Thursday, September 24, 2015

What About the Amalekites? (And other issues...)

The Valley of Elah, in Israel

Whenever someone asks me the question "What about the Amalekites?" I ask them if they are willing to study this textually rather than irrationally assume something and then conclude that God in the OT is evil.

If you  have this question and want understanding than you can't do better than begin with two books by theistic philosopher Paul Copan:

A number of scholars are coming out with studies that deal with the issue of how God is presented in the Old Testament as compared with the New Testament. Copan is one of those. He's a clear writer and an excellent scholar. One of his essays is in God Is Great, God Is Good, edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister. It's entitled "Are Old Testament Laws Evil?" Here are the main points. (Note: Copan's essay should be read in its entirety. It's very good.)

Copan writes to answer the likes of Richard Dawkins who, representing other New Atheists, thinks God is a "moral monster." Dawkins writes: "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." (134)

Copan responds by saying that "these charges made by the New Atheists are a distorted representation of Old Testament ethics." They fail to consider, e.g.,:
  • the earliest creational ideals (Genesis 1-2)
  • the warm moral ethos pof the Old Testament
  • the context of the ancient Near East
  • the broader biblical canon
  • the metaphysical context that undergirds objective morality
The New Atheists' ignorance of such things (because they are far from being scholars in these areas) results in a "somewhat crass hermeneutic and left-wing fundamentalism." (136) Copan looks at five areas needed to respond to the New Atheist critique.

1. Mosaic law and historical narratives

The Law of Moses (Exodus 20 - Numbers 10) is not a self-contained moral code that gives us "an ultimate, universal ethic." (137) Rather, it is situated in a "larger narrative framework that provides a wider moral context to consider." (137) "A plain reading of Israel's priestly/legal codes reveals that they are embedded within a broader historical narrative." (137) God instructs Israel not by laying down laws or principles but by telling stories. The Torah's legal material "is consistently intertwined with narrative." (137)

When critics like Dawkins point out how morally flawed many of the OT characters are, Jesus-followers need not disagree. When atheist Christopher Hitchens talks of "the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel," he is correct. But note that such descriptions "do not necessarily amount to prescriptions." In other words, the historical "is" does not logically imply the moral "ought." (138) When Dawkins et. al. fume about how morally wacked-out some of the OT figures are, we can say, "Uh-huh."

2. The Mosaic law, human sin and divine ideals

"The Mosaic law reflects a meeting point between divine/creational ideals and the reality of human sin and evil social structures." (138) The ancient Near Eastern world is "totally alien" and "utterly unlike" our world. Copan here quotes Bruce Birch: "These [OT] texts are rooted in a cultural context utterly unlike our own, with moral presuppositions and categories that are alien and in some cases repugnant to our modern sensibilities." (138) Thus there is something fundamentally anachronistic in critiquing the Mosaic law from our 21st-century Western framework.

What does this imply? The implication is: we followers of Jesus do not need to claim that the Mosaic law is "the Bible's moral pinnacle." Consequently, we "need not justify all aspects of the Sinaitic legal code. After all, God begins with an ancient people who have imbibed dehumanizing customs and social structures from their ancient Near Eastern context." (138) As OT scholar John Goldingay writes: "God starts with his people where they are; if they cannot cope with his highest way, he carves out a lower one." (139)

Copan adds that the New Atheists gloss over the crucial point that "none of these inferior moral practices and attitudes (e.g., slavery, patriarchy, tribalism) is 'without a contrary witness' elsewhere in the Old Testament." (139)

3. Mosaic law, cuneiform law and moral improvements

Copan devotes several pages to developing this point. Which is: "Mosaic legislation reflects a revolutionary moral improvement over the existing Near Eastern cuneiform laws - even if this is ethically inferior and less than ideal." (139)

While there are some parallels between ancient Near Eastern (ANE) moral codes, the Mosaic law provides several "previously unheard-of improvements." (140) The way slaves are treated in the OT improves over ANE practices. And ANE culture had a sexual morality decidely inferior to Mosaic law. For example, "Hittite law even permitted bestiality: 'If a man has sexual relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence.'" (142)

Copan cites several examples of ANE moral law which would have caused "the informed inhabitant of the ancient Near East" to think, "Quick, get me to Israel!"" (143)

