Is God a Moral Monster Revisited: Preliminary Replies to Thom Stark

(by Paul Copan)

Thom Stark has offered a lengthy response to my book Is God a Moral Monster?  His online book is entitled:  Is God a Moral Compromiser? When a book is laden with sarcasm, distortions, and ad hominem attacks, genuine dialogue and cordial exchange—the stuff of genuine scholarship—become difficult, if not preempted.

My good friend Matt Flannagan, with whom I have collaborated on various projects, has extensively engaged with Stark in the past.  (Note: I have posted his response alongside my posting.)  I’ve held off on commenting on Stark for this very reason, as the experience of others shows that engaging with Stark on such topics tends to be unproductive.

Let me make some preliminary comments on Stark.  

First, Stark accuses me of ignoring the critical scholars.  Keep in mind that I am writing for a popular audience—a group that isn’t going to read at a scholarly level but who are reading the New Atheists.  Mentioning these critics is simply a springboard to launch into the topic of Old Testament ethical issues; these men are hardly legitimate sources of critique, even if they raise points discussed by critical scholars. 

Second, it’s disappointing that Stark simply writes off Old Testament scholars who have endorsed my book, calling them “Little Leaguers.”  These include Christopher Wright (Ph.D. Cambridge), Gordon Wenham (Ph.D. Cambridge), and Tremper Longman (Ph.D. Yale).  They have earned their stripes at leading academic institutions.  Stark’s demeaning talk strikes me as disrespectful and unprofessional.  One gets the impression from reading Stark that those who agree with him are the “real” scholars. 

Third , Stark assumes I have no background in biblical studies.  Not so.  I’d imagine that I’ve probably logged the same number formal academic hours (if not more) in biblical/theological studies than Stark—though Stark would no doubt dismiss such training as “Little League.”  I have a B.A. in Biblical Studies as well as an M.Div. (Having studied Greek and Hebrew)—in addition to an M.A. in philosophy and a Ph.D. in philosophy (in which I also took courses in theology).  I’m also a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, and I have presented at SBL as well as the American Academy of Religion.  Furthermore, I am a Fellow of the Institute for Biblical Research.  

Fourth, Stark mentions Baruch Halpern as one of his “Major League” scholars.  Yet Halpern has actually written an endorsement for one of Tremper Longman’s coauthored books, A Biblical History of Israel:  “The most talented trio in the last fifty years to turn their attention to recounting the history of Israel.”  William Dever, another big leaguer (of whom Stark might approve) , recommends this same book: “I cannot imagine a more honest, more comprehensive, better documented effort from a conservative perspective.”   Another evangelical archaeologist (whom I cite in connection with the Canaanite question), Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen (Liverpool), has written On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans).  This hefty book is robustly endorsed by William Hallo (Yale) and Harry Hoffner Jr. (University of Chicago)—leading scholars in this field, whom I also cite in my book.  So I think a bit greater academic fair-mindedness is warranted rather than demeaning dismissal and condescension.

Or think of the archaeologist/Egyptologist James Hoffmeier (another evangelical), to whom I refer in my book.  Baruch Halpern endorses Hoffmeier’s Ancient Israel in Sinai (Oxford University Press):  “Hoffmeier furnishes a sophisticated fresh approach to the Biblical Exodus traditions filled with detailed Egyptological background, and utterly indispensable because of its basis in recent, and in many cases as yet unpublished, archaeological data. This is a virtual encyclopedia of the Exodus.”

Fifth, as to the charge of selectively citing scholars, I would say this:  Look no farther than my own endorsers! There are points at which I would disagree with Longman, Wright, and Wenham (and they with me), but I would hardly call this selective.  I have tried to weigh and make judgments of a number of scholars on different sides of the debate.  What’s more: have I really duped these Cambridge- and Yale-educated scholars so that they endorsed my book without reading it, or are they completely misinformed too?

Sixth, consider the question of worldview/philosophical as well as hermeneutical assumptions.  For example, one’s presuppositions will affect the degree to which one gives the benefit of the doubt to Scripture’s  authors’/editors’ trustworthiness.  One’s presuppositions will affect one’s view of the Scripture’s canonical coherence and mutual reinforcement (as Matt Flannagan notes in his post).   One’s presuppositions will also affect whether one views Yahweh as a mere tribal deity in Israel’s history (before the fifth century BC) or as the “one true God.”

