Knowledge Problems

Monday, October 16, 2006

Biblical Unknowability

One finds early hints to the idea of the unknowable God in the Pentateuch. The classic passage is found in Exodus 33, where Moses makes various entreaties of God which might be interpreted as part of a quest to understand the Divine nature. Moses asks, "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor," and a few verses later, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence."

To this, God famously responds as follows:

I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and I will grant the grace that I will grant and show the compassion that I will show. But, "He said, "you cannot see My face, for man cannot see Me and live." And the Lord said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.

The metaphysical reading of this passage is either that God is in His essence somehow too "intense" to be directly perceived by human senses without damage to the perceptual apparatus, or, more abstractly, that God in His essence cannot be comprehended by mortal (i.e., living) creatures because His essence in some way transcends their representational or computational capacities. Both interpretations have been offered by various commentators, and sometimes (it would appear) even by the same commentator.

In Neviim and Ketuvim we find many additional passages that accommodate themselves to interpretations involving the unknowability of God. Kohelet claims in 3:11 that "He also puts eternity in their mind, but without man ever guessing, from first to last, all the things that God brings to pass," and later in 11:5, that "Just as you do not know how the life-breath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen." Likewise, The Psalmist proclaims (Ps.145) "Great is the Lord and much acclaimed; His greatness cannot be fathomed," and (Ps.147) "Great is our Lord and full of power; His wisdom is beyond reckoning." The Jewish Apocrypha also contains similar references to God's unknowability. From Ben Sirah 43:27 (skehan_dilella_87), we have

More than this we will not add;
let the last word be "He is the all."
Let us praise Him the more, since we cannot fathom Him,
Extol Him with renewed strength,
and weary not, though you cannot fathom Him.
For who has seen Him and can describe Him?
or who can praise Him as He is?
Beyond these, many things lie hid;
only a few of His works have I seen.

However, the passages most frequently cited in support of God's ultimate unknowability are those from Isaiah and Job:

Who measured the waters with the hollow of His hand,
And gauged the skies with a span,
And meted earth's dust with a measure,
And weighed the mountains with a scale
And the hills with a balance?
Who has plumbed the mind of the Lord,
What man could tell Him His plan?
Whom did He consult, and who taught Him,
Guided Him in the way of right?
Who guided Him in knowledge
And showed Him the path of wisdom?
To whom, then, can you liken God,
What form compare to Him?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is God from of old,
Creator of the earth from end to end,
He never grows faint or weary,
His wisdom cannot be fathomed.
(Isaiah 40:12-28)

For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Behold, God is great, and we know it not, nor can the number of his years be searched out. (Job 36:26)

Would you discover the mystery of God?
Would you discover the limit of the Almighty?
Higher than heaven — what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol — what can you know?
(Job 11:7-8)

Although all these Biblical passages are wonderfully pregnant with metaphysical possibilities, and have of course been the subject of uncountable interpretations of metaphysical character, it is not completely clear whether the biblical authors generally intended their words to be understood as claims about the unknowability of God. The context of some of these passages often makes it seem more plausible that they are intended to highlight the great power of God or his great fidelity and consistency, rather than speaking to metaphysical issues. (For example, "My ways are not your ways" because "the word that issues from My mouth...does not come back to Me unfulfilled, But... achieves what I sent it to do.")

There are certainly also many passages that seem to convey the contrary idea, that God can be known. For example, in Proverbs (2:1-5) we have,

My son, if you accept my words
And treasure up my commandments;
If you make your ear attentive to wisdom
And your mind open to discernment;
It you call to understanding
And cry aloud to discernment,
If you seek it as you do silver
And search for it as for treasures,
Then you will understand the fear of the LORD
And attain knowledge of God.

More significantly, it seems to me that the entire message of Tanach is the knowability of God, and that most Biblical authors therefore do not have a conception of God as being unknowable. Rather, in most cases, God communicates his desires and attitudes plainly enough, and without any great sense of mystery. Nevertheless, the extent to which the Biblical authors where actually interested in metaphysics is something that can be endlessly debated, and which probably will.


  • First of all, you MUST get your hands on a book by Professor/Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz Z"L called "Man and God" by University of Wayne State Press. This book is an indepth analysis of these key phrases and an attempt to come to terms with them through contextual analysis.

    In reference to "Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen" I've personally explained this (in my limited understanding" as follows:
    HaShem is saying - You want to see my influence on creation BEFORE I initiate any given action? That you will never be able to understand. But AFTER the fact, what I leave behind in my wake so-to-speak, there you CAN see my actions and try to understand/interpet them.

    By Blogger Yoel.Ben-Avraham, at Oct 16, 2006, 10:12:00 PM  

  • Thanks Yoel. I will pick up a library copy tonight.

    I think your understanding Chapter 33 is similar to that of several commentators -- I can't remember which, of course -- that the reference to "God's back" refers to God's influence on history.

