Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Is God a Moral Monster?: #5

Lake Michigan
I’m looking at Ch. 9 of Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? entitled “Barbarisms, Crude Laws, and Other Imaginary Crimes.” Here are the main points.

• OT laws weren’t given in a vacuum. “Though they presented a dramatic moral improvement, they also reflected the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) social context.” (87)

• There are OT passages that seem barbaric – e.g., Lev. 20:9; Lev. 24:10-14; Num. 15:32-36; Deut. 21:18-21. “The law of Moses seems so severe with all this death-penalty and harsh-punishment talk!” (88)

• “The Mosaic law was given to Israel in a morally inferior ancient Near Eastern context… [So] we shouldn’t be surprised that there are parallels and overlap between various ancient Near Eastern laws and the Mosaic law.” (88-89)

• “At key points, whopping differences exist between the Mosaic law and other ancient Near Eastern codes. The Sinai legislation presents genuinely remarkable, previously unheard-of legal and moral advances.” (89)

• Two main Copan-points in this whole discussion remain: (1) certain OT laws and punishments were inferior to creational ideals (Gen. 1-2); (2) the Mosaic law is not permanent, universal, and the standard for all nations.” (89) This means we should evaluate the severity of harsh laws and punishments in their ANE context instead of in light of Western culture.

Copan looks at a number of texts. Read the chapter yourself and see how he approaches them. I’ll look at a couple of them.

Deut. 21:18-21

• “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his mother and father shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. Then they shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel will hear of it and fear.” What can we say about this harsh text?

• First, we don’t have any biblical record of this actually happening.

• When something was a first-time offense the goal was to instruct; “all Israel will hear of it and fear.”

• In this situation the son is a repeat offender, “a picture of insubordination… This serious problem would have had a profoundly destructive effect on the family and the wider community. (Jesus was called “a glutton and a drunkard,” a very serious offense in Israel.)” (91)

• The parents don’t take matters into their own hands. “They confer with the civil authorities, who are responsible for keeping an orderly, functioning society. The parents aren’t in the picture any longer; they’re not taking charge of punishment. Rather, the community carries out this exercise of social responsibility. And when it takes this drastic action, it’s a tragic last resort to deal with this trouble.” (91)

• So should we stone social deviants today? I think not. Does this text instruct Jesus-followers to stone social deviants today? Of course not. See (1) and (2) above.

One more example…

Jephthah’s daughter – Judges 11:30-40

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”

36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

Copan reasons:

• Mosaic law clearly condemns child sacrifice as morally abhorrent (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10). (Copan, 96)

• Jephthah made a rash vow.

• Some commentators argue that Jephthah didn’t literally sacrifice his daughter. Most, however, think the texts says he did sacrifice her.

• Copan says the inevitable questions are: “Wouldn’t Jephthah have clearly known that child sacrifice was immoral and that God judged the Canaanites for such practices? Why then did he go ahead with this sacrifice? Was it because God did really approve of child sacrifice after all?” (97)

• To get at this, remember that, in the OT, “is” doesn’t necessarily mean “ought.” “Just because something is described doesn’t mean it is prescribed as a standard to follow.” (97)

• This happens in the era of Israel’s judges, which was a moral low point in the history of Israel. “So critics should be careful about assuming that Jephthah was in peak moral condition.” (97)

• “The theology of Judges emphasizes a remarkable low point of Israelite morality and religion, with two vivid narratives at the book’s end to illustrate this (chaps. 17-21). Israel continually allowed itself to be “Canaanized”… [So] we shouldn’t be surprised that Israel’s leaders were also morally compromised. We don’t have to look hard for negative role models in Judges, when Israel was in the moral basement. The Jephthah story needs no explicit statement of God’s obvious disapproval.” (98)

Again, read Copan’s chapter in its entirety for more detail. But salient points are:

1. The Mosaic law is not and was not intended to be universal, permanent, and the standard for all nations.

2. Certain OT laws and punishments were inferior to creational ideals.

3. The Mosaic law is, in many cases, a vast improvement over ANE moral codes.

4. To interpret OT texts that seem excessively harsh one must remember the context in which they are situated, and not anachronistically view them through a certain, Western, 21st – century lens.