Take the last set of dueling assumptions.  When we see that Yahweh is the “cloud-rider” on a chariot (2 Sam. 22:10-12; Psalm 29; 104:3; Isa. 19:1), is this syncretistic?  After  all, in Ugaritic literature, Baal is the chariot rider on the clouds.  What of the mentions of the Chaoskampf (the divine effort to subdue chaos and bring order) in the Bible?  There’s Yahweh’s battle against Leviathan the dragon (tanniyn) mentioned in Isa. 27:1; yet the Ugaritic refers to Baal’s fighting against tannin (dragon) and lotan.  Is this polytheistic syncretism?  I would argue that the biblical texts are polemical and subversive.  They appropriate literature familiar to ancient Near Easterners, and they present Baal and other deities with the one true God, Yahweh.  Yahweh literarily displaces them.  The same is true in the creation story:  the deep, the darkness, the sea, and even the heavenly bodies were gods in their own right in ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies (accounts of the world’s origin).  Yet in Genesis 1 they are domesticated and seen as the creation of God himself.  Again, we have displacement, not polytheistic syncretism.

Another presuppositional issue is that the place of archaeological discovery and what this may “prove” or “disprove” about the Bible.  For example, he claims that I offer no evidence for the exodus or the Canaanite conquest.  For one thing, this wasn’t my purpose in writing the book, even indirectly.  For another, I cite books that address these topics at length—namely, those authored by James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen.  For a brief overview, however, see “Did the Exodus Never Happen?”.  Along these lines, one could also examine Tremper Longman’s coauthored A Biblical History of Israel (Westminster John Knox Press).  No, the evidence—which is indirect—does not prove or disprove the exodus.  Rather, it presents plausible historical context for the event’s historical occurrence.   In addition, I do mention in the book the archaeological evidence surrounding the gradual transition from Canaanite domination to Israelite domination.  I follow Egyptologist Alan Millard’s work.  He argues that Israel’s settling in the land was a gradual infiltration rather than a dramatic military conquest, which is what the biblical text affirms. 

Seventh, as I’m in the midst of a number of writing and editing projects, I’m even less inclined to respond to Stark, at least with any comprehensiveness.  Even before Stark wrote a response, I had begun compiling material based on further research as well as cordial (!) interaction various friends and critics who offered helpful suggestions.  For instance, I should have elaborated more on the word(s) herem/haram (sometimes translated “utter destruction/utterly destroy”) at places like Jeremiah 25:9, where Yahweh promises to “utterly destroy” Judah by using Babylon.  Were the majority of Judahites annihilated or destroyed as a people? 

Eighth, I have approached Baker Books about a second edition in which I could incorporate this further research and also do some tweaking/clarifying on some certain points Stark raises.  Also, I am working on coediting a book on warfare in the Old Testament (IVP Academic). Matt Flannagan and I have written a lengthy chapter that responds to the sorts of challenges Stark raises on the warfare issue.  Also, I’ll be presenting at a conference in November on slavery in the Old Testament. This will be an occasion to reply to any relevant challenges that Stark raises.  So stay tuned.

Finally, Stark’s critique resorts to much bluster, condescension, and distortion; he makes abundant claims and arguments that are either false or tenuous (as Flannagan points out).  As a specific sampling, Old Testament scholar Richard Hess (whom I cite frequently in my Moral Monster book and who also endorsed it) responds to Thom Stark in a separate post at Parchment and Pen.  I’m keeping  my own piece here separate from Hess’s specific comments (as well as Flannagan’s comments) so that Stark, if he chooses, can respond directly to Hess’s (and Flannagan’s) rebuttal.

17 Responses to “Is God a Moral Monster Revisited: Preliminary Replies to Thom Stark”

  1. A short comment on your sixth point about presuppositions: While it is certainly important to recognize one’s starting presuppositions in any field of study, the goal is to make as few and as limited presuppositions as possible. The answer to the question “Does the Hebrew Bible portray YHWH as the one true God?” is not something that has to be presupposed. It can be absolutely be addressed by an unprejudiced look at the text. If people see polytheistic syncretism in the text, it is because they see polytheistic syncretism in the text, and they have every reason to expect it given the cultural environment in which the texts in question were produced. Ideally the same if they see the opposite. These things do not have to be presupposed. Is it really giving the authors the “benefit of the doubt” to believe that they are teaching the things you believe? What if they meant to portray YHWH as a member of a pantheon. You are not respecting them by suggesting that they didn’t.

  2. Mike, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. It’s not that we should get rid of presuppositions. We can’t. Rather, we ought to distinguish between benign or innocuous presuppositions and distorting presuppositions. We ought to take seriously presuppositions that best support the evidence. One ought to take seriously the evidence, and one’s presuppositions shouldn’t ignore or distort the evidence. For example, a naturalist (or one taking a view similar to a naturalist) will dismiss events like the resurrection of Jesus as impossible and resort to naturalistic explanations of those events.

