Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Is God a Vindictive Bully?:
Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments

by paul copan
baker academic, 320 pages, $27.99

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam. 15:3). The question of divine violence in the Old Testament is hardly a new one for Christians. Non-Christian opponents and heretics hold up bloody passages as evidence against the legitimacy of Christian belief, and orthodox theologians have their own struggles with reading these texts as Scripture. The New Testament teaching concerning the fulfillment of the promises of the old covenant in Christ afforded the early Church both dominical warrant and a theological framework for appreciation and appropriation of the Old Testament. But in the more detailed work of exegesis, faithful readers have needed to wrestle with numerous unsettling texts of divine violence, seemingly at odds with God’s character as revealed in Christ.

The heretic Marcion famously asserted a sharp discontinuity between the seemingly vindictive deity of the Old Testament and the loving God revealed in Jesus Christ. By contrast, in the work of Origen and others, allegory was used to read with spiritual profit sanguinary episodes such as the conquest of Canaan, both softening their scandal and following our Lord’s invitation to read the entire Scripture as a witness to him and his work. In details such as the Israelites’ placing their feet upon the necks of Canaanite kings or hamstringing their enemies’ horses, Origen saw our victory in Christ over sin and its passions in the soul through the sacraments of the gospel.

In more recent years, the scandal of divine violence has been presented with renewed force in the work of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, but also in the writings of theologians and authors like Greg Boyd, Andy Stanley, Peter Enns, and Eric Seibert. Many theologians who see an irresolvable tension between Old Testament texts of violence and God’s self-revelation in Christ have employed ingenious means to negate the authority of the former.

In Is God a Vindictive Bully?, Paul Copan continues in the apologetic vein of his earlier work, Did God Really Command Genocide? and Is God a Moral Monster?, taking the critics from “without” (the New ­Atheists) and “within” (Boyd and others) as his foils. Copan seeks to be comprehensive, addressing virtually all the principal problem texts, while revisiting and expanding upon his earlier arguments. Throughout his investigations of troubling passages, he endeavors to show the unworkability and incoherence of the arguments of the Christian “critics from within,” while demonstrating the textual and theological unity of the character of God across the two ­Testaments.

Critics from within tend to oppose the “actual” God to the “­textual” God. For these readers, the actual God is “nonviolent, enemy-­loving, self-sacrificing, and forgiving—especially as revealed in Jesus on the cross,” whereas the “textual” God resides in “a literary depiction of God by a fallen, violence-prone, culturally conditioned ancient Near Eastern biblical narrator or prophet.” With this distinction, the Christian critics from within can shift the responsibility for dire commands to slaughter ­Israel’s enemies away from God and onto the putatively primitive social conditions that prevailed in the ­ancient world.

Copan contends that this opposition between God and text is unsustainable. He highlights the consistency across both testaments of portrayals of God’s severity and details the impediments to some of the more facile exegetical moves made by the critics from within. To divide teaching regarding the severity of divine judgment (the textual God) from God’s true character as seen in Christ (the actual God) invariably casts doubt on the reliability of Scripture itself. Moreover, Copan presents numerous examples wherein features of the textual God that scandalize these critics are reaffirmed within the New ­Testament, sometimes being present in the teaching or practice of Jesus himself.

Copan acknowledges the existence of certain forms of “accommodation” in Scripture, passages in which divine inspiration speaks in ways that can be grasped by finite creatures. Scripture speaks about God in an improper literal sense on occasion, as when he is spoken of as having hands or eyes. There are concessions to the exigencies of ancient Near Eastern society and the fallenness of humanity in biblical legal teaching: As our Lord teaches, Moses allowed the Israelites to divorce their wives due to the hardness of their hearts (Matt.19:8). God “dirties his hands”—albeit without being unjust—in events such as the Exodus, when he saves one sinful people from another sinful people through great acts of judgment. Singling out and saving Israel, despite its sins, is essential to God's larger saving purpose for the whole world. Scripture also contains hyperbole, instances of which Copan sees in expressions concerning the defeat of the Canaanites, expressions that were consistent with literary conventions of the time.

Nevertheless, Copan resists uses of the otherwise proper doctrine of accommodation that deny the uniqueness and distinctiveness of Old Testament law and teaching relative to the law and teaching of other ancient Near Eastern societies. As he emphasizes, Old Testament law is not merely the teaching of the sinful and fallible Moses, or an unexceptional legal code of the era, but the teaching of God himself. Far from presenting us with a typical ancient Near Eastern view of the divine, the Old Testament portrayal of Israel’s holy, transcendent, and free God contrasts markedly with the petty and capricious regional deities of Israel’s neighbors.

