I am in the middle of reading Leonard Sweet’s, Out of the Question…Into the Mystery, and without giving away my overall impression which shall be saved for a future review, I was just reading one section that really caught my attention. In the context of dealing with the story of Abraham offering Isaac, Sweet brings up the topic of how often biblical characters, specifically prophets, argued with God and appeared to win their cases. As a short list, Moses, Jacob and Abraham all argued with God and he appeared to change his mind.
In all this, Sweet’s point is that our genuine interaction with God is found in relationship and not in belief or doctrine. In support of this point, he quotes a book by Conrad Gempf. Gempf notes that disputing with Jupiter or Allah is likely to end badly for the human and disputing with Buddha will result in him chuckling at our missing the point of unreality. But,
“when you start arguing with Yahweh, he smiles, rolls up his anthropocentric sleeves, and starts to look interested. The strangest thing is that he likes losing the arguments even more than he likes winning them.”
My first reaction was, “is ‘losing the arguments’ the right way of putting that?” Does God ever ‘lose’ an argument, and if so, what does that mean about the biblical God?
I have to admit that these passages concerning those who wrestled with God or argued with him are fascinating, certainly full of meaning, and possibly very hard to wrap our theological selves around. So how ought I to approach these passages?
I think a first rule of thumb, contrary to Sweet’s intent, is that God never loses. If Sweet and Gempf intend to mean that God loses arguments in the sense that his original plan is exposed as wrong, shortsighted, or faulty in some fashion by a human, then I think they may both be way outside of the biblical witness of the nature of God.
One hermeneutical rule of thumb is that we ought to interpret the difficult passages in light of the clearer passages, and it is clear in Scripture that God is omniscient. Thus, it would not be in keeping with Scripture’s clear witness if we hold to a notion that God loses arguments in ways analogous to how I might lose an argument.
Maybe a good place to begin when looking at these kinds of passages is the exercise of God-given free will combined with an obedient relationship with God. If I am sure God never mistakes the effects of his actions and the set of current circumstances, then I am inclined to believe that ‘arguments’ with God are more about the display of human will and affection than of genuine argumentation. Don’t get me wrong, I believe Abraham was sincerely debating God over Sodom and Gomorrah, but because God’s ‘original plan’ was not wrongheaded, then I might more easily believe the conversation was intended to bring out Abraham’s affection for Lot and other humans than it was to correct God.
Nothing easy about these passages.