Monday, August 5, 2013

Is the God of the Bible Really Supposed to be Omnipotent?

Last week I was reading Exodus 3 (that post should go live as soon as I can find 20 quiet uninterrupted minutes to record a podcast) where God talks to Moses through the burning bush. Within his speech to Moses, God says that he sees his people suffering and wants to help them get out of their current situation. He wants Moses to go help them, and God will be there with him to help him be successful. I have been having trouble interpreting passages like this for a while now.

I'm trying to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt as much as I can, I don't want to just always look at things in a negative light, I want to try to consider a positive interpretation whenever possible. In this case God sees a group of people dealing with extreme hardship and takes steps to help them out. He seeks out Moses and tells him to go help those people, and God will even be there with him to make sure he's successful. That sounds pretty good right? He's helping people.

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On the other hand, he's omnipotent. He supposedly can do anything. Is he doing enough to help these people? He could just blink them out of their slavery. He could put the Egyptians in prison long enough for his people to get away. Hell, given that he is also omiscient, he could have made sure they were never put in slavery in the first place. Early on when the king of Egypt was screwing them over and putting them on the path toward slavery he could have put a stop to it somehow.

You might say God is doing all of this for the benefit of Moses, to teach him that he can be a powerful leader. That seems to be a lot of suffering happening to a lot of people for the benefit of one man. And as far as I can tell, any other rationalization will have the same problem. Whatever God's aims, it is hard to imagine that an omniscient and omnipotent God couldn't come up with a better way to do it. But what if God wasn't originally supposed to be so powerful?

We know that the surrounding people all had their own gods, my understanding is that everyone around back then were polytheists. I have my god, you have yours. My god could come and help me out when I am fighting against you with the help of your god. From this perspective Yahweh looks so much better in this story. His people are slaves of the Egyptians, of course the Egyptians have their gods. Yahweh asks Moses to go help his people and he will use what power he has to make sure Moses is successful. This would show real bravery on Moses' part, and even on Yahweh's if there could be a potential battle of the gods.

This goes for other stories that we recently saw in Genesis, consider the whole story of Joseph (Genesis 37-Genesis 46). One reason given for the whole episode is so that Joseph can save a bunch of people from starving during the 7 year famine. How much sense does that make? An all powerful god could have just made the famine not happen, or he could have warned someone already in a position of power, or even with the famine he could have given everyone a magical pantry that refills with food whenever it runs out. However, if he's one god among many with a limited amount of power, he could be setting up some very delicate events to save as many people as possible.

There are many other stories like this, if Yahweh is one god among many with limited power it is easy to imagine that he is doing the best he can with the situation in front of him. He can't save everyone but he can push things one way or the other and help large groups of people. If he's the one and only god with unlimited power and ultimate knowledge his actions are inadequate at best and psychotic at worst.


  1. I think you're exploring an interesting line of thought here. Yahweh definitely evolves through the Old Testament, starting out as a tribal deity, then becoming a national god, then a universal god. Could it be that he also started out as non-omnipotent, evolving into the omnipotent deity of Christianity?

  2. Hausdorff, there is, indeed, one line of scholarly thought which suggests just such an evolution of power. If you forget about the NT, the creation story in Genesis, where God says "let us make man in our image", certainly could make it seem like a polytheistic beginning. There are a lot of nuances in the language of what God is called which could indicate a blending of different gods into one God. Later, when you get to the day of atonement and the scapegoat is released, some scholars believe that the scapegoat was effectively chased off or hurled off a cliff as propitiation to another god.

    However, an alternate, faith-friendly explanation is that God is making things happen this way to cause a long-term cultural change to serving and worshiping God. These epic stories would serve as a memorable and convincing background to that purpose. A little bit later in Exodus, before the actual Exodus, you'll see God effectively claiming just that.

    Now, whether or not that is the best policy for God to have is certainly up for argument. However, if God has decided to only interact directing in our affairs a limited number of times, the question then becomes what does God have to do to make the most impact; to perpetuate belief and service to Him from generation to generation. With a couple billion following Him today, a case could certainly be made that He did His job well.

    I think much else in the Bible discredits this "God" as nothing more than the product of imagination, but on this particular point, I can't say that it is totally unreasonable.

  3. "if God has decided to only interact directing in our affairs a limited number of times"

    I guess that is the key, isn't it? If he wants to interact with us as few times as possible, and with as little impact as possible, perhaps we can make sense of these things. God didn't want to cancel the famine because he doesn't want to interfere too much. Although with that reasoning it's hard to justify the flood. :)

  4. As with Superheroes (like your image suggests) the narrative becomes less interesting the more powerful they become. The only reason anyone reads Superman is because he fights similarly over-powered bad guys. God needs to either be less powerful or at least have an near equally powerful enemy for anyone to care.

    1. Gods enemy is called reason. ;) It has all the same attributes its not omnipotent and omniscient.

    2. That's true, maybe God created the devil so that his stories wouldn't be too boring. :)

    3. Not only do you need to make the stories more interesting, but tyrants always want to have an external enemy, or a scapegoat to blame problems on, for people to unite against (and behind the leader at the same time). That's what the Bible does by creating the devil.

    4. I think you are exactly right Sheldon. Of course with God it makes little sense as he's all powerful, but Christians often don't seem to pay attention to that part of it.


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