Wait, that’s (not) in the Bible?! God’s Omniscience

There is an interesting tradition found in many biblical texts that affirms that Yahweh, the God of Israel, genuinely consults with others and considers their voice despite the fact that he is eminently more powerful and knowledgeable than they. This is especially evident in those texts where Yahweh reasons or dialogues with a prophet and, at times, even changes his intended course of action after hearing their argument(s) and opinion(s). As one example, consider Exodus 32.7-14 (NRSV) which records a dialogue between Yahweh and Moses after the people of Israel–whom Yahweh had just powerfully delivered from the land of Egypt–worshiped and offered sacrifices to a golden calf:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Here Yahweh is depicted as very angry with Israel and intends to “consume” them and to raise up a “great nation” from Moses instead; but Moses pleads with Yahweh to “turn” from his anger and to not destroy the people of Israel since the Egyptians would deride the situation, and because Yahweh had made special promises to Israel’s progenitors.

Consider further Isaiah 38.1-6 (NRSV), which reads:

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover.’ Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord: ‘Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: ‘Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city

Here the prophet Isaiah prophesies in the name of Yahweh that the king of Israel, Hezekiah, will die.  However, after Hezekiah entreats Yahweh, Yahweh spares his life and again sends Isaiah to change his original prophesy.

Consider also Gen. 18.20-21 (NRSV):

Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.’

Here it is stated the Yahweh must descend down from his heavenly abode to determine whether or not to inflict judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah based on the report that he has received.

Further, in the famous chapter of Genesis 22 where we read the story about Abraham’s intention to sacrifice his son Isaac upon an altar according to a commandment that he had received from God, we read verses 9-13 (NRSV) that:

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son.

Here it is stated that only after Abraham raises his arm to perform the deed does Yahweh truly know that he (Abraham) fears God.

Reflections

Thus although it is clear that some biblical passages state that God knows our thoughts (consider, for instance, 1 Chronicles 28.9, which reads “And you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve him with single mind and willing heart; for the Lord searches every mind, and understands every plan and thought.”), it is also clear that some biblical passages, such as those discussed above, also portray God as genuinely learning and changing his intended course(s) of action.  I think, therefore, it is important not to commit the fallacy of historical collapse and to retroject certain modern notions of omniscience onto biblical texts where no such view is held. The important question is, what view(s) did the Israelites hold concerning God’s knowledge, and did such (a) view(s) preclude Yahweh from consulting with others? I would suggest that at least some of their texts strongly suggest that it did not.

I would conclude, then, by asking what (other) explanations might one use to analyze or explain these apparent theological tensions?  And what positive theological implications might one draw from these texts and their apparent tensions?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Oh, and I forgot to give a shout out to Ben at Millennial Star:

    http://www.millennialstar.org/2006/03/22/what-did-god-know-and-when-did-he-know-it/

  • Owen

    Sometimes it is more important to choose a course of action that is the result of consultation that to take the “right” course of action in terms of some other criterion like efficiency. The one builds relationships, trust, and ingenuity, while the other yields fat and lazy.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Owen,

    Thanks for stopping by FPR and participating!

    I think I agree with what you are saying, but how does your suggestion interact with, for instance, Yahweh’s dialogue with Moses in the first passage I cited? And do you have any suggestions for the two passages from Genesis?

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • TOm Rosson

    I really like this passage from noted Luthern turned Eastern Orthodox scholar Jarsolav Pelikan
    The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Volume 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) pp. 22:

    In Judaism it was possible simultaneously to ascribe change of purpose to God and to declare that God did not change, without resolving the paradox; for the immutability of God was seen as the trustworthiness of his covenanted relation to his people in the concrete history of his judgment and mercy, rather than as a primarily ontological category. But in the development of the Christian doctrine of God, immutability assumed the status of an axiomatic presupposition for the discussion of other doctrines.

    I perhaps take Pelikan too far, but I think in the above passage we see a way to resolve many Biblical paradoxes.
    God does not change and yet He changed.
    God knows all and yet the Bible tells us that He did something or observed something to see what the result would be.
    God has all power and yet free agents exists that are able to choose for themselves.

    I believe that the emphasis upon God’s unchangingness is as Pelikan states, God does not waver from His faithfulness to the Covenant He has made. Men waver all over the place.

    I believe that the emphasis upon God’s all-knowing-ness is that God KNOWS that come what may He can bring to pass the fulfillment of his Covenantal obligations. I also like Ostler’s added bit that God know ALL possible outcomes, likely outcomes, and everything else without knowing absolutely what littler details in the future will be.

