In this section of the review (a review which will now likely be at least four parts) I want to focus on a dilemma Copan faces: either admit that certain actions undertaken by the Israelites which they attributed to divine direction were morally barbaric and should be rejected, or affirm that these actions really were morally good, contrary to our deeply-seated moral intuitions.
Copan gingerly steps out on the thin ice of recognizing moral development in the text of scripture, but given his commitments to inerrancy, he must step very carefully on this ice to avoid crashing through. Copan tries to cross the ice by appealing to a notion of accommodation in which God meets people at their own flawed moral understanding in history, but with the intent of leading them ultimately to a more humane ethic. He writes:
“God’s act of incrementally ‘humanizing’ ancient Near Eastern structures for Israel meant diminished harshness and an elevated status of debt-servants, even if certain negative customs weren’t fully eliminated.
“So when we read in Joshua 10:22-27 that Joshua killed five Canaanite kings and hung their corpses on trees all day, we don’t have to explain away or justify such a practice. Such actions reflect a less morally refined condition.” (61)
“the Mosaic law was given to Israel in a morally inferior ancient Near Eastern context.” (88)
This leads Copan to the following conclusion:
“So we should evaluate the severity of harsh laws and punishments in their ancient Near Eastern context instead of in light of Western culture. Indeed, to the minds of the ancient Near Eastern peoples, we Westerners would be considered a bunch of softies!” (89)
This strikes me as terribly unsatisfactory. The God who created and sustains all things is somehow forced to reveal himself by conforming to morally flawed social standards? What if the ANE had been a culture of pornographic swinging wife swappers? Would God have been forced to accommodate to that culture (e.g. wife swapping is okay, but not orgies) with the intent of bringing it eventually to a monogamous and heterosexual sexual ethic? The very suggestion is bizarre. So why think that God is somehow forced to accommodate to brutally violent social practices of war and jurisprudence?
The final quip in the last quoted passage is particularly disturbing: “Indeed, to the minds of the ancient Near Eastern peoples, we Westerners would be considered a bunch of softies!” So what? To the mind of a Nazi, people crying at the gates of Auschwitz would be “softies” too. But that “softness” is nothing more than a profound awareness of the moral law to which the Nazis were willfully blind. Does Copan think that our aversion to the brutal standards of ANE justice is a result of going soft in modernity?
Ultimately it appears that Copan comes down on the side of affirming the practices scripture commends. He writes: “Critics claim that stoning people is primitive and barbaric….” (88) Copan doesn’t explicitly deny this but he attempts to put the objection in context of the ancient near east where stoning was an acceptable form of capital punishment. But again, so what?
Here’s another analogy. Let’s say that instead of revealing himself in the ancient near east, God revealed himself in medieval Europe. Of course in this time, it was standard practice to inflict torture and death on people in excruciating ways. We’ve since “gone soft”, believing that such devices are barbaric. But God would have accommodated to the mores of the time. And so a medievally formed Pentateuch might well have included detailed instructions on the use of the pear of anguish and the rack. Although God would ultimately not prefer his creatures to torture each other in this way, it would be a necessary accommodation to the standards of the medieval Europe in which he was forming a people. (Of course the use of the pear of anguish and the rack by the medieval Israelites as outlined in the medieval Pentateuch would have been an advance over earlier uses, as if that is a consolation.)
Perhaps you think this is an unfair, emotionally manipulative illustration. But the biblical form of the pear of anguish and the rack was stoning. Today we are horrified by the practice. Perhaps you have read of the practice of the Taliban in burying people up to their necks and then stoning them. If you have, and you are humane (not “soft”), you have reacted in horror. But ironically, this is probably more humane than biblical stoning because with the head being the sole target a person is more likely to lose consciousness more quickly. Biblical stoning, by contrast, could be a much more drawn out occurrence with people naturally, and vainly, attempting to shield themselves from the projectiles.
So Copan is forced to affirm that God accommodated himself to brutal, inhumane standards of ANE justice which are not unlike divinely given medieval stipulations for the proper use of the pear of anguish and the rack.
But things are worse yet, for Copan doesn’t just affirm stoning as a licit accommodation to ANE standards. He even affirms the stoning of children when addressing the chillling instructions in Deuteronomy 21: 18-21. Copan defends the practice of stoning insolent brats as follows:
“What was the offense? We’re not talking about a little practical joker or even about a teenager who won’t clean up his room. No, he’s an utter delinquent whose hardened, insubordinate behavior can’t be corrected, despite everyone’s best efforts.” (90-1)
On the one hand, I admire Copan for taking the bull by the horns and admitting his views openly. But on the other hand, it is a breathtaking admission that on his view God really did accommodate to the stoning practices of the ANE, even to the point of advising the stoning of one’s children. And what was the offense? The child is a “glutton and a drunkard”.
These days we don’t stone wayward rebellious children, even those who are gluttons and drunkards. Rather, if we’re doing our due diligence as parents, we kick them out, make them get a job, do whatever tough love requires. And if things go right, and a lot of the time they do, the kid grows out of this stage and looks back askance on this wasted time of pointless rebellion.
Imagine an apologetic which would advise, at any time or place in history, that the best way to deal with a lazy punk kid is to pelt them to death with rocks. But that, incredibly enough, is what we have here.