Copan defending the indefensible, again: Unbelievable indeed

When Justin Brierley, host of the UK radio show Unbelievable?, told us of an upcoming show that would pit the author of Is God a Moral Monster?, Paul Copan, against atheist humanist Norman Bacrac on the subject of Copan’s book, I fired off an email in protest. I was afraid that, if one non-ANE scholar claiming to speak authoritatively on ANE matters was going to be challenged by another non-ANE scholar, the discussion would consist of Copan’s claims about how moral and wonderful the OT picture of God actually is and Norman Bacrac being put in the position of merely weighing in on whether he thought those claims were moral/ethical enough, when in fact there are hosts of possible guests who would hold Copan’s feet to the fire and challenge his claims about what the OT and ANE history actually say.

There are times when being right is a bummer. This was one of those times, and Bacrac was placed in the odd position of having to assume Copan had presented the ANE and biblical evidence correctly and critiquing the more marginal of Copan’s points.

Yet one interesting point Bacrac made early on is as follows:

The interesting thing is that what Paul Copan has done is…given a kind of commentary, but that is exactly the tradition which in fact is two thousand years old, commentaries on the Bible. You can even look at the later prophets in the Old Testament, how they . . . sometimes contradicted earlier statements; then Talmud, Mishna, the rabbis living at the same time as Jesus, they all made commentary on it, and [Copan has] done [his] commentary on it. And then in Islam, you’ve got the traditions there.

His point?

“So what it seems to me to mean is that you need human beings to comment on all these allegedly divine instructions and commands, and soften them down and reinterpret them.”

Don’t let them tell you otherwise: inerrantists make judgments about what Scripture ought to say no less than those of us who affirm its thoroughgoing human provenance. When they come across biblical texts that they decide cannot mean what they seem to say, they contrive clever apologetics to defend God from being charged as a moral monster. They are using their own moral sense to evaluate and find the plain readings of Scripture wanting each time they determine that, “If God did that, it would be wicked, so God must not have done it,” which they follow up by taking into account their presupposition of inerrancy, hence, “…so that text only appears to reinforce that wicked thing.” This is the best that can be done given the faulty assumption of inerrancy; even Bacrac allows, “This is a perfectly valid humanistic thing” to do.

How Copan and the likeminded would answer the question, “Is God a moral monster?” would be to say, “Yes, if He did the things you think He did — we just don’t think He did.” I agree with them, but differ especially when they say that the Bible doesn’t say He did those things: it does.

But things get worse, I’m afraid. Copan’s book is not merely content to reinterpret texts to redeem them from bad charges, but he argues against all hope as well as reason that some of those same passages are actually meant to affirm something quite good, including the idea that the Israelites’ displacement and subjugation of non-Israelite people groups was necessary to prepare people several hundred years in the future for Messiah.

Copan’s main position is that genocide of men, women, and children did not happen as such, but that the texts use this hyperbolic speech to describe a military/political takeover of the indigenous population — to save them, of course. Says he, “…God is primarily concerned about disabling the moral and religious structures of the Canaanites.” Then, without any apparent recognition of irony, Copan continues, “For example, in Deuteronomy chapter 7, it uses the language of ‘wiping them out,’ of ‘destroying them,’ and so forth, but then it says, ‘Do not intermarry with them’ in the next verse.” Was such hyperbolic, violent rhetoric itself not a problematic moral structure, an effective strategy for dehumanizing the people whose land they were being commanded to steal? This language was not only left unproblematized but was actually perpetuated for posterity in the text of inspired Scripture. Intermarriage was a big no-no, but the language of eradication, of not showing mercy even to infants…that was ok. That would have been too hard to revise. It was much easier for God to have Israel dispossess people at swordpoint and destroy their culture and religious institutions than to reform His own people’s ideas of what constituted acceptable rhetoric, rhetoric that cannot be denied to have belied the brutal ancient morality and value systems that formed it.

Translation: God used rhetoric worthy of Hilter to describe a course of action more convincingly justified as humane by George W. Bush’s speechwriters. Israel was the ancient world’s police force, it appears, speaking loudly but carrying a little stick.

