BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics315. Today I interview Christian apologist and philosopher Paul Copan. This is my second interview with Paul, the first covered a number of different topics for apologists, but today’s interview will focus on his recent book release entitled, Is God A Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. I hope to explore just a few of the many questions that Paul covers in this extremely useful book. Thanks for joining me today Paul.
PC: Glad to be with you Brian, thank you.
BA: Well, I’ve enjoyed all of the books that I’ve read of yours, but I must say that this one in particular could be one of the weightiest in its subject matter. It covers the emotionally charged issues that surround the “God of the Old Testament,” and you’re looking at the moral and the ethical questions that are raised by these various historical narratives in the Old Testament. Why don’t you, Paul, if you could, just describe briefly what your overall goal is in writing this book.
PC: My goal in writing this book is to basically, one, address the very emotion-laden charges that are leveled by the new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris. Many of them are directed toward the “Old Testament God.” These new atheists delight in talking about God as being a misogynistic, filicidal, homophobic, etc. deity, and so they say, “Well, if that’s the kind of god that the bible is talking about, well, so much the worse for the bible. We’re not going to have anything to do with that deity.” And so they really are not very clear on the arguments that they are launching actually, they are very quick to quote little snippets of the bible, but they have not actually looked at the broader context, and so that’s why I’m trying to address this whole issue of the new atheists and the kind of claims that they are making because they’re simply unjustified. But yet, they’re sweeping the country, in fact internationally, they’re making an impact on the scene with their best-selling books, and so what I’m trying to do is say, “Well hold on a minute, these new atheists are making a lot of charges, but they’re not substantiated.”
So, my goal is to, again, address these new atheists and the emotional arguments that they’re using, and to bring clarity to the issues, because these new atheists really are not very well informed about the issues of say, slavery or servitude in the Old Testament, or the treatment of women, about even the issue of Yahweh wars, or these wars that God commands. There’s a lot more nuance than the new atheists allow, than the new atheists proclaim, and so I’m trying to bring clarity to these issues. So, I hope that it will not only address the new atheists, but also, I think just treat more generally, the problem that many people have had over the centuries with regard to these Old Testament ethical issues, and I hope that people will see that not only does the background of the Old Testament give us great information about how to interpret the text, but also as we look more closely at the biblical text itself, we see that we have not been reading it as carefully as we should’ve, and I’m basically responding to many of the Sunday school versions, or interpretations, of reading the Old Testament.
BA: Well, you know, just first impressions from my initial scan of your book, and I’ve gone through it once, but I thought, “Wow, this is so dense and you’re covering so much ground in this.” And, I think about how it’s so easy for the skeptic or the atheist to raise a sound-bite objection, but if it we’re honest, and we’re looking at some of these questions, you really need to delve in and do some serious study if you really want to understand it. And so, in your opinion, do you think that these Old Testament issues raised by the likes of the new atheists are some of the toughest questions that Christians will have to answer?
PC: In some ways, “Yes,” in some ways, “No.” The issues that are raised by the new atheists are really the sort of things that have been raised by people in general settings, not only the skeptic, but even people in the pew are wondering, “Now should I really read this, when it says, ‘leave nothing alive that breathes?’ Is this really what the text means?” So these are the sorts of questions that are raised in general, and so in a sense I’m going beyond the new atheists, I’m actually using a lot of their quotations as my chapter headings, but what I’m trying to do more generally, is to help Christians think through the issues in the Old Testament scriptures, and also to try to bring clarity for a non-Christian audience as well, as they are looking at the Old Testament text and maybe scratching their heads and wandering, “Is this really what the Old Testament text is saying?” So, I’m trying to address some of those things, so I want to be clear on that.
But, anyway, many people beyond the new atheists themselves are asking these questions, but I will say that there are some tough questions that are raised, and it’s important for us to process them, and to think through them, and to read the bible in a broader context. I know we’ll talk about this later, but I guess the issue of the killing of the Canaanites is one that is perhaps the most emotionally weighted question. One that raises some of the tougher ethical issues, and as I have said, if we look at the picture more clearly, we’ll see that what is often assumed behind the question of say the new atheist is not really at all what is going on in the ancient Near East as far as Israel is concerned. So, in sum, I would say there are some tough questions, and it doesn’t mean that everything is going to be resolved, but I think what I’m trying to do in the book goes a long way to resolving a lot of those issues and in a sense takes the sting and the misunderstanding that produces that sting out of the objection, so that we can look more clearly at what the Old Testament text is saying.
