The monotheistic God of Judaism and Christianity is believed to have 3 characteristics, sometimes collectively referred to as “the three omnis”: He is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omni-benevolent (all-loving). But there is actually little evidence in the Bible to support the idea that God is omniscient or all-knowing. Below I point out 4 Bible passages that demonstrate that the biblical God was not always portrayed as knowing everything.
1. The Sins of Sodom and Gomorrah
God, embodied as a man, meets with Abraham on his way to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). In the course of their conversation, God reveals to Abraham that he heard a cry coming from these cities and is going to see if the cities have really sinned as greatly as the cries imply. God says the following:
“Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and their sin is very grievous; I will now go down, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.” (Gen. 18:20-21, KJV)
The last clause, “if not, I will know,” is telling. It is clear from this statement that God is planning to learn something from his visit to Sodom and Gomorrah, namely, whether or not the cities are really as evil as he has heard. In the original Hebrew, it is even clearer that God is unaware of what is going on. The verb translated “I will know” (אדעה) is a cohortative, which means the verb is expressing a wish or desire. For this reason, Michael Carasik translates this phrase “if not, I want to know about it.” And God can only want to know something that he doesn’t already know.
As the conversation between God and Abraham in Genesis 18 continues, Abraham attempts to persuade God not to destroy the city of Sodom if a large enough number of righteous people are living there. Throughout the conversation, God uses the phrase “if I find [X number of righteous people] there, I will not destroy it” (see Gen. 18:28-30). Once again, the use of the conditional clause “if I find” (אם אמצא) implies that God does not already know how many righteous people are in the city.
2. The Faith of Abraham
Genesis 22 is among the most well-known stories in the Hebrew Bible, popular in both Jewish and Christian communities. It is the story where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of Abraham’s faith. Just before Abraham is able to sacrifice his son, God says (through his angel):
“Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thy only son from me.” (Gen. 22:12, KJV)
The phrase “for now I know that you fear God” is a clear admission that God did not previously know that Abraham respected him so greatly.
3. The Heart of Hezekiah
In 2 Chronicles 32:31, we read: “God left him (i.e., Hezekiah), to try him, that he might know all that was in his heart” (KJV). As with Abraham in Genesis 22, we see again in this passage that God needs to try or test a person in order to know their heart, which presumes that God was previously ignorant.
4. The Divine Council
There are several occasions in the Bible where God takes advice from others. In one prominent instance, God tells Moses that he is going to destroy all of the Israelites, and Moses successfully changes God’s mind using logical argumentation (Exodus 32:7-14). There are other occasions where God asks his heavenly council for solutions to a problem, and listens to what he considers the best suggestion (see 1 Kings 22:19-23). With reference to determinism and the divine council, biblical scholar Samuel A. Meier says the following:
“The very notion of a council to which the prophet is privy seems to imply that the future is negotiable and open to manipulation by choices that are unfolding in the present. God does not approach the council with a plan for which he merely solicits the council’s perfunctory approval. If God is not playing games and acting out a masquerade of false condescension—and there is no hint that he is—then the drama portrays the future as contingent upon the decisions that the council recommends and God approves.” (Meier, 28-29)
This is in contrast to later notions of apocalyptic prophecy in the Bible, where the future seems to be completely determined down to the smallest details. To quote Meier again:
“Where future consequences could be presented as not entirely clear in the early prophets, and where it becomes less vague and more predictable in the later prophets, in apocalyptic the future becomes exceedingly predictable. In fact, the future in apocalyptic is already determined in its entirety… And if the future has been worked out in advance with such precision, one may be able to discover specific details, such as how many kings will reign and how they will behave (Dan 7:23-25; 8:21; 11:2-45), as well as how the righteous will fare (Dan 7:21, 25; 8:24; 11:32-35). The visions that Daniel sees or interprets are unlike anything seen in the early prophets, for his visions emanate from a worldview affirming that the future has already been decreed in its entirety.” (Meier, 36-37)
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So there seems to be a contradiction in how the Bible portrays God’s knowledge. In some passages God is nearly omniscient, while in other passages he is not. Michael Carasik attributes these kinds of contradictions to narrative constraints with the following remarks:
“This sort of contradiction between two biblical texts is often resolved by the appeal to multiple authorship. Without rejecting that notion, I would like to suggest that in this case (i.e., God not knowing the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah) the difference results from something more than the differing views of two different biblical authors. After all, earlier in Genesis 18 God had no problem reading Sarah’s mind. I think God had to go to Sodom and Gomorrah to see what was happening there in order to give Abraham the opportunity to bargain. That is, God’s omniscience was limited by the author of the story for narrative reasons. Similarly, though most of the Bible represents God as unable to read minds, the biblical narrators sometimes give God this power for the purpose of the story they are telling.” (Carasik, 232)
The problem for the Judeo-Christian theists thus becomes: how can one create a theology of the attributes of God when the Bible is riddled with contradicting notions of God’s attributes (whether due to the differing beliefs of various authors or narrative demands)?
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Meier, Samuel A. Themes and Transformations in Old Testament Prophecy (IVP Academic, 2009).