    Or some may assume that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Of course, this is problematic when it comes to archaeological discovery, which is bringing much evidence to light all the time. So one should not dismiss, say, the exodus simply because certain evidences are lacking (though other archaeological supports may be in place–as the article cited mentions).

  3. I’ve always found the issue of archaeological vs. textual evidence a little tricky, especially when it comes to the Bible, and I would agree with you that one’s predisposition towards valuing one or the other will affect one’s conclusions. I think that most critical scholars do try to weigh the data carefully though: the more internal evidence from the Hebrew Bible casts doubt upon its reliability, the more damning the lack of archaeological confirmation becomes.

    I think I was more concerned about the implication that one will see polytheism in the Bible or fail to see it depending on their presuppositions. A critical approach to the Bible does not presuppose that the Bible has polytheistic elements. It simply fails to assume that it does not. Whereas an apologetic approach assumes that the Bible must be monotheistic throughout, and interprets the text accordingly. In this sense, the critical approach is more objective because it has one less burdening presupposition.

  4. I’m sure you are all aware that Stark has already responded to each of these three posts at his Religion at the Margins site. His response to Copan and Matt are unsubstantial, but he does respond to Hess with some substance. Still, I feel that he must distort the evidence (which Hess makes clear in his post) to support his criticisms. Overall, I’m surprised that Stark’s “review” has even received a response. Due to it’s rhetoric, I fail to see anyone outside of a brand of atheist apologists finding it worth reading. The snark will only appeal to those who are already in the web debates, and not to those who are actually interested in the topic, but uninterested in web debates.

  5. Ranger, your view of my review is not shared by a large number of Christians who have responded extremely positively to it. But I agree my tone was a mistake.

  6. I note Stark’s apology to Flannagan (here: which was very gracious. He’s taking sole responsibility for the heat this has generated.

  7. Although I thought Stark’s tone was too aggressive and sarcastic for an otherwise very useful critical review, I would like to applaud him for his open apology.

  8. As I have tried to keep up with some of the action here, I do find that when a writing is filled with belligerence and prone to extreme overstatement, it is impossible for me to wade through, even if substance might be present somewhere.

    I would encourage you to read this if you really want to effect more than the choir:

    One of the reasons why Paul Copan was invited to participate here at Parchment and Pen is because he is a model of effective and respectful conversation. (And I have noticed that this is not the norm for Apologists, no matter what their apologetic cause!)

  9. Although, it is one thing to be belligerent and another to be belligerent about the belligerence. I am glad that this guy apologized. Hopefully his criticisms will be more balanced in tone so that the substance, when present, can be seen and taken seriously by those who may need correction.

  10. I read a portion of an articlefrommy Biblegateway delivery I get everyday I just beg to differ about Religion being the “root of all evil” the Bible cleary says the LOVE of MONEY is the root of all kinds of evil but concerning Religion it says James 1:26
    If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
    James 1:27
    Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

    • Oni,

      Thanks for your note on Lee Strobel’s interview of me about my Moral Monster book (at ). However, please read the context more carefully. It’s new atheists like Christopher Hitchens, who declare that “religion poisons everything,” and Richard Dawkins, who call religion “the root of all evil”—not theists! Of course, the Bible clearly says the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and that one with true religion looks out for orphans and widows in their distress and keeps oneself unpolluted by the world—no dispute there at all!

  11. It’s going to be ending of mine day, except before finish I am reading this great piece of writing
    to increase my know-how.

  12. A 300 page review of a 200 page book is a tad excessive. There’s no point flogging a dead horse or using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Most apologists, including well-meaning ones like Copan, don’t have satisfactory answers. All they do is apologize for Yahweh’s bad behavior and rationalize it. That said, Stark has no answers. It is obvious to anyone with half a brain that Yahweh is worse than human tyrants. How any intelligent open minded person can claim that Yahweh is a loving, forgiving, universal god is beyond me. It seems to me the OT is not the word of god but rather, people putting words into god’s mouth to control the illiterate and superstitious masses.

  13. Thanks for the note, Gotham. You may be interested in looking at Matthew Flannagan’s and my latest book *Did God Really Command Genocide?* It goes into greater philosophical depth regarding divine commands and God’s character in light of Old Testament warfare. Matt and I continue to explore and write on these themes. So if you’re interested, you can stay tuned. All best wishes!


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