The comprehensive scope of Copan’s endeavor is admirable. But it results in something of a whistle-stop tour of problem passages, as we move from discussions of the justice of the Mosaic Law and the character of its punishments, to “harsh texts” within miscellaneous narratives, to the imprecatory psalms, to the treatment of women and slaves, and finally to divine teaching and practice concerning warfare. Though Copan’s treatment has a good foundation in the relevant scholarly literature (to an impressive degree for a work of apologetics), the extensive ground he covers prevents him from engaging in the level of discussion that some of the ­passages and opposing arguments merit.

In his treatment of challenging passages, especially concerning the genocide of the Canaanites, Copan is attentive to insights from recent work on ancient Near Eastern ­­societies by biblical and other scholars. His goal is to mitigate some of the shocking prima facie impressions modern readers might draw from difficult texts. On a straightforward literal reading, the conquest of ­Canaan involved the complete eradication of the Canaanite population. But when we read more closely, we find that the cities that supposedly were utterly destroyed, with every inhabitant killed, are referred to a couple of chapters later as formidable military threats. A supposedly comprehensive conquest left countless survivors within Canaan.

Exaggeration for rhetorical effect was a common feature of ancient Near Eastern war texts. Likewise, phrases such as “man and ­woman” and “young and old” are literary devices meant to express totality, rather than precise terms implying the actual presence of women and children among the casualties of a battle. The cities targeted by the Israelites in their conquest of Canaan should be thought of more as fortified military citadels than as large centers of civilian population. Copan also questions the immense numbers we encounter in various biblical war texts and in the account of the Exodus, suggesting that the term commonly rendered as “thousand” (eleph) in fact refers to a smaller division of the people. Thus, Copan argues, even within the immediate context of the ­Exodus narratives themselves, it is more likely that twenty thousand Israelites left Egypt than two million.

Copan’s arguments doubtless succeed in softening the blow of many of the Old Testament texts that have troubled Christian readers. But he does not completely remove the scandal of certain parts of Scripture. Passages such as Numbers 31, the war against the Midianites, present problems that cannot be easily addressed. Here Copan must resort to what critics might reasonably consider evasive maneuvers. He argues, for instance, that in Numbers 31 Moses likely added his own uninspired and nonauthoritative command to God’s, and that ­Moses’s ­additional command was not in fact ­implemented. I suspect that many of Copan’s conservative evangelical readers will balk at some of these exegetical moves. Some might be concerned that allowing for such “uninspired” elements of Scripture might erode the practical force of the doctrine of inerrancy. On the other hand, less conservative readers, who do not have the same drive to rescue texts from scandal, are likely to consider Copan’s treatment of Numbers 31 unpersuasive, an attempt to escape the natural import of the literal sense.

Copan allows that a stubborn core of scandal remains in many places. God, he insists, “is more severe and harsh and unsafe” than the critics from within allow themselves to imagine. In any case, there will always be questions that linger. There is no reason to expect that we can master the Bible. Scripture interrogates us, and rightly so. We must neither sweep difficult ­passages under the carpet nor jettison other truths to escape their force. We must be careful not to adopt a sentimental Christianity and presume that divine wrath opposes divine love. “Wrath,” Copan writes, “is an expression of God’s love and care.” In the New Testament we see the wrath, judgment, and retribution of God on many occasions, not least in the Book of Revelation, where tyrants quake before the holy fury of the ascended Lamb.

Copan is to be praised for his presentation of the inescapable scandal of divine wrath in the Scriptures and for closing off facile escape routes. Some of the insights he offers to reduce the difficulties of various texts are welcome and salutary, even though he occasionally overplays them. The book is decidedly apologetic, however, and this constrains Copan’s reading of Scripture. Oriented to the purpose of meeting the concerns and claims of critics, Copan does not invite the reader into a careful investigation of biblical teaching on its own terms.

For many readers, the violent passages in the Bible call into question the character of Holy Scripture. Of course, this problem raises questions about inerrancy, which is why I think it is perhaps unfortunate that these discussions have been dominated by evangelicals and their antagonists. Evangelical doctrines of Scripture, with their emphasis on facticity and historicity and their apologetic bent, focus overmuch on the literal sense of the text and fail to perceive the primary spiritual intention of the Scriptures. Defending the literal sense, as ­Copan does, against charges that the hard passages run contrary to God’s character, is valuable. But this work can too easily fall short of reading these verses as Holy Scripture. When we take up Numbers or Joshua, we should not be shy about reading interpretations like Origen’s, and we should be less inclined to dismiss them. It is not enough to see the Book of Joshua as being compatible with God’s self-­revelation in Christ; it must also be read as being about Christ.

Alastair Roberts is the co-author of Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture.

Image by Amaury Laporte via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift