Two passages in the Lot and Abraham/Isaac pericopes really caught my eye, but not the usual suspects. Rather, they concern God’s omniscience, a subject long been debated because of the implications for free will. I don’t want to talk about that. These passages struck me because they seem to completely undercut traditional ideas of God’s omniscience.
First, Gen. 18:20-21.
Yahweh said, The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is very great, and their sin extremely grave (lit. “heavy”). I should go down, that I may see whether they have indeed done completely according to the outcry which has come to me. If such is not the case, I will know.
It seems fairly clear that God has received a report, an “outcry” of the behavior of the two cities, and God’s knowledge of whether this outcry is accurate is contingent on his descent. Where is God’s omniscience here?
Similarly, note Gen. 22:12. After Abraham has lifted the knife over Isaac and God stays his hand by saying,
Don’t lay a hand on the lad or do anything whatsoever to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not kept your son, your only son, from me.
The text clearly shows that God has come to know something through Abraham’s actions. Didn’t he know it already? What kind of omniscience is this?
Lest we think this is limited to the OT, I would point out that a similar thing happens in the Temple. God repeatedly sends messengers down to Adam and Eve to check things out and report back to him, implying that he needs such.
Now, there are several points which could be made to get around this. I don’t find most of them particularly helpful.
- One could point out that these three things were mediated by mortals, who may have messed up on God’s omniscience, and refer to other scriptures (seemingly) affirming God’s omniscience. However, I would respond by pointing out that every passage affirming the omniscience of God was also mediated by mortals. When deciding what the scriptures teach, we can’t simply point out those that affirm our pre-existing beliefs. Secondly, I cannot think of a scribal or theological motive to make God’s knowledge contingent. What purpose would it serve? We would expect pious stories to affirm God’s omniscience, not challenge it.
- With regards to the Temple, one could point out Masonic similarities to the return-and-report theme, implying that it was mortal Joseph who “borrowed” the idea. Tus we could’t take it as a reflection of reality, and God’s omniscence would be protected. However, this does not bring much to the larger discussion, since this is not our only data point. Second, it raises the question of why Joseph would “borrow” something that undermines God’s omniscience. Did Joseph believe God was omniscient in the classical sense?
One could attempt translational arguments to lessen the impact. For example, the conservative Word Biblical Commentary translates Gen 18:21 differently, taking calah as part of an idiom found in Jer. 30:11 and 46:28. “So the Lord said: â€œThe outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is indeed very serious. I want to go down and see if they deserve destruction as implied by the outcry which has come to me about it, and if not, I wantto know.”
It notes further that “It is not that God needs to go down to confirm what he knows, but that he is visiting it with a view to judgment.”
This reading does have the advantage of not having to reinterpret or repoint calah as cullah, “completely, wholly.” However, the idiom in Jeremiah is about causing destruction, not meriting it. I simply don’t find the WBC convincing on this point either on philological or interpretive grounds.
- One could argue that God pretends not to know things for the sake of teaching mortals a lesson. I can think of ways to support this idea. However, it also strikes me as somewhat ad hoc, like the idea that God planted dinosaur bones here to test our faith. Furthermore, Abraham’s lesson (whatever it was) would have been the same regardless of whether God knew the outcome ahead of time. There’s no way to make this idea fit with the Gen. 18 passage or the Temple idea either, as far as I can see.
Do I propose a solution?
It’s something I know little about, but find intriguing. John Sanders, a professor of Theology and Philosophy at Huntington University gave a lecture at BYU on openness theology. (He’s also written on the logical possibilities of what happens to those who never hear of Christ.) Everything I’m about to write comes from my notes of that lecture.
Openness theology aims to tackle sticky areas that traditional theology has not done well with, such as God’s omniscience- both in relation to the problem of evil and such scriptures as the two in Genesis. Sanders brought up many others in the lecture.
According to my notes, openness theology posits that God knows the end from the beginning, but not everything in between. God is open to our input and human action. Hence, God can be open to bargaining with Abraham. God confirms Abraham’s obediance by testing him on it. God can’t believe how bad Sodom has become, and so he checks it out for himself.
Openness theology has the advantage of squaring with both the scriptures and human experience. However, it’s also highly offensive to certain strains of traditional Christian thinking. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention rewrote their guidelines explicitly to exclude such ideas. Sanders is well aware of this, and pointed it out himself. He stated that traditional theology has drawn too much from philosophy, and as such has little relevance and relation to both human experience and scripture.
Sanders ideas are appealing to me. They are, as came up in the Q&A afterwords which had several pointed questions by two LDS philosophers, compatible with LDS doctrine as well. Sanders (judging by his lecture and the university he teaches at) is a committed Christian, but his lectures and books show him to be a broad-minded outside-the-box thinker. A good theory is one that accounts for more data than another, and Sanders’ looks good to me.