Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Psalm 139: Does God Really Know Everything?

Last night in my Bible class, we discussed Hebrew (read: Biblical) poetry--and poetry in general. We talked about the literary tools at the poet's disposal--idiom, rhyme, meter, hyperbole, alliteration, form, repetition--and the tools whose use we cannot detect in translation. Because most of us cannot understand the complexities of Hebrew verse in the original.

However, I strove to make the point that even though much of the semantic complexity of Hebrew poetry is lost in translation, we may still catch some of its genius, even in English. To support my point, I started with the literary device known as "hyperbole."

Hyperbole, as some of you may recall from eighth-grade English, is basically exaggeration. For instance, when Andrew Marvell writes, in "To His Coy Mistress," "An hundred years should go to praise / Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze; / Two hundred to adore each breast, / But thirty thousand to the rest," he is not suggesting that he will spend literal centuries discussing his lover's beauty. He is instead using a literary device to make the point that she is very pretty--so pretty that it would take a long time to fully describe her beauty. Cute, huh?

And translatable: for we could say the same thing in Hebrew--or French or Russian or Arabic--and still get the point. The same works in reverse: when Hebrew authors exaggerate, we may catch their point just as easily, even if we do not understand all the idioms they might use to communicate it.

Take, as an early example, a piece of verse from Genesis. In Genesis 4, Lamech, one of the descendants of Cain, kills a man. Then, he breaks into poetry, as weird Bible characters are sometimes wont to do: "I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. / If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (23-24). To understand the passage, we need to know that Lamech is referring back to an earlier moment in the chapter, when God curses those who would harm Lamech's ancestor Cain with seven-fold punishment. Now, Lamech doesn't know that God has multiplied Cain's curse by 11 with him, and God provides no confirmation. He just killed a ham, and now he's vaunting. He's using hyperbole. He's not speaking literally; he's exaggerating. (And I'm repeating myself.)

However, while this dithering about hyperbole may seem quaint, it actually carries with it some startling theological ramifications. For if we accept the possibility that Hebrew poets--like romantic British poets--might use hyperbole, we acknowledge that they are free to exaggerate when it suits their purpose ... perhaps even when they speak of God.

I provide just one small example, taken from the largest stash of Biblical poetry, the Psalms. I begin my exploration with Psalm 139. This haunting verse opens with the following:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? (1-7)

Beautiful? Yes. Theologically significant? Yes too. For Psalm 139 is often used as a proof text for God's omniscience--for the notion that God knows everything. In the fourth century, Church Father Saint Augustine suggests as much in his exposition of the psalm. Writing of the many paths a life might take, Augustine argues, "Before I went by them, before I walked in them, You saw them beforehand." For Augustine, God does not only have knowledge; he has pre-knowledge. Not only of the paths we travel, but those we avoid.

However, if we take the Psalmist as a poet--and not as theologian--we may characterize this type of language as hyperbolic: we may argue that the author is not trying to make a creedal point about the omniscience of God but using a literary tool to evoke the terrifying experience of a man standing before his Maker.

To go into the Divine court is to imagine that he might see you fully--to know your very thoughts and intents and feelings. To perceive what you ate for lunch yesterday and with whom you want to have sex today. Thus, in Psalm 139, perhaps the poet is not trying to create new dogma but only attempting to evoke the humility of a human standing in the kavod--or presence--of God.

This "poetic" reading is actually more credible given all the points in the Hebrew Bible when God does not seem omniscient. Take, as just one example, Genesis 11: the tale of the Tower of Babel. At Babel, the people of the earth decide to build a great structure--a city and a tower--so they will not be "scattered."

As the edifice is being built, "The Lord came down to see the city and the tower [...] And the Lord said, 'Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them'" (1: 5-6).

As my students frequently point out, this God does not seem "omniscient" at all, because all-knowing gods don't need to head out on recon runs to find out what humans are doing--they needn't "come down" to check out the job site like a suspicious foreman. They just know. In Genesis 11, on the other hand, God seems genuinely curious--and frightened once he's done his research. And he certainly doesn't seem to know (or pre-know) the Babel-ites paths.

Nonetheless, both Jews and Christians have a general sense that God is omniscient, that he does know all, all the time. I wonder if this sense isn't a prime example of what Emerson was talking about, in the "Divinity School Address," when he said of Jesus, "churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes." Religionists, Emerson argues, take the Bible's figures of speech too seriously. They take hyperbole and turn it into dogma.

But to do so is not only to build false churches (in Emerson's perspective). For in taking the trope of divine omniscience as literal truth, we may ignore the fascinating ignorance of God in moments like the trip to Babel--and close down our reading of the Bible. Which, as you all know, exactly what I'm not about.

1 comment:

  1. There is nothing very compelling about an "omniscient" God...unless it provides a sense of meaning and direction in a world that tends toward meaningless experience. Much more empathic is the God who stands alongside humans in the struggle. This is the God, you correctly point out, of the scriptures.

    The Pious Pastor


We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.