Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8010-7275-8. 252 pp.
Note to the reader: this was originally going to be a two part review. I’ve decided to extend it to three (or more) parts so I can stretch my legs a bit.
The back cover of Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? includes this blurb from Gary Habermas: “This handbook of responses to tough ethical issues is able to both diminish the rhetoric as well as alleviate many concerns.” That’s exactly right. Copan does effectively address many moral issues. Perhaps most importantly, he provides a plausible argument that the so-called genocide narrated in Joshua was really a military occupation. But even if the book alleviates many concerns, it does not alleviate them all. I’m going to focus in this part of the review on his treatment of the offering of Isaac.
Copan argues that the maxim “taking innocent human life is morally wrong” is not an absolute and he refers to an ectopic pregnancy as an example of morally permissible killing of the innocent. I certainly agree with that point. But at the same time, Isaac is not an embryo growing in Sarah’s fallopian tube; he’s a young man that Abraham believes God wants sacrificed. What are we to think of this? Copan responds to the problem like this:
“Such exceptions aside, the critic wrongly assumes that this statement is absolutely correct while ignoring or rejecting certain truths about reality. He is ignorant of a supernatural being who is able to bring people back from the dead. He rejects the fact that God acts in history, makes promises, makes good on them, and has morally sufficient reasons for doing what he does.” (50-51)
Copan is right to point out that whether you’re a theist or an atheist makes a huge difference. If you begin with the assumption that there is no God who could (a) demand the sacrifice or (b) resurrect Isaac after the sacrifice, then you will obviously view the account very differently from a person who accepts the possibility of both (a) and (b).
But why think the text means what it says?
Legitimate though that point is, it doesn’t address the most important question: how do we know that God in fact demanded such a thing to begin with? Here we need to keep a basic point in view: the fact that a text states p does not mean it necessarily affirms p. And even if we grant a straight reading a default primacy, if it appears unworkable we ought to reject it and seek another reading. For instance, Jonathan Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” in which he recommended the Irish slaughter their poor children and harvest the meat at market. That’s what the text said. But surely that’s not what Swift, an enlightened and humane English writer, could have meant. And indeed, it is not. His text was in fact a wry social commentary which sought to ironize the inhumane treatment of the working poor by way of this absurd suggestion.
In scripture too if the surface meaning of a text appears unacceptable then exegetes (that is, interpreters) are warranted in seeking a meaning other than the surface meaning. Here’s an example. In Mark 4:1-9 Jesus shares the famous Parable of the Sower. Then we read the following (vv. 10-12):
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
It is clear what the text seems to say. It seems to say that Jesus spoke in parables not to communicate to the crowds but to confound them. This is surprising. Indeed it is more than surprising: it is shocking. And it appears to contradict the commonsense view that Jesus spoke in parables not to obfuscate but rather to facilitate communication, to reach people more effectively with an urgent message of the kingdom.
The translators of the Septuagint wrestled with this conundrum (as it appears in the original passage in Isaiah) and concluded that, despite the appearances, the text must mean something quite the opposite. Their suggestion has been taken up by many exegetes in Jesus’ quotation of the Isaiah passage here: he really mean to express a lament that even though he attempts to communicate effectively with the crowds, even the most vivid and pedagogically effective means of communication (parables) fall on deaf ears because of the hardened, obstinate hearts of the people. It is not that parables are used to confound, but rather that even parables, intended as the most effective means of communication, can do little more than confound obstinate people.
Whatever you ultimately think of Mark 4, the general point is that an interpreter can diverge from the apparent meaning of a text if the straightforward reading is fundamentally inconsistent with other things we know of the author, the characters and/or the text.
Different ways the text might not mean what it says
With that we come to Genesis 22 where God seems to demand the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. So that we appreciate the full affront of the text, let’s be clear what is being demanded here. God is demanding first that Abraham kill his son, likely by slitting his throat and draining out the blood. How would that be done? Think of the scene in the vampire film “Let the Right One In” (or its underappreciated American remake “Let Me In”) where the victim is hoisted up upside down in a tree and the blood is then drained from the severed neck into a basin. Abraham would likely have done something like this to remove the sacred blood. Next, he would have had to mutilate the corpse of his son since that is what a burnt offering requires. So this would hardly have been a quick and painless act (for Abraham or Isaac).
Now we are to believe that a perfectly loving God demanded that a loving father do this to his most beloved son? If the interpreter senses the force of reinterpreting Mark 4, surely here one could sense a legitimate impulse to seek another interpretation as well.
Copan suggests that in one sense the text is not quite as bad as it appears because there are textual hints throughout the narrative which signal that it was never God’s intention to demand the killing of Isaac.
Surely this is good to know. But the text is still deeply problematic for it still affirms the appropriateness of sacrifice as a means to relate to God (presumably including human sacrifice; more on that below) and it also affirms the appropriateness of asking a father to commit a truly heinous act.
Setting aside the hermeneutical debates, a person could also object to the historicity of the text. Whatever one thinks of the meaning of the text, one could simply deny that God ever commanded such a thing. This too is, prima facie, a reasonable response, particularly when one considers the broad range of diversity among scholars of the Hebrew scriptures on the historicity of this and other purportedly historical narratives.
This brings me to a dilemma which arises from Copan’s reading. Later in his book Copan forcefully rejects the notion that the Hebrew scriptures ever affirm human sacrifice. (More on that in part 3 of the review.) But how can Copan possibly claim that human sacrifice is viewed unequivocally as morally abhorrent when he is committed to a straightforward reading of Genesis 22? Copan argues that viewing the Isaac narrative as an example of human sacrifice is “off the mark”. Why? Because “the Mosaic law clearly condemns child sacrifice as morally abhorrent (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10).” (96)
That’s not quite true. Leviticus 18 and 20 do not condemn child sacrifice per se but only sacrifice to Molech. It is true that Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:10 appear to condemn without qualification the sacrifice of children. (In that case, we could have two divergent traditions.) But either way, in Genesis 22:2 we still have God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering. This creates a dilemma for Copan’s reading of the text: either child sacrifice is not always wrong in which case Deuteronomy 12:31 and 18:10 are incorrect, or it is always wrong in which case God commanded Abraham to commit a truly evil act. But how could a morally perfect being command one of his servants to commit an objectively heinous act, even as a test of faith? (To see how problematic this is, consider another heinous ritualized practice in a society. Imagine another society where fathers rape their firstborn daughters as part of a propitiatory act toward their deity. Had Abraham lived in that society could God have tested his faith by commanding him to engage in the ritual rape of his firstborn daughter, even as a test of faith?)
There is a way to avoid this whole dilemma: affirm that child sacrifice (and human sacrifice more generally) is always an inappropriate (morally offensive) way to relate to God. If a Christian took this view then they would have excellent grounds to seek an interpretation of the text other than what it seems to affirm.
To sum up, I don’t begrudge Copan presenting a standard “evangelical” treatment of Genesis 22 which is committed to both the historicity and straightforward reading of the text. I just wish he had provided other options as well, many of which might be more plausible, at least for some of Copan’s readers.