Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Infinite and Infinitesimal

“And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel — and God knew.”

Here we have a series of what can only be called anthropomorphisms. Okay, I suppose technically we could call them “verbs ascribing human actions to that which is not human”, but let’s take six syllables over fifteen. The point is that the writer of Exodus is using language we understand to describe processes we can’t possibly comprehend.

Consider ...

Spirit, Not Flesh

God is spirit, not flesh. He does not possess eardrums, ear canals, cochlea or an auditory nerve. He does not store memories as electrical and chemical signals. Optic nerves, corneas and retinas are marvelous things God designed, but he does not require eyes to see, ears to hear, or synaptic patterns in order to remember. When we read that God “knew” a thing, it is not because sensory organs informed him.

However God sees, it is not the way we see. Our vision is directional. God’s is 360 degrees, in every quadrant and color spectrum, through time and space with absolute precision and detail. He hears at all frequencies, at all levels of volume, everything everywhere and everywhen. In space, when an asteroid hits a satellite, God knows what that doesn’t sound like. Even when it misses, he knows what it would have sounded like under every conceivable set of circumstances because he is a God of all possibilities. When we say that God remembers, we are not using the word as the opposite of human forgetfulness, because technically it is impossible for God to forget anything unless he so chooses.

The Information Cascade

So, where human knowledge is made up of what we remember of what we have seen and heard, God’s knowledge is made up of what to the human senses would be an infinite cacophony of information; an endless barrage of incomprehensible sensory input. Were we subject to it for even a millisecond, it would surely end us or drive us mad. Everything that is and has ever been and ever will be is at every moment present in the divine consciousness. Even trying to describe the difference between how we experience reality and how God does is a lost cause. Every word, phrase and sentence I choose screams out its inadequacy as I type it.

And yet, by expressing it in four different ways, it would seem that the writer of Exodus is trying to communicate that in the midst of this unimaginable information cascade, God paid specific attention to a cry for help from a comparatively tiny family of human slaves in desperate need of deliverance. That’s like locating a single drop of water in a waterfall, except orders of magnitude more unlikely. How can you explain that marvel to people so comparatively dull and limited?

Well, you work with what you have at hand. You use the analogies of sight, hearing, memory and cognition to remind the reader that the eternal God does not cease to be local just because he is universal; that with God, ubiquity does not preclude specificity; that an intelligence that encompasses everything from atoms to black holes can be focused in loving care on the most infinitesimal human need.

The Time Factor

When we think of the distance between God and man, this is surely the marvel of marvels. But then there is also the time factor. The cry for help to which God responded by sending Moses was not the first cry that ever went up. We do not know for how many generations the children of Israel were enslaved, but it was long enough that the slaves built cities for their masters and multiplied and spread abroad throughout Egypt. It was long enough for Moses to be born, grow to manhood, and then leave Egypt for forty years. Israel became a nation of millions in these years, so we may reasonably imagine millions of cries and groans per day multiplied by thousands of days in which Israelites lived, labored, groaned and died, lived, labored, cried out and died, and lived, labored, groaned, cried out and died again.

Now, as much as the Israelites suffered, we must remind ourselves that there is no such thing as collective pain or national suffering. As bad as it may have been to be enslaved, each Israelite’s experience was individual. No single Israelite bore the emotional weight of his entire suffering nation. But God did. In all those long years, God heard every cry of distress individually and felt the frustration and bitterness of every Israelite more keenly than he or she did.

Yet God responded to none of these cries, because it wasn’t time yet. Israel had to be numerous enough to fill the land God had promised them. They had to have become a sufficiently important part of the Egyptian economy that Pharaoh could not imagine letting them leave, so that God could use Pharaoh to demonstrate his greatness to the nations. The Israelites had to be sufficiently fed up with their lot that even the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt were not enough to keep them from flocking into the desert at the first opportunity. They had to be ready to hear and obey Moses, or there would be no point in delivering them. And it was not all about Israel: the iniquity of the Amorites also had to be complete.

So God waited. And waited. And waited.

The Patience of God

Speaking of which, talking of the Eternal “waiting” seems as unlikely as all these other anthropomorphisms. That which is ever-present in the divine mind can hardly be said to have been waited for. With God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. With God, there is no waiting in the sense we experience it. And yet Peter tells us that “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” In fact, he speaks repeatedly of God’s patience. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish.” We too are the beneficiaries of this remarkable quality, and we ought to acknowledge it. “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation,” he finishes.

Indeed. God waits.

So God waited patiently for the Israelites to recognize their need, acknowledge their inability to do anything about it, and cry out for help from a God they didn’t yet know. And when the time came, he officially acknowledged that of which he was always eternally and absolutely aware, and he began to act on behalf of Israel to accomplish its deliverance.

How can we possibly measure the grace of the infinite toward the infinitesimal? We cannot. But we can and should marvel at it.

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