by Lois Tverberg
“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9 NIV; also Habakkuk 2:14)
The Bible often talks about having the “knowledge of the Lord,” and we may wonder what knowledge God desires of us. Does this really refer to a perfect doctrinal understanding of the godhead? How much theological expertise do we need?
We as Christians often focus on knowledge by defining ourselves in terms of our creeds. Yet as much emphasis as we place on knowledge, we know that information alone is not God’s ultimate goal.
Paul points out that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). James points out that even demons know the truth about God, and it makes them shudder (James 2:19). Indeed, Satan could probably give correct answers to some of the world’s most difficult theological questions, perhaps more than any other created being, but he does not have a saving knowledge of Christ.
Indeed, sometimes our desire to “know” can lead us into problems. We can do damage by trying to know what really can’t be known. We’ve all heard of people going through great difficulties who are hurt by others who claim to “know” why their prayers aren’t being answered. Such people discourage their hurting friends by falsely accusing them of sin or lack of faith, as Job’s friends did.
God doesn’t require that we have all the answers about why he acts as he does. It is interesting that Job expressed his anger with God and his confusion about why he permitted all sorts of evil on earth, and God declared that Job spoke “truthfully.” On the other hand, God was quite angry with Job’s friends whose cold-hearted theology had all the answers worked out. Although Job’s friends were trying their best to be theologically correct, they did not know the mind of God:
The LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has. (Job 42:7, NASB)
From Job’s case, it seems that sometimes our honest questions are more truthful in God’s eyes than a claim to have all the answers.1
We also see that our desire to read the mind of God can undermine what he has revealed in his word. For instance, people ponder God’s control over the future and sometimes conclude that if God foresees all and is unchangeable, there is no reason to pray. As a result, they can become fatalists and give up. However, the clear words of Jesus are that we should always pray and never give up (Luke 18:1)! Our own logic may lead us to a wrong conclusion. We are wiser to admit that we cannot know the depths of God’s mind, and conclude that if Jesus tells us to pray, our prayers are worthwhile and effective.
A Rabbinic Observation about Knowledge
The rabbis had some wisdom on this issue. They asked the question, “Why do the Scriptures begin with the second letter of the alphabet rather than the first?”2 (In Hebrew the first word of Genesis is breisheet, which starts with the Hebrew letter bet, which is the second letter, after aleph.) Their insightful answer was, “To show that the Scriptures do not answer every question, and not all knowledge is accessible to man, but some is reserved for God himself.”
They also pointed out that the letter bet is closed on the right side but open on the left. Since Hebrew is read from right to left, it appeared to them that the Scriptures start with a letter that is open in the direction of the reading, but closed toward the beginning of the text. It’s as if there is a one-way sign saying that we need to start here and move forward through the Scriptures.
The point of this midrash, “interpretive story,” is not to discourage study and inquiry, but to note that God has chosen to allow some things to remain a mystery to man. Even in the very first sentence of the Bible, there is no attempt to answer the question of where God himself came from. Pagan creation accounts always began with stories about how the gods themselves came into existence, feeling the need to address that question. God in his majesty does not give every answer, just as he did not give Job every answer for the questions he asked.
Greek intellectualism has influenced our thinking, and it tends to lead Christians to believe that we are capable of understanding anything we might ask God: but just as Moses could not see all of God’s glory and live, so too would we be overwhelmed by the enormity of God’s thoughts. We forget that whole libraries have been written to describe the workings of just one cell of the human body, and that God designed everything from electrons to galaxies. We are just specks in the vast ocean of God’s intellect. We need to realize the wisdom in being able to humbly say, “I don’t know” and letting God alone know some things.
A Hebraic Insight on Knowledge
If we look at the idea of “knowledge” as it is understood in Hebrew, we can have a better understanding of the knowledge that God desires of us. When English speakers use the verb “to know,” we think of our mental grasp of facts. In Hebrew, however, the word for “to know,” yadah, is much broader in scope.
Rather than just knowing information, the Hebrew idea of yadah stresses knowing from experience and relationship, and acting on that knowledge.3 When used in terms of knowing people, it can mean caring for someone, even mean being intimate sexually. For instance, the very literal King James Version reads:
And Adam knew (yadah) Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.
(Genesis 4:1, KJV)
This idea is especially important when we learn about the biblical concept called the “knowledge of God,” da’at elohim. We as Westerners may think this means to prove God’s existence and establish a theological model to explain God’s nature. But the Hebrew view is that “knowledge of God” is having a life in relationship with him. We can see this way of thinking when we compare Christian translations of the Bible with a Jewish translation. The New International Version has:
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him — the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD — ” (Isaiah 11:2)
But the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society reads:
The spirit of the LORD shall alight upon him: a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:2, JPS)
Hebraically, knowledge is not just knowing who someone is, it is devotion to them as well. Jews see knowledge of God as intimacy with God, knowing him as a son does his father, and as a wife her husband. We should think of that when we share our faith. Are we trying to fill people’s minds with facts, or are we bringing people to know the Lord personally? How well do we know him ourselves?
In this context, we can understand the Jewish idea that “study is the highest form of worship”; as Abraham Heschel said, while Greeks (Europeans and Americans) study to comprehend, Jews study to revere.4 When we study God’s word in order to know him intimately and do his will, we are truly honoring God as our Father and Lord, whereas when we study just to fill our brains to become more respected, or to set others straight on what we disagree with them about, it is knowledge that has little use but to make us arrogant.
In the ministry of En-Gedi, we have struggled with how to communicate that our ministry is educational, but devotional in nature; that we want to bring people closer to the Lord by understanding the Bible in its context.
A verse we felt the Lord had given us was: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9 NIV; also Habakkuk 2:14). We had pondered the verse for years, looking for insight that it would give us into our calling. When we read it in the Jewish translation, we finally understood it better. It says that the earth “shall be filled with devotion to the LORD as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:9, JPS).
1 Dickenson, A. The Gospel According to Moses: What my Jewish friends taught me about Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press / Baker Book House, 2003) has a wonderful discussion on bringing our doubts to God, and on dealing with paradoxes: see pp.15-28 and 63-80.
2 Lieber, D. L. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), p. 3.
3 Wilson, M. R, Our Father Abraham: The Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 287-289. Wilson’s chapter on “The Contour of Hebrew Thought,” especially the idea of “block logic” (pp. 150-153) is also extremely helpful in understanding the way the Bible “thinks.”
4 See the En-Gedi article “Does God Want Us to Fear Him?“