This question forms the lead title for a book written by Paul Copan. The subtitle is “Making Sense of the Old Testament God”. I find the title and subtitle curious as Dr. Copan seems to segregate “God” as he supposedly presents himself in the Hebrew Bible and as he presents himself in the New Testament. I’m sure that’s not his intention but that is certainly the way it came across to me. I think it illustrates very clearly something which resonate in most readers of the Christian Bible, that somehow the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New need some reconciling and some serious explanation. This is what Copan attempts to do in the 306 pages that follow specifically in terms of the “ethics” or “morality” of the actions attributed to “God” in the Old Testament. Obviously there is an issue here or there would be no topic for such a book.
Dr. Copan is Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University and holds an M.A. Diploma in Philosophy of Religion as well as an M.Div. Diploma in Divinity both from Trinity International University. He also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy with an emphasis in the Philosophy of Religion from Marguette University. From reading his curriculum vitae it is fairly clear Dr. Copan focuses on morality and ethics. I came to this book from a recommendation by Dr. William Lane Craig in his debate with Dr. Sam Harris on whether there can be an objective ground for morality entitled “Does Good Come From God”. Generally speaking I have been impressed with Dr. Craig’s skill at the strategy and tactics of debate but thoroughly unimpressed with his arguments. All you have to do is watch a few of the debates to see how he attempts to manipulate the debate to gain a technical victory in the absence of substantial arguments. Nonetheless I thought if this book contains what he thinks is the best argument for the morality of God in the Old Testament I would give it a try.
Although I have not yet finished the book by Copan it is clear early on the sole basis for his answer to the question “Is God a Moral Monster” is that “God was morally justified”. This is the one and only argument which he applies to a number of topics. More specifically it goes like this and I paraphrase, “If you understand what is really going on and what is really at stake then GOD IS MORALLY JUSTIFIED (emphasis mine) in doing what he did (fill in the blank). For example, Chapter 4 is titled “Monumental Rage and Kingly Jealousy” where he spins off comments and accusations made by the “new atheists” as he does throughout the book. He goes on to deal with the issue of “jealousy”. He defines jealousy in such a way as to allow for both “good” and “bad” jealousy and spills a great deal of ink on the “marriage analogy” in the Old Testament which as a description of the nature and character of God’s relationship with Israel. He attempts to portray God as a jilted and rejected lover who has opened his heart to Israel, who has bared his soul and made himself vulnerable to the emotional hurt of rejection and betrayal. God is “engaging and relational “and his love is that of a “passionate husband”. The anthropomorphizing flies fast and furious and is limited to only one side of the “relational” activities of God; what he considers the emotional vulnerability of God as he relates to Israel in his love and commitment to them.
He then paints Israel’s religious “apostasy” as being a religious “slut” and “whore” who “opens her legs” to any and all in the most heinous acts of “spiritual adultery imaginable. However, this is in the context of a marriage covenant in which Israel becomes “Mine” and in which their adultery is really the act of failing to worship the husband and refusing to consistently and absolutely obey what the husband says and requires of Israel even down to the most minimal requirement. What we have here is the infinite epitome of marriage as male dominion and the wife as “owned” with divorce only possible at the hands of the husband and the wife obligated by her husband’s giving to her lavishly of his wealth. Many of these requirements and obligations carry with them the penalty of death if violated.
Copan goes on to say that Israel’s idolatry was like “a husband finding his wife in bed with another man–on their honeymoon!” Here is the climactic conclusion in Copan’s own words.
“We shouldn’t be surprised that God wanted to wipe out Israel after the golden calf betrayal: “Let me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you [Moses] a great nation” (Exod. 32:10)””
Frankly I would hope, in my finite flawed human way, if I were in that situation I would be more high minded than for my mind and emotions to immediately contemplate slaughter and to have to be deterred from acting on my impulse. But then thankfully, I’m not God.
I suppose you could take up angel dancing and argue that God didn’t really mean to destroy Israel as Moses prevailed up him not to and God can’t after all change his mind so he didn’t intend to to begin with. Exactly what the purpose and meaning of this exchange would be in that context I don’t know. It is a test I suppose of some sort, the sort of which the God of the Old Testament is very fond. However, taken at face value we have a volatile, jealous, domineering husband enraged by his wife’s infidelity and ready to kill her for it. Moses is able to prevail on God’s vanity “What will the nations think, how will you appear if you kill them in the desert?” and God appears to relent. Taken at face value Moses has managed to appease a volatile, jealous, changeable deity. It is only with forced attempts to impose consistency and more “high minded” views of the divine on this narrative that one can make it anything more than it clearly appears.
Unfortunately Israel isn’t able to gain a divorce and take out a cosmic restraining order. Nor can they, according to another analogy often used, get out of the suzerain treaty to which they are bound with Yahweh. Basically Yahweh has chosen them, he is obsessed with them, he has offered them “protection” in exchanged for loyalty and obedience and they have little other alternative. They are, like the lowly shopkeeper caught between the thugs and extortionists. In the milieu of the Middle East it is either Yahweh or any host of more powerful kings and countries who would force tribute. This is a patriarchal abusive marriage. Yahweh loves them as long as they are prepared to be the obedient, worshipful spouse otherwise they curry his wrath. The history of Israel could be viewed as the repeated beatings of an abusive husband attempting to enforce abject submission on a spouse with whom he is obsessed and over whom he is determined to exercise power and dominion.
