Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about God’s behavior

Many people, if not most of them, are convinced that they know quite a lot about God and the people mentioned in the Bible. They would be surprised and some even angry to discover that most if not all that the Bible states about them is obscure. It clearly wants us to think about all that is in scripture and to act properly. The following are some examples about God:

  • What is God telling us in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 which seems to be a description of creation and the order in which it transpired? This question is especially significant when it is recalled that scientists insist that creation did not occur as the Bible describes it.
  • The Bible is not the only book with a description of creation. The Greeks and later Romans had their own views how creation occurred. Why is the Biblical account so different?
  • There are two different nouns that the Bible uses to describe God”: Elohim used in chapter 1 and y-h-v-h used in chapter 2. Are critical scholars correct in insisting that humans composed the Bible, one person or group composed chapter 1 and preferred to call God Elohim while the other person or group wrote chapter 2 using y-h-v-h to describe God?
  • The Bible tells us what God says even though speech requires a vocal cord and it is philosophically untenable to suppose God has it. What does it mean that God said something? Maimonides (1138-1204) states in his Guide of the Perplexed book 2 chapter 48 that we should understand that God did not say what the Bible maintains He said. Whenever the Bible has God say or do something it should be understood as an act according to the laws of nature. For example, the ten plagues that afflicted the Egyptians who enslaved the Israelites was a natural event. Maimonides continues, the acts are ascribed to God not because God did them but because God is their ultimate cause since He created or formed the laws of nature.
  • In his Guide of the Perplexed 1:54, Maimonides points to the Torah itself where Moses asks God to describe himself and God tells Moses how he can be understood. This occurs in Exodus 33:18-23. Moses begs God to show him God’s “glory,” meaning what God is. God replies metaphorically. God says He will pass by Moses but cover Moses with His hand so that he cannot see Him until He has passed by. “And I will take away My hand, and you will see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” I understand that Maimonides interpreted this event as follows: God told Moses that he cannot see or even understand what God is (God’s face). Moses can only see God’s back, meaning what God has created. Put more clearly: If people want to understand God, the best they can do is understand what God created, the laws of nature.
  • Maimonides states in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:56 that humans are incapable of understanding God. The best that they can understand is negatives, what is philosophically illogical such as there cannot be more than one God. He recognizes that the rabbis made some positive descriptions of God such as God being all powerful. These statements are not entirely true simply because it is impossible for humans to know anything positive about God, but if we want, it hurts no one to accept the positive rabbinical depictions. Many philosophers and non-philosophers agreed with Maimonides, including Thomas Aquinas in “Summa contra gentiles.”
  • In Genesis 1:28, God instructs the first human, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” Is this three separate commands and, if so, what is each requiring. If it is a single instruction, why say it in three different ways?
  • God continues in this verse instructing human to “subdue” the earth, How is this done? Why is there a need to do something after God had created what the Bible states satisfied God?
  • If we accept Maimonides view in 2:48 that God is not speaking but it is part of the laws of nature, should we understand that it is humans who feel they must procreate and subdue the earth? Why does the laws of nature put these requirements in human nature? Are the philosophers correct that people want children because it is a type of immortality and want to improve the land because they feel that their children should have an easier and more enjoyable life than they are having?
  • Why is 2:24 part of nature, a “man should leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”? Why is this statement made only about a man? Why can’t the man remain with his parents? Is society better when men do not stay overlong with their parents?
  • Why do the laws of nature create jealousy between siblings? Is it to assure that each child goes his and her own way to further society?
  • Are the separation of children from their parents and from siblings one of the many proofs of the genius of the laws of nature?
  • Maimonides reads the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 as a parables. He understands the biblical term “image of God” in 1:27 to mean that people are like God in the sense that they can think, but God’s thinking is totally different than human thinking. He sees this as a command for people to develop their ability to understand the world and how God functions in the world. He is convinced that people can only do so if they begin by learning the sciences. He sees the initial Torah narrative as an explanation of the science of the creation of the world. It shouldn’t be taken literally. It is only a parable. But it prompts people to do what they should do: learn physics.
  • In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:17 and 18, Maimonides states that divine providence, the concept that God is watching over humans, should be understood that God gave people intelligence, and if they use it, they are, in effect, being watched over by God: “I hold that divine providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because providence can only proceed from an intelligent being … .every person has his individual share of divine providence in proportion to his (intellectual) perfection.”
  • Maimonides and other religious and lay scholars note that the Hebrew Bible describes God doing things just as humans do. This is called anthropomorphisms, ascribing to non-humans human acts. All answer that when the Bible was written most people would better understand what transpired when the actor, such as a serpent, donkey, or even God acts in a human manner.
  • A similar concept is anthropopathism, ascribing to a non-human a human emotion. Such as saying that God became angry. They explain that by doing so people reading the Torah can better identify with God, feeling good about God when God is described as happy and fearful they will be punished and remedy their behavior when they read that God becomes angry.
  • Did God create the world out of nothing? The Greek philosopher Aristotle said no. God formed the world from preexisting material. Scholars differ whether Maimonides accepted Aristotle’s view. The opening of Genesis 1 can be read to support either view. It is obscure.
  • What does Genesis 3:22 tell us about God who said after Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil “Behold the man is become as one of us to know good and evil.”
  • Why in 3:22-24 God drives Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden “lest they put forth their hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”? Why is God concerned?
  • If the two trees were dangerous, why did God place them in the garden? What does this tell us about God?
  • When people began to build a tower “with its top in heaven,” God was displeased in Genesis 11:6 and said “this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do,” and God punished them. Why? The people would obviously be unable to build the tower to heaven. Shouldn’t God applaud their attempt, their desire for progress?
  • Is the punishment for their act overly harsh and, if not, why is it proper?
  • Many people think that what God wants from them is to rely on him. If they are in trouble, they should pray to him, be passive, believe in God and all will be well. Find a way to be close to God. Spend time reading books of the Bible and books written by pious people. Recite Psalms. Know that God loves you and draw your strength from his love. If you look to him, everything else is footnotes. All else will fall into place. If you do not look to God, no amount of techniques or strategies will help you, all will be for nothing. If you focus upon yourself, look to improve yourself and society, you will prevent the very growth you desire. This is not the Jewish view. It is not what God expects of humans. It is not why God created people. The Hebrew Bible does not, as some insist, say that we must be passive and wait for God to create a messianic age. It tells us in 1:27 that we are created in the image of God, which means we were given intelligence with the expectation that we use it and, like God, create. There is nothing in the Bible suggesting people should be passive. There is no figure in scripture who sits and reads. The first command that God gave humans was in Genesis 1:28 was to act, to be fruitful, multiply, replenish the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over everything. Even if we do not know specifically what dominion means, it certainly does not mean be passive and depend on God.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.