Paul Copan Speaks Out … To Vindicate Me

In light of yesterday’s post, Paul Copan came out of the woodwork and commented here, attempting to show that I misunderstood him and bring some “clarification.” Here’s exactly what he wrote:

Hello, Thom.  A few folks have pointed out your comments about Mesha, and though I (like Rick Hess) am not interested in a lengthy exchange, just let me make a point of clarification perhaps.

I never say that Mesha was sacrificing to Yahweh.  He would have been sacrificing to Kemosh/Chemosh.  I’m actually responding to philosopher Wes Morriston’s argument that (allegedly) God’s fury was against Israel as a response to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son (my book is something of a summary in response to Morriston’s critique in Philosophia Christi, the issue in which I offer a response directed to his arguments and intimations).  Apparently relying on other scholars, Morriston’s point seems to be that this event diminishes the horror of infant sacrifice (to Yahweh) in Israel and suggests, with passages like Gen. 22 at al., the possible acceptability of such practices early on in Israel’s history.

I must say, Thom, that for a guy who’s not yet completed his M.A., you are able to get around in these areas of OT critical issues pretty readily!  Well enough said. I guess that, given this explanation, you’re not going to eat your shoe on Youtube in the nude!

Now, I’m not sure if his remark about my credentials is a compliment or a veiled insult, but I don’t really care either way. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was being nice. [Update: Paul confirmed via email: he was being nice.]

Anyway, here is what I wrote in response to Copan’s above “clarification.”


Dear Paul,

I’m sorry but your comment is misleading. You may be clarifying what you intended to write, but what you actually wrote in your book is a different story (unless my Kindle edition is deficient). You wrote:

Some think this is God’s wrath and that God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son by responding in wrath against Israel. (96)

Obviously your position is not that Mesha sacrificed to Yahweh, but the way you worded that makes it seem like that is the position you are arguing against. You say that some think that “God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice.” If you don’t mean that God accepted Mesha’s sacrifice, then what you have written is very, very unclear! I’ll give that to you: you were unclear. But the fact that you go on in your book to argue against this position by arguing that other texts indicate that Yahweh doesn’t accept human sacrifices makes it even more clear that what you were arguing against was unclear even to you.

What I won’t give to you, however, is that this is what Wes Morriston argues in his essay. I’ve read Morriston’s essay. Your comment here makes several mistakes:

First, you say, “apparently relying on other scholars.” That’s a nice assumption, but unfortunately the article you cite in your book from Morriston does not cite any other scholars who argue this about Mesha.

Second, you say, “Wes Morriston’s argument [was] that (allegedly) God’s fury was against Israel as a response to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son.” Well, there are two things to say about this claim. The first is that this is not what you say in your book. As I just pointed out, what you say in your book is that God “approved” of Mesha’s sacrifice. But this is not Morriston’s suggestion at all!

And here’s the second thing. And this is very unpleasant, because you’ve displayed that you don’t understand what Wes Morriston has said in his essay at all. Allow me to quote the relevant passage from Morriston’s essay:

In a much later period of Israelite history, we encounter another off case of child sacrifice. The King of Moab actually succeeds in defeating the Israelites by sacrificing his own son and heir—presumably to Chemosh.

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt-offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. (2 Kings 3:26-7)

Here the very practice inveighed against by the great Hebrew prophets appears to work. It seems that in an extreme situation, the sacrifice of one’s son and heir may turn the trick when nothing else will. It is, after all, the best thing you can offer your god. (Recall that it is partly for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to Yahweh that Abraham is praised in Genesis 22:16!)

Of course, we [emphasis Morriston’s] may speculate that the Israelite army was merely frightened by the spectacle of a human sacrifice—that they ran away because they were afraid that Yahweh (or Chemosh?) would give the battle to the Moabites. But that merely underscores the point that I am trying to make. If the Canaanites had been “driven out” partly because they practiced human sacrifice, and their land had been given to a people set apart for the service of a God who abhorred and forbade human sacrifice, it is odd that at this late date the Israelites themselves still did not know that such sacrifices could not possibly be efficacious. (p. 16)

And there you have it. That’s his whole discussion. Not a single scholar cited. And you’ve clearly seriously misunderstood his argument. First, Morriston is not arguing that the text says that Yahweh’s wrath turned against Israel. Much less is he arguing that Yahweh’s wrath turned against Israel because Yahweh “approved” of Mesha’s sacrifice, as you articulated it in your book! Morriston clearly states that Mesha is offering his sacrifice to Kemosh (“It is, after all, the best thing you can offer your god.”)

