More On What God Knows and When He Knows It…

Ben S has a great piece up over at M* on openness theology and the question of how the OT presents God’s omniscience, but he didn’t use (didn’t need) an example of the same sort that is a favorite of mine. Since I had been meaning to write a bit on this, I’ve decided to dash off a little something on the matter, just to complement his remarks.

Consider the story of the Tower of Babel. It’s the fourth of the four great “falls” in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. In each case, someone(s) sins, God responds to this sin as he must, and then there’s an act of grace to close each scenario:

Adam and Eve…………….clothed in skins
Cain…………………………..marked for protection
Generation of Noah………Noah and family saved

Here’s the storyline from Gen 11:1-9

Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come! Let us make brick and burn them.” Bricks served them as stone and bitumen served them as mortar.

4 And they said “Come! Let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top may reach to heaven to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

So…what we have here is a group of folks who want to create a municipality that will make them a name and prevent them from being scattered across the earth. This is the fourth “fall,” a decision to try to avoid compliance with God’s post-flood command to fill the earth (9:1). What will God do about it?

5. The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that the children of men had built, 6 and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 7 Come! Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

Notice that in v. 7 God is using the same Hebrew word, havah, to introduce his project that the men used in v. 4 to introduce their project (AV = “Go to”) This may well be sarcasm – God is mocking those who try to thwart his intentions. There’s also a bit of word humor here as well: the word for “bricks” is lebenah, while that of “confound” is rendered by nablah, a “confounding” of the consonants involved.

If this speech is sarcasm, it may also be that God’s action in coming down should be likewise interpreted. Perhaps God has to get down on the ground and see for himself, perhaps he doesn’t really know everything that happens. But it could also be ironic, that is, this tower, intended to reach to heaven, is really so small that God has to come down just to see it! If this is the case then what is portrayed is God’s transcendence rather than a divine need for contact lenses.

Tying Things Up

First: this story, like those cited by Ben over at M*, is one in which God seems to need to get closer to something to make a decision. Unlike Ben’s example with Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s speech gives reason to think that God’s action (coming down) is better interpreted as a literary device rather than a theological point. Ben’s case for openness theology in Gen 18 is far more complicated and interesting.

Second, this story makes me laugh every time I read it. I love sarcasm and irony, and the more layered, the better.

Third, this is actually the story that sets the scene for Abraham. The Tower of Babel is the story of a group of folks who thought to make their own name great. But the guy whose name really turns out to be great is Abraham – made great by God himself. The divine promise to Abraham to make his name great is the act of grace that finishes out this quartet of stories about the first sins of Genesis.

God’s always one step ahead, ya know?

4 Replies to “More On What God Knows and When He Knows It…”

  1. Open theism — I remember this from a systematic theology class I had to take. I’m actually shocked that Sanders was invited to talk at the Y. Open theism seems so fringey, and is viewed, even by orthodox (lower-case “o”) Christians as suspect.

    On second thought, maybe that’s why they invited him (ala Margaret Barker)…

    Great post.

  2. IIRC, Sanders is friends with David Paulsen of the philosophy departmen. Paulsen wrote his dissertation at Michigan on classical theism and LDS thought, arguing (in a nuanced and carefully defined way) that God is finite.

    Nice connections Mogget! You put an OT language guy to shame. [hangs head]

  3. Wow. Moggget, you are a post-writing-machine! And this is my favorite so far. Great connections and I love the humor you pointed out.

  4. Would that I were as talented as you gentlemen assume!

    Alas, I teach GD with the quaint notion that scripture is meant to be read and appreciated via [mostly] synchronic exegesis. This is an old SS lesson, concocted out of bits and pieces from von Rad, Bruggemann, Sarna, Levine, and goodness knows who else.

    Every so often a recently escaped detainee from behind the Jello Curtain* attempts to bring me up to speed on issues like my inappropriate diction (grace) and my gentilic interest in the cross and its theological and christological import. But mostly we just do like the above.

    *technical term first noted as used by Dave at DMI. Plagerism is silent but heartfelt applause.

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