BA: Yeah. Well Paul, in the course of our interview, I want to look at a number of different questions and see if you can offer sort of an encapsulation of some of the ideas dealing with some of these ones you’ve dealt with. Could you just for the benefit of our listeners, if they’re looking at answering some of these questions, sketch out briefly what you think are some of the more substantial ethical questions that have been raised about the Old Testament? I know you mentioned the Canaanite issue, but what other ones come to the forefront?
PC: Well, in the book that I’m trying to deal with these objections that come up in a more broad way. I look for in the first part, or actually the second part, but toward the beginning of book, I look at God’s character, and I try to deal with a God who demands worship. Does this seem like a petty deity who is doing this? Is God warranted in calling us to worship him? Does this seem like God is insecure? That God is arrogant, perhaps? And then of course there’s a question of jealousy. How could a good God be jealous? And so, I try to unpack what jealousy is. There is a good version, and there’s a bad version. There’s a positive way of understanding jealousy, a moral way of understanding jealousy, and then there’s a way of understand jealousy that of course we all dismiss as being morally problematic. And then I deal with the other aspect of God’s character, namely a God who commands, say the killing or the sacrifice of Isaac. He tells Abraham to take his one and only son, his son whom he loves, to sacrifice him. And of course, people go ballistic on that. “How could a good God command that sort of a thing?” So that’s basically the first part, where I’m dealing with the objections, trying to address the character of God. And then I look at life in the ancient Near East, and in Israel. And I just give a general sketch on how to approach the Old Testament scriptures that a lot of the things we see in the Old Testament are not necessarily being endorsed as ideal, but yet the new atheists will say, “So we’re supposed to believe that this is God’s ideal for all people at all times?” And my argument is, “No, that’s not the case, there is actually a lot of nuance here, and so it’s unfair to just say that this is what is expected for God’s people for all time.” After all, Jesus himself through Matthew 19:8 said that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of human hearts. It wasn’t because this was the ideal that God was saying should be for all time, but rather it was something that was permitted given human weakness, human hard-heartedness, human sin.
And then I go in to look at some of the strange sounding laws, the kosher laws, some of the purity laws, and try to make sense out of those. I look at some of the harsh laws in the Old Testament as well, and are these punishments for example that are permitted, is that something that a good God would permit or command? And then I look at the treatment of women in the Old Testament—is that unfair? You’ve got polygamy, you’ve got concubinage. Are women treated in a disfavored sort of way? And then what about slavery? A lot of alarm bells go off when you hear the term slavery. And I argued that the slavery that comes to mind when the modern ear hears it, is basically completely different from what is going on in Old Testament Israel, and so I try to bring clarity to what servitude is and isn’t in the scriptures. And then I look at probably the most weighty issue, and I spend four chapters on the topic, of the killing of the Canaanites, so the question, “Does religion clause violence?” And so, I give a more nuanced understanding of what is taking place amongst the Canaanites, and when Israel is committed to bring judgment militarily, what does that mean, what does it not mean?
How extensive is it? Is it limited? And so, I unpack some of those things. And then toward the end of the book, I talk about the very issue of morality and God. Can we have goodness, can we have human dignity and worth if God does not exist? And I argue, “No we can’t, if you get rid of God, then you’re actually opening a lot more problems for accounting for human dignity and worth.” And then in the last chapter, I basically talk about how if you say that the Christian faith is the source of all kinds of ills, I’ll say you haven’t looked at history. Yes, there are people who have abused the Christian faith in the name of Jesus, but when the Christian faith is lived out consistently, you see a remarkable transformation that takes place, not only in human hearts and personal lives, but indeed, across civilizations. And so, I talk about the remarkable track record that the Christian faith has in terms of bringing about remarkable changes, humanizing changes, throughout various civilizations, across history.
BA: Well, let’s go ahead and unpack a few of those. Now, the first thing for me that comes to mind is that the skeptic, or the questioner, is often going to say something along the lines of, “You know, the Old Testament God is mean and vengeful and nasty, but the New Testament God is nice and loving,” so how do you explain that, how do you respond to this claim that the Old Testament God is this mean God?