What you seem to have missed is that the subsequent paragraph is not exegesis of the text but demythologization. He says that “we may speculate” (emphasizing we, over against the narrator in Kings) that something else than Kemosh’s aid in battle is behind the historical event. He speculates that perhaps Israel was afraid that Yahweh’s wrath (or Kemosh’s wrath) would now turn against them. But nowhere does he state that this fear of Yahweh’s wrath would have been due to Yahweh’s approval of Mesha’s sacrifice! But this is not his interpretation of the text: it is his demythologization of the text in an attempt to get to the history behind it. So when you say above that Morriston’s “argument” was that Yahweh’s wrath was turned against Israel, you’re displaying you misunderstand him entirely. This is unfortunate.

Finally, you say that “Morriston’s point seems to be that this event diminishes the horror of infant sacrifice (to Yahweh) in Israel.”

No, that’s not his point. His point is that this text displays that child sacrifice was still believed to be efficacious during this period. He makes the point fairly clearly. I’m not sure how you missed it.

He does make one bad argument though. Belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice in general does not mean that Yahweh in particular accepted human sacrifices. This particular text testifies to the former, not necessarily to the latter.

Thus, it’s clear that I won’t be eating my shoe while doing a jig in the nude, especially in light of the “clarification” you’ve just brought to the table. What you’ve clarified is that you misrepresented Morriston’s argument (although, to your credit, you didn’t directly attribute it to him in your book). And what remains clear is that your treatment of the text was deficient, since you ignored the interpretation of 2 Kings 3:27 offered by the majority of critical Bible scholars (and at least one philosopher: Morriston), namely, that this text indicates that at this time, Israelites believed (1) in the existence and power of Kemosh, and (2) in the efficacy of human sacrifice in general. Even if the composer of this limited narrative in Kings did not believe that Yahweh would accept human sacrifice, it is clear that he believed that Kemosh did accept human sacrifice. That’s the only point scholars like Niditch and Levenson make with this text.

I hope your second edition corrects these errors (among others), and makes a stronger argument.


I’d like to thank Paul Copan for taking the time to demonstrate that in fact I was right to assume that he had encountered no scholars who argued that Yahweh approved of Mesha’s sacrifice. Of course, some scholars have taken that position, but it seems clear now, thanks to Copan’s comments, that he wasn’t referring to anyone who actually did take that position. My point in the first edition was really that I didn’t think Copan himself could produce a single scholar who argued that position. That’s why I said “If Copan can produce a single scholar.” Sure, one can find a scholar who will say almost anything, but my point was that I was pretty sure Copan was misunderstanding somebody. And so he was.

I hope the silliness can now be put to rest and we can await Copan’s point-by-point response to my critical review.

8 thoughts on “Paul Copan Speaks Out … To Vindicate Me

  1. As an old high school English teacher, it’s not how many degrees you hold, it’s how smart you are, and how good of a reader, that determines your ability to comment on any literature, including the Bible. Also it helps a lot if your are objective, simply looking for the truth, rather than trying to defend some ideological position like Copan. I find these biblical studies with an agenda that twist the obvious meaning of scripture to be offensive.Thanks, Thom, for shedding some light on this sleazy practice.

  2. Facebook appears to be suffering some difficulties so I’ll post this here:
    Still at it? Don’t you ever get tired Thom? Well, anyway I enjoyed your post, it’s good that you honestly try to engage your opponent instead of dissming them out of hand based on credentials [though I admit, that sometimes it is a lot more convienent than bothering with certain kinds of people.] and I guess I’ll always have you to thank for championing a view of faith that does take it upon itself to justify every misdeed it has ever commited. There is a joy in letting the Bible be itself and not worrying to much about whether or not we can always agree with it.

  3. Indeed, Brian, I do get tired, as does everyone who engages in these discussions I’m sure. What’s most tiring is when people get offended and turn belligerent; they become irrational and it’s incredibly wearisome to help them get a clearer perspective. (I’m not speaking of Copan here.)

  4. Felipe, no. Not quite. 

    The author of Kings is reporting that the sacrifice to Kemosh worked. He is not changing the story to say that Mesha sacrificed to Yahweh. That is a position that neither I nor Copan agree with. But Copan doesn’t agree that the author of Kings is reporting that Kemosh beat Yahweh. That is what I argue. 

