Baker, 2011. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
There is nothing really new about the new atheists. They simply regurgitate the same old objections which have been levelled against Christianity for centuries now. Indeed, the idea that the Old Testament God is some sort of evil ogre who must be rejected goes back at least as far as the heretic Marcion in the second century.
So the various charges about ethics and the Old Testament have been dealt with time and time again. But the new atheists think they are somehow presenting us with new and challenging objections. Sorry, but we have been there and done that.
Yet because these new atheists are so militant and fundamentalist in their attacks, the job of defending Judeo-Christian morality and its conception of God continues to be needed. Philosopher Paul Copan has written a number of earlier pieces on such topics, but here offers a nice book-length rebuttal to the various charges being made.
In twenty meaty and well-argued chapters, Copan takes on many of the usual objections made against God and the Bible. Of course most atheists, who seem to have their minds made up, and often refuse to consider contrary evidence, will not likely be persuaded by all this.
But those who have heard the charges and are not quite sure what the appropriate responses might be will find this volume to be most helpful indeed. It very handily combines important themes in Old Testament ethics with Christian apologetics.
There are of course plenty of issues that deserve important consideration. To modern ears much that is found in the OT does seem at times to be bizarre, primitive and cruel. And activist atheists are quite happy to exploit all this, but they usually do so by ripping things out of context, ignoring the totality of biblical revelation, and engaging in selective moralising.
Consider the common complaint that in the OT we find rampant chauvinism and misogyny. Copan makes it clear that while ancient Israel was certainly part of the surrounding patriarchal culture, in many respects it was radically different from it.
For example, he reminds us that Israel’s legislation “works within a patriarchal society to point Israel to a better path”. It also “provides many protections and controls against abuses directed at females in admittedly substandard conditions”.
This is seen in many areas. Theologically, plenty of passages can be mentioned which presume female equality. Historically, there are numerous narrative passages describing powerful matriarchs who are greatly influential and highly valued. Legally, there are numerous laws which affirm the equality of women and demonstrate their equal moral responsibility with men.
Consider also the issue of slavery in the OT. True, Israel permitted it, but it was carefully limited, and bears little resemblance to modern slavery. Indeed, it was basically indentured servitude, not dissimilar to how many people in colonial America paid off their debts.
As many as two-thirds of white immigrants in British colonies were indentured servants, who voluntarily entered into that condition to work off their debts. In the same vein, ancient Israelites could temporarily work off debts in this fashion. There were even formal contractual arrangements involved.
Lifelong servanthood was prohibited, unless a person chose to stay in the household – which many did. As was so often the case, Israel’s practices differed radically from that of surrounding cultures. In the ancient world – unlike in Israel – slaves were mere property, stripped of all rights and identity.
“When we compare Israel’s servant system with the ancient Near East in general, what we have is a fairly tame and, in many ways, very attractive arrangement for impoverished Israelites.” Indeed, Israel’s laws concerning servants were designed to protect and benefit the poor.
Consider too the case of Israel’s possession of Canaan. Atheists regard it as nothing other than xenophobic genocide. But it was nothing of the kind. From the beginning God intended for the nations of the earth to be blessed through his own people. And humane provisions were always made for the stranger and alien in Israel.
As to the possession of the land, it was not at all about Israel’s own goodness or righteousness, but about the wickedness of the Canaanites. Indeed, the idolatry and immorality of the Canaanites was far from harmless. Given the complexity involved, Copan spends three chapters on this one topic alone, examining all the details and ethical considerations.
In sum he notes that this is nothing like the ongoing jihad or holy war of Islam. What we have here is a “limited, unique, salvation-historical situation” which is not a pattern for any Christian today. And it was not even a pattern for ancient Israel, given that they were not to have a regular standing army, and kings and rulers were not allowed to call for a war.
Moreover, the judgment of Canaan was in fact part of Yahweh’s love for the world, just as God’s judgment of Jesus at Calvary was an essential part of his salvation of the world. Love and judgment are not polar opposites, but in fact go together, making up the character of a just, holy and gracious God.
Plenty of other hot potato issues are covered in this important volume, such as all those seemingly strange dietary laws in the OT; considerations of divine jealousy and the worship of God; the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; polygamy; apparently harsh punishments; and other difficult topics. While these subjects have been covered at various times in various places by others before, it is nice to see the whole discussion packaged together in one volume.
Copan does a very good job of dealing with the myriad of objections, laying out the case for the wisdom and morality of what we find occurring in the Old Testament. Nicely written and well documented, this volume should be in the library of anyone concerned about the attacks of the new atheists, or wanting some insight into and clarification about the various puzzling OT issues and actions.