Thom Stark wrote a longwinded attack (“Is God a Moral Compromiser?” available online) on Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?
Stark is a “Christian” of the John Spong variety. He’s a theological soul mate of Randal Rauser, who’s often written sympathetically about Stark’s material. I’m going to concentrate on one of Stark’s prooftexts:
After quoting Ezk 20:23-26, Stark says:
Some Israelites were appealing to the law of Moses to justify the institution of child sacrifice. Exod 22:29b says: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.” With good reason, Israelites interpreted this as a command to sacrifice their firstborn children to Yahweh.Ezekiel admits that Yahweh did in fact command the Israelites in the wilderness to sacrifice “all their firstborn” to him. But Ezekiel reinterprets this as a “bad command”… (89).
Stark’s analysis suffers from multiple confusions:
i) He assumes that Ezekiel is alluding to Exod 22:29. However, that’s not the only passage which uses this type of language. As one commentator points out:
Part of the vocabulary of v26 (“every opening of the womb,” “make over”) echoes the law of the redemption of the firstborn particularly represented in Exod 13:12-13. It ruled that, whereas firstborn male sacrificial animals were to be sacrificed, firstborn sons were to be redeemed with money paid to the sanctuary. L. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word 1990), 12.
If that’s what Ezekiel is actually alluding to, then that’s hardly a command to perform child sacrifice. Just the opposite: it’s a command to redeem firstborn sons.
ii) But even if Ezekiel is alluding to Exod 22:29, Stark misconstrues that passage. As one commentator explains:
The giving of the firstborn of animal and child to the Lord has already surfaced in Exodus (13:1-2,11-13), and will appear later in 34:19-20. There is one major difference between the data in chap. 22 and that in chaps. 13 and 34. Both chaps. 13 and 34 urge the parent to “redeem” (with a sheep maybe?) every firstborn son (Exod 13:13b; 34:20b). Exod 22:29 omits any reference to the “redemption” of the firstborn son.In response, I say that the primary emphasis on these two verses is on giving to the Lord the first and best of one’s agricultural and animal products. The statement about the giving of the firstborn son is terse and almost parenthetical. Hence, the data is truncated and is to be “filled in” with the fuller data from chaps. 13 and 34.Second, there are other passages in the Bible of individuals “given” to the Lord with no mention of their being “redeemed.” For example, when Hannah prayerfully vows, “If you will…give [me] a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Sam 1:11), does she mean “sacrifice” the child, or dedicate/hand over the child? Similarly, Num 8:16 refers to the Levites as those “who are to be given wholly to me.” “Wholly given” surely does not mean “sacrificed,” but “dedicated.” V. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker 2011), 418-19.
In other words, Exod 22:29 is just a shorthand statement, qualified by other statements of the same kind in the same book.
iii) Stark has Ezekiel deliberately opposing the Mosaic law. Yet Ezekiel revered the authority of the Mosaic law (Ezk 22:26). His indictment of Israel in Ezk 5-6 invokes the curse sanctions in Lev 26. His indictment of Israel in 8:5-18 has its background in the Mosaic prohibitions contained in Exod 20:3-6, Num 33:52, Deut 4:1-20, 5:1-12, and 17:2-5.
iv) Ezekiel is addressing the exilic community. But why were the Jews exiled in the first place? Because they were covenant-breakers. Because they disobeyed the Mosaic law.
And they were exiled, not merely because they disobeyed God’s law. Rather, their disobedience took a specific form. They disobeyed God’s law by defiantly doing the very things which God solemnly forbad. By emulating the abominable practices of their pagan neighbors. That’s the very thing which the Mosaic law forewarned them to studiously avoid (e.g. Lev 18:21, 20:1-6; Deut 12:31, 18:9-13).
Now, on Stark’s interpretation, he has Ezekiel telling the Jews that God banished them, not for disobeying his commands, but for obeying his commands. According to Stark, God originally commanded the Jews to practice child sacrificed, the Jews complied, then God punished them for obeying his command. Of course, that interpretation is utterly nonsensical.
v) As one commentator notes,
v) As one commentator notes,
Some interpreters even take 20:26 as implying that Yahweh commanded the Israelites to sacrifice their children to Molech, but it is clear in 16:20-21 that Jerusalem acted against Yahweh's will and express command when, as the folding baby girl turned whore, she slaughtered the children she had borne to Yahweh by making them pass through the fire (the same act of which the people are accused here. H. Hummel, Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia 2005), 596-97.
vi) Finally, Stark has a tin ear for Ezekiel’s morbid sarcasm, which he employs for shock value. As one commentator observes:
Ezekiel is being horrendously controversial in this whole chapter, creating a rhetorical parody of Israel’s history in order to highlight its worst side. In a context of such sustained sarcasm and irony, we cannot suddenly take a verse like this as a face-value doctrinal or historical affirmation. C. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel (IVP 2001), 160.