Now we come to the failing of this “moral justification” argument. It is simply another circular argument being palmed off as reason. First there is a clear appeal to revelation. The account and perspective of the Bible is taken for granted. We are asked to accept not only the narrative but the whole biblical world view to make this moral argument even capable of being advanced. Further we are asked to accept the theological assumption that all of the Bible must be read in terms of the whole of the Bible as though it were a unified work.
However, the Bible after all is NOT one book. It is a collection of ancient manuscripts whose date and authorship is essentially unknown. Whats more, it is actually TWO collections, one in the Hebrew Bible and one in the New Testament which arose out of radically historically dis-separate religious communities. We are being expected to accept this assumption and to view it as though it were a consistent whole rather than what it far more arguably is, a patchwork quilt. It is a collection of manuscripts held very loosely together by the history of a religious community, selected to be as consistent as possible considering the widely divergent representations they contain and the significant historical distance they have both from the events they purport to recount and from each other.
The main argument fails on the very point it’s proponents are anxious to promote and indeed on which the “objective ethics” argument relies; the aseity of the God of the Old Testament. Here is a little introduction from Wikipedia:
“Aseity (from Latin a “from” and se “self”, plus -ity) refers to the property by which a being exists of and from itself, or exists as so-and-such of and from itself. The word is often used to refer to the Christian belief that God contains within himself the cause of himself, though many Jewish and Muslim theologians have also believed God to be independent in this way. Notions of the aseity of the highest principle go back at least to Plato and have been in wide circulation since Augustine, though the use of the word ‘aseity’ began only in the Middle Ages.
Often, as a part of this belief God is said to be incapable of changing. Many, (St. Thomas, for instance) have also thought that aseity implies divine simplicity: that God has no parts of any kind (whether spatial, temporal, or abstract), since complexes depend on their individual parts with none of which they are identical. A further implication often drawn among classical theists has been that God is without emotion or is “impassible” for, it is said, emotion implies standing as patient (pass-) to some agent – i.e., dependence.“
Basically God is a law unto himself. There are no standards outside of or apart from God by which he may be judged. He and he alone defines everything. This is the argument put forward by Dr. Craig. God is the ground of morality. Objective morality arises from and is a reflection of the very nature of God (by God he means the God of the Bible not the god he claims to be referencing and whose existence he claims to be able to prove by “natural religion”). As an aside this is part of the slipperiness of what he and other apologist do here. They claim no appeal to revelation. They claim they are proving their claims based on reason and natural religion only but then use the term God in the sense in which only revelation, the Christian revelation, could determine. The god of natural religion and the arguments from reason flawed as they are, is a far cry from the God revealed in the Bible or more specifically created by Biblical and Systematic Theology out of the raw Biblical material. The apologist blithely gloss over this point and hope you will not notice.
So the argument runs, God defines what is moral by his nature. God can only act consistently with his nature, therefore everything which God does is moral because God defines what is moral. Basically God is just, why? because he just IS, that’s why. It’s that simple AND that ridiculous. Further they want to have their cake and eat it too. They argue that the moral sense we as humans have is derived from being created in the image of God and therefore is a reflection of the God’s nature and God’s morality. However, if you question the actions of God as immoral they will quickly tell you that you cannot use you sense of morality to judge God’s actions because your sense of morality is flawed. It is not a reflection of an objective standard by which God can be judged. Rather it is a “sinful” rendition of the morality which arises out of God’s nature and must be “informed” by the actual actions of God, which, remember, as always moral despite what you might think. After all everything God does is moral by definition. This essentially makes the use of the words, justice, love, and compassion meaningless when applied to God.
Justice is whatever God does, Love is whatever God does, Mercy is whatever God does, Compassion is whatever God does and so on. If you disagree then go back to the beginning and repeat, Love is whatever God does, Justice is whatever God does, etc. Once again you could also apply the rule of falsifiability (although apparently Logic and Reason are also what the Bible say they are and NOT what you might think they are as are the standards of historical proof but that is for another day). You cannot falsify the claim God is Loving, or God is Just, or God is Merciful. There are no conditions, no actions of God that if they were uncovered would demonstrate the falsity of those assertions. As a result they are not claims about the real world which can be taken seriously.
Isn’t this fun??
I was disappointed in Dr Copan’s book. He offered nothing which I had not heard and employed decades ago in the defense of the actions of the God of the Old Testament. This is not a sophisticated argument, it is not new and it is not compelling and most of all it’s not rational except within the theological box in which he is working. I was disappointed but not surprised that Dr. Craig recommended it so highly and is apparently parroting it in his own published work.
This argument does nothing to erase the great Bogey Man of Christian apologist when discussing morality, the great Bogey Man of SUBJECTIVITY. All it serves to do is move that subjectivity to the divine and out of the realm of human thought. By so doing it becomes about the most subjective subjectivity possible, the definition of something by only one; the mind and nature of God which ultimately, according to Dr. Craig, we cannot possible really know. That is why God has to tell us what to do without any real offer of justification. Human being are, in his view, incapable of coming to the right conclusions regarding morality and apparently would not even know it if we saw it as is the case when we attempt to critique the morality of God in the Old Testament.