Thursday, June 21, 2012

Divine Command Morality, Old Testament Law, and Is God Really Good? Part 1


This is a two part post because this paper runs a little long.  This is not the paper I wrote for my class at CU Boulder, but it does incorporate some of that paper in the start.


This is posted as a reference for those who may have questions about complaints against Christianity, or are looking for some explanations for some issues with the Old Testament.


From the start, I want to thank Paul Copan for his encouragement...he gave me tips on articles to read and other books to use as resources.  His help over the last three years has been invaluable to me.


This is a combination of a talk given at First Presbyterian Boulder, in 2011on Paul Copan's book "Is God a Moral Monster" and added material from my Philosophy 3000 Ancient from CU Boulder.  I hope you enjoy it.





Divine Command Morality, Old Testament Law, and Is God Really Good? 
(Part 1)

 By Lisa Guinther.

Many people reading the Bible for the first time are confronted with odd traditions from a culture alien to ours, thousands of years old, and baulk at the stories.  In considering Christianity, we are told of the love of Christ, and that “God is love,” which sounds wonderful and comforting, especially for someone coming from a broken family, or abusive background.

But when someone encounters the Old Testament for the first time, what is read can sound shocking.  Is the God of the Old Testament really the same as Jesus? If the Ten Commandments tell us, “Thou shall not kill,” and God is love, why would He ask Abraham to kill his own son!  Did the “Children of Israel” wipe out the Canaanites? Is it true that God has something against women and what’s with all these kooky food laws?

In this paper I will attempt to address some of the common misconceptions in reading ancient Near East laws and language, and how we can make some sense of this in our 21st century world.
Part I: Divine Command Morality: the Euthyphro Dilemma VS. Abraham and the binding of Isaac.

      A perennial problem that stumps most Christians is understanding Divine Command Morality, or how do we know God’s commands are good? In the Socratic dialogs is the discussion recorded by Plato of Socrates asking Euthyphro the definition of piety, or what is loved by the gods.  The Euthyphro dialog is the crux of the dilemma to understand Divine Command Morality today.  This dialog was originally constructed by Plato to show the arbitrary and contradictory nature of the Greek pantheon.  The point of this exercise, as far as Plato was concerned, was to point out the need for morality to be grounded in a higher, perfect universal, which was theorized by him to be the “Form of the Good.”

But what has happened in Atheist philosophic circles is the condemnation of the Judeo/Christian God by applying the “Euthyphro Dilemma” as a defeater, showing God to be contradictory, and if the “Law of Non-Contradiction” is correct, this is one way to point out how God can’t possibly exist. A simplified version of the Euthyphro Dilemma runs this way:  A. Good is good because God wills it? Or B. God wills something because it is good? Ronald Nash writes,
  If morality is grounded on nothing more than an arbitrary command of God, it is possible that God would have commanded us to perform actions that we recognize as immoral.  Option (A) makes ethics capricious and arbitrary.  But the other option (B) is equally unsatisfactory.  If the only alternative to viewing ethics as capricious and arbitrary is believing that what God wills must be subordinate to a standard of goodness that is above or superior to God, then an important feature of Jewish and Christian belief must be abandoned…that God is supreme and sovereign and that nothing is higher than God.[1]

So under these questions, we can see the problem.  How can we say we serve a good God? And when we are questioned about God’s goodness, how can we defend his nature as good, or do we even need to?

Throughout the history of Judeo/Christian belief the Ten Commandments have been the starting place for right treatment of humanity around us.  God said what we should, and should-not do, so we obey. If God is the exemplar, how then do we understand this concept of Divine Commands? With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Bible.

If a book is to be taken as reliable, you would think that the examples within the text would cohere.  If the God of the Bible commands in Exodus 20: 13 “You shall not murder,” any other commands God makes would be consistent with the Ten Commandments.  Yet within the Bible are troubling passages; and what many philosophers use as an example that stretches the idea of God’s will and His commands being good is the passages concerning Abraham and his son, Isaac. 

Philosopher Wes Morriston in a recent paper writes, “In Genesis 22, God doesn’t really want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  He just wants to ‘test’ him… and Abraham passes God’s test by showing that he is willing to obey and by showing how much he is willing to give up for the sake of his relationship to God…”[2] Yet earlier in this paper, Morriston still wishes to universalize a unique command in the early relationship of God building his chosen people, as many other philosophers have done.  Morriston writes, “That God is His nature is of course one of the implications of the classical doctrine of divine simplicity…I do not myself think it makes much sense to identify God with His essential properties…”[3] Yet in order to make a case for Divine Command Morality, it is of utmost important to do just that.

