and then my Moral Monster book.

2) A noble and needed goal, indeed. With my next set of questions, I’m going to play Robert Ingersoll/Bill Maher/Richard Dawkins-esque “devil’s advocate.” So here goes:

Consider the following passage in the Law of Moses:

If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)

Doesn’t this make clear that the Old Testament was written by a man? Come on now. How is this consistent with a good, loving, reasonable God? If God wrote this, I wouldn’t want anything to do with a God like that. So what did God have in His mind when He authored this Law? And how does it reflect His nature? What say you?

This action was considered shameful—touching an area where only a man’s own wife is allowed to touch. Also, the man could possibly be permanently injured and thus deprived of future children. At first blush, this passage apparently requires that a woman’s hand must be cut off if she seizes the genitals of the man fighting with her husband—and scholars typically take this view.

If so, this would be the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation; beyond this, where ancient Near Eastern laws call for bodily mutilation for various offenses, the Mosaic Law does not. The Babylonian code of Hammurabi insisted that certain crimes be punished by cutting off the tongue, breast, hand, or ear—or the accused being dragged around a field by cattle. The Law of Moses—though not ideal—presents a remarkable improvement when it comes to punishments.

This passage refers to justice. A more plausible interpretation of this passage is the punishment of depilation (“you shall shave [the hair of] her groin”), not mutilation. The word commonly translated “hand [kaph]” can refer to the “palm” of a hand or some rounded concave object like a dish, bowl, or spoon or even the arch of a foot. The commonly-used word for “hand” (yad) isn’t used here. It would be strange to cut off the “palm” of a hand!

Furthermore, in certain places in the Old Testament, the word kaph is clearly used for the pelvic area—either the concave hip socket (Gen. 32:26, 32) or the curve of the woman’s groin area: “I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles [plural: kaphot] of the lock (Songs 5:5 NIV).  This language alludes back to the “locked garden” in 4:12:  “You are a locked garden, my sister, my bride; you are an enclosed spring, a sealed-up fountain” (NET). Scholars generally agree that the garden language is a metaphor for a woman’s sexual organs, and its being “locked” implies her purity/virginity.

Also, in the Deuteronomy 25 text, there is no indication of physical harm to the man (as some commentators commonly assume). For those who assume a literal “hand for a hand” punishment, remember that the man’s hand hasn’t been injured or cut off (if so, then the idea of cutting off her hand would make slightly more sense).  In addition, shaving hair—including pubic hair—as a humiliating punishment was practiced in Babylon and Sumer (cp. also 2 Sam. 10:4-5; Isa. 7:20). This isn’t mutilation for mutilation, but humiliation for humiliation.

In addition, the specific Hebrew verb-form (qal) has a milder connotation than the stronger, intensified verb-form (piel), meaning “cut off” or “(physically) sever [qatsats]” Whenever it appears in this milder form (Jer. 9:26; 25:23; 49:32), it means “clip/cut/shave [hair].”  There’s just no linguistic reason to translate the weaker verb form (“shave”) as a stronger form (i.e., amputation). In this particular case, we’re talking about the open concave region of the groin, and thus a shaving of pubic hair. In short, the woman’s punishment is public humiliation for publicly humiliating the man—something still very severe and for which no mercy was to be shown. From a textual point of view, the superior view is clearly the “shaving” view, not the mutilation view.

Is this an ideal punishment for all time? Not at all! However, it does stand out in marked contrast to the severe and excessive mutilation punishments common in the ANE (ancient Near Eastern). In fact, in Middle Assyrian laws (around 1100 BC) present a similar scenario—though with far more drastic consequences.  If a woman in a quarrel injured a man’s testicle, her finger would be cut off. If the other testicle was injured, both of her eyes would be gouged out.  Again, even if Deuteronomy 25 were dealing with an actual mutilation punishment, this would be (a) the only such punishment in the Mosaic Law and (b) a dramatic contrast to the frequent mutilation punishments in the rest of the ANE.

3) A similar question. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” Whhhhaaaa? What’s the point of this? How does this reflect God’s nature?

Not only do specific kinds of food, clothing, planting, and sexual relations in their respective “spheres” serve as a picture of Israel’s set-apartness from the nations. The distinction between clean and unclean animals in particular symbolizes how Israelites were to act in relationship to their neighbor as well as to God. In the language of Leviticus,animals symbolize what God required from his people.  For example, note the parallelsbetween the kinds of animals offered in sacrifices in Leviticus 1, 3, and 23 (“without blemish”—including no crushed testicles— which resulted in a “pleasing aroma to the Lord”) and the priest who is to be “without defect/blemish” (Leviticus 21:18-24), including no crushed testicles.

There is a connection between the kinds of animals that are permitted/forbidden to be eaten and the kind of people God wants Israel to be in its relationships. The theme of (un)cleanness in Leviticus and Deuteronomy not only symbolizes creation’s orderliness with everything in its own sphere. (So, unclean animals represent a lack of wholeness or integrity in not belonging to their own “sphere.”) Yet something more is going on: animals that are unclean appear to be either (a) predatory animals or (b) “vulnerable” animals (defective in appearance or characteristics).  This has a parallel to human relationships.

