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

Wait, that’s (not) in the Bible?! God’s Omniscience April 25, 2009

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?

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