One of the struggles I've always had with the Bible is the seemingly stark difference in the character of God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament. Specifically, I've struggled with how a loving God could command Israel to completely annihilate the Canaanites so that Israel could inhabit the land of Canaan. Additionally, the Old Testament features God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac among other difficult ethical issues. Many people have come away from reading the Bible believing that the God of the Old Testament is enraged, violent, and loving only toward a select few, while the God of the New Testament is universally loving, peaceful, and forgiving. How do we reconcile the two without coming to the conclusion that we're speaking about two different divine beings?
Paul Copan addresses this question in his book IS GOD A MORAL MONSTER? I wish this book would have been available several years ago because it would have saved me a lot of difficulty.
Copan takes a closer look at the Old Testament texts to show that what they reveal is a God who enters a fallen dysfunctional human culture and calls people into a relationship with him. This calling involves a gradual heart transformation, which accounts for many of the strange laws in the Old Testament that don't seem like the epitome of God's expectation for human beings. In fact, God's expectations are far bigger, and the Law for ancient Israel was a beginning step in that direction. Copan paints us a picture of the context of the ancient Near East in which the Law was given. We see that God was inviting Israel to a new ethical standard that would separate them from the sinful practices of the Canaanites whom they would soon encounter. But the Law was never meant to be the end of the matter, as if all of God's expectations for human behavior were laid out in the writings of Moses. In fact, many of the laws were given simply for Israel alone in the context that they were in.
The Law was the beginning, but the New Testament will reveal that conforming to the character of Christ is the real goal. This discussion made sense of why God gave laws that didn't outlaw slavery outright or give women a clear set of equal rights. The Law was actually a beginning step in the direction of the ending of slavery and the equal standing of women, especially in a culture where slavery was a humanly degrading practice and women were treated terribly. A closer reading of the Old Testament shows God laying out his vision for the end of slavery and ethical treatment of women, the actual laws being the first step in that direction. The people of God who genuinely follow God's heart will treat all human beings with the utmost love and respect.
As for the slaughter of the Canaanites, the most disturbing issue of the Bible I've come across, Copan shows how the ancient Near Eastern culture, of which Israel was a part, would use exaggeratory language to describe certain actions, such as what took place during warfare. When the Bible tells us that Joshua destroyed all the Canaanites just as God commanded, yet we see that many Canaanites were still alive and inviting the Israelites to observe their religious practices, we're faced with the obvious point that either Joshua was lying, or he was using the common form of writing of the day and using exaggeratory language. Joshua didn't mean that he literally annihilated the Canaanites. Copan points out that the goal of the Canaanite conquest was not to destroy people, but to destroy Canaanite religion and culture by driving out the Canaanite peoples and fighting to the death the ones who refused to leave. The incredible thing is that the story of Rahab shows that any Canaanite had the freedom to surrender and become a part of the community of God, and that was the ideal. God has always been about the redemption of people, and he actually loved the Canaanite people and desired their salvation, but many of their hearts were hardened against God. Those who were responsive to God were absorbed into the community of Israel.
Copan also notes that women and children were very unlikely to have been present for any actual battle. The battles were against hard-hearted combatant Canaanite men who refused to give up their false gods to enjoy the one true God. Canaanite religion had to be sufficiently destroyed so that Israel could become the community that would produce Jesus, the savior of all the nations of the world.
The Old Testament reveals a God who is loving and has a redemptive plan for the people he loves. This God has chosen to work through human systems to bring about his will, even if it's a messy process. It made me feel much better to see that God loved the Canaanites and redemption was offered to them and that some received it. The rest were either driven out of the land or killed of they chose to fight against Israel.
This book probably won't convince everyone of the love of God revealed in the Old Testament because there are still difficulties. The idea of the Law being merely a first step in the direction of an ideal morality may be hard to swallow for some. To me, it made the most sense within the biblical context. Everyone who struggles with how God is often presented in the Old Testament should read this book with a pen and highlighter in hand. Even those who haven't struggled should read it so that they can answer those who do.
I received this book for free for review from Baker Books.