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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics

Paul Copan
Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Palm Beach, Florida


The New Atheists and the Old Testament: A Brief Overview

Today's "new atheists" are not at all impressed with the moral credentials of the Old Testament (OT) God. Oxonian Richard Dawkins thinks that Yahweh is truly a moral monster: "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."[1]

Dawkins deems God's commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to be "disgraceful" and tantamount to "child abuse and bullying."[2] Moreover, this God breaks into a "monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god," resembling "nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind."[3] Add to this the killing of the Canaanites-an "ethnic cleansing" in which "bloodthirsty massacres" were carried out with "xenophobic relish." Joshua's destruction of Jericho is "morally indistinguishable from Hitler's invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs."[4]

To make matters worse, there is the "ubiquitous weirdness of the Bible."[5] Dawkins calls attention to the moral failures and hypocrisies of various biblical characters: a drunken Lot seduced by and engaging in sexual relations with his daughters (Gen. 19:31-6); Abraham's twice lying about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:18-19; 20:18-19); Jephthah's foolish vow that resulted in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11); and so on.

Another new atheist is Daniel Dennett. He declares that the "Old Testament Jehovah" is simply a super-man who "could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful." He happens to be more forgiving and loving in the New Testament, but Dennett wonders how such a timeless God could act in time or answer prayer.[6] Dennett adds, "Part of what makes Jehovah such a fascinating participant in stories of the Old Testament is His kinglike jealousy and pride, and His great appetite for praise and sacrifices. But we have moved beyond this God (haven't we?)."[7] He thanks heaven that those thinking blasphemy or adultery deserves capital punishment are a "dwindling minority."[8]

A third new atheist is Christopher Hitchens. He voices similar complaints. The forgotten Canaanites were "pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel."[9] Moreover, the OT contains "a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals."[10]

Finally, there is Sam Harris. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he sets out to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms."[11] Harris boldly asserts that if the Bible is true, then we should be stoning people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, worshiping graven images, and "other imaginary crimes." To put to death idolaters in our midst (Deut. 13:6, 8-15) reflects "God's timeless wisdom."[12] In The End of Faith, Harris, referring to Deuteronomy 13:7-11, notes that the consistent Bible-believer should stone his son or daughter if she comes home from a yoga class a devotee of Krishna. Harris wryly quips that one the OT's "barbarisms"-stoning children for heresy-"has fallen out of fashion in our country."[13]

Harris acknowledges that once we recognize that slaves are human beings who are equally capable of suffering and happiness, we'll understand that it is "patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment."[14]

A few pages later, Harris claims we can be good without God. We do not need God or a Bible to tell us what's right and what's wrong. We can know objective moral truths without "the existence of a lawgiving God,"[15] and we can judge Hitler to be morally reprehensible "without reference to scripture."[16]

These are the charges made by the new atheists. Are they fair representations? I shall argue that they are not. Though certain OT texts present challenges and difficulties, navigating these waters is achievable with patient, nuanced attention given to the relevant OT texts, the ancient Near East (ANE) context, and the broader biblical canon.

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