Paul Copan

Book Review of Did God Really Command Genocide? Part 2

In recent years there has been a spate of books addressing the problem of the “Canaanite genocide” by Wright, Copan, and Seibert. Even Lamb entered the fray.  In 2013, a collection of essays edited by Thomas, Evans, and Copan addressed the issue of Holy War in the Bible.  In my contribution, I argue that biblical warfare shouldn’t be associated with holiness since, according to the text, divine anger and compassion are its primary motivations.

The most recent addition to the discussion of biblical warfare comes from Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan (C&F): Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God.  In Part 1 of my review (click here) I examine the first section of the book, and Part 2, I will look at the next section of the book which begins to work through the relevant textual issues, which is the section of the book I’m personally most interested in.

Chapter 4 asks, “Does the Bible Command Us to Kill Innocent Human Beings?”  The answer to this question might seem to be an obvious “No.” But the argument is sometimes made that the Canaanite slaughter could be seen as establishing a biblical precedent for later slaughters (let’s mention the Crusades, since that’s the obvious one always referred to).  C&F argue persuasively that the command to “utterly destroy” was unusual and shouldn’t be understood as establishing a precedent.

Chapter 5 asks, “Does the Bible portray the Canaanites as innocent?”  The answer here again is “No” and C&F make three points. First, Israel owned the land because God gave it to them.  I generally agree with this point, but a skeptic or an atheist won’t be convinced by it, because the Canaanites were in possession of the land. Second, the crimes of the Canaanites, which included human sacrifice, were serious crimes, worthy of punishment. Third, the Israelites needed to remain free from the influence of the Canaanites.  They conclude the chapter with three examples of Canaanites who were spared: Caleb (not sure about this one), the Shechemites, and Rahab, who is the best example since she’s clearly Canaanite (not like Caleb), and yet she and her family are spared.

Chapter 6 makes the point that instead of annihilating the Canaanites the most common textual image for the conquest is that of “driving them out,” a point I also make in God Behaving Badly (p. 100).  This point is helpful for several reasons.  It takes the text seriously and it acknowledges that the process of removing the Canaanites from the land may have taken awhile and wasn’t exclusively done by extermination.

Chapter 7 argues that readers of the “utterly destroy” texts of Joshua should not read these texts literally, but as examples of hyperbole.  A hyperbolic interpretation makes a lot of sense, particularly as one compares these more problematic texts with other texts in Joshua and Judges.  I make this point in my Relevant article (“Reconciling the God of Love with the God of Genocide”), but C&F use Wolterstorff and Kitchen, which are probably a better choices.  For the most in-depth academic discussion of the topic of hyperbole in ancient conquest narratives, check out the monograph of Lawson Younger here.

If my review continued I’d get in trouble for too many spoilers.  So, for the motivated reader who’s interested in making sense of the problem of the so-called “Canaanite Genocide” I’d highly recommend this book.

Advertisements

Review of Did God Really Command Genocide? Part 1

When I spoke to Paul Copan at a biblical studies conference in November 2013, he told me about a book he was co-writing on the Canaanite Genocide. I told him I’d look forward to reading it.  In November 2014, Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God came out, authored by Copan and Matthew Flannagan (C&F). This new book is a much deeper discussion of a subject was addressed more briefly in Copan’s earlier work, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, a book I highly recommend (for more details, see my three blog posts on the topic here).

The overall tone is less casual, a bit more academic (about 100 pages longer), than Copan’s Moral Monster. While I really appreciated the readability of Moral Monster (I’ve been accused of being too informal, even snarky), I’m sure some academic types will prefer this book’s slightly more serious tone. I would have thought that for a more academic book, C&F would have gone with footnotes (which I prefer) over endnotes. A feature of the book that I really appreciated was the summaries included at the end of each chapter which, in a pithy format, reiterate the main points (particularly helpful for writing a book review blog).

While I should have been prepared for it if I had read the introductory chapter more carefully, I was somewhat disappointed that C&F didn’t begin by looking at the relevant biblical texts (a few in the Pentateuch, but mostly ones from Joshua). The first two chapters lay out their philosophical framework which sets up their discussion for the rest of the book, which probably makes sense since Copan teaches philosophy, but as a Bible guy, I just want to talk about the text. But I quickly got over my initial disappointment as I moved into the third chapter, a discussion of the relationship between the Old and New Testament. (As I like to say, “How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?”)

To examine the OT/NT relationship, C&F discuss two scholars who some think are pseudo-Marcionites, Peter Enns and Eric Seibert (it’s “e” before “i” even after “S”), both of whom are friends of mine, although on the issue of the Canaanite “genocide” my own views are much closer to C&F, than E&S (see my article in Relevant on the topic here).