  5. Welcome back, Hodge. Before I respond, I just want to say that I’m losing interest in continuing these discussions. It’s not you; it’s just there are things higher on my priority list these days. Copan needs to be the one responding (not that you’d disagree). Anyway, I’m happy to respond to you. 

    Just to be clear about why you and Paul think this passage is important: Are you arguing that in the context of the DtrH that the author is teaching that Kemosh, at least in this instance, is more powerful than YHWH, and thus, displays a view of YHWH that is lesser than later concepts (i.e., YHWH here is presented by the author of Kings as merely a tribal god like Kemosh and shares similar or lesser power)? I think you’ve clearly shown the most legitimate interpretation of the pericope, but you seem to be interpreting the meaning of that pericope outside of the context of the theology of Kings and the larger DtrH in order to fit that narrative. Am I wrong about that? According to Dtr, there are no other gods in the same class as YHWH. 

    Well, first of all, we wouldn’t posit a singular “author of Kings” and of course that gets us back into diachronic and synchronic readings. But Mark Smith actually argues that this episode is not authored by the Dtr, that it reflects an earlier period. I think that’s possible, but I do not think that the Dtr’s rhetorical monotheism (not an actual monotheism) is beyond begrudgingly admitting Yahweh’s defeat here. As I’ve articulated in the past, I see the way this narrative is framed as an apologetic. Because of their belief in the efficacy of human sacrifice toward other gods at least, that is an apologetic which explains Yahweh’s “defeat.” Really This certainly would have been necessary since Yahweh promised to bring Mesha back under Israel’s dominion, but in fact Mesha retained his independence and Moab was independent for another 200 years. So, I argue that the human sacrifice functions apologetically to explain why Yahweh lost this one. Ordinarily, Yahweh would be the stronger for certain, but Mesha called upon that extra divine boost by sacrificing his son. It was widely believed that such sacrifices really did garner the deity’s extra strength, so to speak. So ordinarily, Yahweh would beat Kemosh, but here we have Extra-Strength Kemosh. If we see this as an apologetic in response to cognitive dissonance, I think the problematic of the inconsistent portrayal of Yahweh fades away. 

    Those that the nations worship as gods are demons. If demons win a battle, such as here where YHWH gives to Israel that which He promises and then gives the battle over to Mesha, it is because He uses the demons to accomplish His will as well. This is a point brought out again and again in DtrH, especially in Samuel-Kings.

    He doesn’t give to Israel what he promised them. They failed to subdue the final city, and the point was that Moab would be brought back into submission to Israel, which it  wasn’t. I know the question of whether Elisha’s prophecy was fulfilled or not is debated, and hotly so, but that’s my position on that matter. 

    But, that’s really irrelevant, because while it’s true that Yahweh uses evil spirits in Dtr for his own purposes, there is no sense in which other national deities are identified as “demons” under Yahweh’s control. That’s very anachronistic even for the exilic period. The evil spirits of Samuel-Kings that are under Yahweh’s control are a lower tier of beings than Kemosh and other national deities. 

    Hence, it is highly unlikely that Dtr interprets this event as “YHWH is just viewed as a tribal god equal to Kemosh” versus “YHWH is so superior to all who are considered gods, that He rules even them, and although gives the level of victory He promises (because of Jehoshaphat’s involvement), does not regard the King of Israel worthy to give a full deliverance from the demon worshiped by the Moabites, as he worships a demon himself”). Which is more likely, given the context of Dtr’s theology, in your mind?

    No. They don’t see Kemosh as a “demon” at all, and certainly not in the sense you seem to be using the term. Second, the Dtr’s superiority rhetoric is just that: rhetoric. Do they believe that Yahweh is superior? Yes. But do they really believe that he is a species all to himself? No, that’s just rhetoric, and that’s the firmly established consensus. It’s the faithful expression of monolatry, and it was common rhetoric in the ANE. I’ve detailed this at great length in previous posts. 

    So I’m wondering if, not the interpretation of the pericope with which I think most of us would agree, but the meaning of that in context really proves what you think it does. It seems to me that neither you or Paul (or Hess) are discussing the issues you need to discuss in proving your points. I’m not sure in this case that context has been considered. Can you correct me on this if I am mistaken?

    These are good questions, to be sure. But for the reasons I’ve provided above, I think it’s unnecessary to posit that the proper reading of the episode could only have been written in a period prior to the composition of the DtrH. 

    I have actually said all of this stuff in the past, but I suppose these comments are scattered throughout different posts and threads, so thanks for forcing me to throw the strands together. 


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