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Yahweh – a Moral Monster?

26th February 2011

[One day I will like to explore this issue more. Last year I taught a course on the Bible and violence and I know I raised more questions for the students than provided solutions! Originally posted 07/2008]

One of the biggest moral and theological challenges modern readers face when reading the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is the brutal violence found within its pages. And if the graphic descriptions of violence perpetrated by humans upon other humans was not enough (see Judges 19-21 for one startling example), you have the thornier issue of violence attributed  to and commanded by God. Perhaps the biggest and most troublesome example in this regard is the Canaanite genocide – Yahweh commanding Israel to “utterly destroy” all of the inhabitants – men, women, and children – of the promised land.

Prior to the conquest, Yahweh set out his expectations to Moses and the children of Israel as follows:

In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess (Num 33:50-53).

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you — the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you — and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy (Deut 7:1-2).

But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:16-18).

Then, when the Israelites encountered the Canaanite king of Arad on the way to the promised land, they prayed to Yahweh and he “listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah” (Num 21:1-3). The Israelites later killed off a few other towns on their journey, Moses later reporting, “we utterly destroyed them… in each city utterly destroying men, women, and children (Deut 3:6).

Perhaps the most (in)famous example is the destruction of Jericho, where

they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys (Josh 6:21).

How do we respond to such texts?

Now, I recognize there are significant historical issues with these texts. Most (many?) critical scholars maintain that there was not really much of a conquest of Canaan, if at all. John Van Seters, for example, comments “the invasion of the land of Canaan by Israel under Joshua was an invention of [the Deuteronomistic Historian]. The conquest narrative is a good example of ancient historiography but it cannot pass for historical by any modern criteria of historical evaluation.” Even the biblical text, when read carefully, admits that the conquest was not quite as successful as the early chapters of Joshua suggest (see Josh 13:1‑7; 18:3; cf. Exod 23:29-30; Judg 1). That being said, even if there is little histiorical value in these texts (note I am not necessarily saying this), the biblical text still presents Yahweh as commanding the Canaanite genocide, and this picture fits into the larger ideological portrayal of Yahweh as warrior found throughout the Hebrew Bible.

So the question remains, How do we respond to such texts? How do we respond to such texts in a post-holocaust world? How do we respond in a world where terms such as “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are heard all too often in the news?

The so-called “new atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, among others) have responded to these and other biblical texts by rejecting Yahweh as a petty, jealous, violent deity.  Dawkins comments:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 51; thanks to Randal Rauser for this citation).

He further contends:

What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us (The God Delusion, 248; cited in Copan).

While rejecting Yahweh may be a solution for some, I would argue that it really isn’t an option for Christians who want to adhere to the biblical canon. But what do we do with these texts? Paul Copan, professor of theology and ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University, has recently published an article in Philosophia Christi that addresses this thorny problem. In his article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), Copan attempts to counter the claims of the new atheists, among others. Copan rehearses most of the typical responses Christians have given in the past, though I am not sure how satisfied I am by his answers.

Time permitting, I am planning on following up this post with at least one more where I will engage Copan’s article and provide some ways to understand this portrayal of Yahweh. That being said, I can’t say I am fully satisfied with my own answers (perhaps this is one of those issues where we should never be satisfied with any answers!).

What are your thoughts?

Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Old Testament, Theodicy, Theology, Yahweh War | 14 Comments »

Yahweh – A Moral Monster? Not According to Copan

21st July 2008

As I mentioned in my previous post, Yahweh – A Moral Monster?, I wanted to interact with Paul Copan’s article written in response to the views of the so-called “new atheists.” In this post I will review Copan’s article, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (available from the Evangelical Philosophical Society website here), which rehearses many of the classic evangelical responses to the problem of the Canaanite genocide. While I will provide some of my own evaluation, I will leave the bulk of my own perspective for my next post.

I should note that Copan is concerned with responding to broader charges against the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible by the new atheists and aims to “discern the powerful moral vision of the OT” against their criticisms.  My interaction with Copan will restrict itself to those points that intersect with the genocide question.

