Is God right just because God knows more than we do? That question entered my mind years ago when I was reading the Book of Job in the Bible. And it entered my mind recently when I was going through two books in volume 1 of James Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach.
Michael Stone in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha dates the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra to the second-ninth centuries C.E., and S. Agourides dates the Apocalypse of Sedrach to the second-fifth centuries C.E. The English translations that I will quote in this post are those in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.
In both the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach, the protagonists (Ezra and Sedrach, respectively) wrestle with God on such issues as hell and God’s judgment of sinners. They question God’s fairness in these areas. Both think that the animals are in a better position than humans, since at least animals do not suffer God’s judgment! Ezra and Sedrach try to intercede for the sinners, that God might have mercy on them.
God sometimes offers an answer to their questions, but God also says that God knows more than they do, and so they are not particularly qualified to be in the discussion. God says to Ezra in the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra 2:32: “Count the stars and the sand of the sea and if you will be able to count this, you will be able to argue the case with me.” In Apocalypse of Sedrach 8, God asks Sedrach a variety of questions: How many people have been born? How many people have died and will die? How many hairs did the people have? How many trees have there been in the world? How many trees will fall and come to be? How many leaves did the trees have? How many drops of rain have fallen? God also asks questions about the different waves and the winds at sea. And, of course, Sedrach did not know the answers to these questions. (Note: I draw some, but not all, of the language of the questions from the translation in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.)
The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach are probably basing these scenes on the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. Throughout the Book of Job, Job is questioning God’s fairness, not only regarding Job’s own suffering after Job had tried to be righteous, but also concerning the perceived unfairness in the world. In Job 21 and 24, Job wonders why oppressors get off scot-free; live long, happy, and prosperous lives; and die in a state of peace. In Job 38-41, God confronts Job and essentially argues that God has been around longer than Job, made things the way that they are, can do more than Job can, and knows more than Job does. God asks Job some questions about nature: for instance, does Job know when goats and deer give birth? Job, of course, cannot answer God’s questions.
When I read Job 38-41 years ago, I had a problem with God’s argument. So God has been around longer than Job has, made things the way that they are, can do things that Job cannot do, and knows more than Job does. Does any of that necessarily mean that God is right? Just because God made and runs the world a certain way, that does not necessarily mean it is the best way. Might does not mean right. And knowing a bunch of trivia about nature does not necessarily mean that one is right, moral, or just. That was what was in my mind when I was going through the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Sedrach: God knowing all those details about life and nature does not mean that hell is just.
I might as well incorporate my church write-up into this post, since it is relevant to this topic. The pastor at the church that I attended last Sunday was preaching about James 3:13-18, which contrasts two types of wisdom. The wisdom from below leads to envy, strife, and self-glorification, whereas the wisdom from above is about purity, peace, gentleness, and mercy. The pastor was saying that wisdom and intelligence are not necessarily the same thing, for a person can be intelligent and use his intelligence for evil ends. What is important is the goal towards which one’s intelligence is being applied.
That said, how can God appeal to God’s intelligence as justification for God’s actions? If intelligence by itself does not necessarily entail morality or wisdom, can God’s intelligence truly justify God’s actions?
One can make a case that we should not dismiss the value of God’s intelligence too quickly. A person who knows more about a machine than I do is more competent to use that machine in a productive manner. Similarly, one can say that God is more qualified to run the universe than humans beings are, since God knows more about it. In addition, while Job could look around and see things in life that struck him as unfair or as just plain wrong, Job may have felt that, overall, the cosmos ran rather well. The animals got fed. The birds flew. Job may have believed that there was some wisdom and order in the course of nature, so God could appeal to that in defending Godself before Job. We, too, can point to strange and seemingly wrong details of life and nature, but nature does work for our benefit, on some level.
But perhaps there is another way to understand how God’s superior knowledge can justify God’s actions. Maybe God’s point to Job, Ezra, and Sedrach is not that God knows more than they do, and thus God is right, and how dare they question God! Maybe God’s point is that God has this intimate knowledge of God’s creation because God cares about it. Job, Ezra, and Sedrach are questioning whether God cares and is truly good. God’s response may be that God knows God’s creation better than they do, so they cannot accuse God of not caring. Like many of us, God intimately knows and pays attention to what is important to God. To quote Matthew 10:29-31:
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (KJV)
The point could be this: God’s knowledge is an indication of God’s love, so God was not being flippant when God constructed hell or does anything else that puzzles us. God does these things for a reason.
The question would then be whether one can make a case for this interpretation from the Book of Job, the Greek Apocalypse of Ezra, and the Apocalypse of Sedrach. In all honesty, it is ambiguous. The Book of Job could lean in that direction, for God’s maintenance of the cosmos is arguably an act of love. God could be saying to Job that God lovingly maintains nature, and thus Job is wrong to argue that God is unjust. The Greek Apocalypse of Ezra is rather punitive. So is the Apocalypse of Sedrach, and yet its opening chapter is about the beauties of love.
Still, seeing God’s knowledge as an act of love could help us better understand the way that God is: God is not one who bullies people with God’s knowledge, but one who knows because God cares.