It is often difficult for believers to defend what the Bible says, particularly things found in the Old Testament, especially when we claim it contains the word of God and cannot be contradicted (cf. John 10:35). For example, who today would advocate stoning one’s wife, child, sibling, mother or father, if that one advocated worshiping another god and not the God of the Bible (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)? While we are able to sincerely interpret such passages in a New Testament context, it is difficult to respond to the new atheist, who really doesn’t seem to be interested in an honest explanation.
Consider, for example what new atheist, Sam Harris, claims in his blog when considering the Deuteronomy passage referred to above:
“While the stoning of children for heresy has fallen out of fashion in our country, you will not hear a moderate Christian or Jew arguing for a “symbolic” reading of passages of this sort. (In fact, one seems to be explicitly blocked by God himself in Deuteronomy 13:1—“Whatever I am now commanding you, you must keep and observe, adding nothing to it, taking nothing away.”) The above passage [Deuteronomy 13:7-11] is as canonical as any in the Bible, and it is only by ignoring such barbarisms that the Good Book can be reconciled with life in the modern world. This is a problem for “moderation” in religion: it has nothing underwriting it other than the unacknowledged neglect of the letter of the divine law.” (brackets mine)
What seems to be forgotten or perhaps ignored is that fact that Israel was a theocracy. That is, God was its King. If we would try to modernize this in terms of American government, we might say that anyone who advocated the overthrow of the United States, no matter how dear that person was to us, needed to be killed—i.e. he was worthy of capital punishment. The Mosaic Law was the constitutional law of the land of Israel. Deuteronomy 13:6-11 does not constitute doctrinal heresy anymore than advocating a terrorist attack on the White House would be considered heresy. The overthrow of God was a capital crime in Israel, as would be the overthrow of our democratic republic to us, and, until recently, such things were punishable by death after due process.
“The only reason anyone is “moderate” in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought (democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographic isolation, etc.). The doors leading out of scriptural literalism do not open from the inside.”
Once we weed through the exaggeration of the value of his own worldview, we can objectively see that Mr. Harris’ point-of-view lacks a real foundation. After all, believing the Bible is God’s word does not constitute biblical literalism. Neither has ‘democratic politics’ or ‘scientific advancement’ eradicated racism, narrow-mindedness or other problems of inhumane behavior. But, considering his accusation of literalism above, who among us would try to claim Jesus is literally the “lamb” of God (John 1:29), or which one us would try to defend Psalm 1 by claiming a righteous man is literally a “tree” growing by a riverside? The Bible is written as history, constitutional law, biography, prophecy, letters, poetry, wisdom etc. and contains such literary figures of speech as metaphor, hyperbole, allegory, enigma, idiom and a host of other ways of communicating ideas. Literalism is a criticism by the new atheists against the Judeao-Christian ethic, but it lacks any authority that would support it.
Consider, for example, the law of divorce found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Moses’ act was one of concession to the hard heartedness of Israelites of his day (cf. Matthew 19:7-8). The Law simply could not change one’s heart, but it could keep evil from multiplying. Another example might be seen in the manner in which slaves or servants were treated. Although slavery was considered a part of the culture of Israel, the Mosaic Law concerning it was an improvement over what might be found in other nations. For example, if a slave in one of the surrounding nations escaped to Israel, he was not to be returned to his former master (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). Moreover, when we come to the New Testament slaves were not considered inferior to their masters, even if the two worshiped together (Galatians 3:28). While the institution of slavery still existed in the world, it was not recognized as an institution in the Kingdom of God.
The Old Covenant was never meant to be embraced as the answer to all of life’s problems. On the contrary, Moses said that we should look for another prophet who would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19); the people with Moses didn’t want to hear the voice of God (Exodus 20:18-19), because there wasn’t anyone within the nation of Israel who had a heart to obey God (Deuteronomy 5:28-29). This is what the new atheists overlook or ignore. God accommodated the people’s demands and met them where they were. His redemption of them was in increments, as they were able to listen to and apply his will in their lives. The Old Testament is a history of that work, which finds its fulfillment in the pages of the New Testament.
 As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.