ANE Cultural Context
Copan’s first point is that “We must allow the OT ethical discussion to begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.” This is certainly correct. Our world is not the world of the Bible. The ANE was a harsh world and the OT reflects this. He further argues that while the OT world is harsh and different than our world, you also find that “God is incrementally ‘humanizing’ ANE structures within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.” While I would agree to a certain extent (for instance, there are a number of studies that compare the Deuteronomic Code [DC] with other biblical and ANE law codes and finds that the DC is more “enlightened” – for lack of a better term), I would also be wary of trying to paint the ANE worse so that the Hebrew Bible looks far better in comparison. That being said, understanding the harsh world of the ANE will at least help us understand the biblical portrayal of Yahweh more sympathetically perhaps. In my mind, it is also useful to recognize that ancient Israel would naturally embed their view of God in their cultural context (uh, how could they not?), and this image of God would naturally not fit our modern sensibilities (of course, this raises the question of revelation, though you could just flip the point and say that God revealed godself in ways that would be understandable to ancient Israelites).

Development & Diversity in the OT/HB
Second, Copan maintains that there are “differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel’s history.” Thus, even within the OT/HB there is development. The divine command to wipe out the people in the land (Canaanites et al) was a one time command at a very specific period of Israel’s history (although herem warfare did crop up again with the Amalekites and King Saul, although this was related to the conquest of Canaan; see 1Sam 15). “Genocide” was not Israel’s modus operandi. The Deuteronomic laws themselves make a distinction between “holy war” in general and war against the lands “God is giving them as an inheritance” in particular (compare Deut 20:10-15 and vv. 16-20).

Formulaic and Stylized Nature of the Biblical Witness
A third major argument Copan raises concerns the nature of the biblical witness. Let me quote him in full:

Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command. Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the Canaanites themselves. Third, the “obliteration language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land: “For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.

Copan highlights a number of points here. First, he notes that, biblically speaking, the Canaanites “had it coming” due to  “the incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture.” While this reflects a biblical perspective (see especially Deuteronomy 9-10 where it says, among other things, “It is not because of your [Israel’s] righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations Yahweh your God is dispossessing them before you” [Deut 9:5]), it makes me a bit uncomfortable since history has made it clear that it is easy for one group to demonize another.

Second, Copan notes that the language of herem is formulaic and naturally filled with hyperbole, and the biblical text also seems to imply in a number of places the failure of the Canaanite operation. Of course, as I already mentioned, that Israel failed historically in their ethnic cleansing (or even if it is propagandistic fiction), doesn’t change the fact that the Bible portrays Yahweh commanding it.  While I concur with Copan that the texts employ certain formulaic language in regards to Yahweh war, the narrative examples provided in the biblical text (e.g., Jericho in Judges 6, Saul and the Amalekites in 1Sam 15), suggest that when the biblical text talks about killing all “men, women, and children” it is not an exaggeration.

God’s Prerogative
Copan then makes what he considers is the crux of his argument concerning the Canaanite genocide. Again, I quote in full:

if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to give us seventy or eight years of life.
That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons. Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the women were far from innocent.

In connection with the killing of children and babies, Copan argues that “death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”  This argumentation makes me uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, least of which it  presupposes a NT understanding of the afterlife (the OT is not clear what happens after death). That being said,  I am not sure how we can get around the notion of Yahweh’s/God’s rightful prerogative over human life. If Yahweh is God — if God is God — then does not he have the perrogative to judge his creation? This point by Copan brings the discussion out of the OT/HB and into the Christian Bible as a whole, since the NT also portrays God as the ultimate judge over his creation.

This, then, is Copan’s response. In my next post I will provide some of my own thoughts on the subject.

Posted in Biblical Teaching, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Joshua, Theodicy, Yahweh War | 7 Comments »

Which Ten Commandments?

