Limiting divine power
Vayera — Genesis 18:1-22:24
After Abraham welcomes the passing travelers (who are actually angels) into his tent and provides for their needs, they ask him about Sarah, his wife. Then one of the angels announces that he will return at the same time next year and Sarah will have borne a son.
Sarah hears this seemingly preposterous statement, for she is well past menopause, and laughs, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment — with my husband so old?” And God then asks Abraham why Sarah laughed — “Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?”
In Midrash Bereshit Rabbah: “Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rabbi Yudan son of Rabbi Shimon: This may be compared to a man who had in his hand two parts of a lock and went to a smith and asked him, ‘Can you repair these?’ ‘I can make them from the outset,’ he replied, ‘and you think that I cannot repair them!’ So here, [God said], ‘I can create man from the beginning, so [would you say that] I cannot restore them to their youth!’”
Is anything too wondrous for the Lord? God’s words express a simple fact: God is omnipotent; God can do anything, so causing a 90-year-old woman and her 100-year-old husband to have a baby is hardly a big deal.
So here’s the truly interesting question: If God can do anything, if God has the power to restore youth, to cure illness and disability, to protect the innocent, to sustain the poor, to restrain the predators, and, in general, to grant all the blessings for which we pray, where are all the miracles?
The only possibility is that God has chosen not to exercise His power. And since I refuse to accept that God is cruel or indifferent to human suffering, I have to believe that God chooses to exercise self-restraint, to limit His intervention in the world. God can do miracles, but chooses not to.
The Bible teaches us that God cares passionately about what happens on earth. God reveals His will, He enters into covenants, He sends prophets and teachers to try to get people to realize His purposes, but, by and large, He doesn’t undo what people have set in motion.
Certainly, God has the power to do it. God could cause the gunman’s bullet to evaporate before it strikes an innocent bystander, prevent the terrorist’s bomb from exploding, even, perhaps, fill all the residents of the Middle East with a common vision and the willingness to live together in peace. But God does nothing of the sort.
Because God has something more in mind. If God had simply wanted the world to be perfect, He could have created it that way. He could have placed Adam and Eve in a Garden of Eden that had no Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in a situation in which there was no opportunity to sin — but that is not what God wanted. If God’s only concern was feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, comforting mourners, caring for the sick, and preventing the oppression of the powerless, the most efficient and effective way to take care of these things would be for God to do them Himself — but that’s not what God did.
God wants human beings to be His partners. When God decides to tell Abraham about the planned destruction of Sodom and the cities of the plain, God says, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right….”
If God merely wanted robotic assistants who would carry out the tasks God wanted done, God could have created human beings as He did the angels, without the ability to disobey God’s commandments. But God wanted more. God not only wanted people to do the right thing, He wanted us to freely choose to do what is just and right, kind and compassionate, all the time knowing that we are free to say “No!”
God chooses to limit the exercise of divine power to make room for human freedom, human choice, and human action. The results don’t always make God happy. In the Tanach, we often see God become frustrated or disappointed or angry. He threatens and sends punishments, but God never takes away human beings’ freedom to flout His will.
Is there anything too wondrous for the Lord? No, for God has the power to do anything. However, if we can say such a thing, the fulfillment of God’s hopes and dreams rests in human hands.