My Shoe Is Easier To Swallow Than Copan’s Book

[Update: Paul Copan Speaks Out … To Vindicate Me]

So, in the first edition of my review of Copan’s book (the second edition is here), I said that I would eat my shoe if Copan could produce a single scholar who argued that Mesha sacrificed his son to Yahweh (rather than to Kemosh), because that was the position Copan was arguing against. I speculated that Copan hadn’t read any actual scholars who argued this but that he assumed that’s what some scholars were arguing. It is possible that Copan’s assumption was based on a footnote in a Randal Rauser essay with which I think Copan is familiar (since he responds to it), and in that footnote, Rauser makes the mistake of stating that some scholars argued this, a mistake because he had Niditch in mind. Niditch does not argue this. That’s how I think it went, anyway. Point is, if this is the genealogy, Copan obviously didn’t check up on Rauser’s claim.

Now, I had said that in all of my research I haven’t found anyone who argues that Mesha sacrificed to Yahweh, and that if anybody did argue it, it would be a very silly position to take. That’s what I said, and both statements are true.

So a pastor either thought it’d be fun to see me eat my shoe and went hunting for a scholar who argued this, or perhaps he just happened across a book by David Marcus. Anyway, the pastor emailed me this quote:

The omission of the phrase laYHWH may have been a deliberate act by the narrator or by a later editor to tone down the suggestion that Jephthah could indeed offer up a human sacrifice to Yahweh. Another passage where there may be an identical situation is in 2 Kings 3:27, in the oft-cited and well-known story of Mesha’s sacrificing his firstborn son. The text reads:

So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up on the wall as an ‘olah (wayya’alehu ‘olah ‘al hahomah).

We note that here too there is no preposition with the word ‘olah. Indeed the absence of a preposition has led to a debate as to which deity the sacrifice was made: to Chemosh, the national god of Moab, or to Yahweh. I believe that it is quite possible that here too the phrase laYHWH has been deliberately omitted because it was considered unseemly to indicate that a human sacrifice might indeed be made to Yahweh. [Arnold B.] Ehrlich has observed that the efficacy of Mesha’s sacrifice was dependent on his offering his son to Yahweh, not to Chemosh. The great wrath that came upon Israel and forced her to retreat is only explicable if the sacrifice were offered to Yahweh.

David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986) pg. 24

There you have it. Not one but two (Jewish) scholars take the position that I ridiculed. Of course, the scholar that Marcus cites died in 1919, and Marcus’s book is 76 pages long, does not address 2 Kings 3:27 in any real detail, is published by Texas Tech Press, and is now out of print. (There’s likely a good reason for that too, and it’s that Marcus argues that Jephthah doesn’t really sacrifice his daughter. In other words, Marcus’s treatment of the issue of human sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible has not been well received by the scholarly community.) But no matter.

O victory for Copan! He is vindicated. (Whether or not Copan read David Marcus’s statement here prior to the publication of Copan’s book is significant, but irrelevant to the shoe-eating predicament.) Well done! I’ve been shown a fool and Copan’s book is vindicated.

Well, not exactly. Copan’s arguments against Marcus’s position still fail, and Marcus’s position is still very silly. The idea that a Moabite would sacrifice his son to a foreign god (Yahweh) rather than to his own god, is very strange, and highly unlikely. The sole basis Ehrlich has for his reading is that he cannot conceive of Kemosh besting Yahweh in battle. This is invalid. Rather, as I’ve demonstrated amply in my back-and-forth with Richard Hess on this text (see here, here, here, here, here, and especially here), it was a common practice in the region to sacrifice children to one’s own god in order to secure victory in battle. In reality, David Marcus makes no real argument that it is Yahweh to whom Mesha offers the sacrifice. He simply asserts (following an “observation” from a nineteenth century Jewish scholar) that the efficacy of Mesha’s sacrifice can only be explained if it was offered to Yahweh. This is of course nonsense. There is no precedent for such a thing, and puts Yahweh in the ridiculous (even absurd) position of turning against his own people in order to help his enemy because his enemy offered an abhorrent human sacrifice to him! This is why the position is silly, and why I was giving actual biblical scholars the benefit of the doubt that no one would advocate this. Of course, if one has the presupposition that the book of Kings is monotheistic, then one will have to distort the text in one way or another to account for this narrative. It’s just that David Marcus’s distortion is the silliest of them all. Copan was right to argue against it, but his arguments against it were, unfortunately, fallacious.