PC: Well, a couple of things, first, the mention of loving kindness, compassion, grace and so forth, those mentions are far more numerous in the Old Testament than in the New Testament. That it’s simply an unfair statement to say that the God of the Old Testament is nasty and the God of the New Testament is nice. What we have is actually, you see both judgment and grace in the Old Testament, you see judgment and grace in the New Testament. In fact, when you go to the book of Revelation, you see Jesus himself, this Jesus who said, “Turn the other cheek.” This Jesus who said, “Love your enemies.” He is also one who talked about judgment, that when people refuse to repent, then God has to cordon off evil, that God must deal with it, that God simply cannot allow the unrepentant to come into his kingdom. And so, as C.S. Lewis said, ”The door of hell is closed from the inside,” well, if that’s the case, then, God is going to have to cordon that off. And so, God gives people the opportunity to say “Yes” to Him, or to say “No” to Him. Again, C.S. Lewis said, “In the end, there are two kinds of people, those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’” And in this scenario, the book of Revelation is exactly what is played out. Jesus, coming on this white horse, symbolizing victory, and also bringing judgment to those who are living rebellion against Him and His kingdom. And so, you see both emphases, in both Testaments, of the kindness of God, as well as the severity of God. You see both grace, and also the need for repentance, and when there is no repentance, then judgment falls. And you see both of those themes played out in both Testaments, and I think that is a proper picture – that when there is no repentance, when there is no regard for taking seriously one’s own sin, and the need to repent before God, then what recourse does God have except to bring judgment
BA: Well, as you mentioned a few moments ago, one of the accusations that comes up against the God of the Old Testament is that He’s prideful. So, where is that objection coming from? Is it really possible for God to be proud?
PC: Well, I think that the matter of definitions is going to be important here. What do we mean by pride? What do we mean by humility? I think pride is not to deny, say the ability to play piano. Or if someone is excellent at soccer, football. Someone is excellent at playing piano or violin. That person is going to be out of touch with reality if he says, “Well no, I can’t really play the piano. I really can’t play the violin.” No, that’s a denial of reality, that’s not what humility is. Humility is a proper acknowledgement of one’s own weaknesses, yes; one’s own sin, yes; but also it’s a gratitude for one’s own gifts that God has given to that person. So, it’s not as though I take credit for my gifts, “Yeah, you know, I’m pretty good stuff.” No, the proper attitude is to say that, “this gift comes from God and it does not come from myself, I cannot take the credit for it.” And so, that is the way to look at humility, a realistic assessment of one’s self. Pride is an over-blown view of one’s self. Pride is in a sense going on a false advertising campaign for one’s self. Whereas, that is not what you see going on with God. God, is after all, the creator of the universe. He is the one who has made us in his image. He’s made us for relationship with himself. If God is to deny the claim that we have upon Him, then God would be out of touch with reality. If God were not worthy of worship, but yet He would call people to worship Him, then that would be problematic, that would be pride, and it would be wrong.
But, in the case of God, the true and living God, when He calls us to worship Him, it is precisely because He is worship-worthy, not because He isn’t. And so, I think we just need to come to terms with what we are talking about. We need to define our categories, and I think that when we have a proper understanding of what we mean by humility, and what we mean by pride, we see that God is actually a humble being. In fact, you read the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, and you see God as one who stoops down, one who condescends. God is the father who has compassion on His children. God is the one who, even though He dwells in a high and exalted place, He also dwells with the contrite and the lowly. We see in the person of Jesus Christ, that God steps into the human situation, that God does not grasp on to the prerogatives that He has, being divine, but Jesus Christ, the son of God, steps into our world though being equal with God, takes the form of a slave, dies the death of a slave, a humiliating death, but yet as a result is highly exalted, and receives a name above all names. Jesus himself says that even though he is the one who is the revealer of the Father, the unique revealer of the Father. In Matthew 11, Jesus goes on to say, “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, you’ll find rest for your soul.” So, here you have this lofty claim being made by Jesus, that He is the unique revealer of the Father, and then He goes on to say that He is also humble of heart. So, greatness and humility need not go together, need not be opposed to each other. They can go together. And you see that I think wonderfully exemplified say in that passage in Matthew chapter 11.
BA: Well, excellent. Right along the lines of this pride accusation, is the idea that, as you said before, that God is jealous, and in fact, talk show host Oprah Winfrey recalls a time when she heard a verse from the Bible about God being a jealous God, and she just couldn’t accept that. So, what’s the Bible mean when it talks about God being jealous?