I can’t go into much more detail here, but perhaps that helps.

4) There are a number of instances in the Old Testament where God commands Israel to slay other nations, not sparing the women, children, or livestock. Is this not a heinous, horrific thing to command, let alone carry out? And doesn’t it contradict the teachings of Jesus regarding loving your enemy, forgiveness, etc. Here are two examples:

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt.  Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:1-3)

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroythem—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

Your book dedicates several chapters to treating this thorny topic. Can you give us a peek summary into what you have to say about it?

I can’t go into detail on this, but here are some of the highlights:

  • The language of the consecrated ban (herem) includes stereotypical language: “all,” “young and old,” and “man and woman.”  The ban could be carried out even if women and children weren’t present.
  • So far as we can see, biblical herem was carried out in particular military or combatant settings (with “cities” and military “kings”). It turns out that the sweeping language of the ban is directed at combatants.
  • The ban-language allows and hopes for exceptions (e.g., Rahab); it isn’t absolute.
  • The destruction-language of ANE (ancient Near Eastern) warfare (and the OT) is clearly exaggerated.  So groupings of Canaanite peoples that apparently were “totally destroyed” still happened to be hanging around when all was said and done (e.g., Judges 1). This is true with the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15; though it seems like Saul wiped out all the Amalekites (except for King Agag, whom Samuel finished off), an Amalekite army is still around after this point (1 Sam. 30), and David’s  men end up chasing them, with 400 escaping.
  • The greater concern was to destroy Canaanite religion, not Canaanites per se—a point worthy of elaboration.
  • The preservation of Rahab and her family indicates that consecration to the ban wasn’t absolute and irreversible. God had given ample indications of his power and greatness, and the Canaanites could have submitted to the one true God who trumped Egypt’s and Canaan’s gods, sparing their own lives.
  • The biblical text suggests that peace treaties could be made with Canaanite cities if they chose to, but none (except Gibeon) did so (Joshua 11:19).
  • We read many references to “driving out” the Canaanites. To clear away the land for habitation didn’t require killing; civilians fled when their military strongholds were destroyed and soldiers were no longer capable of protecting them.
  • From the start, certain (more cooperative) Canaanites were subjected to forced labor—not annihilation (Judges 1:19,  21, 27-36; 1 Kings 9:20-21; Joshua 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13; cp. Psalm 106:34-35). This was another indication that the ban wasn’t absolute.
  • Joshua carried out what Moses commanded (Deuteronomy 7 and 20), which means that Moses’s language is also an example of ANE exaggeration—not intended to be literal, all-encompassing extermination of the Canaanites.
  • The archaeological evidence nicely supports the biblical text; both of these point to minimal observable material destruction in Canaan as well as Israel’s gradual infiltration, assimilation, and eventual dominance there.

5) The Old Testament is full of laws about cleanliness. Certain foods are unclean. A woman who is menstruating is unclean. Touching a dead body makes a person unclean. You treat this thoroughly in your book. But really: How can someone make sense of this except to think that a human being wrote these laws? How in the cat hair do they reflect God’s nature?

God meets people where they are. God does not speak entirely independently of culture, but very often through culture with its particular cultural symbols/taboos people are familiar with. Also, God takes into account the human condition—the fallenness of ancient Near Eastern social/moral structures—and works with them. God permits divorce, for example, because of the hardness of human hearts, not because this is the moral ideal (cp. Matt. 19:8). One of the points I hammer home in the book is that when you compare the Law of Moses to the other law codes in the ancient Near East, Israel’s is far more humanizing and morally elevated than the rest. When it comes to laws regarding servitude, punishments, the equality of persons before the law (including kings), and the like, Israel’s laws are quite astonishing.

6)Devil’s Advocate Questions Over (Sigh of relief): What has the reaction been to the book thus far? What would you like it to be?

The response to the book has been remarkable. Several prominent blogs have highlighted it as “the best defense of Old Testament ethics.”

10) Christopher J.H. Wright has written a book entitled The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith, which you mention in your book. I’m not familiar with this work. How does your book compare and contrast with this title?

Christopher Wright gives more of an overview of the loving character of God in the Old Testament while focusing the troubling passages of Canaanite/warfare texts.  Wright offers a helpful context of showing concern for the salvation of all nations—including the Canaanites—as well and that such warfare was unique and unrepeatable. But his work does not deal with the range of Old Testament ethical challenges that my book attempts to do.

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  • ajginn

    The archaeological evidence nicely supports the biblical text; both of these point to minimal observable material destruction in Canaan as well as Israel’s gradual infiltration, assimilation, and eventual dominance there.

    Except where it doesn’t. Archeologists now date Ai to 500 years before Jericho. The evidence now leads to the more likely conclusion that the Hebrew cult arose fron within Canaan itself per Israel Finklestein and others.