All that said, what does this mean? Does it mean that I shouldn’t have given biblical scholars the benefit of the doubt? Apparently. I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t put anything past anyone again. Does it mean that my criticisms of Copan were wrong? Absolutely not. Here’s why:

Copan’s treatment of the text was still oblivious to the primary position taken up by critical scholars: that Mesha sacrificed his son to Kemosh. Copan doesn’t even address this position in his book. This tells me that Copan hadn’t really done his homework well enough, which was the justified basis of my hyperbole. Either that, or Copan was aware of the primary critical position and just omitted reference to it intentionally. I mean, he really should have been aware of it, since it’s the position of Susan Niditch in War in the Hebrew Bible, a book whose argument he obviously and misleadingly misuses for his own ends. So he should have been aware that scholars argue that Mesha sacrificed his son to Kemosh, but for whatever reason, that position isn’t mentioned in the book.

Does it mean that any of Copan’s proposed readings of 2 Kings 3:27 are plausible? Absolutely not. My criticisms stand firm.

So what have we learned? Out of respect for biblical scholars, I made a hyperbolic statement that was justified, since it remains clear that Copan hadn’t done his homework (he omitted reference to the primary position taken up by critical scholars on this text). My statement however included the possibility that some obscure scholar might advocate for the position that Copan critiqued, but I just didn’t want to believe that anyone could seriously advocate it.

What else have we learned: Copan’s book is still dramatically deficient, and he has yet to respond in anything like a satisfactory manner, other than to try to make me look like a big meanie. So, I publicly apologized for not pulling a few of my punches, in the hopes that a more irenic tone would open up a real discussion. I had a phone conversation with Copan and he said, “You sound like a really nice guy!” (True dat.) I said, “I have a hyberbolic flair.” And he said, “Oh like Joshua!” And I laughed, but then I facepalmed. For Joshua, hyperbole is a justification for genocidal language. For Thom, hyperbole is a character flaw that justifies a sweeping dismissal of a massive amount of substantive criticism. Anyway, I invited Copan to have an irenic discussion, and he said he’d get back to me. Still waiting, months and months later.

Copan tried to sic Richard Hess on me, but that didn’t work out very well for Dr. Hess. His position on 2 Kings 3:27 has now been thoroughly discredited. Moreover, Dr. Hess claimed I misread him on a number of occasions, but as it turned out, either Dr. Hess’s writing was misleading, or my misreading of Hess was based on Copan’s own misreadings of Hess. If you read the comments at Copan’s blog, however, you’ll note that (last I checked anyway) the links to Richard Hess’s responses to me are all there, but no links to my rejoinders to Hess are anywhere to be found. That’s to be expected I suppose.

So, what do we have here? Thom eats humble pie for having too high a view of biblical scholars. Paul Copan’s book remains a travesty of scholarship. I’m sure Copan will be grateful to the pastor who emailed me the quote from Marcus, since it led to this reminder that Copan has yet to respond to the hundreds upon hundreds of substantive and damning criticisms that have been made of his book.

Once again, Copan is no doubt a very nice guy, with what he believes are good intentions. I’m not calling that into question, nor have I ever called that into question. What matters, however, is the damage he’s doing to people’s brains and to their faith in Christian leaders. Paul Copan is the Michael Bay of theology. This is truly the lowest common denominator.

[Update: Paul Copan Speaks Out … To Vindicate Me]

20 thoughts on “My Shoe Is Easier To Swallow Than Copan’s Book

  1. Your point is well made and indisputable, but I’m still more interested in seeing you eat your shoe. I trust it will be posted on youtube.

  2. Oh it was hyperbole. I didn’t literally mean I’d eat my shoe. I just meant that I’d be real surprised. Kind of like Joshua didn’t literally mean that the Israelites killed women and children; just that they killed whoever happened to be there.

  3. Oh, that one was clearly a doublet from a different source. Notice how the original claim is embellished significantly, which indicates a considerable transmission period. I would argue, however, that the second statement is also stock 21st-century hyperbole. 