PC: Well, as I hinted at earlier, we all know that there is a “bad” jealousy, the jealousy that is petty, that is insecure. When someone is jealous, just two friends just enjoy hanging out together, and if one of those friends starts talking with anyone outside of that friendship, then that other person gets jealous and upset, and is insecure, well that’s problematic when you’ve got that clinging kind of jealousy, that does not allow any other genuine, appropriate friendship to enter in to the other person’s life. That’s one thing. On the other, when you see say, a married man and woman, and then there is say a guy who starts flirting with this man’s wife, well, it is appropriate that that man be jealous, and be protective, and be guarding that relationship. There’s nothing inappropriate at all with his being protective and jealous for the exclusivity of that relationship. In fact, we’d say there’s something desperately wrong if he doesn’t care that there may be something infringing upon their marriage relationship, something needling itself into that relationship and being a third party in that relationship, there’s something deeply problematic. Marriage, by definition, is going to be exclusivistic, and anything that cuts into that ought to be rejected. There ought to be a protection to preserve that unique bond between husband and wife. And so, what you see going on in the scriptures is a God, who yes, is a jealous God, but when you read about why God is jealous, that term comes up regularly in the context of idolatry, where God makes a bond, a covenant with His people, and it is seen like a marriage relationship, a husband and wife. And when Israel, rather than trusting in this covenant-making God, runs after other deities, of other nations, makes political alliances with them, trusts in the strength of these foreign nations, and their armies, rather than trusting in the God who has made this covenant with them. God gets jealous. God made promises that he would be there as their protector, He would be their provider, He would be the one who would defend them. And when Israel was running off after these other gods, it aroused God’s anger, it provoked his jealousy, and there’s something utterly fitting about that because God so attached himself to Israel. And when you look at say Mount Sinai, when God makes a covenant with Israel, and Israel agrees to be the people of God, to be His bride, and then just a few chapters later, in Exodus 32, Israel worships this golden calf, and provokes God’s jealousy. So, it’s like here they’ve just had the marriage, and then on their honeymoon, Israel is already cheating on the husband. I think that when people like Richard Dawkins trivializes marriage by saying, “Look, what kind of a petty deity is that who gets jealous?” Well, he has just not understood the depths of feeling that God has, that He’s so committed and connected to His people in this marriage-like relationship, that one has to wonder what Dawkins himself actually thinks about marriage, and how exclusivistic that is, how it ought to be guarded and protected. I just think Dawkins hasn’t taken seriously at all, the image of marriage and adultery, and thus the whole issue of jealousy which rightly comes up when there is adultery. And so, I would want the term jealousy to be understood in that proper context. Not the petty, insecure kind, but rather the one that is morally justified when something is cutting into a marriage relationship.
BA: Alright, well, then let’s move on then and talk about some more of the ethical questions in the Old Testament, and one that comes to the forefront, as you mentioned, is Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, on an altar. And so, the critics say, “Oh, this is promoting child sacrifice, at worst, and this is divine child abuse at best.” So, a lot of the things that you’ve talked about already are answered well, just by looking at the larger narrative and I think the larger scope answers a lot of the questions in this, but what other sorts of keys will help Christians to look at this issue of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac?
PC: You’re right to point out that when we look at the broader historical narrative, it brings a lot more clarity to the point under discussion. When we look at Genesis 22 and the text of God’s command, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we need to understand that God’s already been talking to Abraham. We go back to Genesis chapter 12, God tells Abraham to get up, to go to a land that He is going to show them. God promises that He is going to make his name great, that through Abraham, and his offspring, blessing is to come to all the families of the earth. So that is the beginning point, God speaking to Abraham. And then we see that God provides for Abraham as well as his family, and when Ishmael comes along, Abraham is getting impatient, of course it is a long time to wait, but Abraham, he and Sarah, conspire and get ahead of God, and of course, Ishmael comes out of this relationship between Hagar and Abraham, again, being initiated by Sarah herself. And so, Ishmael is born and of course Abraham is hoping, “This is going to be the promised child. Let Ishmael live before the Lord. Let him be the promised child.” And God says, “No, the promised child is going to come from you and Sarah, from both your bodies. It’s not going to be through Ishmael.” God tells Abraham in the midst of the squabble that Hagar and Sarah are having, “Just let Hagar and Ishmael go.” And that God is going to provide for them, Ishmael is going to become great, he’s not going to die in the wilderness. And so Abraham can let them go, knowing that God is going to take care of them, even though they are going into the dangers of the wilderness. Well, that is the part of the context that prepares us now for Genesis 22, where God is basically saying, “Abraham, remember that I promised that through your offspring as well as Sarah’s, together, that the nations of the earth would be blessed. And do you remember how I cared for Ishmael and Hagar when I told you to send them off into the wilderness? Well, you need to remember that as I tell you now, that you are to sacrifice your son Isaac.” And so, Abraham gets up knowing, somehow, God is going to fulfill His promise. And so that’s why He tells His servants when He is just giving them instructions, He tells them, “No, we are going to sacrifice, we are going to worship, and we will return.”
