Is Yahweh Omniscient? The Curious Case of Genesis 18:20-21
Originally Posted on the Quran and Bible Blog
As-salaam alaikum. I came across this curious passage in the Bible, which seems to reinforce the heretical ways in which the Bible describes God. We already know from other examples in the Bible that “God” is described in ways unbefitting the All-Mighty. Such examples include Genesis 6:6-7 (God “regretted” creating mankind) and 1 Samuel 15:11 (God “regretted” making Saul king). But an even more egregious example of such heresy can be seen in Genesis 18:20-21:
“Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”“
This passage clearly shows that God needed to confirm the reports of the “grevious” sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. He even states that after confirming these reports, he “will know” if the reports are as “bad” as they sound.
Naturally, the Christian commentaries try to down-play this embarassing description of Yahweh’s lack of omniscience. Here are some examples:
“God examines before He punishes (see Note on Genesis 11:5) with the same care and personal inspection as the most conscientious earthly judge” (Ellicot’s Commentary for English Readers).
“Not as if there were any thing concerning which God is in doubt; but he is pleased thus to express himself after the manner of men, and to show that he ascertains the criminal’s guilt before he passes sentence” (Benson Commentary).
“The Lord now proceeds to unfold his design. There is justice in every step of the divine procedure. He comes down to inquire and act according to the merits of the case. The men now depart on their errand; but Abraham still stands before the Lord” (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).
“God here speaks after the manner of men, and for the example and instruction of judges to search into causes ere they pass sentence” (Matthew Poole’s Commentary).
“…this is spoken after the manner of men; for otherwise God saw all their wickedness, and knew full well the nature and circumstances of it, and how general it was; but this method he proposes to take, to show the justice of his proceedings, and to instruct judges, and set an example to them, not to condemn any without thoroughly examining their cause…” (Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible).
We see in all these commentaries a vague assumption that God is simply “speaking in the manner of men”, and that somehow, this solves the conundrum. But the question is…why? Why is God suddenly deciding to “speak in the manner of men”? Up until Genesis 18, he had no problems speaking in His own manner. In Genesis 6, when mankind’s corruption had increased (causing God to “regret” making them), He had already seen their corruption and did not need to “come down” to see if they were really as corrupt as it appeared!
And Genesis 18 is not even the only time where God seemed to feel the need to “come down” and “confirm” the initial reports. Exodus 3 also demonstrates the same lack of confidence:
“The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.“
Here again, God seemingly “sees” and “hears” the suffering of the Israelites. This isn’t strange as He is supposed to All-Seeing and All-Hearing. The text then states that God has “come down to rescue them”. Here also, there is nothing that strange. God seems to already know the suffering of the Israelites, which is why He has “come down”. But the last part of the passage seems to suggest that God needed to confirm the initial suspicions, for He states that the “cry of the Israelites has REACHED me” and that He as “SEEN the way” they were being treated. If He already “seen” and “heard” the suffering before “coming down”, then why does God again say that the cry of the Israelites has “reached” Him?
Coming back to Genesis 18, and the excuses provided by Christian commentators (which all seem to want to down-play the anthropomorphic descriptions as merely being metaphorical), there is a major detail which renders the commentaries null and void. As the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges explains, when God said that He would “go down” to see if the reports about Sodom and Gomorrah were as serious as they appeared, He LITERALLY was going down:
“The Dead Sea lies in a deep depression to which there would be a continuous descent from Hebron; so that the words may be also understood quite literally. The strong anthropomorphism is in the character of J.”
Amazingly, some Christians have actually come to terms with the concept of a “limited God”. As Doug Ward, a writer for the “Christian Research Institute”, comments (emphasis ours):
“n these texts we have seen revealed a God who not only has limited knowledge of the future, but surprisingly even a limited knowledge of the present. Yet this limited knowledge did not distance God from humanity, but rather was seen in relationship with His people.”
In contrast, the Quran declares that God already knew the sins of Sodom and Gamorrah, which is why He sent the angels to rescue Lot (peace be upon him) and his family. The matter had already been decided, and there was no need to “confirm” if the reports about Sodom and Gomorrah were as serious as they appeared:
“[The angels said], “O Abraham, give up this [plea]. Indeed, the command of your Lord has come, and indeed, there will reach them a punishment that cannot be repelled” (Surah Hud, 11:76).
And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!