Why does God seem so “brutal” in the Old Testament?

In my pastoral role, I am often asked why the God of the Old Testament seems to condone or command some very brutal acts. This question can come from a sincere desire to understand or may come from interaction with the writings of “new atheists,” who highlight this question. As I addressed this question for the hundredth time recently, I was reminded of an article written by Paul Copan titled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” and the review I wrote several years ago concerning this article. For those interested in this discussion, I highly recommend reading Copan’s article (the link is embedded in the above title). I also include my review below, but if you are pressed for time, read the article over my review!

Paul Copan’s article, Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? defends the morality of Yahweh, the OT God, against charges of immorality by the “new atheist” movement.  On many levels, Copan shows that the new atheists’ arguments that disparage Yahweh’s morality are weak and flawed. In agreement with Copan, it is argued here that the new atheists both misrepresent OT ethics and employ flawed arguments.

Pulling a quote out of context often makes a more sensational point but a sound argument is supported through a full accounting of the information. For the most part, the new atheists selectively pick biblical data without the proper contextualization. Copan points out that the OT law cannot be properly understood apart from the narrative history in which it came. The various OT laws are tied to God’s saving acts to establish a faithful relationship with his people. The new atheists may quote a passage about Yahweh’s jealousy over Israel’s idolatry, or the severe punishments for idolatry, in order to offend modern sensibilities of tolerance, but they omit the narrative context of God’s graceful saving acts among a problem people. In this way, the new atheists stack the deck against Yahweh without considering explanations that may justify Yahweh’s ethics.

The new atheists also omit information about the historical context of the Ancient Near East (ANE). Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? points out several ways that the OT exhibits marked moral improvement over ANE ethics. In his listing of the moral improvements of the OT over ANE cultures, Copan unfortunately employs the methods he criticizes. The popular value assumptions of 21st century America are the basis for moral comparison. Perhaps by using the new atheists’ value assumptions Copan wanted to show how the omitted information would have weakened their arguments even in their own framework.

Along the lines of omitting information, the new atheists often ignore information contrary to their arguments. They may point out that the OT condones slavery but then fail to mention that Israeli slaves were to be freed after seven years (Lev 29:35-42) and that Israel was to be a safe haven for foreign runaway slaves (Deut 23:15-16).

The result of these various omissions and failure to provide context is the creation of a straw man out of the OT God (Is making a straw man out of Yahweh an ironic violation of the 2nd  commandment? I digress). The new atheists have therefore misrepresented the position they are refuting.

Copan also questions the strength of the new atheists’ argument along the lines of descriptive assumptions. The new atheists assume that the OT presents ethics in its final and ideal form. Copan contends that the text itself argues against these assumptions.

The OT law code does not represent the pinnacle of Yahweh’s ethics. Instead, OT ethics tends to look back to the creation account or forward to further development.  Here Copan argues that Yahweh may have been working within the ANE context, seeking incremental changes towards an ideal. This contention somewhat overlooks the Exodus event where God miraculously changed the Israelites’ situation and made a new covenant with them. This was a time where incremental change was thrown out the window and a new ideal was presented.

Copan sees the Exodus covenant and Decalogue as a new beginning but argues that laws were made more complex and stringent after this event in response to Israel’s disobedience. The text, however, does not support Copan’s contention as the passing of a few verses within Exodus does not warrant a scene, let alone covenant, shift.  Despite overreaching with the textual evidence, Copan’s more general point is still valid. Yahweh was interacting with his people in a non-ideal ANE world. In his grace and patience, Yahweh condescended to his people’s situation. His interaction with them was therefore not necessarily a timeless ideal, but a path closer to the ideal.

Along similar lines, Copan points to Jesus’ contention (Matt 19:8) that some OT ethics were not ideal but were due to the “hardness of their hearts.” A realistic assessment of the human condition caused God to suspend the ideal and instead work on moving the people back towards the ideal past or forward towards an ideal future.  Jesus described the OT allowance of divorce and polygamy as an example of how the ideal had given way to an accommodation. In a similar fashion, the new atheists should not assume that their “problematic” OT ethical issues necessarily reflect Yahweh’s timeless ideal.

From a Christian perspective, the Mosaic law is not the pinnacle of Yahweh’s ethics but instead awaits the fulfillment of time in Christ. The “planned obsolescence” of the Mosaic law through Christ’s coming argues against the assumption that OT ethics represents an ideal state. The new atheists therefore make an erroneous assumption of the OT texts as a comprehensive representation of Yahweh’s morality.

The final section of Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? goes on the offensive by arguing that the naturalism undergirding the new atheists does not account for ethical pronouncements as well as theism.  This section does not advance Copan’s thesis nor does it discredit the moral assumptions from which the new atheists make their moral arguments.

The new atheists also argue that application of biblical ethics is damaging to modern society. As with the treatment of the text, the new atheists selectively choose negative examples of Christian behavior. They fail to acknowledge the many positive ethical influences that Christianity has had in the West while simultaneously explaining away the destructive episodes of atheism. Some new atheists further (Harris) misrepresent today’s Christians by implying that Christians want to enact these OT laws today.

Because new atheism is a broad category it is difficult to fully represent and treat every argument. While Copan seeks a nuanced approach to the biblical text he is, by necessity, less nuanced in his treatment of the new atheist’s views. Nonetheless, Copan defends OT ethics against the most common charges.

Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? demonstrates that the most common arguments leveled against OT ethics are often weaker than they seem. Many arguments omit significant contextual information that provide the necessary backdrop to fully understanding OT ethics. Negative examples are selected as if they represent the full sampling of OT ethics while positive examples are not treated. Erroneous descriptive assumptions concerning the ideal of OT ethics also weaken the arguments presented by the new atheists. The OT ethical system which the new atheists present is therefore misrepresentative and their arguments contain several flaws.



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