Ki Tissa
For the week of February 19, 2011 / 15 Adar 5771
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
Haftarah: 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 18:1-39

Avoiding the Philosophical Trap

The LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Shemot / Exodus 32:14; ESV)

I appreciate the study of theology. As we grow in our understanding of Scripture, we have the opportunity to get to know God better and be better equipped to live life the way God intended. However, I find that sometimes instead of theology, scripture study becomes nothing more than philosophy. It's not that philosophy itself is useless or that we should never grapple with some of the difficult philosophical issues that arise from Scripture. It's that sometimes philosophical questions can get in the way of the wisdom that God has for us in his written Word.

For example, this week's Torah portion contains a philosophical trap. In the incident of the golden calf, Moses was with God on Mt. Sinai for over a month. The people's impatience led them to idolatry and gross sinful behavior. God told Moses that he was going to destroy the people and make a new nation from Moses. In response Moses pleaded on behalf of the people, asking God to change his mind, which he did.

But how could it be that the all-knowing God could change his mind? If God knows everything, and he determines to do something, why would he change his course of action? Didn't God know that Moses would respond the way he did? If so, then was his original intention simply a ploy to get Moses to do what he did, so that God could appear to change his mind, when in fact, he had no intention of destroying the people in the first place?

Others look at a passage like this and conclude that God must not be all knowing after all and is just one of the players in the story, albeit a strong player. They assert that God's purposes are dependant upon the affairs of mankind. The problem with this view is that it doesn't hold up to the overall view of God in the Bible. Claiming that God is limited may provide philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn't alleviate the tension that arises from the study of the whole Bible.

The real difficulty about a passage like this is not what we know about God, but not realizing what we don't know. If we assume that the Bible is exhaustive in its revelation of God, then we might think that resolving philosophical issues like this would be only a matter of study. But the Bible isn't exhaustive in what it teaches about God; it is sufficient. While it provides all we need to know about him, the infinite Master of the Universe is way more than what we could ever comprehend. The fact is the Bible doesn't give us all the information necessary to resolve some of its own philosophical problems.

But God didn't give us the Bible to satisfy our philosophical needs and desires. He gave it to us to help us to be the people he designed us to be. This is how a passage like this one is meant to function. Here we have the example of Moses - a man who truly knew God as the all powerful and all knowing God he is. But when Moses was faced with a most tragic situation of God's judging the people, he didn't grapple with a philosophical crisis, he rather cried out on the people's behalf instead. Knowing God, his power and his faithfulness, enabled Moses to successfully pray for God's forgiveness and mercy.

Getting to know God and how to live for him is not a matter of figuring him out. That doesn't mean that we don't use our minds - far from it! But as we use our minds to grapple with Scripture, we need to stop trying to do philosophy. Instead we need to allow the great complexity of biblical truth, philosophical problems and all, to do its work in our hearts and lives.

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