  4. Thomas L. Thompson (a hardcore minimalist) also seems to endorse Marcus’s take on the passage.

    “The second story of the chain-narrative of Mesha’s rebellion is also a double, tripartite narrative. … The story’s function is to illustrate Yahweh as the living God… In desperation, the king of Moab decides to sacrifice his own first-born son. Accepted, this sacrifice successfully stems the tide of battle. An intriguing, but brilliant, silence surrounds the name of the living God that as implicitly accepted Mesha’s sacrifice in 2 Kings’ story.”

    Thomas L. Thompson, “A Testimony of the Good King: Reading the Mesha Stele” in Ahab Agonistes, Lester Grabbe ed. (New York: T&T Clark, 2007) pgs. 285 & 287

    Given that this makes three scholars (two of them contemporary) that affirm what you said no one affirms, is it too much to hope that you’ll BOTH eat your shoe AND dance naked on YouTube? If you’re pressed for time you could merge the two activities into a single video.

  5. You sure do want to see me naked, don’t you! Of course, Thompson offers no argument whatsoever; he merely asserts that it is Yahweh, in passing, with no explanation whatsoever as to why Yahweh would accept a human sacrifice from a Moabite and turn against his own people to whom he had promised victory.But please let’s not evade the real point. Copan evaded the most prominent reading of this text among critical scholars, and I think he did so because of unfamiliarity with the material. Either way, his arguments are wrong. You can keep distracting from the real issues by hammering on hyperbole that I’ve already acknowledged and removed from the second edition some time ago, or you can go hammer Copan on the hundreds of mistakes he made and try to get a response from him. Your choice. 

  6. This is a classic example of Randal Rauser stating the obvious. :)

    Thanks, Randal. I agree with you! As I said in the post, I’ve learned my lesson. So, why have you made me return to the cul-de-sac? I dunno.

    Anyway. Nothing but love for you.

  7. This is a classic example of Randal Rauser stating the obvious. :)

    Thanks, Randal. I agree with you! As I said in the post, I’ve learned my lesson. So, why have you made me return to the cul-de-sac? I dunno.

    Anyway. Nothing but love for you.

  8. Can you blame me for wanting to see you naked? That beard is
    sexy. And if the rest of you is even half as smoldering I may have to realign
    with the more permissive American Baptists, if you know what
    I mean.

     

    In seriousness though, you said “please let’s not evade
    the real point”. Yes, let’s not.

    I’m not an Old Testament specialist, neither am I an ANE
    specialist, or a Jewish studies specialist, or anything at all in that general
    ballpark. I’m just a guy. So I’m not really in a position to decide if the
    details of Copan’s book are accurate or if, on the other hand, your
    “hundreds upon hundreds” of complaints are valid.

    Indeed, the very fact that you have hundreds upon
    hundreds
    of criticisms of Copan’s book makes me (along with most
    people) all the less capable of checking the validity of those criticisms. So
    rather than commit myself to the herculean task of fact-checking your entire
    review, I thought I’d choose one assertion you made, check that, and then use
    the reliability of that one assertion as a rough indicator as to whether I
    should read the rest of what you wrote.

    Now the specific assertion I chose to check was recommended
    to me, in essence, by you yourself. Copan, you said, was arguing against no one
    in arguing against the idea that Mesha sacrificed his son to Yahweh. After all,
    no one—not a single scholar—defends this view, so you said.
    In fact, you were so confident that no one defended this position that you
    promised to eat your shoe and dance naked on the internet should someone prove
    you wrong.

    So here it was, handed to me on a silver platter, as it
    were, an assertion that you were utterly confident of; an assertion such that,
    if you were right about anything, you’d be right about this: no
    scholar argues that Mesha sacrificed to Yahweh. Done and done. You were sure
    that you were sure that you were sure that you were sure.

    And you were wrong.

    Indeed, you were so blatantly wrong that it only took me (the non-specialist, just-a-guy guy) all of 3 minutes searching on Google Books to discover you were wrong.

    Now I’m not opposed to uncredentialed non-specialists
    putting forth an argument in a field that interests them—not even if their writing
    is bombastic and self-satisfied. In fact I found Vox Day’s anti-atheistic
    polemics
    some of the most enjoyable reading I’ve encountered in my
    life. (Where else can you find a committed Christian, writing in defense of
    Christianity, in print, use the phrase “circle jerk”?) Nevertheless, such
    people only really get one chance to make that first impression and prove their not just some pompous windbag.

