The big word describing God’s knowledge is omniscient, all knowing—so the Christian theologians tell us. God must be all knowing because s/he is God. Of course, there is no way to verify that to be the case because we have no access to God except through the human mind. In the human mind God is whatever everyone thinks God is. Another practical way to address the question is to ask if the Bible ever depicts God as not knowing something, or being surprised. The Bible, I was taught, is the basic grammar for Christian living and belief. In my religious tradition the Bible is the “go-to” book for information about God. Hence, the question: does the Bible depict God as unknowing; that is, as lacking knowledge of minutiae of the past and details of the future?
We are fortunate, for many have read through the Bible and gathered together passages that depict God as not knowing things. Here is one of the many collections of God’s lack of knowledge in the Bible.1 The passages noted by the collector are as follows:
Gen 3:9-13: God does not know where Adam is, does not know who told Adam he was naked, does not know that he ate of the tree with forbidden fruit, and does not know why Eve did what she did.
Gen 11:5-7: The Lord had to come down in order to see the Tower of Babel to know what was happening.
Gen 18:20-21: The Lord had to go and see what was going-on at Sodom and Gomorrah.
Gen 22:12: The Lord did not know that Abraham truly feared the Lord until Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac.
Isa 5:4: God does not know why his garden yielded wild grapes.
Jer 31:34: God promises to forget the sin of the Israelites.
Jer 32:35: God confesses that he did not know that the Judahites would sacrifice people to Molech.
About these passages the collector, Mr. Stewart, says that they “seem to be passages that teach the limitation of God’s knowledge.” Although he states that he believes in the “inerrancy of Scripture,” Mr. Stewart carefully explains away the plain meaning of the words of the text to bring these passages in line with current conservative theology. In other words, for Mr. Stewart the text does not mean what it plainly says. Here are a few more depictions of God’s lack of knowledge of past and future events:
Gen 6:5-6: God had forgotten the covenant that he had with Israel.
Exod 4:24: God could not find a way to kill Moses.
Exod 33:5: God did not know what to do with the Israelites.
Jer 3:6-7: God did not know that the Israelites would not return to him as an obedient people.
Jer 26:1-3: God did not know whether the Judahites would listen to him or not.
Jonah: 3:1-5, 10: God did not know if the people of Nineveh would repent and had to break his own word and stay the destruction of the city of Nineveh (3:4).
In all of these passages the writers depict God anthropomorphically; that is, as having the characteristics of a human being. Generally, God is believed to be stronger than us, wiser than us, more gracious than us, etc., yet God is still described in the Bible as limited in knowledge, as are we. The descriptions are not as crass as the depictions of the ancient Gods of Greece and Rome, but the Judeo-Christian God is still described as not knowing certain things. The inevitable conclusion is that the frequently ungodlike descriptions of God in the Bible disqualifies the Bible as the standard for determining the character of God (if God there be).2 The Bible claims that the Judeo-Christian God created human kind in his image (Gen 1:25-27). In reality human beings through time have created their Gods in whatever ways seemed good to them. The character of the Christian God at its worse is based on how he is described in the Bible, and at its finest on the idealistic ideations of the Christian mind.
Missouri State University
1Blue Letter Bible Ministry: https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_362.cfm
2Here are two more essays about the ungodly descriptions of God in the Bible: Hedrick, “Could God have a Character Flaw?” Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 182-83; Hedrick, “Hérem: God’s Holy War,” Unmasking Biblical Faiths, 192-94.
My thought is that both claims, that there is a god and that this god is omniscient are traditions, not verifiable history. To see a god as omniscient is to see humanity as omniscient, since the gods are fashioned by the authors of the texts. When a god is built from ancient literature, its traditions seen through the lens of a different worldview can be disorienting, the gods becoming obsolete. They are stuck in a particular setting, and as knowledge changes they aren’t able to adapt very well.
Leaving behind the “books of God,” if a god, any god, was presumed “omniscient,” who but someone all-knowing would be able to demonstrate that? How? (The omniscient point of view of characters in biblical narratives to me is one rhetorical device that points toward fiction.)
The need for an omniscient “judge” looking down from the heavens seems a way to try to control thoughts and actions, a cohesive function of a culture.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I agree with Dennis and see some of these questions as a rhetorical device for emphasis. I can think of many times when I would ask my children, “What have you done?” when I could plainly see what they had done. But I’m guessing that’s not the point of this essay. There have been some interesting discussions at my church lately. I asked how we can call ourselves Christian if we cannot accept the basic tenets of the religion. The associate pastor told me she likes to think that she is “practicing Christianity.” I like that. Rather than emphasizing belief maybe we should focus on practice.
Post a Comment