4th July 2005

The Ten Commandments have been in the news quite a bit since the recent ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States. It has been noted by a number of news agencies — and the Supreme Court decision itself — that the Ten Commandments are actually listed in two places in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) with a number of variations, and — more significantly — that there are actually different enumerations of the Ten Commandments depending on which religious tradition you turn to (see, for instance, the article “Which faith’s Ten Commandments is court talking about, and does it matter?” or “The Commandment Mystery“). So while there are always Ten Commandments, you need to know what tradition someone is following if they confess to breaking number five as it may make the difference between whether of not you need to phone the police!

Part of the problem is that the Commandments are not numbered in the biblical text. The title “Ten Commandments” is derived by the reference to ‏עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים “ten words” in Exod 34:28 (see also Deut 4:13; 10:4). Thus, there have developed different ways of dividing the Commandments into ten. It is typically noted that there are three different enumerations of the Ten Commandments: (1) Modern Jewish, (2) Roman Catholic/Lutheran, and (3) Reformed and Evangelical Protestant/Eastern Orthodox.

Tradition 1
(Modern Jewish)
Tradition 2
(Roman Catholic, Lutheran)
Tradition 3
(Reform and Evangelical Protestant, Eastern Orthodox)
1 “I am the Lord…” “No other gods… idols” “No other Gods”
2 “No other gods… idols” “No wrongful use of the name” “Shall not make idols”
3 “No wrongful use of the name” “Observe Sabbath day” “No wrongful use of the name”
4 “Observe Sabbath day” “Honour father and mother” “Observe Sabbath day”
5 “Honour father and mother” “You shall not murder” “Honour father and mother”
6 “You shall not murder” “Nor shall you commit adultery” “You shall not murder”
7 “Nor shall you commit adultery” “Nor shall you steal” “Nor shall you commit adultery”
8 “Nor shall you steal” “Nor shall you bear false witness” “Nor shall you steal”
9 “Nor shall you bear false witness” “Nor shall you covet wife” “Nor shall you bear false witness”
10 “Nor shall you covet” “Nor shall you covet house” “Nor shall you covet”

What is typically not noted by these news stories is that these different enumerations all have their basis in Jewish tradition. In fact, all three divisions are displayed simultaneously by the cantillation of the Hebrew Masoretic text (see, for example, Exod 20:2 and Deut 5:6 in BHS where ‏‏ עֲבָדִֽ֑ים has both an atnach and a silluq).

  • Tradition 1. The first enumeration often noted is the contemporary Jewish division, which has the first verse “I am the Lord your God” as the first commandment, while the commands to “have no other gods” and “no idols” are combined to make the second commandment. This division is supported by the “upper accentuation” tradition, which treats each commandment as a complete verse. This division creates a nice pattern with five positive and five negative commandments.
  • Tradition 2. The second way of dividing the commandments is followed by the Roman Catholic and some Anglican and Lutheran churches. In this enumeration the commandments “have no other gods” and “no idols” form the first commandment, while the last two commandments are “do not covet wife” and “do not covet house, etc.” St. Augustine is often credited with this tradition (see his Quæstionum in Heptateuchum libri VII, Book II, Question lxxi), though it is supported by the Masoretic division of the pericope into open (ס) and closed (פ) paragraphs. The first sub-section occurs at Exod 20: 6 and Deut 5:10, encompassing the first two commandments, while the two laws concerning coveting are divided at Deut 5:21.
  • Tradition 3. The third and final tradition of dividing the commandments follows the “lower accentuation” of the text which divides the text into equal length verses. This tradition is arguably the oldest, being followed by Philo in his De Decalogo and Josephus, as well as the church fathers. Today it is followed by the Reformed Christian, Evangelical, and Greek Orthodox churches.

So while the different enumerations not only reflect differences among religious groups today, they also all go back to varying Jewish traditions in antiquity. So the question, “Which Ten Commandments?” is not as easy to answer as you may first think! No matter what enumeration you follow, the bigger issue revolves around whether or not it is desireable or even possible to observe them! But that issue requires another blog entry….

Note: The issue of the division of the Ten Commandments is far more complex than I was able to represent here. For more information, see the following excellent collection of essays: The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (Ben-Zion Segal, ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1990).

Posted in Deuteronomy, Exodus, News, Ten Commandments | 1 Comment »