    But, as I said at the beginning, at least you’ve got looks.

  9. Question:
    Are there any other instances in Kings, or other relevant Scriptures, in which gods other than Yahweh are portrayed as having power or any efficacy in the real world?

    Doesn’t it make sense that the sacrifice would be seen as successful because it was done to appease Yahweh? If there are no other instances in which other gods are shown to have power, within the mindset of OT texts, then isn’t it an implication that it might have been done in the name of Yahweh?

  10. That’s a good question but the answer is a pretty firm no. Mesha would not have sacrificed to a foreign god; he would have sacrificed to his own god. But the presupposition that other gods exist and are powerful is pervasive throughout the Hebrew Bible. Yes, Yahweh is usually said to be stronger (but that’s  also what the other peoples said about their gods). There is another text which indicates that originally Yahweh was believed to be a junior member of the pantheon, a child of Elyon. I’ve discussed this at great length here on this blog (it’s Deut 32:8-9). Nevertheless, they all sometimes had to admit that their god was defeated, and the reason Yahweh was defeated here is quite obvious: the human sacrifice  was the trump card. In the ANE, they believed that sacrifices would secure special favor from their deities. I’ve shown this extensively in my exchanges with Richard Hess. Now the idea that an ANE god would change allegiance just based on a human sacrifice is not very tenable, especially not Yahweh, who (according to the author of Kings, abhors human sacrifice). ANE gods were not fickle like that; they had covenants. Sure, they would punish their people, but this was for infractions, not because another group gave them a sacrifice. Mesha sacrificing to Kemosh is exactly what we would expect, and if Mesha had done something so extraordinary as to sacrifice to Yahweh, the narrator most certainly would have made that clear: that would have given him bragging rights. In the Hebrew Bible, anytime an enemy turns to Yahweh, there’s always hullabaloo. But in short, yes. Numerous texts speak of the real-world power of other deities; it’s just not common that other deities get the better of Yahweh (at least in Hebrew interpretations of events). But, the anomaly is amply explained by the power that human sacrifices were believed to secure. I’ve discussed this at length in the Copan review, and this is the argument of Niditch and a host of other scholars. If Mesha had sacrificed to Yahweh (which would have gone very much against the grain of the standard practice in the region [see my exchange with Hess]), that fact would have been trumpeted. The Israelites usually had no problem admitting that Yahweh was mad at them for something. But here the deity’s name is omitted, which means it is being played down. In other words, the narrator is admitting something he doesn’t exactly like. He makes the reader draw the inference, rather than making it explicit. But it’s the obvious inference. If Yahweh really abhorred human sacrifice (as the writer of Kings presupposes), then Yahweh’s response to Mesha’s sacrifice would have been to turn his wrath against Mesha, not against Israel! That’s why the position of Marcus and a few other obscure scholars is silly, and probably why they don’t make a sustained effort to argue for it. Thompson was striving to fit the entire set of episodes into a singular narrative theme he was positing, and thus distorted the Mesha sacrifice to fit within his theme, but he offered no argument. 

  11. OK.

    Yet, isn’t Yahweh frequently portrayed as somewhat capricious? Is it so unheard of that He would reverse  course or send “lying spirits” or somehow undermine his relationship with Israel? I am speaking from the mindset of ancient Israelites, obviously. Yahweh was a tricky god, sometimes lashing out at his people for otherwise minor offenses, or offenses that people didn’t even realize was an offense at the time. 

    Very mercurial. Very unpredictable. A dangerous god in some aspects.

    I thought there was some indication that there were left over human sacrificial overtones in the OT that later were redacted with ceremonial sacrifices or rituals. I can’t place exactly where I cam across that idea, but I didn’t think it was an unheard of one.

    Isn’t it true Israelites didn’t always view human sacrifice in this vein?

    If Yahweh really abhorred human sacrifice (as the writer of Kings presupposes), then Yahweh’s response to Mesha’s sacrifice would have been to turn his wrath against Mesha, not against Israel!

