I had never come across Paul Copan before until this book. I then bought the Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion and was surprised to learn that he is actually a Philosopher of Ethics Professor. With this in mind it seemed appropriate that he write a book on biblical ethics.
A brief summary of the book's chapters is given as follows:
1 & 2. These two chapters are a brief survey of the comments by the "New Atheists", about the Old Testament God. Copan suggests that his book is a response to these comments. He suggests that the book is to educate non-believers and believers alike, to teach them things that they have not bothered to learn.
3. Is an assessment of whether God craves attention, or whether being religious and worshipping God is a way of improving the self.
4. Is an assessment of the covenant, and whether picking one people is horrid and discriminatory or a good way to benefit the whole of humanity, i.e. an example to lead the rest of us.
5. Is an assessment of the Isaac story and the crucifixion. Is God a child abuser or man's promised saviour?
6. Is an assessment of the bible laws. It considers whether they are repressive or help to develop holiness. It also then considers the is/ought fallacy.
7 & 8. These chapters carry on from chapter 6 by considering the biblical commandments on kosher foods. Are these crazy or do they have a purpose, i.e. by regulating the self we help to improve the self. These are then cross referenced with the New Testament's argument on kosher foods and justification by faith alone.
9. Is an assessment of whether the biblical laws are barbaric and cruel. For example: sabbath breakers, drunkards, eye for an eye etc. This chapter assesses the deeper meaning of the laws, i.e. that they are meant to make the self holy and promote righteousness. These are then crossed referenced to the New Testament's teachings on righteousness. Finally, it shows how these ideas have influenced modern ideas.
10. Is an assessment of whether Israel discriminates against women. Again, this chapter looks into the deeper meanings of the laws, i.e. the image of God idea and the equality of all humans. It then shows how modern ideas of female liberation actually owe their origin to feminist theology, which comes from the bible.
11. Is a carry on from chapter 10 and considers the biblical positions on polygamy, concubines and bride prices. Are they God promoted, or man's insisted? Is this what God intended, or simply allowed due to the hardness of man's heart?
12 - 14. These chapters offer an assessment of slavery in Israel. Were the slaves better treated in Israel than the rest of the world? Is there a deeper meaning to the laws? It also draws reference to the 7 year jubilee, an event few actually understand the meaning of. It firstly examines how radical Israel's ideas on slaves were, and then shows how all modern ideas on equality owe their origin to the bible.
15 - 17. These chapters are possibly the weakest chapters. They are an assessment of the holy wars of Israel, most noticeably the Canaanite massacres. This chapter argues that the wars were limited, i.e. a one off justification given by God (the weakest argument -, it basically says, God said it's ok so it's ok). These chapters then argue that these wars were not directed against the people themselves but against their cruelty and ritualistic acts. It argues that the Canaanites were certainly not exterminated in a genocide fashion as they are still drawn reference to over 2000 years after the alleged event. Finally, it argues that it's easy to criticise these readings given the modern world but to truly understand them the cruelty of the world at that time needs to be understood and therefore some historical background information is needed - which the author then gives. All this is meant to somehow show that the wars themselves were ok. I must admit that whilst these chapters included a lot of valuable and interesting information, they did not convince me.
18. This chapter considers whether religion causes violence or promotes unity and self improvement. This chapter is really a response to Hitchen's argument that "religion poisons everything". It also considers whether the Crusades were really as bad/or the same as the modern Islamic Jihad.
19. Is a brief consideration whether morality functions fine without God. Are we simply able to say that we're just atoms and that our actions don't matter? Does this then impact our ideas on morality? To be honest the author doesn't devote enough attention to these issues to make this chapter worthwhile. His central argument is that no, having God helps, but of course as we're all made in God's image we don't need him and that we can be moral without him - but having him helps make us better.
20. Is a brief assessment on how much the modern world has been influenced by Jesus, and argues that he is far more important than many of us imagine him to be; to our history, culture and ideals. Again, this topic itself could full a whole book and so whilst mentioned in summary, fails to give a good meaty argument.
My impressions are as follows:
If you have never studied any form of political / legal readings of the Old Testament ideologies then this book is sure to amaze you. What it will do though is to serve to bridge the gap between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. Once you have read this book, that age old idea that the Gods of each somehow look different will disappear. In this sense the book is truly a must for the enquiring casual religious reader.
However, if you are an atheist then this book is likely to answer some of your questions, and show you how some of what you've read is not as simple as its made out to be by some of the "New Atheists". However, I'm pretty sure that the chapters on the Canaanites are unlikely to convince you, if they could not convince me - a believer.
One thing it will stress to you is that none of the texts can be taken simply at face value, and do require a lot of assessment and deliberation before any meanings can becomes apparent. Failing to do this will produce bizarre results, but this should be expected. As these bizarro readings, usually a product of pure fundamentalist literalist readings, are expected they are hardly surprising or really worth considering, and as such are not the "knock down" type arguments they are often thought to be.
The last 2 chapters really deserve to be books in themselves, but of course one has to understand that the book itself was designed to focus on Old Testament Ethics and God, rather than moral philosophy and modern political history. In this sense these chapters need forgiveness.
The presentation of the book was nice with a decent sized front. The book itself was just over 200 pages long. The book is fully referenced, and indexed. It also includes a list of discussion points on each chapter at the back of the book, which are meant to help any church/biblical study group consider these topics in more details in informal group discussions.
Overall, an enjoyable book, but not an infallible one. This doesn't stop me recommending it to everyone, especially believers who will no doubt benefit the most from it. I would argue that all believers have a duty to know there stuff on this kind of stuff more than any atheist. As such this book is important and a worthwhile buy.
However, it does lose 1 star from me for failing to convince me on the Canaanite issue.