Given my fascination with epistemology, one of the things that intrigue me about the Old Testament is the way the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Pentateuch, uses one of its primary epistemic terms, ידע (knowing), with a range of semantic senses that does not neatly overlap with our primary epistemic term of knowledge. It describes the serpents portrayal of God’s knowledge about Adam and Even if they were to eat of the tree of knowledge of good of evil. In Genesis 3.7, it is used to describe Adam and Eve’s knowledge about their own nakedness. It is then used to describe sexual relations between Adam and Even in Genesis 4.1 and 4.17. It is used to refer to (lack of) knowledge of the whereabouts of Abel in Genesis 4.9. It is attributed to Abraham in Genesis 12.11 describing the beauty of his wife Sarah. Perhaps one of the most significant uses in the Old Testament is in Exodus 2.25, where it refers to God’s ‘response’ to the Israelites’ groaning.
There is one common factor in these few uses of ידע that importantly differs from the way we understand “knowledge” today. In the Old Testament, knowledge tends to be social, describing ‘knowledge’ of persons.
Our usual usage of “knowledge” in our modern world tends to be ‘facts’ driven, where we know things about about something. It can be about people, such as I know the facts of my parents birthday, but the emphasis upon knowledge in the modern world is upon a representation that I have inside my mind of the world around me. To know the truth is to know the true facts, theories, propositions, etc. about specific states of affairs. This knowledge then can be used in various ways. For instance, knowledge about Einsteins’ general theory of relativity can be used to help provide understanding about the cosmos, help adjust satelites for the relativistic time effects, and used as a basic axiom to further develop more scientific hypotheses and theories. Knowledge is the modern world is “multifunctional,” in that specific forms of knowledge can be used to accomplish various, which is owing to how knowledge, particualry scientific knowledge, functions as paradigms that we extend to various situations, circumstances, questions, and topics. Put simply, knowledge in our modern world is reliable information that will help us to accomplish other tasks.
That is not how ידע words in the Old Testament. It is not focused on simply a description of a state of affairs that can be used, but it refers to some type of knowledge that directly or indirectly relates to actions and outcomes. You can not look at ידע as a knowledge of information that can be used in many repreated scenaros. Rather, ידע typically compels to a certain form of action. To know is to be compelled to action.
Let’s take the somewnat complicated usage of ידע to refer to sexual intercourse in Genesis 4.1. Often refered to as a euphemism or as description of intimacy, I have come to the opinion that neither of these accounts are getting at the heart of the what the Hebrew is conveying. Rather, I have come to take ידע along the lines of an understand-action script, where the full exposure of Eve to Adam is what Adam ‘knows’ and then implicit is conjugal relations. Adam knows Even in here nakedness, echoing back to what we have in Genesis 3.7. As such, the language is essentially synonymous with the other common language for sexual intercourse in the Pentaeuch, uncovering nakedness, with one bit significant difference: to ‘know’ someone is an appropriate type of exposure, whereaas to ‘uncover nakedness’ is an inapprorpiate type of expsoure.
The point being is that ידע of sexual relations in Genesis 4 is not so much a euphemism for sex, but rather a word with the implied undersatnd-action script that harkens back to the reality after Adam and Eve at of the tree of knowledge. A distance was created due to shame that made them hide their bodies from each other. The knowledge (דַּ֫עַת) of good and evil had created a distancing of Adam and Eve from each other. With that background, the ידע of Genesis 4 may be understood as the reestablishing of the pre-disobedience relations, back to closer to the way God intended things. To that end, ידע certainly may imply a sense of intimacy and trust that would cast away the feelings of vulnerability that Adam and Even may have in each other’s presence, but there is not a particuarly profound meaning to the word ידע. The profound theological meaning is to rather be had in interplay of the various events ‘knowing’ of the narrative in Genesis 2-4, as if there is a tension or contrast between different ‘knowledge’ events.
We can certainly suggest a similar narrative interplay happening in Exodus. In Exodus 2.25, God is say to know Israel in response to their cries. How exactly to take ידע has various possibilities, but I want to suggest that we can understand Exodus 2.25 is similar to Genesis 4.1 in terms of (a) the understanding-action script and (b) the dependence of various uses of ידע in the narrative upon each other. We see a new king arises in Egypt in Exodus 1.8 who is said not to know Pharoah, which culiminate in the enslavement and oppression of the Israelites. We may then consider God’s knowing of Israel to be a contrast to Pharoah’s ignornace of Joseph, with the implied sense in that God will act on behalf of Israel because this new Pharoah will not act to protect them. Both uses in 1.8 and 2.25 may be understood to point towards the expectation of some sort of action that corresponds to the understanding.
However, the significance of this is not just in the tension between Pharoah’s ‘ignorance’ and God’s ‘knowing.’ Read in the context of the patriarchal narrative, God’s ‘knowing’ is a response to the lack of influence of Joseph. One reading of Genesis may understand Joseph to be the first realization of God’s blessings to the families of the earth, the promise made to Abraham. With the lack of influence by Joseph with the new Pharoah, however, the blessing of those who bless Abraham (and his descendants) is now going to turn into a curse for those who curse Abraham in the form of the plauges. Hence, God is said to remember the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which may be understood as a single convenant that is the expression and outworking of God’s promise to Abraham. Because the blessing of Abraham is no longer going to be in force, God is now going to act on behalf of Israel to release them from their Egyptian oppressor.
The point: knowledge is intimately connected to action with and on behalf of others in the Old Testament. Hence, we may be able to see a similar pattern in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 8, where Paul contrasts “knowledge,” in the Stoic sense of the term, that leads to justification of eating foot at temples with a concern for the effect one’s actions have on another. To that end, Paul could be understood as working with a different account of “knowledge” from the Old Testament that the Stoic/philosophical account of knowledge does not readily make sense of. That can then make sense of 1 Corinthians 8.3, with the sense that the knowledge of God is the understanding of those who love Him that leads to God’s redemptive agency, prototypically shown in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I have to give thanks to my friend Laura, whose sermon on Exodus a couple months back put me down the line of investigating and noticing the Hebrew significance of knowing in Exodus 2.25.