  • I agree. I think Copan and Lamb are coming at it from that perspective too without saying the events never took place (according to at-the-moment archeological findings) or that they were so exaggerated that it doesn’t really map to what is clearly stated in the text. To use an analogy, in the OT where it says, “an evil spirit from the Lord was given to Saul” could be viewed as archaic language of divine sovereignty — i.e., God allowed an evil spirit to torment Saul. But that’s different from saying that Saul was never tormented because there is no archeological evidence (at this moment) to support it and it doesn’t seem to fit other texts in the Bible. So it’s easier to say it never took place. I see this issue as being very similar.

  • John W. Morehead

    Thanks for your further comments. One final thought from me. It’s not an issue of “did this literally happen historically or did it not.” That is a modern imposition on the text. If our aim is to seriously consider the ancient near eastern context and ask what the text meant to the original hearers, and entertain their process of theological reflection, formation of identity, and shaping of the narrative in pursuit of these aims, then it is possible that a literal interpretation is a misreading and imposition of our assumptions on the text. Just as the ANE context and background of the creation stories seems to indicate that the Hebrews were more interested in the theological function of creation than the material “how” and “when,” and our years of creation vs. evolution battles were an imposition of our agenda on the text, so this may be another example of that. Thanks again.

  • Thx. John. I’ve heard that particular theory postulated before, but I find it just as problematic. Archeological findings are overturned all the time, and very often, the Biblical accounts are vindicated later on. I don’t find Copan’s explanation … or C.S. Lewis,’ which is very similar … to be untenable and theories that state that the Scriptural accounts didn’t really take place to be unsatisfying. David Lamb, another OT professor, has done good work on this as well. And I’ll be posting his thoughts on it in the near future. Thx. again for the comment.

  • John W. Morehead

    Thanks for the opportunity to provide further thoughts, Frank.

    The authors I cited differ with Copan in the areas of ethical concerns, archaeology, Old Testament textual development and perspective, and theology. In terms of ethics, they find a literal divine command for genocide, even for a “sinful race” like the Canaanites, to be highly problematic. Related to this, the seeming ease by which many Evangelicals accept this without too much reflection on its implications for the ethics of the divine nature, is troubling. In regards to archaeology, they note that the evidence does not support a literal reading of the Conquest narratives. The view of Old Testament textual development is different as well, in that there is more openness to the idea of the shaping of the various narratives over time and their redaction from the perspective of the experience of the Exile. This shaping of the material for theological purposes is evidence for these authors that a literal reading of the genocidal texts is not necessary. Finally, all of this leads these authors to a different theology in a number of areas, from ethical issues related to the character of God, to the phenomena of Scripture, to an understanding of the theology of the Old Testament.

    Of course, a blog comment does not do these authors or this subject justice. I would simply reiterate my view that Copan’s volume, while appreciated in that it attempts to wrestle with a significant and troubling topic, does not squarely address the issues. Other authors provide alternatives which serve the topic better in my view. In our post-9/11 world where Christians point to the Qur’an and Islam with its violent texts and history, we must be willing to do the same in regards to the Bible and our own religious tradition, and in the best way possible. Thanks for the opportunity to share further thoughts.

  • Susan_G1

    These are interesting and valuable interpretations, but for people really wrestling with the wrath of the OT God, “when you compare the Law of Moses to the other law codes in the ancient
    Near East, Israel’s is far more humanizing and morally elevated than the
    rest,” just doesn’t really satisfy.

  • John: Please share what these other authors put forth as a different explanation than Copan’s. Thanks.

  • John W. Morehead

    These aspects that make up unsettling phenomenon in the Old Testament are not only fodder for skeptics, but also challenge Evangelicals who many times do not deal with them, or only in a superficial way. With all due respect, I don’t believe that Copan’s book does the challenge of Old Testament genocide justice and contributes to an inadequate consideration of the topic. In my view works like those by Philip Jenkins in “Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, and Eric Seibert’s two volumes, The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, and Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God, do much better at wrestling with the issues and the texts. Perhaps we can take a page out of our Judeo-Christian history and demonstrate a willingness to “wrestle with God” as Jacob did on his journey to becoming Israel.

  • “The destruction-language of ANE warfare (and the OT) is clearly exaggerated.”

    So the Bible is unreliable? I agree, but I’m surprised to hear a Christian scholar say this.

    “The biblical text suggests that peace treaties could be made with Canaanite cities if they chose to, but none (except Gibeon) did so”

    And you know what happened to the Gibeonites! They became slaves. Ouch. I guess slavery is bad only if it happens to you.

    “From the start, certain (more cooperative) Canaanites were subjected to forced labor—not annihilation”

    Slavery was the alternative to genocide, so God is actually a nice guy? Sorry—I’m not buying it.

    “The archaeological evidence nicely supports the biblical text; both of these point to minimal observable material destruction in Canaan”

    So the Bible is unreliable. Still, this savagery doesn’t put the all-good Creator of the Universe in a good light.

    And no tap dancing around the topic of slavery? I expected “Oh, slavery in the OT wasn’t like slavery in America” and similar arguments.

  • Thx. for the comment.

  • Patrick

    Concerning the herem, whenever it is placed on a group, you will find nephilim/rapahim/anakim located there(each traceable to the original nephilim of Gen. 6). When combat scenarios happen and the herem is not assigned, there are none.

    This bothers most of we modernists, it should not be ignored though. The correlation is very striking.