Abraham was so confident that God was going to bring Isaac back, even though he didn’t know how it was going to happen. Isaac is this promised child, and God is going to fulfill His promise, even though God does not know how, that’s going to happen. So it’s not as though some sort of a thought just came to Abraham saying, ”Kill your son Isaac.” No, there’d been a discussion, there’d been a narrative, there’d been a historical context for all of this to take place. Hebrews 11 later speaks of how Abraham was confident that God would raise the dead. And so, I think it is important for us to remember some people say that, “Well, how can you believe in a God who commands the killing of say a son?” Well, it’s important for us to remember that the world operates according to certain rules, and that we have certain things that are in place, but as the philosopher John Hare says, ”Think for example when if a sixteen year old had this capacity to come back to life after being killed, would that not make a big difference in terms of the bigger moral picture?” So, if you kill someone and the person says, “Hey, I’m going to be back soon anyway, see you in a minute.” That person’s going to pop right back into place, well then, the idea of killing that person isn’t really that big a deal because that person can pop right back to life. Well, think about that additional fact that enhances the moral picture when we are talking about God’s promise to Abraham with regard to Isaac. In some ways it’s similar. God has given a promise, and God just knows somehow, Isaac is going to accompany him back, he just doesn’t know how it’s going to happen. So, there is this confidence that God has that God is going to faithful to his promise, that He’s not going to let Abraham down now, after all that He’s done, and I think when we look at it in this vein, in this light, we start to see a clearer moral picture here of what is going on. And so, I unpack a lot of these themes in the chapter that I spend on this particular topic, but I hope that gives a few nuggets that might be helpful as we think through that particular topic.
BA: Well, that’s good, Paul. I’m fairly satisfied with that sort of an answer, but at the same time, I can’t help but hear the voice of the skeptic chiming in my head saying an objection along the lines of, “Alright, what’s to stop you from saying ‘God told me to murder this person, or God told me to do that,’ or now you have basically God telling you to do whatever immoral thing that you can think of.” So, what kind of answer would you have to the skeptic who is going to raise that sort of objection of, “What’s to stop God from ordering…” fill in the blank.
PC: We need to understand that God is a good God, that God’s character is such that he is worship-worthy. And, when there are some things that we may not perhaps understand, for example, God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, we also need to remember that God has already in a sense given a sufficient basis of moral clarity, that God is going to be one who fulfills his promise, and that there may be some things that may be difficult or hard for us, that may be trying for us, but yet still God, who sees the bigger picture, is going to bring about the fulfillment of his purposes, and that what may seem to be difficult for us when you look at the bigger picture, we see, no, this is not some sort of immoral act.
I like to use the example of Mark Murphy, who talks about this happening in his own home, he’s a philosopher at Georgetown…as a father one time, his son, had a tooth that was coming out, and so when he said to his family that he was going to be pulling out the tooth of his 6 or 7 year old child, the younger 3 year old son was just horrified, and literally ran up to his father, and started beating him, telling him, “No!” And his father said, no he was going to get some pliers or something to get this tooth out, and the young child just could not understand how his father could be so brutal, and torment his 6 or 7 year old child like this. And I think that a lot of times, when we have our own moral framework, we may be a little bit unclear about certain moral facts that are part of the bigger picture. And I’m arguing that God in general does not command these sorts of things, you know, “Kill someone!” I’d say the burden of proof would have to be on someone that would have to show that this is indeed coming from God.
Abraham I think had plenty of warrant to say that, “This is coming from God, this is not that I just had too much to drink last night. Or maybe I’m taking drugs; and therefore, I may not be in the right frame of mind.” You know, that’s a different scenario. On the other hand, what we have are certain moral features, moral facts, that have a bearing on the kind of actions that are being carried out, and Abraham is one who has a clearer moral picture. God has been at work here, God has been interacting with Abraham. And so, what we see here is not some sort of a random act that comes out of the blue, but rather this is again a principled command that comes that God is one who is commanding, but God has already made a promise that certain things are going to come about. And I’d say that the sorts of areas that are offered by the skeptics are not going to fit that kind of a criterion. They’re not going to have that kind of reinforcement that a good God is indeed behind all of this.
