Growing up in the church, I often heard people throw around terms like “omnipotent,” “omnipresent,” and “omniscient” when describing God. Oversized words such as these seemed like suitable containers for capturing His greatness.
However, when reading Genesis recently, I found myself wondering exactly what it means for God to be “omniscient.” In chapter 18, I came across a verse that seemed to indicate that He didn’t know something.
In this chapter, God appears to Abraham as three men. He tells Abraham, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son” (Gen. 18:10). He then tells Abraham He’s going to visit Sodom and Gomorrah to see what’s happening there, more or less. “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave,” Genesis 18:20-21 reads. “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
This passage is a puzzle box when it comes to God’s omniscience. First, He tells Abraham he’s going to have a son, which suggests that He knows the future. At the same time, it sounds as if He’s not entirely sure what’s currently happening in Sodom and Gomorrah. How can this be? He’s heard an “outcry,” but it seems as though He needs to find out for Himself if the complaints are warranted.
How is it, I wondered, that God is omniscient, but seems to lack knowledge here?
People often turn to their pastors when questions like this burrow into their brains like moles. As the son of a Baptist minister, I call my dad. For his doctoral project, he focused on imparting a method for scriptural interpretation to laypeople, so I thought he might be able to help me understand Genesis 18.
“You have to look at the bigger picture,” Dad said. “Keep in mind that Abraham didn’t have a Bible to turn to if he had questions about God. More than anything, the Creator is showing Abraham what He’s like in this passage, Chad.”
“So this interaction is for Abraham’s benefit?” I asked. “I actually wondered if God was saying these things for Abraham, but I couldn’t figure out why.”
“Well, think about it this way: Sometimes parents say things within earshot of their children to let them in on things in a roundabout way, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, having learned this tactic from the man on the other end of the line.
“God is inviting Abraham into what He’s doing, and showing him who He is.”
“If you notice, God has a conversation with Himself in verse 17, and He’s letting Abraham eavesdrop on it,” Dad said. “God basically says, ‘Should I keep what I’m about to do from Abraham, or should I let him in on it?’”
“I noticed that and thought that was especially odd,” I said. “I thought, ‘Why is God broadcasting His inner monologue for Abraham to hear? What’s the point?’”
“He’s inviting Abraham into what He’s doing, and showing him who He is,” Dad said. “This ‘inner monologue’ section comes right before God says ‘I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’” (Gen. 18:21).
I heard the shuffling of pages over the phone and imagined Dad sitting in his library, searching for a source. He has thousands of books, and most feature his inky chicken scratch in the margins. To thumb through Dad’s books is to eavesdrop on his thoughts—to learn who he is, and how He views God, too.
“OK, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, the authors write, ‘To demonstrate divine justice, God “comes down” to investigate a situation before taking action.’ Note the use of the word “demonstrate.” God is demonstrating to Abraham who He is—showing him that He’s a just God” (page 50).
“So it’s not that God doesn’t know what’s happening in Sodom and Gommorah,” I said, “He’s kind of putting on an investigator’s hat—a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, if you will—so He can play a part for Abraham’s benefit?”
“That’s right,” Dad said. I could hear static and scuffling in my earpiece, as Dad hunted for another theological tome.
To demonstrate divine justice, God comes down to investigate a situation before taking action.
“In The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, it says, ‘Genesis 18:20-21 portrays the Lord again on a fact-finding mission.’ It portrays Him that way. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t know the information. The text goes on to say that this passage ‘should not be viewed as compromising attributes of God such as His omnipresence or omniscience but as reinforcing attributes such as justice.’ The author concludes, ‘A fair judge sees the evidence firsthand’” (page 475).
“So God is demonstrating to Abraham that He’s a fair judge.”
“Am I wrong, or does Jesus carry out demonstrations like this, too? Like when the bleeding woman touches His garment, and He says in Mark 5:30, ‘Who touched my garments?’ I’m guessing Jesus knows the answer to this question.”
“Right,” Dad said, “It’s for the benefit of those around Him. He’s letting the people eavesdrop so they’ll know who He is and what He can do. He’s revealing that He’s of God.”
It seems so strange. Most people ask questions because they want answers. Who asks them when they already know the answers?
Apparently, God does.
As I read the Bible this year, I find myself thinking about my conversation with my dad whenever I come across a perplexing passage. What does this part tell me about who God is? When I read Scripture this way, I feel as if I’m eavesdropping on what my Creator’s doing—surely God has invited all of us to listen in and know Him better.