 If for a moment, we say goodness is a quality that can be contained in the word “righteousness” and if we can agree with Hanink and Mar when they write that God “personifies Perfect Righteousness” or as they explain, “…it is God’s nature to act according to what is right…To say that God personifies righteousness is to say that He is Righteousness. Hence, His acts are righteous simply by being in accord with His will.”[4]

Now if we can at least try to see how God can be the personification of goodness, and there is no contradiction for God to command in Exodus “you will not murder;” why would that same God over 400 years prior to that command, test Abraham by “commanding” him to murder his son. Is this a case of a contradiction, and why would Abraham do what God commanded him to do?

In the long relationship Abraham had with God, God himself made a promise to Abraham that he would have more descendants than the stars in the sky (see Genesis 15:5).  And in order to prove to Abraham that He (God) was telling the truth, God Himself, “cut a covenant” with Abraham.  Although Abram (Abraham) carried out the action of the animal sacrifice (kill the animal and cut it in half) which in the Ancient Near East meant in so many words, “May I be like this cut-up animal if I don’t fulfill my promise…”[5]God was writing in blood the promise He made to provide Abraham with an heir and an un-countable number of descendants.

So in this context, when God asked Abraham, “Please take your son”[6] or as the NASB translates “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” (Gen. 22:2) Abraham so believed the covenant made with God for his heir and descendants that he fully expected God to raise Isaac from the dead. Copan writes,
So what if the facts about the world included a good God who specifically reveals himself and may issue extraordinary commands in a specific, unique contexts and with morally sufficient reasons…The critic’s task, then, is to show why Abraham, given what he knew, shouldn’t obey God’s command. After all, Abraham knew the outcome: taking Isaac’s life would only mean that God would resuscitate him so that God’s covenant promise would be fulfilled. Yes, without God’s command, which assumes covenant promises, Abraham would have been murdering his son, but that’s not what we have here. [7]

So in this test by God to Abraham, is a unique, one time only command by Abraham to not only follow God’s plan to leave his past behind, but totally trust God for even his future.

I admit that if we take the passage in Genesis 22 out of its entire setting, which many do, and without grounding in the historical context of the scripture, these nuances are lost and all that is left is an un-examined, “God says so” version of Divine Command Morality.  Hanink and Mar acknowledge that “…some versions of DCM, lacking adequate articulation of either God’s nature or man’s created nature, are unsatisfactory in their own right.”[8] Likewise, many persons with “challenges” to their mental states have committed heinous crimes stating they had been “commanded by God” to do what they did. But without proper examination, Divine Command Morality seems to present many possible problems for the Christian Theists.

In the end, however, you can see that God is good, goodness is a part of his very nature, and as the exemplar of goodness, holiness, and righteousness; His commands are good, and God’s will is never arbitrary.  This is a Being worthy of our worship.

Part II. The Ancient Near East and the Torah laws.

As we begin a study of the Old Testament it is important to get a feel for the difference between the nation of Israel and the cultures around them. The laws put into place for Israel by God were a radical departure for this people delivered from the cultic practices of Egypt.

As we read the Law (Torah) in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the many laws regarding relationships, clothing, offerings, and what to eat or not to eat; we see a movement towards God’s ideal, albeit with a long way to go. We need to remember that the times of Moses were indeed crude and uncultured, yet these laws were a guide along the way to something better. Copan writes “Given certain fixed assumptions in the ancient Near East, God didn’t impose legislation that Israel wasn’t ready for.  He moved incrementally.[9]

Paul Copan writes,
When we journey back over the millennia into the ancient Near East, we enter a world that is foreign to us in many ways.  Life in the ancient Near East wouldn’t just be alien to us—with all of its strange ways and assumptions.  We would also see a culture whose social structures were badly damaged by the fall.  Within this context, God raised up a covenant nation and gave the people laws to live by; he helped to create a culture for them.  In doing so, he adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures.[10]

 It is interesting to note the social structure of the Israelite’s at the time of the Sinai covenant.  Israel was held together by kinship bonds or large extended families.  But by contrast, the Canaanites had a feudal system “…with a powerful elite at the top and peasants at the bottom.”[11] So up until the time of Solomon, the society of Israel was mainly decentralized and non-hierarchical. To compare, the Canaanite land was possessed by the ruler and farmed by peasants, so the Israelite system was a dramatic improvement over the prevailing societal systems.[12]

Additionally, when trying to understand the Torah Law, is comparing the archeological data from Egyptian, Mesopotamia, and Canaan ritual worship; only Yahweh (God) did not require sacred sex. Richard Davidson writes “The OT unambiguously, vehemently, and uncompromisingly opposes the sacralization and divinization of sex that appear in fertility cult theology and practice.[13] All other groups surrounding Israel required ritual sex to worship their gods.  So this makes the idol worship not just simply bowing and burning a little incense.