So, I guess the burden of proof would have to be on the skeptic to say why he thinks that God would just command any old thing, at any old time, and that therefore it be justifiable. No, there’s going to be a specific context in which God has made himself known, that God shows himself to be trustworthy, that God is going to fulfill his promise, and I dare say that the skeptic doesn’t have that to his advantage.
BA: So, you would say that all the scriptural examples we have, there’s a proper context, there’s reason to trust, and have warrant that God is actually speaking to you, and the things that might normally be thought of as immoral, God has given sufficient reason to show that He’s got a plan and purpose, and it’s not an arbitrary, out of the blue, sort of immoral command out of nowhere.
PC: Exactly right, that’s a very nice summary.
BA: Well, you also look into the Old Testament, and in the end you look at some of the laws in particular, dealing with the kosher foods, you mentioned holiness laws, food, clothing, planting regulations, and the question I guess is, what kind of principles do we use when we look at laws that applied to Old Testament Israel, why aren’t they for us today?
PC: There’s a lot to unpack there. Let me say something a little bit about say some of the food laws, and planting regulations, clothing laws, and so forth. God, when he is commanding the Israelites as they are going into the land of promise, He is telling them that He wants them to be unique, set apart, living in a way that is dedicated to God, and not imitating the nations that surround them. God is telling them that He wants them to be reminded in whatever they are wearing, in the kind of food that they’re eating, in their planting, even in the way that they go about having sexual relations as husband and wife, that there is a way to do things, and in these every day, seemingly mundane aspects of life, they are to be reminded that they are the people of God. That they are to live lives that are distinct from the nations around them. That they are to live for this God who has brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And so, because of that grace they have received, they’re to live lives of gratitude, and adherence to the laws that God has given to them.
Again, I think that these laws, do serve as a daily reminder in every facet of life, that they are the distinct people of God, and that as Deuteronomy chapter 4 says, that they are to be distinctive among the nations, and that as the nations look at them, the nations will see that this is a wise people. Look at what kind of a great God they have by the way that they’re living their lives. So, all of these mundane things are to be reminders that they are the unique people of God.
Now, about the kosher foods, one of the things I say in the book is that a food is not kosher if it is somehow not characteristic of the three realms that typify various animals. For example, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the land animals, that if something that seems to overlap in spheres that seem to be abnormal, then it was prohibited. So, for example, fish typically have fins, scales, well if you have something like an eel, it doesn’t have fins or scales. Or you have for example, shrimp that seem to be different from the way that fish typically move through the sea, or you have catfish or something like that, or shark, or porpoise or whatever, these are not to be eaten. Why? Because they’re not characterized by what the majority of fish are, what is typical of what passes through the sea, namely that which has fins and scales, and so it’s to be avoided. So, I argue that the sorts of things that in a sense break out of their sphere, are not characteristic of their sphere, God prohibits those things from being eaten. And why? To remind the people of God that they are to be people who are in a sense to thrive in their own sphere of being God’s unique, set apart, people.
So, I unpack a lot of these themes. There are other nuances that I talk about when it comes to kosher foods. For example, you don’t eat predatory animals, like vultures or eagles or whatever, that prey upon the vulnerable, that is not to be characteristic of the people of God. So, I talk about those sorts of things as well. In terms of the harsh laws, I won’t say much about that, but let me say this, that in terms of what some people say, “Well, look at those harsh punishments. It seems like that was really a rough way of living back then.” What I argue is that the Israelite laws, by comparison to the rest of the ancient Near East, are actually much milder, much less, really, the laws of the surrounding nations were often very brutal. There could be punishments for example, of a criminal being dragged through a field by oxen because of his punishment. If a builder builds a house, and it collapses, then that builder’s family is vulnerable. The wife for example, could be put to death. If there is someone who commits adultery, then that man’s wife could be raped, and so forth. So, a lot of punishments are totally brutal and inappropriate. When we look at the biblical record, we see something that is much more in a sense, tame, much less brutal, much less harsh. So, what you see though, is God meeting His people where they are. It’s kind of like trying to bring democracy to a place like Saudi Arabia. That God works in sort of an incremental way. You don’t bring some change dramatically to a place where there are fallen social structures and society. What you do is you bring change incrementally, and that’s the sort of thing that we see God doing with regard to Israel. It’s not the ideal, in fact, Jesus himself says that certain things were permitted in the Old Testament because of the hardness of human hearts — Matthew 19:8. So, certain things are permitted, but they’re not to be construed necessarily as ideal. This is where a lot of the new atheists get it wrong. They assume that, “Oh, that Old Testament must be for all people and all times.” And the New Testament, as well as the Old Testament says that, no, this is something temporary that is going to give way to something better. But yet, the new atheists don’t allow for that to enter into the discussion. So, anyway, I unpack a number of those things, I won’t get into that right now, but hopefully that’s enough to perhaps whet the appetite for looking into the book in greater detail.
