Is there a contradiction in Genesis 22:12?


I’m summarizing, but atheist Dan Barker stated in a debate with Kyle Butt that though some texts state God knows all things, in others he says he doesn’t! For example, he sees a contradiction in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac and God stops him and then says in Genesis 22:12, "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Barker says that "now I know" shows God isn’t omniscient but is still learning.

Is God omniscient or not?


Thanks for your question. To answer, let's look at three facets of it: (1) God is Omniscient, (2) Abraham’s Test, and (3) Now I Know.

God is Omniscient

God is omniscient and he even knows from all eternity the atheists and open theists that will attempt to distort his word by trying to make it say something it doesn’t! However, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa. 40:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:24-25). Unbelievers will come, misinterpret, argue, and try to cast doubt, but God’s word will still continue to stand as the bulwark of absolute truth! (Psa. 119:1-176).

As to omniscience, God's eyes "are in every place" (Prov. 15:3); "he knows the secrets of the heart" (Psa. 44:21); and "his understanding is infinite" (Psa. 147:5, NKJV). 1 John 3:20 tells us, "for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything." Numerous other texts state this same authoritative truth of God’s glorious omniscience (Psa. 139:2-4, 6-8; Prov. 15:3; Isa. 46:10; Jer. 17:10; Acts 2:23; 4:28; Heb. 4:13, et. al.). God’s omniscience is an eternal truth.

If God wasn’t omniscient, he simply wouldn’t be God! He couldn’t sovereignly act as he wouldn’t know the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10). Just imagine for a second God not being omniscient and trying to justify the condemnation of the entire human race, save eight, in Noah’s day. Wonder if one person would have been a single drop of water away from repenting. God wouldn’t have known it and would have sinned in his judgment of them! But God can’t sin (Heb. 6:18; Tit. 1:2), so it follows from Noah’s example that he must be omniscient.

Abraham’s Test

Regarding Abraham and Isaac, this was a test for Abraham. In Genesis 22:1 we read: "After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.'" The text is clear about the events of Genesis being a test for Abraham and not a learning experience for God. God already knew the outcome before the test even began—before all eternity (Isa. 46:10; cf. Psa. 33:11; Isa. 14:24; 25:1; 41:4).

In essence, Abraham’s test involved whether Abraham could give back to God his child—"your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love" (Gen. 22:2), the son God had given him. Isaac carried and embodied all the promises that God made to Abraham. He and Isaac both knew God’s covenant promise of giving Isaac a multitude of descendants (Gen. 17:3-7; 21:12). But could Abraham give Isaac back to God? Abraham could say, "Yes I will," but when asked to actually do it, he couldn’t know until he actually took the difficult physical and emotional steps to accomplish it. But Abraham obeyed God. He believed that, if needed, God would even raise Isaac from the dead (Gen. 22:5; cf. Heb. 11:17-19).

In Galatians 3:8 we're told that Abraham had the gospel preached to him. Abraham believed and was innately a Christian (Gen. 15:6; John 8:56; Rom. 4:3, 22; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23). Christians are tested. God was testing Abraham, proving him for his own benefit. Abraham passed God’s test; he did essentially sacrifice Isaac, but was prevented from killing him. Providentially, God provided an innocent substitute, and Isaac’s life was spared, given back, as it were, from the dead (Gen. 22:9-14; cf. Heb. 11:19; Jas. 2:21-24). He then reassured Abraham of the multitude of descendants that would come through his son Isaac (Gen. 22:15-19).

God already knew how Abraham would come through this test of his faith. However, now Abraham received incredible evidence of it as well. He now more fully understood his faith towards his Creator and Savior. He now could please God even more (Heb. 11:6). And now, today, believers have his example as "the children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7, 9; cf. Luke 19:8; Rom. 4:16).

Now I Know

As we’ve seen above, the event in question was a test for Abraham and not a learning experience for God.

God already knew of Abraham’s faithfulness. After all, in his sovereignty, God already had ram in waiting to be sacrificed (Gen. 22:13). According to Genesis 22:5, Abraham expected to come back down from Mount Moriah with Isaac. Do you really think God forgot all this as he tested Abraham?

God already knew that Abraham had proven his faith before. For instance, Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave his family and country (Gen. 12:4). In Genesis 18:19 we read of God’s utter confidence in Abraham saying, "For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him." And why would God have confidence in Abraham? Because God himself was working in him "both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).

Abraham was a chosen vessel of the Lord to accomplish his will! As much as God is omniscient, Abraham was not. But God had always known that Abraham would be found faithful. God doesn’t make mistakes and he had already given Abraham the promises of Genesis 12:1-3.

So, when the text says "Now I know" what does it mean? There are two possible solutions. Was it the angel of the Lord or God speaking?

The Angel of the Lord Speaking

Genesis 22:11-12, 15 says, "But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' … And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven." So this angel of the Lord definitely had a mission that concerned Abraham. If "I" in "Now I know" refers to the angel of the Lord then God’s omniscience isn’t even in question as it isn’t him speaking, and angels aren’t omniscient. Therefore, the text would mean, "I, the angel of the Lord, now know as God already did that you, Abraham, are faithful."

The Lord Speaking

Most likely we are supposed to understand this as God literally speaking through the angel of the Lord. If it is God literally speaking, then he must mean Abraham’s "now," not his own. Though no illustration using temporal things to demonstrate the eternal is perfect, perhaps an analogy would help:

A parade may be viewed from various perspectives. Consider someone standing on the street and slowly watching the parade pass by. They slowly observe the parade section by section. Now imagine another person standing on the rooftop of a skyscraper. They can see what is happening from a long way off. If their position is right, they can even see the end from the beginning.

God’s view of the Abraham/Isaac event would be from the skyscraper. He could see everything from a long way off and thus already knew what was going to happen. But when God made his statement, he momentarily left the skyscraper and spoke to Abraham at the street perspective. Here God’s view was the same as Abraham’s, so he says, "Now I know." For Abraham, he would now understand what God had already known from a great distance off.

God knowing "now" doesn’t negate his always knowing from all eternity. He knows everything—past, present, future, and even things that could have been, but aren’t and won’t ever be.

One last comment. The events of Genesis 22 occurred in "the land of Moriah" (Gen. 22:2). This also was where the temple was built. In 2 Chronicles 3:1 we see that the people of God worshiped on Mount Moriah (aka, Mount Zion). Many commentators understand Mount Moriah as the very mountain on which Abraham offered Isaac. But if it wasn’t, most certainly the Abraham/Isaac event, Jerusalem, and its temple were all still located in the region of Moriah. Golgotha was in the land of Moriah as well and so, in other words, Jesus may have been crucified near Moriah or at its very summit. There were 42 generations between Abraham and Christ (Matt. 1:17). Only a God that is absolutely omniscient could have put such a lengthy historical puzzle together from the very beginning!

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).