Further, to help explain the strange law in Torah regarding not mixing seeds, and types of cloth in one garment, and cross-breeding cattle, all these laws are a reaction to Canaanite magical practices to promote fertility and increase harvests.

Finally, here is a brief look at kosher laws in the Old Testament with a possible explanation as to the why’s behind the laws. People have theorized over the years that the kosher laws were created because of health or hygiene issues. If that were true then why aren’t poisonous plants unclean? And then why did Jesus declare all these foods clean in the New Testament if health was really the issue?

Others have theorized that the restricted animals had to do with other religious practices, or this is a case of guilt by association.  But if the restricted animals were associated with other religions, then why wasn’t a bull unclean? Most all the surrounding cultures thought pigs were “detestable” and avoided eating them or sacrificing them in their religious rites.

But a better possible explanation is to look at the created order and the “spheres” each animal was created into.  For example,

·         Water: to be clean must have scales and fins
·         Land: to be clean must have four footed that hop, walk or jump; an animal operating according to its sphere where borderline cases like camels, and rabbits, and pigs are excluded.
·         Air: birds have two wings for flying.  Birds that inhabit two spheres (pelicans and gulls) insects that have too many legs (land and air) are excluded.

There seems to be a relation to distinctness in relation to the separateness of the Israelites themselves. As Copan writes, “Every meal was to remind them of their redemption.  Their diet, which was limited to certain meats, imitated the action of God, who limited himself to Israel from among the nations…[14]

Mary Douglas brings out another possible representation of animals as symbolic of victimization and vulnerability.  What are some animals lacking? Could this be a symbolic picture of victims of injustice?  Douglas writes:
The forbidden animal species exemplify the predators, on the one hand, that is those who eat blood, and on the other, the sufferers from injustice.  Consider the list, especially the swarming insects, the chameleon with its lumpy face, the high humped tortoise and beetle, and the ants laboring under their huge loads.  Think of the blindness of worms and bats, the vulnerability of fish without scales.  Think of their human parallels, the laborers, the beggars, the orphans, and the defenseless widows. Not themselves but the behavior that reduces them to this state is an abomination.  No wonder the Lord made the crawling things and found them good (Gen. 1:31) It is not in the grand style of Leviticus to take time off from cosmic themes to teach that these pathetic creature are to be shunned because their bodies are disgusting, vile, bad, any more than it is consistent with its theme of justice to teach that the poor are to be shunned.  Shunning is not the issue. Predation is wrong, eating is a form of predation, and the poor are not to be a prey.[15]

This seems to be a reasonable understanding of the grand teaching God is imparting to his people.  The grace he gives to his people is to be in return, given to others around them.  To have enough trust in the one true Living God’s care for you, to be able to care for those around you, is I believe, closer to the mark regarding the food laws and is consistent with Jesus’ declaration of all foods clean  (Mark 7:19)

Part 2 next time:

Part III. Israel’s Laws compared to the surrounding societies.
Part IV. Misogynistic? The Treatment of Women in the Old Testament.
Part V The Language of Conquest: the Massacre of the Canaanites




[1] R. Nash. Life’s Ultimate Questions. (1999, Grand Rapids, Zondervan) 86-87.
[2] W. Morriston. “What if God commanded something terrible?” Religious Studies, Vol. 45 (2009) 264.
[3] W. Morriston. “What if God commanded something terrible?” Religious Studies, Vol. 45 (2009) 253
[4] Hanink & Mar “What Euthyphro couldn’t have said” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 4, No 3 (1987) 245.
[5] P. Copan Is God a Moral Monster? (2011, Grand Rapids, Baker) 49.
[6] P. Copan. Is God a Moral Monster? (2011, Grand Rapids, Baker) 47
[7] Ibid. 50
[8] Hanink & Mar “What Euthyphro Couldn’t Have Said” Faith and Philosophy Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987) 254
[9] Ibid. p 61
[10] Paul Copan Is God a Moral Monster? (2011) Grand Rapids, Baker Books. p 59
[11] Ibid p70
[12] For more information see Daniel Block’s Israel: Ancient Kingdom or late Invention? (2008) Nashville, B & H Publishing. There is an extended examination of other ancient Near East laws in comparison to Israel.
[13] R. Davidson Flame of Yahweh 130
[14] Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster. (2011) Grand Raids, Baker Books. p 81
[15]Mary Douglas, “The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus,” Journal for the study of the Old Testament 59 (1993) 3-23 

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