BA: Well, I found those particular sections there when you’re explaining the reasons behind these laws that are peculiar, the kosher food laws, and how this is really fascinating, there are really good reasons behind what was done. So, I think it’s really beneficial to read. Now, earlier when we were talking about pride and jealousy, we saw that our understanding of those terms can give us a wrong idea of what the bible is talking about when we’re defining humility or jealousy. But, one of the other things that you talk about and mention there was slavery in the Old Testament. And you also explain how our understanding of slavery is much different than the Old Testament understanding of slavery. And, how it was culturally distinctive during that time period, where it was more of a servant-hood system. So, could you kind of explain your approach to the slavery issue in the Old Testament?
PC: One of the points that I make in the book, and try to make it strongly, is that many people, when they hear the term slavery, and I think that’s an unfortunate translation in the Old Testament, because something like servitude, something like even employer-employee, with a certain twist, is a better way of understanding what’s going on. That a lot of people when they see slavery, they think automatically of the antebellum south. They think of the horrific abuses of the slavery system in the modern period. And so, that is an unfortunate association, and so the new atheists just wreak havoc on this, they just make all sorts of claims that assume that equation, when that is totally not at all the picture.
Again, what we’re looking at is the servitude in the Old Testament, that is more like an indentured servitude, a contractual agreement that was limited in time, that was entered into, get this, voluntarily, it’s not something that comes about through kidnapping or something like that. It is when someone is poor, he has debts to pay, can’t pay them, and so, basically the biblical language is, “he sells himself,” or “parcels himself,” and his family out to get food, clothing, shelter, and employment in the home of someone else, but for a limited period of time. It’s kind of like people who came over to the New World from say England, and they couldn’t pay their way, but there was an agreement that they would work in the New World and pay off their debt, and after seven years, they would be free to go. And again, they would be fully functioning citizens, they wouldn’t be second-class citizens, they just had to work off their debt. We use that sort of language, but that doesn’t mean that they are property or something like that. They’re just under contractual obligations, or there is a contractual agreement that they need to fulfill. And, I argue in the book too, that three Mosaic laws, if they were kept in place, and obeyed, and followed, by those who were bible-reading people in Europe and North America, then slavery would not at all come about.
There are three key laws that I want to focus on. The first one is that there is an anti-kidnapping law in the Mosaic law. That one could not steal another person, you know, personal theft, that was prohibited on pain of death. And so, kidnapping was totally prohibited, but that’s exactly how the modern slave trade movement came about, through kidnapping people from Africa, often in cooperation with tribal chieftans and so forth. But, there was a kidnapping, a taking of people away from their homes, away from their families, and bringing them to an alien place. A second point is this, that the law of Moses also had anti-harm laws within it. That if a servant got his eye knocked out, or his tooth knocked out, then that person would be able to go free, he was no longer to live indebted to this employer, he was to be able to go free. Now, if this anti-harm law were in place, in modern slavery, then again, all those abuses that are typically associated with that just would not have existed. A third point is this, the anti-return law that was in place in Israel distinguished itself from one thing from some of the other nations around it, like the Code of Hamurabi, which said that a person, if he harbored a run away slave, and didn’t return him to his master, then he could be put to death. But, in Israel, Israel was to actually give safe harbor to runaway slaves, those who ran from their masters and looked for refuge in Israel. And so, I argue that if these three laws were in place, then there would have been no division between north and south. The slavery issue would not have arisen here in the modern world, because again, if those three Mosaic principles and laws were followed. There are some passages that I go into more detail on, some people say, “So what about Leviticus 25?”, or “What about Exodus 21?” I unpack some of those things, I can’t go into a lot of detail here, but I deal with them very specifically. I tackle the three most difficult passages that are raised when it comes to servitude in Israel, and I unpack those issues, and I think the explanations that I give for them really help to put things into perspective.
BA: Well, Paul, again, that’s extremely helpful information, and so I want to point people to you book, it’s great. I know we can’t go in depth on this next question, but if maybe you could offer a bit of a teaser and an overview, then we’ll just point people to the book, but, you talk about the question of the Canaanites. In the book, you call this probably the most difficult challenge in the Old Testament. Why is that the most difficult? And what sort of over-arching principles do you deal with when you’re looking at that issue?