    I don't know whether this could have been the intended meaning of the author, but it's a great interpretation anyway.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 16, 2006, 10:34:00 PM  

  • > is in His essence somehow too "intense" to be directly perceived by human senses without damage to the perceptual apparatus

    The "Vachai" would therefore mean "and survive". Inference is at death, when the body is weak one may perceive Him. That elevates man and reduces God.

    The quotes from Kohelet etc... seem to deal more with God's actions than with His essence. that touches on the problem of Yediah and bechirah rather than His essence.

    Ben sirah seems to be addressing that.
    the other quotes deal with God as creator, actions attributed to him but not Him per se.

    God's unknowability is addressed very fleetingly because it has little practical application. God as Creator, Judge etc... demands certain obligations. Tanach is a practical guide leaving the metaphysics and theology to the more sophisticated.

    There is an intersting comment by Rambam in a his Iggeret Techyat Hametim. He says that resurrectiion was introduced by daniel, among the last prophets, because that concept could not have been assimilated by earlier generations. He therefore suggests first that there is an evolutionary process but more important not everything is set out up front even though it is part of our belief system.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Oct 17, 2006, 9:10:00 AM  

  • Thanks David. I agree with you on most counts. I tried to collect the most relevant quotes, but I agree that most are probably not speaking to the unknowability of God in the sense that the medievals later did. My only point of disagreement is on the idea that the "intensity" limitation is one that elevates man and diminishes God. The analogy that is offered is usually one of gazing at the Sun -- one cannot perceive the Sun directly (for more than a few seconds) because the intensity overwhelms the highly sensitive perceptual apparatus. The fact that this is so does not diminish the Sun in any way that I can think of.

    The "intensity" limitation on knowing God, it seems to me, is one that we can reasonably entertain, but it ultimately provides an inadequate understanding of the unknowability of God for a number of reasons. (Although it may have been more convincing to ancient thinkers.)

    First of all, we find all sorts of ways to avoid this kind of problem in practice; there are many ways to study the Sun, for example, without sacrificing one's eyesight, so this no longer provides a very compelling analogy. Also, we don't really observe the kind of negative effects that we might expect from the study of God under the "intensity" analogy. We don't see people withering away from the "intensity" of studying God, or at least I have not observed this. (We do often find them wearing spectacles, however. Hmmm.)

    So anyway, in my future posts, I will focus on the more abstract interpretation of the Exodus 33, that God somehow transcends the representational or computational capacities of human beings. I will try to examine what this means, and what its consequences might be.

    But first, stay tuned for "Talmudical Unknowability"!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 10:34:00 AM  

  • Don't you have to first discuss the definition of God before you can discuss if God is knowable?

    By Blogger B. Spinoza, at Oct 17, 2006, 11:42:00 AM  

  • Almost certainly... if one were to be certain about it. But, in any case, I'm not attempting to determine whether God is unknowable or not. Rather, I'm going to try to understand what "unknowable" means in this context, and — when properly understood — what are its inevitable consequences.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 11:49:00 AM  

  • Let me add that I will define God later on (for the purposes of this discussion). So as not to keep you in suspense, in a few posts from now I will define God as a system — a set of interacting variables. This will rub almost everyone the wrong way, but I will argue that it is the only way to meaningfully proceed. I hope you'll stay tuned...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 11:55:00 AM  

  • >ut, in any case, I'm not attempting to determine whether God is unknowable or not. Rather, I'm going to try to understand what "unknowable" means in this context

    This is pretty vague. What context is that?

    >I hope you'll stay tuned...

    I will, but I'm having a hard time understanding what you're trying to get at.

    By Blogger B. Spinoza, at Oct 17, 2006, 12:25:00 PM  

  • The context is the context in which people usually speak about God as being unknowable! In other words, I want to (in a few posts from now) propose a formal framework for "unknowability," then argue that this is a reasonable interpretation of what Rambam, Ramchal, etc., were trying to get at, and then show some consequences. If you know of anyone who has done this exercise before, please let me know!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 12:29:00 PM  

  • >If you know of anyone who has done this exercise before, please let me know!

    I'm not aware of anything like that. Will you be addressing the kabbalistic understanding of God too?

    By Blogger B. Spinoza, at Oct 17, 2006, 12:57:00 PM  

  • I hope to do so, although, as I mentioned, I am not an expert in any of these areas. Hopefully, you and others will be able to correct me where I go wrong. These posts are part of a longer article-thingy that I am continually revising, so any corrections and criticisms people give me on the postings will probably make their way into the "final" version, if there is one.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 17, 2006, 3:37:00 PM  

  • I think you need to make distinctions between God's essence, His knowledge, His will, and so forth.

    Each one is really a seperate discussion and there is much disagreement regarding which are knowable and to what extent.