Before offering a critique of them, Did God Really goes into depth discussing the perspective on violence of Enns and Seibert, fairly portraying their views, modeling gracious, irenic dialogue about a topic that often can become ironically hostile. C&F agree that it is good that scholars like E&S (they also list C. Wright, G. Wenham, D. Lamb, and J. Goldingay) are “thinking deeply” about the troubling portrayals of God in the Hebrew Bible.  But they also argue that Jesus and the authors of the New Testament “don’t actually read the Old Testament the way Seibert and Enns think they should” (p. 47).  I agree.

My review will continue in Part 2, but at this point in time I can highly recommend C&F’s new book to anyone troubled by one of the most disturbing problems in Scripture.

Don’t ignore the problem

Richard Dawkins highlights the problematic texts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Canaanite genocide in Joshua; the smiting of Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6).  Atheists like Dawkins, after they bring up one of these problematic passages, like to say, “I bet you didn’t hear about that in Sunday school?”  And they are usually right.   Because Christians focus on the nice parts (e.g., Psalm 23; Jeremiah 29:11–“I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not harm”).

While I understand the desire to avoid the nasty bits of the OT (they are confusing and take work to understand), those of us who teach the Bible are not serving people when we skip over the parts we don’t like.  It’s a bit trite, but it’s hard not to think of that proverbial ostrich.

If the problematic bits of the OT get ignored in church, when will people encounter them?  At least 3 places.

1) When they are reading through their Bibles on their own.  What are they going to do when they get to the Levites concubine (Judg. 19)?  Since they’ve never heard a sermon on it, or never discussed it in Sunday school or in a small group, they will be confused without anyone to help them make sense of texts like that.

2) When talking to an atheist, who, like Dawkins, knows more about the problematic bits (Psalm 137:9- divinely authorized infant head-bashing?) than they do.  They will be surprised that there are passages like that in their Bible, and they will be embarrassed that the atheists know more about the Bible than they do.

3) When they go off to college and their Intro to the Bible or Intro to Religion prof, who is a big fan of the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, brings up the story of the angel of YHWH killing 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35).  Or perhaps, a bit more familiar, the story of the flood, where God drowns all humans except Noah’s family.  (At what age is it appropriate to first expose people to the horrors of the flood narrative?  College?  Mid-20’s?)

As I’ve been talking to people about God Behaving Badly, people tell me story after story of being shocked by what they find in their Bibles and being angry that their church never taught on problematic texts.  The word that gets used frequently is “betrayed”.

If you teach the Bible, don’t ignore problematic texts.  They teach profound lessons about God and his character.  And people need to know how to deal with them.  Books like God Behaving Badly, or Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? can help us understand texts like these.

In what contexts have you talked to people about problematic texts?  What texts do people ask you about? 

Is God a Moral Monster? (Copan) 3. Issues, Questions

This is the last in a 3-part series of reviews of Paul Copan’s recent book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (2011, Baker). Previously I discussed differences between Copan’s book and mine (GBB) and things I appreciated or found helpful about his book.  Here, I’ll mention some issues, questions and concerns I had about it.

Will skeptics be convinced by his arguments?  People have expressed the same concern about my book.  But I think even my title takes the problem more seriously by stating the problem baldly that God at least appears to behave badly, then I move to a question (“Is the God of the OT…?).  Copan, however begins with the question (“Is God…?) then moves to claim that he’s going to make sense of the OT God.  This subtle difference in our titles is indictive of our different approaches.

In order for atheists, agnostics or skeptics to feel taken seriously in these types of discussions, their perspective will need to be more fully validated.  Copan is not unique in this regard.  As Christians we do a lousy job of listening to people outside the church and taking their perspectives seriously (generally, I think Copan is working hard to do this).

By stating that God behaves “badly” in my title, I’ve offended some Christians.  But that’s OK with me, if I can encourage the skeptics to read about a God who doesn’t always behave “badly” and most often behaves graciously, lovingly and mercifully.

For a philosophy and ethics professor, he does a great job with biblical scholarship (better than I would do with his fields), but there are a few times where it’s clear he’s not a Hebrew Bible guy.  (In his discussion of Abraham’s call he mistakes a pronominal suffix on a preposition as a verbal form twice; p. 45.)

I mentioned this in my first review of Copan, but he doesn’t offer many possible applications or spiritual take-aways from these topics (which makes sense given his genre), but personally the biggest problem with these topics isn’t that God behaves badly, but that Christians (myself included) and God’s church often behave badly–we are angry, sexist, racist, violent, rigid, legalistic.  So, as we defend God from accusations about these things, we need to reflect on how we need to repent of these sins.

While I’m sure I’ll use Copan’s book as a reference resource anyway, I was disappointed to not find a Scripture index.  Perhaps for the next edition?

What other concerns, issues or questions  do you have about Copan’s book?  Do you think skeptics would be convinced by his arguments?