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.
The time has come to draw this review to a close. In this final installment of the review I’ll focus on Copan’s treatment of human sacrifice, genocide and ethnic cleansing in scripture. Then I’ll wrap the thing up and call it a day.
I already broached Copan’s treatment of human sacrifice in his discussion of Abraham’s offering of Isaac. How can Copan plausibly argue that scripture renounces the practice of devotional human sacrifice, and in particular the devotional killing of one’s children, when this is precisely what God asks Abraham to do? His first response is that God never intended for Abraham to carry through with the action. As I have already noted, that is hardly an adequate response. Copan’s other response is to appeal to scholar Susan Niditch. He writes: “As Susan Niditch points out in War in the Hebrew Bible, the ‘dominant voice’ in the Old Testament condemns child sacrifice’ since it opposes God’s purposes and undermines Israelite society.” (96)
Copan’s quoting of Niditch is very ironic. Indeed, it borders on cherry picking for he neglects to mention that Niditch also finds other voices in the Old Testament that clearly support the sacrifice of human beings and children to Yahweh. And on that point her book is an indictment of the attempts of apologists like Copan to ignore or obscure these elements in the text. She writes: “deep in the mythological framework of Israelite thought, war, death, sacrifice, the ban, and divine satiation are integrally associated…. To dissociate the Israelite ban from the realm of the sacred and from the concept of sacrifice is to ignore the obvious and yet this is precisely what many scholars have done. What leads them to ‘ignore the obvious’?” (War in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 41.)
Yes, what leads scholars to ignore the obvious? Hmmm, how about a particular a priori commitment to a particular view of scripture’s inerrant, inspired nature?
Ultimately we have to ask who has the more satisfactory treatment of the text: Copan who denies that human (and child) sacrifice was a part of Israelite religion which is mentioned positively in scripture, or Niditch who argues that it was? Consider 2 Kings 3:27 in which Mesha, King of Moab, sacrifices his son. The text seems to imply that Yahweh accepted the sacrifice and as a result the battle turns against the Israelites. Niditch’s approach gives us the freedom to admit that this is what the text in fact affirms, although that hardly means we need to agree with the text. Copan however cannot allow this and so he is constrained to offer alternative readings of the text which appear implausible and contrived (96-7). Nor does Copan address other texts which seem to assume the licitness of pious human sacrifice (e.g. Micah 6:8).
Was Canaanite culture debased? No doubt it was. But it is a messy thing to argue from
(1) society X is debased
(2) God has commanded people Y to butcher all the citizens living in society X.
Yet this seems to be the road down which some apologists are willing to go. A little while ago I reviewed Clay Jones’ essay “We Don’t Hate Sin So We Don’t Understand What Happened to the Canaanites,” Philosophia Christi, 11, no. 1 (2009), 53-72. Jones first argues that the Canaanites deserved to be slaughtered en masse because they were so corrupt socially. He then goes on to argue that the citizens of America are moving into that same “so debased that they deserve to be butchered en masse” territory. Among the evidences he provides (some serious, others not so much) is an excerpted lyric from Metallica. (Jones obviously hasn’t read John Van Sloten’s book The Day Metallica Came to Church.) What a spectacle. An apologist laying out a case for the just slaughter of all the women, children and elderly in America. Is that what family values evangelicals are preachin’ these days?!
I suggest Copan tread very carefully here to avoid a similarly tragic spectacle. But that’s the problem. I’m still not sure what view Copan wants to take. After reading the book he seems, where the issue of genocide is concerned, to be like a split brain patient (i.e. a person with a severed corpus callosum who has two resulting streams of consciousness). When that split brain patient goes to his closet he finds his two hands grabbing different shirts. Likewise, Copan seems simultaneously to want to say “Genocide can be okay” and “Genocide can’t be okay.” On the latter point he reasons based on material drawn from scholars like Richard Hess and Kenneth Kitchen that the Canaanite occupation wasn’t really genocide at all. I’ll await Thom Stark’s critique of this argument. But for now I’ll just note the fundamental tension between these two impulses.
Ultimately Copan justifies whatever the Israelites did as being under the unique direction of special revelation. And with that he gives the following trite quip which, under the circumstances, seems to me very inappropriate: “Some TV stunt shows warn children, ‘Kids, don’t try this at home!’ Likewise, we could say about Israel’s ‘holy war’ situation: ‘Don’t try this without special revelation!’” (161)
Not only is this comment in bad taste, but it begs the salient question: how does Copan know that the Israelites were actually commanded by God to engage in these horrendous acts of militaristic religious violence? What he has is a set of texts from the ancient near east which he is reading in a particular way. But is that really sufficient justification for the conclusion that God commanded a chosen people to slaughter another people en masse as an act of worship? (And, even more troublingly, as Jones seems to suggest in principle God could command this again, perhaps even on our debauched Lady Gaga culture.)
It is to Copan’s advantage as an apologist to get some emotional distance between the claims he makes about scripture and the horrifying encounters with religiously motivated violence and genocide from the twentieth century. One way to do that is to argue that contemporary terms like “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are inappropriate for what we find in scripture. On the issue of ethnic cleansing Copan argues that the Israelites did not engage in the practice because “Ethnic cleansing is fueled by racial hatred.” (163) He concludes “As it turns out, xenophobic attitudes didn’t prompt the Israelites to kill Canaanites.” (163)
I have two responses to this. First, Copan’s description of ethnic cleansing is incorrect. While there is no unanimity in international law on how “ethnic cleansing” should be defined, according to the committee reporting to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 780 it refers to “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous.” There is no requirement of racial hatred per se in the definition. Does Copan seriously want to argue that if the Canaanite occupation/genocide occurred in the twentieth century the UN Security Council wouldn’t call it ethnic cleansing? Why? Because one prostitute was spared? Or because the people who carried it out insisted that God told them to?
Second point: how do you butcher all the citizens living in a particular region without beginning to objectify, dehumanize, and ultimately hate them? Not only is this enormously implausible, but granting Copan’s claim actually makes the Israelites look worse. Think about it. Does Copan really want to argue that the Israelites could have slaughtered Canaanites while maintaining a loving attitude toward them? Does he want to suggest they could have massacred Canaanites without animus? Ironically, that makes them look even more monstrous than the person who massacres fuelled by a misbegotten hatred. We objectify and hate because we cannot otherwise bring ourselves to butcher the other human being. It is the true monster who can butcher with a neutral, clinical detachment.
The Final Word
A few people who have read the earlier parts of my review have asked me “So if I shouldn’t read Copan’s book then what should I read?” Whoa, that’s a serious misreading of my review. I have some big problems with this book, but I think it is also has much good to say. I am especially enthusiastic about it when it isn’t attempting to make a case for moral horrors like genocide and slavery. Regardless, I think it is important to read different sides on an issue and Copan’s book is the best treatment of the issues from a conservative, evangelical inerrantist position that I’ve seen. So on that ground I recommend the book. However, you then need to ask the question: just how plausible is this conservative, evangelical, inerrantist approach to scripture to begin with?