    So, I am confused by this statement. Are you saying that the obvious inference by the writer of King’s is that he doesn’t think that Yahweh is all that bothered by the sacrifice?  If that is what you are saying, then how is that much different than saying that Yahweh would accept such a sacrifice? If Yahweh says “meh” to the sacrifice and isn’t outraged by it, then perhaps the writer of Kings, within his narrative, isn’t so averse to interpreting it as an acceptable sacrifice to Yahweh.

    Do you see how this might undermine the argument?

  12. Yet, isn’t Yahweh frequently portrayed as somewhat capricious? Is it so unheard of that He would reverse course or send “lying spirits” or somehow undermine his relationship with Israel? I am speaking from the mindset of ancient Israelites, obviously. Yahweh was a tricky god, sometimes lashing out at his people for otherwise minor offenses, or offenses that people didn’t even realize was an offense at the time. Very mercurial. Very unpredictable. A dangerous god in some aspects.

    They committed no offense.

    I thought there was some indication that there were left over human sacrificial overtones in the OT that later were redacted with ceremonial sacrifices or rituals. I can’t place exactly where I came across that idea, but I didn’t think it was an unheard of one. Isn’t it true Israelites didn’t always view human sacrifice in this vein?

    The Deuteronomist (author of Kings) was one who rejected human sacrifice.

    If Yahweh really abhorred human sacrifice (as the writer of Kings presupposes), then Yahweh’s response to Mesha’s sacrifice would have been to turn his wrath against Mesha, not against Israel!

    So, I am confused by this statement. Are you saying that the obvious inference by the writer of King’s is that he doesn’t think that Yahweh is all that bothered by the sacrifice?

    No. I’m not saying anything like that.

    If Yahweh says “meh” to the sacrifice and isn’t outraged by it, then perhaps the writer of Kings, within his narrative, isn’t so averse to interpreting it as an acceptable sacrifice to Yahweh. Do you see how this might undermine the argument?

    No. This is confused. Yahweh does not say “meh” to human sacrifice. The point of the narrative is that Israel lost because Kemosh accepted the sacrifice, overpowering Yahweh. The wrath is that of Kemosh, not of Yahweh. Please, take the time to read my exchanges with Richard Hess on this text, and you’ll see how squarely it fits within the ANE paradigm of securing victory in battle by offering a sacrifice to one’s own deity.

  13. Thom, in your follow-up post you chide Copan for addressing a particular demytholization of this text and not the text itself as it actually stands. Yet you seem to be doing that very thing here.

    Granted, if Mesha actually, historically sacrificed his son, he’d likely have offered the boy to Chemosh. Granted further, if some Israelite saw the event and recorded it in some very early source, that Israelite may very well have been aware of the object of Mesha’s sacrificial devotion and possibly could have interpreted Israel’s subsequent defeat as the result of Chemosh’s purchased involvement in the battle.

    But as you seem to grant that the Deuteronomistic Historian has shaped and redacted his sources in accordance with his more “orthodox” beliefs, is it really plausible that the final text of 2 Kings as we currently have it, as a creative product of the Deuteronomistic Historian, would assert (even implicitly) that Chemosh not only existed but actually overpowered Yahweh?

    I for one find such a view almost literally incredible.

  14. Thom, in your follow-up post you chide Copan for addressing a particular demytholization of this text and not the text itself as it actually stands.

    I do nothing of the sort. Go back and read more carefully. I critique Copan for attributing an exegetical argument to Morriston that Morriston did not make. And that is precisely what I said Copan had done back in the first edition. Your attempt to make me look foolish resulted in Copan’s confirming that I was correct. I was wrong to guess that no scholars represented this view (though if you are honest you will recognize that my wording allowed for the possibility), but I was dead right that Copan could not produce one, because, as I suspected, the source he was arguing against was not making the argument Copan was critiquing. 

    Yet you seem to be doing that very thing here.

    No I am not. You seem to be unable to understand what I write. 

    Granted, if Mesha actually, historically sacrificed his son, he’d likely have offered the boy to Chemosh. Granted further, if some Israelite saw the event and recorded it in some very early source, that Israelite may very well have been aware of the object of Mesha’s sacrificial devotion and possibly could have interpreted Israel’s subsequent defeat as the result of Chemosh’s purchased involvement in the battle.

    So far so good.