4. The Mosaic law, Israel's history and varying ethical demands

"Israel's variegated contexts or developmental stages suggest appropriately varied moral responses but also include permanent moral insights." (145) Israel shifts from...
  • ancestral wandering clan to...
  • ...a theocratic nation to...
  • ...a monarchy or institutional state/kingdom to...
  • afflicted remnant too, finally...
  • ...a postexilic community assembly of promise. (145)
Each of these stages "offers enduring moral insights - faithfulness and covenant-keeping, trusting in God, showing mercy." (145)

In terms of New Atheist concerns, consider "holy warfare." "It is primarily located in the second stage and not throughout Israel's Old Testament history, although Israel, like neighboring nations, had persistent enemies to be fended off." (145) In regard to "holy warfare" Copan gives seven points.

a. There was a morally sufficient reason for Israel to attack the Canaanites; viz., their intractably wicked culture.

b. "We have strong archaeological evidence that the targeted Canaanite cities, such as Jericho and Ai, were not population centers with women and children but military forts or garrisons that protected noncombatant civilians in the hill country." (145-146) "So, if Jericho was a fort, then "all" who were killed therein were warriors - Rahab and her family being the exceptional noncombatants dwelling within this militarized camp. The same applies throughout the book of Joshua." (146) So much, says Copan, for what many of us were taught in Sunday school classes!

c. On the Amalekites - "Israel's enduring enemy." (146) "The target could likewise be simply fortified Amalekite strongholds, not population centers. This is further suggested by the fact that the Amalekites were not all annihilated: within the very same book (1 Samuel 27:8; 30:1) we encounter an abundance of Amalekites. In these limited settings, herem [the "ban"] is thoroughly carried out (involving even livestock) - though the term allows, and hopes for, exceptions (e.g., Rahab and her relatives)." (146)

d. The "obliteration language" in Joshua "is clearly hyperbolic - another stock feature of ancient Near East language." (146) We know this because near the end of Joshua it is assumed that plenty of Canaanites still live in the land. (Joshua 23:12-13)

e. The language of "driving out the Canaanites" "does not require killing." (147)

f. God's command to drive out the Canaanites needs to be understood historically and contextually. Thus it does not provide "a universal ideal for international military engagement." (147) The context, which Copan spells out in some detail, is that of "Yahweh's loving intentions and faithful promises." (147)

g. "The crux of the issue is this: if God exists, does he have any prerogatives over human life?" (148) The New Atheists seem to think not. Copan writes, "for God to be God, he would have to pose an authority problem for human beings, but the New Atheists seem to ignore this." (148)

5. The Law of Moses, the biblical canon and moral undertones.

The Law of Moses, while temporary rather than ultimate, "still has its own deep moral warmth." (148) It finds its fulfillment in the new covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Copan makes this important point: "The New Atheists tend to assume that the Mosaic law is comprehensively normative for the consistent Bible-believer. This huge presumption misses the flow of biblical revelation. In this regard Copan makes five points.

a. "Mosaic legislation isn't intended to be equated with the moral law... Contrary to the New Atheists' assumptions, the Mosaic law isn't the permanent, fixed theocratic standard for all nations." (149)

b. The Mosaic law reveals God's remarkable forbearance in the face of human hard-heartedness.

c. "The Mosaic law - an imporved, more humanized legislation - attempts to restrain and control an inferior moral mindset without completely abolishing these negative structures." (150)

d. "The Mosaic law contains seeds for moral growth, offering glimmers of light pointing to a higher moral path... In their zealous preoccupation with the negative in Old Testament ethics, the New Atheists neglect these warm undertones in the law of Moses itself, exemplified in Yahweh's gracious, compassionate character and his saving action." (151)

e. "The Mosaic law contains an inherent planned obsolescence, which is to be fulfilled in Christ." (151_ Copan quotes N.T. Wright, who states that Torah "is given for a specific period of time and is then set aside - not because it was a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose had now been accomplished." (151) Copan writes: "If we allow that the Christ-event is part of the plotline, then we are obligated to allow it to 'cast its significance back onto our understanding of earlier texts." (151, quoting Robin Parry)

Copan concludes that the New Atheists "trivialize Yahweh." (152) They overstate and distort the challenges, using rhetoric and often-simplistic arguments rather than solid scholarship. Indeed, what do the New Atheists know about the Old Testament and Yahweh, anyway? Precious little, it seems, perhaps only what they picked up as children in a Sunday school class long since forgotten.