PC: Alright, let me give you a few bullet points here if I may, and I’ll try to offer a summary of some of these issues. It’s a difficult question, because of course the assumption is, “Boy, the Canaanites are being singled out, how can that be fair, that sounds like genocide?” And I’ll argue that, “No, it’s not genocide, for one thing, it’s not as though non-combatants are being targeted.” I make that point very plainly, that the cities of Deuteronomy 20, the cities that are being targeted – Jericho, Ai, Hazor, and so forth, these are not actually where non-combatants live. That’s where the political, religious, and military rulers lived. These were citadels or military fortresses. And so, even though it says “man and woman, young and old” and so forth, that’s really just kind of the stereotypical language that doesn’t really fit the sort of scenario that is being talked about in these cities. It just means “whoever’s there, deal with them.” And so, I also argue that the category of not allowing anything to remain alive that breathes, that language is strong hyperbole.
As you read not only Deutoronomy chapter 7 and 20, but as you read into Joshua, and Judges, you see that even though Joshua says he leaves alive “nothing that breathes,” you see lots of Canaanites that are hanging around. It says, many of those Canaanites are there to this day. We read in Judges that they could not drive out the Jebusites, and so there are a lot of Canaanites still hanging around. In fact, this is exactly what archeology tells us. Archeology shows that there was no sudden military rampage where all the Canaanites were cleared out, where they were killed, and then the Israelites had just swept through and taken over. No, actually what we see is a gradual sort of process, where houses and so forth are left pretty much intact, except for three cities that were burned, Hazor, Aija or Ai, and Jericho. Everything else seems to have remained intact and I argue that this is a gradual assimilation that archeology bears out, and the scriptures themselves bear out. We see that this is kind of a slow process, rather than something that is sudden and totally destructive. In fact, it’s interesting too that when we read about Joshua, who carries out all that Moses commanded, we see that Moses must not have commanded this to be carried out in a literal sort of way because there are a lot of people who are left alive, who had been breathing, and a lot of Canaanites are still hanging around.
Also, I think we need to remember that the primary language that is being used here is that of “driving out” or “displacing” rather than utterly destroying. And I want to go back to that point two that I made about the hyperbolic language that is being used. This is a common feature in ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric, that you could win by a narrow margin, but still be said to have utterly decimated, you left alive nothing that breathed and so forth, that’s the kind of language that you see in the ancient texts, again in the extra-biblical inscriptions and so forth. You see a lot of stuff like that going on in the ancient Near East, in fact, the King of Moab writes that, “Israel is no more.” Well, we know that Israel stuck around and was a very prominent presence there.
So, there is a lot of exaggeration that went on in this warfare rhetoric. Yes, the Israelites may have lost a battle to the King of Moab, but that doesn’t at all mean that they were wiped out, far from it. And so, what I do, is I’m trying to basically offer a non-Sunday school version, a much more nuanced version. I argue that non-combatants were not being targeted. I also argue that this was not a genocide, that’s kind of inflammatory language that the new atheists like to use, but the language of ethnic cleansing and genocide are actually far from the picture. What they were concerned about is idolatry, immorality, and that this would affect the Israelite people. So, the issue is not, “Are you a Canaanite, or Israelite?” but rather, “How are you Living?” and also “Who’s God are you worshiping?” and what follows from that. And so, the Israelites were also told, that if they carry out the practices that the Canaanites did, temple prostitution, child sacrifice, beastiality, all of those things, then the same sort of threat that hung over the Canaanites would also come to them. In fact, they too were exiled, they too were displaced, and so God wasn’t playing favorites here.
But anyway, that’s kind of a general summary of a lot more than I could say. I’ve probably gone overtime here, but hopefully some of those things will be helpful. Again, a lot more to unpack, but hopefully the book will help in filling in those details.
BA: Well, it’s great stuff Paul, and all the content that you cover in the book, it’s substantial, I’m sure it’s going to be helpful for those people who are honestly looking into understanding these issues more deeply, so I want to thank you again for taking the time to do the interview today.
PC: I appreciate it Brian, very good to be with you.
BA: I have been speaking with Christian philosopher and apologist Paul Copan about his newest book, Is God A Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. I also would strongly recommend his other books which will be linked at today’s blog post at Apologetics315. This is Brian Auten, and thanks for listening.