    But as you seem to grant that the Deuteronomistic Historian has shaped and redacted his sources in accordance with his more “orthodox” beliefs, is it really plausible that the final text of 2 Kings as we currently have it, as a creative product of the Deuteronomistic Historian, would assert (even implicitly) that Chemosh not only existed but actually overpowered Yahweh?

    Here’s where you go awry. The Deuteronomistic Historian was not a monotheist. The only early doctrine he has rejected that’s relevant here is the idea that Yahweh accepts human sacrifices. The Deuteronomist would still believe in Kemosh, would still believe that Kemosh can affect the world, and would still believe that Kemosh would be satiated by human sacrifice. He simply believes that Yahweh finds human sacrifices abhorrent. Thus, although Yahweh would usually beat Kemosh, the human sacrifice functions in the narrative as the trump card, specially empowering Kemosh. It is, however, possible that the Deuteronomist (who certainly wouldn’t have liked this) removed Kemosh’s name in his version in order to soften the blow. Many scholars argue that this is quite likely. Nevertheless, the human sacrifice functions as an apologetic, explaining why Israel failed to bring Mesha back into subjection, even after Yahweh had promised this would happen. The historical record is clear that Mesha gained independence from Israel in this period and Moab remained independent for two more centuries. 

    I for one find such a view almost literally incredible.

    For the reasons provided above, I do not, nor does the majority of critical scholars.

  15. You’re
    asking for a rather charitable reading of your words in a number of places and,
    seemingly, declining to return the favor when it comes to what I write.

     

    I’m not
    asking you for anything. I just think it would do you some good to grow up a
    bit. I apologized to Copan (privately and here on this blog) some time ago for the
    over-the-top rhetoric in the first edition. I’ll forgive you if you were
    unaware of this fact, but everybody else has moved on. “Late to the party”
    indeed.  
     

    In any event, you said,
    “The Deuteronomistic Historian was not a monotheist.” That strikes me
    as a rather odd view.

     

    You then
    quote Mark S. Smith, although you cited p. 145 when actually the quote is from
    p. 154. He writes:

     

    Because
    of the post-biblical importance of monotheism, the relative rarity of its
    expression in the Bible is quite striking… Indeed, the relatively few
    instances are spread over the whole of the so-called Deuteronomistic History
    (Joshua through 2 King), the post-exilic historical works of Ezra-Nehemiah, the
    two books of Chronicles, and a few other biblical books.

     

    Of
    course, if you had read the rest of that same page, you’d realize that you’re
    grossly abusing this quote. Smith does not argue that the few “monotheistic
    statements” in the Deuteronomistic corpus mean that the Deuteronomist was a
    monotheist. He quite correctly argues (on the same page, and at length), that
    the monotheistic statements are purely rhetorical expressions of monolatry. In
    other words, the Deuteronomist still believes in the existence of Kemosh.

     

    Nevertheless,
    Smith himself argues that the episode in 2 Kings 3:4-27 is not a
    Deuteronomistic composition (God in Translation, 118).  

    You then write:

     

    So,
    if monotheistic statements are present in the Deuteronomistic History, are you
    therefore of the opinion that they were included by earlier, monotheistic
    editors, but that the work’s final exilic/post-exilic redactor had relapsed
    into polytheism? Really?

     

    Your
    question simply displays you haven’t comprehended Smith, and further your
    unfamiliarity with the current academic discussion on the concept of
    monotheism. The consensus is fairly divided between those who deny that
    monotheism was ever an appropriate term to use for Judean
    religion, and those who argue that monotheism proper did not develop until
    about the time of the translation of the LXX. Conservative scholars like
    Michael Heiser are only able to push monotheism back earlier by collapsing its
    semantic domain into that of monolatry. But monolatry fits within a
    polytheistic, not a monotheistic, cosmology, and the former is the cosmology of
    the Deuternomist, as Smith will tell you.

     

    This has
    been our final exchange. Given the consistent tone of your comments, and the
    tendentious readings you’ve employed to try to “get me,” continuing dialogue with
    you is not something I’m interested in.

     

    I wish
    you the best.

    T

  16. Vox Day is an ignoramus when it comes to evolution. It took you a moment to google up a reference, but Vox apparently can’t google up references at all, not when it comes to his list of questions that he wants evolutionists to answer.   

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