But the unnoticed irony doesn’t stop there: in defending his belief that God’s wrathful judgment such as he believes was brought upon the Canaanites via the Israelites, Copan quotes Miroslav Volf (as he does in his book), who wrote of the seminal event that changed Volf’s mind about whether God could be angry and be a loving God. I sympathize with Volf, and recognize the power of what he is saying, but amazingly, I don’t think Paul Copan has realized how much this undermines the very operation he thinks God commissioned the Israelites to perform:

My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, a region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed, and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?

If Volf is correct, God might not be too happy about the same sort of forcible upheaval perpetrated by the Israelites, or pleased with Copan and his kissing cousins, the divine command theorists, who do their best to find excuses for it.

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  • I had the same recurring thought while listening to that show. Merely saying that genocide didn’t actually happen historically doesn’t begin to explain why the allegedly inspired text portrays God as commanding genocide. You’ve framed it well. Why would God accommodate his message to violent dehumanizing rhetoric?

    • Mattflannagan

      Except Copan denies the text portrays this his claim is that it doesn’t. Attacking Staw men is not really terribly sensible.

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  • Wm Tanksley

    Well said — although I disagree with your conclusions, at least you respect the plain sense of the text enough to interact with it. Copan claims to believe the text, and then denies not only its meaning, but also all the implications of the stories surrounding the “alleged” slaughter (for example, Samuel’s rebuke of Saul was triggered not by hearing the enemy king talking, but by hearing the sounds of animals — he came over because he hadn’t expect to hear any animals living).

  • Mattflannagan

    This seems to have lowered the bar somewhat apparently the problem is not that its immoral to use  violent hyperbolic rhetoric. 

    That’s quite easy to respond to, one can simply deny that moral claim is correct. Unless there is a really compelling reason why an innerantist or anyone for that matter is required to accept this moral principle its of little consequence. Part of being a Christian means that you let God correct your expectation of what he can and can’t do and your moral beliefs about whats right and wrong. There are limits to how far one can do this and maintain credibility, which is why the claim that  God commands certain types things are a problem. But the limits are not stretched by denying contemporary sentiments about rhetoric. 

    • Hi Matt,
      I didn’t say that using violent hyperbolic rhetoric is an immoral act. Is leaving a loaded shotgun on the dining room table with young children in the house an immoral act? If it’s not intentional, maybe not, but it is careless, unwise, and dangerous. So even if we couldn’t charge God with murder in the first degree in Copan’s scenario, He’d be subject to indictment for criminal negligence for not only not condemning but actually reinforcing a destructive worldview. Even if the Bible does turn out to be inerrant in what it teaches, it is certainly not exhaustive of the things it should be teaching.

      What I actually argued was that this kind of rhetoric, particularly when coming from the mouth of one’s deity whose morality we are apparently not allowed to evaluate, serves to buttress a dehumanized and dehumanizing culture. If you argue that contemporary sentiments did not count dehumanization as problematic or scandalous, I will agree; but as a Christian, don’t you think that this is itself a problem? If violent rhetoric is not immoral but symptomatic of the violent tendencies of these ancient people, why in heaven’s name would God give them something to mask the symptom, thereby perpetuating the illness? You can’t give God a pass for prescribing something harmful on the grounds that those He prescribed it to didn’t know better! That makes it all the more troubling!

      All of this skirts around the divine command theory suggested by your argument. Divine might does not make right. So even if violent rhetoric is peachy and the narratives show God telling the Israelites to murder only a few people, I deny that this is good. You imply the position, “If it’s God, it’s good”; my position is, “If it’s not good, it’s not God.” Telling one’s followers to violently drive out the inhabitants of a region to take their land could not be considered good; ergo…

      Part of being a Christian means that you let God correct your expectation of what he can and can’t do and your moral beliefs about whats right and wrong.

      I do not disagree with this. But knowing exactly what God is saying is not nearly as simple or certain as you’re putting on. You seem to judge whether God said something by whether some passage in the Bible seems to claim it for Him according to your reading; I judge it by whether it shows the perfect love of God which the NT tells us to emulate. I do think God would like us to correct our misunderstandings of what He can and can’t do. The difference between us is that I am committed to doing so even when those misunderstandings are written into the Bible.

      Maybe I’m wrong and God would demand the forceful and violent displacement of people for their territory. I’ll continue to say that He has been defamed. I may be wrong, but if I am, I’m worshiping the wrong God.