Surprising God

The standard view of the Christian God is that he is all-knowing or omniscient. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the standard-bearer of orthodox belief among those in the Reformed community, says of God that

he has completely sovereign dominion over all things and does with, to, or for them whatever he pleases. Everything is revealed and completely open to him. His knowledge is infinite, infallible, and does not depend on any created being, so that to him nothing is conditional or uncertain. (2.2)

Yet there are places in the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures, where this assertion about God seems to just fall apart. There are places where it seems God is a bit surprised or doesn’t anticipate a course of events.

Now I know”

For example, in Genesis 22 we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. God has commanded Abraham, from whom he had promised to make a great nation (12:2), to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah and, upon one of the mountains there, offer him as a burnt offering to God. The next day Abraham gets up early, saddles his donkey, and heads for Moriah with Isaac and two servants. Three days later the group arrives at the mountain where he will sacrifice Isaac. He leaves the servants behinds and tells them that they will return once they have worshipped on the mountain.

In a cruel twist, Abraham has Isaac carry the wood upon which he would be sacrificed and burned. But Isaac notices something is amiss. There is firestone and wood but no sheep. So he asks his father, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham replies, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And then the text says, “And the two of them walked on together.”*

Finally they arrive at the site for sacrifice and on the wood that his son Isaac carried, Abraham lays the boy down and prepares for the slaughter. But as he raises his knife to kill him, an angel from God prevents him and tells him, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.” (22:12)

Wait a second. “Now I know?”

How can it be that the omniscient Creator of the cosmos only then knew that Abraham feared him? If God knows all things past, present, and future then he already knew that Abraham feared him, right? Apparently not.

The inerrantists have, of course, tried to find ways to circumvent this obvious problem. The famous pulpiteer in Geneva, John Calvin, wrote in his commentary on this passage,

But how can any thing become known to God, to whom all things have always been present? Truly, by condescending to the manner of men, God here says that what he has proved by experiment, is now made known to himself. And he speaks thus with us, not according to his own infinite wisdom, but according to our infirmity. (Calvin, 2009, 570)

What Calvin is saying is that God is speaking to us in this passage like we are idiots. We are too stupid for him to speak plainly so he condescends to us so that we can understand. But remember, this is a problem that the text introduces. It did not have to be this way. We didn’t go looking for places to point to and say, “See, God isn’t omniscient!” Rather, we simply read the text and stumbled upon this obvious problem. Why couldn’t have God said something other than “Now I know…”? That the author(s) of Genesis wrote what they did is quite telling.

This is not the only place where God seems to not know things. In Genesis 3 after the man and woman eat from the forbidden tree and hide among the trees, God calls out, “Where are you?” (3:9) Sure, it might have been a big garden, but how did God lose the man and the woman so quickly? Consider also the episode in Genesis 11 concerning the Tower of Babel. God has to actually come down to look at the city and report back to the heavenly court that if the people build this tower “then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” (11:6) The list goes on.

These types of problems reveal that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not all-knowing in the sense that most modern Christians think that he is. This won’t stop the inerrantists, of course. But it does show that the Bible isn’t such an easy prop to handle if you are trying to use it to demonstrate standard Christian orthodoxy.

Printed Works Cited

*All Scripture verses unless otherwise noted are from the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

John CalvinCommentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. John King, translator. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009 (originally translated in 1847).

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