The next to last post on God is Great, God is Good is Paul Copan’s ‘Are the Old Testament Laws Evil?’.
This chapter would have been better called ‘Is Yahweh evil?’ for this is the nub of the question.
Dawkins calls God an ‘evil monster’ who is jealous, bloodthirsty, commands ethnic cleansing and is generally an appalling role model, never mind a good and great God.
And of course there is nothing like Christopher Hitchens for a bit of bombast and bludgeoning prose. For him the Old Testament was put together by ‘crude uncultured human animals’.
And with similar confidence, Sam Harris says that if the OT is true we should still be stoning people for heresy, adultery, homosexuality and so on.
Copan calls this a crass hermeneutic and says we need to understand the OT moral framework through the lens of what John Goldingay calls the five stages of Israel’s history:
- wandering clan
- theocratic nation
- afflicted remnant
- post-exilic community of promise
The OT world of patriarchy, slavery, polygamy, and war is alien to us [although not to other parts of the world today] The OT God starts with people where they are and demonstrates a progressive ethic , built on the monumental foundations of Gen 1-3 and mankind made in the image of God.
Copan takes the example of slavery. The OT contains significant modifications to the common practices of slavery in the ANE. It has:
– Unprecedented human and legal rights for slaves – treated as persons and protected
– Condemnation of kidnapping a person to sell as a slave
– Hebrew debt slaves – to be released in the 7th year
– Release of injured slaves
– Owners accountable for how they treat slaves
The big point here is Israel’s moderation and enlightened stance compared to the ruthless comparable law codes like Hammurabi which has brutal punishments, an elitist hierarchy of sanctions, and slaves having no rights at all.
“The informed inhabitant of the Ancient Near East would have thought ‘Quick, get me to Israel’!
What of ‘Lex Talionis’ (an eye for an eye)? Copan argues this is actually a moderation of unreasonable punishment and is not taken literally. It acted as a prohibition against unjust and disproportionate judgement.
And the superficial critiques of the New Atheists and others often ignore the ‘warm moral overtones’ of the Mosaic law – love for God, love for neighbour, care for the alien, justice for the oppressed, forgiveness of debts and so forth.
Basically, Copan sees the Mosaic law as an accommodation to a morally underdeveloped Ancient Near Eastern cultural mindset.
The problem with the New Atheist caricature is that it takes no account of how Christians actually read, interpret and apply the OT.