How do you respond to Genesis 16:12?

The Lord describes Ishmael as “…a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.”

According to most Old Testament scholars the Lord is describing Ishmael’s descendants as much as he is describing Ishmael himself. The Lord foresaw that the nation which would descend from Ishmael (cf. 21:18) would be a fighting people.

This passage exalts God’s magnificent foreknowledge and sovereignty over his creation. He is the God who creates and perfectly knows all possibilities. Though the biblical author would of course not have spoken in these terms, we may understand this passage to proclaim that God creates and thus perfectly knows the genetic disposition of the father of this nation. Moreover, he can influence the genes of all his descendants if he so chooses. He also knows perfectly the turbulent political-geographical location in which he will lead these people. And, perhaps most importantly, he knows perfectly the plans and activities of all spiritual forces, including perhaps the “Prince” assigned to these people (cf. Dan. 10:10–21 regarding the “Prince of Persia” and the “Prince of Greece”). The Lord is thus able to know and sovereignly influence the character of this future nation. And he doesn’t have to micro-control and exhaustively foreknow the particular future activities of all the individuals in this nation to do it.

I suspect that believers sometimes embrace the “crystal ball” notion of God’s foreknowledge (viz. he sees everything that’s coming) because they can’t fathom the scope and wisdom of God’s providential guidance in the incomprehensibly complex world in which we live. It’s much easier for our finite minds to simply suppose that God possesses some sort of “crystal ball” vision.

Consider an analogy from chess. Many of us might be inclined to ascribe a precognitive ability to a supremely intelligent chessmaster who was able to consistently dominate otherwise brilliant opponents. Suppose that this chessmaster was so smart that regardless of how ingeniously her opponents moved she was able to countermove in such a way that it seemed as if she had anticipated that very move from the start of the game—for in fact she had from the start anticipated this (and every other) possibility. Now, finding it difficult to fathom an intelligence that could entertain so many possibilities at once—every possible move at a given moment, and every possible series of moves that would spring from whichever of these possibilities her opponents actualized—we might rather begin to suspect that perhaps this woman was winning her matches not by virtue of an extraordinary intelligence but by virtue of an unusual occultic ability to foresee her opponents’ moves. In other words, it would be easier to imagine that this woman foresaw the one actual series of moves her opponent was going to make than to imagine that she could intelligently anticipate every possible move her opponent could make.

In the same way, some believe the future is exhaustively settled because they simply can’t imagine how God could be smart enough to control world history otherwise. A God who could from all eternity pre-think all possibilities and all the possibilities which flow from each of those possibilities—infinity to the infinite power—is quite simply a God of unimaginable intelligence. Having set up the rules of the game, this supreme chessmaster is able to anticipate every possible move of every possible future “opponent” throughout history.

He may lose individual pieces—he is, after all, playing a real game against genuine opponents. But he is by virtue of his omniscience always certain to win the match. Indeed, so thorough is this chessmaster’s ability to intelligently anticipate every possible move that he often announces things like, “I shall capture your queen within 5 moves, regardless of what you do,” or “I may yet lose my bishop and up to four pawns, but this game shall be decided within sixteen moves.”

To our finite minds it may seems that a God who can operate and speak this way must either secretly control his opponents (Calvinism) or know exactly what move they will make (classical Arminianism). But there is a third alternative. Perhaps this God is so smart he doesn’t need to control or foreknow what his opponents are going to do. Perhaps he is so incomprehensibly intelligent he can from the start anticipate their every move without controlling or foreknowing what their moves shall be.

So far as I can see, this third option is the only one that exalts God’s wisdom. Controlling others simply takes brute strength while precognition simply takes unusual eyesight. Neither are intrinsically praiseworthy, however. But to be able to guarantee an outcome amidst an infinite sea of possibilities being decided by free agents–that takes infinite intelligence.

I believe it is at least partly because we cannot conceive of such an intelligence that we are inclined to ascribe to God attributes which explain his ability to control world history but which are much less exalted. But for just this reason I believe we must reject these latter options. Just because we cannot see how we could steer world history as effectively as God without a crystal ball or an all-controlling will does not mean that God needs these things. We must not “make God in our own image.” We must not restrict God with our limited human conceptions of power as control. We must let God be God, with all the majestic sovereignty that Scripture ascribes to him.

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