“Perhaps we need to be more open to the fact that some of our moral intuitions aren’t as finely tuned as they ought to be.”
Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (IGaMM) states its question and objective right in its title, as every good book should.
While it could more accurately be regarded as an open letter/response to the so-called New Atheist movement of the past couple of decades (which has more or less petered out in recent years), IGaMM is essentially an attempt to offer the average reader an accessible and convenient one-stop-shop for responses to some of the most common and most difficult objections to Christianity today.
In particular, Copan sets his sights more narrowly on those questions relating to the Bible’s Old Testament and those passages therein which might cause one to doubt the goodness or moral integrity of the Christian God. I say ‘narrowly’ in the sense of the book only covering this area of objections and difficulties, but one may also say Copan’s breadth of information covers a wide survey of topics within this area of study.
There are, of course, the heavy-hitters that such a book would need to address:
-Slavery in the Bible
-God commanding Israel to kill the Canaanites
-Misogyny in the Old Testament
-Strange and brutal laws in ancient Israel
In addition, however, the reader is also treated to explanations and elaborations pertaining to:
-Ancient Near Eastern cultural in general
-The sacrifice of Isaac
-God’s jealous and wrathful nature
-Religion being a source of violence
-The foundation of morality in general
Obviously, this being a more popular-level book, and only ~220 pages, Copan isn’t able to spend inordinate amounts of time on any subject, but not all of these are given equal attention. Two chapters are devoted to Israel’s strange laws, and three chapters each are given to slavery and the ‘genocide’ of the Canaanites. Whereas the rare someone who is more learned on these subjects might be disappointed with the lack of depth in some of the information provided, I would wager most any reader will be satisfied with the treatment of just about any of the given subjects–after all, it’s written for the latter audience, not the former. Besides that, Copan provides a section at the end of each chapter containing recommended sources for furthering reading.
It’s difficult for me to comment on the subject matter in any meaningful way, to give some kind of analytic breakdown of how ‘right’ Copan is or isn’t–I’m just not in a position to be making those kinds of claims. In all transparency, I share the vast majority of my views with Copan (as far as I know) and I trust his integrity as a scholar and author. I’m inclined to follow his lead on these things. That being said, in trying to read this as objectively as possible, with my biases in mind, it’s difficult for me to find many places where Copan would be flat wrong about something. As with most any historical endeavor, much of one’s positions and conclusions on such a thing will, more than anything, be subject to one’s interpretation of the information given.
It’s possible Copan is incorrect in some of his interpretations of any number of these passages discussed in IGaMM, but I’m attracted to his positions, maybe more than anything, because he himself admits as much. He seems to be a genuinely humble scholar trying to look at the historical and textual evidence as objectively as possible and see if there are any solutions to the difficult questions of this ancient religion he’s come to be involved with. So, while there are certainly others out there who will dispute his positions, claim he hasn’t addressed or considered this or that text or interpretation, or suggest any number of other objections to his case, it’s difficult to find fault with Copan’s approach and the coherence of his positions.
At the very least, IGaMM attempts to be a bottom-shelf repository of possible responses to common and difficult doubts and questions to Christianity, specifically in the area of Old Testament ethics. In my estimation, it accomplishes this handily.
Copan is clear and thorough; he doesn’t take his reader’s knowledge of the Bible, history, or ethics for granted, either, laying everything out for your in clear and compelling ways.
I considered myself part of the ‘uninitiated’ crowd on these subjects before I read this book. While I’m still a ‘newb’, I’m no longer uninitiated, at least. Some of the basic principles of the Old Testament literature, Ancient Near Eastern culture, and general biblical hermeneutics laid out in IGaMM were eye-opening for me in many ways. I feel like I at least have a few parts of a foundation laid that’s needed to start understanding the Bible more in general, and some of the more difficult parts of it specifically.
Is God a moral monster?
I don’t think so.
While my mind wasn’t inclined to believe that anyways before reading this book, I now feel like I have better reasons to think that, at least as it relates to the weird and hard Old Testament texts.
Does Copan successfully ‘make sense of the Old Testament God’?
Absolutely. I think any open minded reader–religious person or not–would agree as well. I’m grateful to have this book in my collection and it will be at the top of my recommendation list when the difficult questions of the Old Testament crop up for the people I’m around.