    I believe that the emphasis upon God’s all powerfulness is associated with His supreme power and the inability of any or all beings who might work against Him to frustrate His plans especially His plans relative to the fulfilling of His Covenantal obligations.

    So, the post apostolic early church IMO emphasized an absoluteness associated with God that consistently applied IMO means that God is impassible (He does not notice our love, our pain, our reaching out to Him). And God is all knowing and all powerful such that we have no freedom and merely act in accordance with the pre-programming our ex nihilo body/soul received. But, the Jews and Early Christians did not try to resolve these paradoxes partially because they instinctively linked the absoluteness with the Covenantal aspects of their relation with God.

    Charity,
    TOm Rosson

  • JTJ

    Since Moses is not the author of the Talmud references cited, I’ll go out on a limb and say the most probable explanation is scribal preference on how to tell probable myths and or legends. For the Isaiah reference, I’ll speculate the most probable is similarly a man made interpretation of an actual event, less the metaphysical manifestation.

    Your topics and research are well thought out and presented. Kudos TYD.

  • Sharon LDS in Tennessee

    From a pratical, personal viewpoint – taken from much consultation with another human, who is stricter and more knowledgeable in scriptural and General Authority quotes….I’ve found discussions on doctrine and principles…as well as realistic applications on a daily basis thereof, to be much more elevated, expansive and clear…BECAUSE of the “where one or more is gathered” principle. The workings of the spirit, when present, are so exponential……MORE, indeed, MUCH MORE comes forth from both parties engaged in the discussion, than even inherently possible. The scripture about both being edified, rejoicing, understanding is VERY VERY True !!! An unseen flow of intelligence and consclusion with pure wisdom occurs….yet undiscovered possibilities as well as conclusions. Amazing process. Amazing opportunity when two “great” minds discuss, or as presented in this overview…when God allows / invites / uses the ‘input’ of other divine beings to “discuss” or consider matters….divine or mortal.
    This experience of this process is very very enjoyable and lifting NO MATTER what the doctrin or the principle involved. This must occur from the blending and inter-connection of TWO or MORE intelligences of a HIGHER spiritual condition / nature. LIGHT……TRUTH…..and all things pertaining to Eternal Life are better…when SHARED!
    Would love some feedback. Thanks for your great coverage of important matters.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    JTJ and Sharon LDS,

    Thank you both for stopping by FPR!

    I don’t have time this morning to respond to all of the comments here, but I will be back around later. Have a good day!

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    What is Sharon LDS talking about?

    And YD, I honestly can’t remember, do LDS scriptures have any “omnis” when describing the attributes of God?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    You mean like these passages Todd?

    http://scriptures.lds.org/en/mosiah/3/5,17-18,21#5

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    JTJ,

    Just as a clarification: the passage I cited concerning Moses is from the Torah, not the Talmud (although Moses didn’t write either). As for whether the dialogue between Moses and Yahweh in this passage is real history, I will just say that that doesn’t really matter as far as this post is concerned. Whether Moses really had this dialogue with Yahweh, what matters for this purposes of this post is the way in which the dialogue is presented by the ancient Israelite author(s) of this passage and what that might indicate concerning their understanding of Yahweh’s knowledge and intentions, and the way in which he interacts with the world. Does that make sense?

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • JTJ

    TYD,
    Thanks for the clarification, I always switch up the two. You post makes perfect sense. You are probably closer to understanding Jewish historical authors reasons, if any, but I simply think we err when trying to squeeze in mormon, evangelical, or even first century apocalyptic theology into these writings.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    TOm Rosson,

    Thanks for your contributions! I also appreciate your thoughtfulness.

    JTJ,

    I agree that it is important to find out what the text meant to the ancient Israelite author(s), which is what I was trying to get at in my post. I think though that it is also a worthwhile endeavor for religious communities that use the Bible as an authoritative religious text, which includes LDS Christianity, to reflect upon the potential implications of such information once it has been realized. I was also trying to get at that at the end of my post with some of my questions for discussion.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Sean Lee Walthour

    Its a copout to say MODERN when dealing with a beings’ attributes.
    If God is omniscient, meaning ALL KNOWING, his knowledge must be ETERNAL not temporal. To know EVERYTHING must include, past, present and future hence the ALL knowing. YAHWEH could have said “one day thao masses shall view a box in which will contain pictures and voices”.. unambiguous and a TRUE revelation that would suffice. Who needs a bunch of ” i made men do this, i killed millions for that” as a moral compass? Thats insane as Genesis 1:29 is to people who dont partake in the eating of poison…. How does thao shalt not kill, fit in with Slay all of them, for they call me by a different name ?????


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