    By Blogger chardal, at Oct 18, 2006, 2:09:00 AM  

  • Each one is really a separate discussion and there is much disagreement regarding which are knowable and to what extent.

    Very glad you stopped by, Chardal! It may be that these properties are knowable in different ways and to different extents, but I will take a shot at presenting a single formal framework for unknowability, and see how things might fit in. It seems to me that all these things should be representable in terms of the concept of "state", and that is how I will proceed. (I know that there are many objections to characterizing God in terms of state, but I think very few of them are coherent, and I will try to address those as they come up.)

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 18, 2006, 2:39:00 AM  

  • >in a few posts from now I will define God as a system — a set of interacting variables.

    See MN 1:72 and read carefully in context. Try the pines edition.

    "It is true, we might have compared the relation between God and the universe, to the relation between the absolute acquired intellect and man; it is not a power inherent in the body, but a power which is absolutely separate from the body, and is from without brought into contact with the body. The rational faculty of man may be further compared to the intelligence of the spheres, which are, as it were, material bodies."

    Acquired intellect of man is termed as "form", thus God is the "form" of existence in a sense.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Oct 18, 2006, 5:43:00 AM  

  • Thanks, I will look at it tonight. Actually, I'm learning Moreh (in English) with my brother, and we're almost up to there anyway!

    On the idea of God as "form", I think this was also Philo's conception (in his expansion on Exodus 33):

    [Moses says] "But what Thou art in Thy essence I desire to understand, yet find in no part of the All any to guide me to this knowledge." [...] [God] replies, "Thy zeal I approve as praiseworthy, but the request cannot fitly be granted to any that are brought into being by creation. I freely bestow what is in accordance with the recipient; for not all that I can give with ease is within man's power to take, and therefore to him that is worthy of My grace I extend all the boons which he is capable of receiving. But the apprehension of Me is something more than human nature, yea even the whole heaven and universe will be able to contain. [...] But while in their essence they [God's powers] are beyond your apprehension, they nevertheless present to your sight a sort of impress and copy of their active working. You men have for your use seals which when brought into contact with wax or similar material stamp on them any number of impressions while they themselves are not docked in any part thereby but remain as they were. Such you must conceive My powers to be, supplying quality and shape to things which lack either and yet changing or lessening nothing of their eternal nature. Some of you call them not inaptly "forms" or "ideas," since they bring form into everything that is, giving order to the disordered, limit to the unlimited, bounds to the unbounded, shape to the shapeless, and in general changing the worse to something better. Do not, then, hope to be ever able to apprehend Me or any of My powers in Our essence."

    However, I think this conception of God will also be amenable to my analysis based on "state". After all, even a "form" is not property-less!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 18, 2006, 12:31:00 PM  

  • I was not arguing just pointing to a similar idea.

    Form is a medieval concept not anything knowable or extant. It is in Hilchot yesodei Hatorah 4 ;13
    [ז] לעולם אין אתה רואה גולם בלא צורה, או צורה בלא גולם. אלא לב האדם--הוא שמחלק הגוף הנמצא בדעתו, ויודע שהוא מחובר מגולם וצורה, ויודע שיש שם גופים שגולמם מחובר מארבע יסודות, וגופים שגולמם פשוט ואינו מחובר מגולם אחר. והצורות שאין להם גולם, אינן נראין לעין, אלא בעין הלב הם ידועים, כמו שידענו אדון הכול בלא ראיית עין.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Oct 18, 2006, 3:00:00 PM  

  • It seems to me that all these things should be representable in terms of the concept of "state"

    It's hard for me to conceive of any of these things in such terms.

    To whatever extent we can talk about our conception of God, a conception that would be limited to state would lock itself into some sort of monistic conception of the universe.

    Such an approach would pretty much lock out of the discussion any of the more pluralistic (in the philosophical, not pc sense) approaches to reality including the pluralistic panentheism of many of the mekubalim.

    Also, even those thinkers who we would categorize as monistic such as the Rambam would probably still object to such an approach for it would likely destroy the conception of God as transcendent that they worked so hard to preserve. "God as 'state'" may be useful to the discussion but don't lock yourself out of more dynamic approaches to reality.

    By Blogger chardal, at Oct 18, 2006, 4:18:00 PM  

  • Well, Chardal, let's wait and see. Maybe the approach I am taking will prove to be dynamic enough to include many conceptions of God. I don't think it will preserve Rambam's sort of transcendence, but I also don't think it's possible to preserve such notions and maintain any kind of clarity.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 19, 2006, 4:25:00 AM  

  • There's an interesting quote from the rav in Gil's last post that runs headlong into the conclusion of the discussion.

    Excellent series, looking forward to the rest !

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Oct 19, 2006, 1:48:00 PM  

  • Thanks BA! I'll check it out!

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Oct 19, 2006, 1:56:00 PM  

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